The discussion of freedom leads inevitably to the discussion of an appeal to arms. If proving the truth and justice of a people’s claim were sufficient there would be little tyranny in the world, but a tyrannical power is deaf to the appeal of truth—it cannot be moved by argument, and must be met by force. The discussion of the ethics of revolt is, then, inevitable.
The ubiquitous pseudo-practical man, petulant and critical, will at once arise: “What is the use of discussing arms in Ireland? If anyone wanted to fight it would be impossible, and no one wants to fight. What prevents ye going out to begin?” Such peevish criticism is anything but practical, and one may ignore it; but it suggests the many who would earnestly wish to settle our long war with a swift, conclusive fight, yet who feel it no longer practical. Keeping to the practical issue, we must bear in mind a few things. Though Ireland has often fought at odds, and could do so again, it is not just now a question of Ireland poorly equipped standing up to England invincible. England will never again have such an easy battle. The point now to emphasise is this—by remaining passive and letting ourselves drift we drift into the conflict that involves England. We must fight for her or get clear of her. There can be no neutrality while bound to her; so a military policy is an eminently practical question. Moreover, it is an urgent one: to stand in with England in any danger that threatens her will be at least as dangerous as a bold bid to break away from her. One thing above all, conditions have changed in a startling manner; England is threatened within as without; there are labour complications of all kinds of which no one can foresee the end, while as a result of another complication we find the Prime Minister of England going about as carefully protected as the Czar of Russia.1 The unrest of the times is apt to be even bewildering. England is not alone in her troubles—all the great Powers are likewise; and it is at least as likely for any one of them to be paralysed by an internal war as to be prepared to wage an external one. This stands put clearly—we cannot go away from the turmoil and sit down undisturbed; we must stand in and fight for our own hand or the hand of someone else. Let us prepare and stand for our own. However it be, no one can deny that in all the present upheavals it is at least practical to discuss the ethics of revolt.
We can count on a minority who will see wisdom in such a discussion; it must be our aim to make the discussion effective. We must be patient as well as resolute. We are apt to get impatient and by hasty denunciation drive off many who are wavering and may be won. These are held back, perhaps, by some scruple or nervousness, and by a fine breath of the truth and a natural discipline may yet be made our truest soldiers. Emerson, in his address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument, Concord, made touching reference in some such in the American Civil War. He told of one youth he knew who feared he was a coward, and yet accustomed himself to danger, by forcing himself to go and meet it. “He enlisted in New York,” says Emerson, “went out to the field, and died early.” And his comment for us should be eloquent. “It is from this temperament of sensibility that great heroes have been formed.” The pains we are at to make men physically fit we must take likewise to make them mentally fit. We are minutely careful in physical training, drill regulations and the rest, which is right, for thus we turn a mob into an army and helplessness into strength. Let us be minutely careful, too, with the untried minds—timid, anxious, sensitive in matters of conscience; like him Emerson spoke of, they may be found yet in the foremost fighting line, but we must have patience in pleading with them. Here above all must we keep our balance, must we come down with sympathy to every particular. It is surely evident that it is essential to give the care we lavish on the body with equal fulness to the mind.
At the heart of the question we will be met by the religious objection to revolt. Here all scruples, timidity, wavering, will concentrate; and here is our chief difficulty to face. The right to war is invariably allowed to independent states. The right to rebel, even with just cause, is not by any means invariably allowed to subject nations. It has been and is denied to us in Ireland. We must answer objectors line by line, leading them, where it serves, step by step to our conclusions; but this is not to make freedom a mere matter of logic—it is something more. When it comes to war we shall frequently give, not our promises, but our conclusions. This much must be allowed, however, that, as far as logic will carry, our position must be perfectly sound; yet, be it borne in mind, our cause reaches above mere reasoning—mere logic does not enshrine the mysterious touch of fire that is our life. So, when we argue with opponents we undertake to give them as good as or better than they can give, but we stake our cause on the something that is more. On this ground I argue not in general on the right of war, but in particular on the right of revolt; not how it may touch other people elsewhere ignoring how it touches us here in Ireland. A large treatise could be written on the general question, but to avoid seeming academic I will confine myself as far as possible to the side that is our concern. For obvious reasons I propose to speak as to how it affects Catholics, and let them and others know what some Catholic writers of authority have said on the matter. One thing has to be carefully made clear. It is seen in the following quotation from an eminent Catholic authority writing in Ireland in the middle of the last century, Dr. Murray, of Maynooth: “The Church has issued no definition whatever on the question—has left it open. Many theologians have written on it; the great majority, however (so far as I have been able to examine them), pass it over in silence.” (Essays chiefly Theological, vol. 4). This has to be kept in mind. Theologians have written, some on one side and some on the other, but the Church has left it open. I need not labour the point why it is useful to quote Catholic authorities in particular, since in Ireland an army representative of the people would be largely Catholic, and much former difficulty arose from Catholics in Ireland meeting with opposition from some Catholic authorities. It may be seen the position is delicate as well as difficult, and in writing a preliminary note one point should be emphasised. We must not evade a difficulty because it is delicate and dangerous, and we must not temporise. In a physical contest on the field of battle it is allowable to use tactics and strategy, to retreat as well as advance, to have recourse to a ruse as well as open attack; but in matters of principle there can be no tactics, there is one straightforward course to follow, and that course must be found and followed without swerving to the end.
1 The militant suffragette agitation.