Our frontier is twofold, the language and the sea. For the majesty of our encircling waters we have no need to raise a plea, but to give God thanks for setting so certain a seal on our individual existence and giving us in the spreading horizon of the ocean some symbol of our illimitable destiny. For the language there is something still to be said; there are some ideas gaining currency that should be challenged—the cold denial of some that the unqualified name Irish be given to the literature of Irishman that is passionate with Irish enthusiasm and loyalty to Ireland, yet from the exigencies of the time had to be written in English; the view not only assumed but asserted by some of the Gael that the Gall may be recognised only if he take second place; the aloofness of many of the Gall, not troubling to understand their rights and duties; the ignoring on both sides of the fine significance of the name Irishman, of a spirit of patriotism and a deep-lying basis of authority and justice that will give stability to the state and secure its future against any upheaval that from the unrest of the time would seem to threaten the world.
Consider first the literature of Irishmen in English. From the attitude commonly taken on the question of literary values, it is clear that the primary significance of expression in writing is often lost. What is said, and the purpose for which it is said, take precedence of the medium through which it is said. But from our national awakening to the significance of the medium so long ignored we have grown so excited that we frequently forget the greater significance of the thing. The utterance of the man is of first importance, and, where his utterance has weight, the vital need is to secure it through some medium, the medium becoming important when one more than another is found to have a wider and more intimate appeal; and then we do well to become insistent for a particular medium when it is in anxiety for full delivery of the writer’s thought and a wide knowledge of its truth. But we are losing sight of this natural order of things. It is well, then, the unconvinced Gall should hear why he should accept the Irish language; not simply to defer to the Gael, but to quicken the mind and defend the territory of what is now the common country of the Gael and Gall. Davis caught up the great significance of the language when he said: “Tis a surer barrier, and more important frontier, than fortress or river.” The language is at once our frontier and our first fortress, and behind it all Irishmen should stand, not because a particular branch of our people evolved it, but because it is the common heritage of all. One who has a knowledge of Irish can easily get evidence of its quickening power on the Irish mind. Travel in an Irish-speaking district and hail one of its old people in English, and you get in response a dull “Good-day, Sir.” Salute him in Irish and you touch a secret spring. The dull eyes light up, the face is all animation, the body alert, and for a dull “good-day,” you get warm benedictions, lively sallies, and after you, as you pass on your road, a flood of rich and racy Irish comes pouring down the wind. That is the secret power of the language. It makes the old men proud of their youth and gives to the young quickened faculties, an awakened imagination and a world to conquer. This is no exaggeration. It is not always obvious, because we do not touch the secret spring nor wander near the magic. But the truth is there to find for him who cares to search. You discover behind the dullness of a provincial town a bright centre of interest, and when you study the circle you know that here is some wonderful thing: priests, doctors, lawyers, teachers, tradesmen, clerks—all drawn together, young and old, both sexes, all enthusiasts. Sometimes a priest is teaching a smith, sometimes the smith is teaching the priest: for a moment at least we have unconsciously levelled barriers and there is jubilation in the natural life re-born. Out of that quickened life and consciousness rises a vivid imagination with a rush of thought and a power of expression that gives the nation a new literature. That is the justification of the language. It awakens and draws to expression minds that would otherwise be blank. It is not that the revelation of Davis is of less value than we think, but that through the medium of Irish other revelations will be won that would otherwise be lost. Again, in subtle ways we cannot wholly understand, it gives the Irish mind a defence against every other mind, taking in comradeship whatever good the others have to offer, while retaining its own power and place. The Irish mind can do itself justice only in Irish. But still some ardent and faithful spirits broke through every difficulty of time and circumstance and found expression in English, and we have the treasures of Davis, Mitchel, and Mangan; yet, the majority remained cold, and now, to quicken the mass, we turn to the old language. But this is not to decry what was won in other fields. In the widening future that beckons to us, we shall, if anything, give greater praise to these good fighters and enthusiasts, who in darker years, even with the language of the enemy, resisted his march and held the gap for Ireland.
On this ground the Gael and Gall stand on footing of equality. That is the point many on both sides miss and we need to emphasise it. Some Irishmen not of Gaelic stock speak of Irish as foreign to them, and would maintain English in the principal place now and in the future. We do well then to make clear to such a one that he is asked to adopt the language for Ireland’s sake as a nation and for his own sake as a citizen. If he wishes to serve her he must stand for the language; if he prefers English civilisation he should go back to England. There only can he develop on English lines. An Irishman in Ireland with an English mind is a queer contradiction, who can serve neither Ireland nor England in any good sense, and both Ireland and England disown him. So the Irishman of other than Gaelic ancestors should stand in with us, not accepting something disagreeable as inevitable, but claiming a right by birth and citizenship, joining the fine army of the nation for a brave adventurous future, full of fine possibility and guaranteed by a fine comradeship—owning a land not of flattery and favouritism, but of freedom and manhood. This saving ideal has been often obscured by our sundering class names. This is why we would substitute as common for all the fine name of Irishman.
But in asking all parties to accept the common name of Irishman, we find a fear rather suggested than declared—that men may be asked in this name to put by something they hold as a great principle of Life; that Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter will all be asked to find agreement in a fourth alternative, in which they will not submit to one another but will all equally belie themselves. There is such a hidden fear, and we should have it out and dispose of it. The best men of all parties will have no truck with this and they are right. But on what ground, then, shall we find agreement, the recognition of which Irish Citizenship implies? On this, that the man of whatever sincere principles, religious or civic, counts among his great duties his duty as citizen; and he defends his creed because he believes it to be a safe guide to the fulfilling of all duties, this including. When, therefore, we ask him to stand in as Irish Citizen, it is not that he is to abandon in one iota his sincere principles, but that he is to give us proof of his sincerity. He tells us his creed requires him to be a good citizen: we give him a fine field in which he can be to us a fine example.
In further consideration of this we should put by the thought of finding a mere working agreement. There is a deep-lying basis of authority and justice to seek, which it should be our highest aim to discover. Modern governments concede justice to those who can compel justice—even the democracy requires that you be strong enough to formulate a claim and sustain it; but this is the way of tyranny. A perfect government should seek, while careful to develop its stronger forces and keep them in perfect balance, to consider also the claims of those less powerful but not less true. A government that over-rides the weak because it is safe, is a tyranny, and tyranny is in seed in the democratic governments of our time. We must consider this well, for it is pressing and grave; and we must get men to come together as citizens to defend the rights as well of the unit which is unsupported as of the party that commands great power. So shall we give steadiness and fervour to our growing strength by balancing it with truth and justice: so shall we found a government that excesses cannot undermine nor tyranny destroy.
We have to consider, in conclusion, the unrest in the world, the war of parties and classes, and the need of judging the tendencies of the time to set our steps aright. With the wars and rumours of wars that threaten the great nations from without and the wild upheavals that threaten them within, it would be foolish to hide from ourselves the drift of events. We must decide our attitude; and if it is too much to hope that we may keep clear of the upheavals, we should aim at strengthening ourselves against the coming crash. We cannot set the world right, but we can go a long way to setting things in our own land right, by making through a common patriotism a united people. What if we are held up occasionally by the cold cries shot at every high aim—”dreamer—Utopia”; cry this in return: no vision of the dreamer can be more wild than the frantic make-shifts of the Great Powers to vie in armaments with one another or repress internal revolts. Consider England in the late strike that paralysed her. It was only suspended by a step that merely deferred the struggle; the strife is again threatening. All the powers are so threatened and their efforts to defer the hour are equally feverish and fruitless; for the hour is pressing and may flash on the world when ’tis least prepared. Let who will deride us, but let us prepare. We may not guide our steps with the certainty of prophets, nor hope by our beautiful schemes to make a perfect state; but we can only come near to perfection in the light of a perfect ideal, and however far below it we may remain, we can at least, under its inspiration, reach an existence rational and human: our justification for a brave effort lies in that the governments of this time are neither one nor the other. He who thinks Ireland’s struggle to express her own mind, to give utterance to her own tongue, to stand behind her own frontier, is but a sentiment will be surprised to find it leads him to this point. Herein is the justification and the strength of the movement. Men are deriding things around them, of the significance of which they have not the remotest idea. Ireland is calling her children to a common banner, to the defence of her frontier, to the building up of a national life, harmonious and beautiful—a conception of citizenship, from which a right is conceded, not because it can be compelled, but because it is just: to the foundation of a state that will by its defence of the least powerful prove all powerful, that will be strong because true, beautiful because free, full of the music of her olden speech and caught by the magic of her encircling sea.