To win our freedom we must be strong. But what is the secret of strength? It is fundamental to the whole question to understand this rightly, and, once grasped, make it the mainstay of individual existence, which is the foundation of national life. So much has the bodily power of over-riding minorities been made the criterion of absolute power, that to make clear the truth requires patience, insight, and a little mental study. But the end is a great end. It is to reconnoitre the most important battlefield, to discover the dispositions of the enemy, to measure our own resources and forge our strength link by link till we put on the armour of invincibility.
We have to grasp a distinction, knowledge of which is essential to discerning true strength. It can be clearly seen in the contrast between two certain fighting forces; first, a well-organised army, capably led, marching forward full of hope and buoyancy; second, a remnant of that army after disaster, a mere handful, not swept like their comrades in panic, but with souls set to fight a forlorn hope. Let us study the two: in the contrast we shall learn the secret. The courage of the well-organised army is not of so fine a quality as that nerving the few to fight to the last gasp. Consider first the army. What is its value as a force? Its discipline, its consolidation, the absolute obedience of its units to its officers, with the resulting unity of the whole; added to this is the sense of security in numbers, buoyancy of marching in a compact body, confidence in capable chiefs—all these factors go to the making of the courage and strength of the army. It is because their combination makes for the reliability of the force that discipline is so much valued and enforced, even to the point of death. Let us keep this in our mind, that their strength lies in their numbers, concentration, unity, reliance on one another and on their chiefs. A sudden disaster overtakes that army—the death of a great general, the miscarriage of some plan, a surprise attack, any of the chances of war, and the strength of the army is pierced, the discipline shaken, the sense of security gone. There is an instinctive movement to retreat; the habit of discipline keeps it orderly at first; the fear grows; all precaution and restraint are thrown aside—the retreat is a rout, the army a rabble, the end debacle. External discipline in giving them its strength left them without individual resource; internal discipline was ignored. When their combined strength was gone there was individual helplessness and panic. Consider, now, a remnant of that army, the members of which have the courage of the finer quality, individually resolute and set on resistance, clearly seeing at once all the possible consequences of their action, yet with that higher quality of soul accepting them without hesitation, pledging all human hopes for one last great hope of snatching victory from defeat, or, if not to save a lost battle, to check an advancing host, rally flying forces, and redeem a campaign. This is the heroic quality. In a crisis, the mind possessed of it does not wait for instructions or to reason a conclusion. It sees definite things, and swift as thought decides. There are flying legions, a flag down, a conquering army, and flight or death—to all eyes these are apparent; but to a brave company between that flight and death there is a gleam of hope, of victory, and for that forlorn hope flight is put by with the acceptance of death in the alternative if they fail. That is the quality to redeem us. Because it is witnessed so often in our history we are going to win; not for our prowess in more fortunate war on an even field or with the flowing tide, not for many victories in many lands, but for the sacred places in this our brave land that are memorable for fights that registered the land unconquerable. Why a last stand and a sacrifice are more inspiring than a great victory is one of the hidden things; but the truth stands: for thinking of them our spirits re-kindle, our courage re-awakens, and we stiffen our backs for another battle.
We have, then, to develop individual patience, courage, and resolution. Once this is borne in mind our work begins. In places there is a dangerous idea that sometime in the future we may be called on to strike a blow for freedom, but in the meantime there is little to do but watch and wait. This is a fatal error; we have to forge our strength in the interval. There is a further mistake that our national work is something apart, that social, business, religious and other concerns have no relation to it, and consequently we set apart a few hours of our leisure for national work, and go about our day as if no nation existed. But the middle of the day has a natural connection with the beginning of the day and the end of the day, and in whatever sphere a man finds himself, his acts must be in relation to and consistent with every other sphere. He will be the best patriot and the best soldier who is the best friend and the best citizen. One cannot be an honest man in one sphere and a rascal in another; and since a citizen to fulfil his duty to his country must be honourable and zealous, he must develop the underlying virtues in private life. He must strengthen the individual character, and to do this he must deal with many things seemingly remote and inconsequential from a national point of view. Everything that crosses a man’s path in his day’s round of little or great moment requires of him an attitude towards it, and the conscious or unconscious shaping of his attitude is determining how he will proceed in other spheres not now in view. Suppose the case of a man in business or social life. He has to work with others in a day’s routine or fill up with them hours of leisure they enjoy together. Consider to what accompaniment the work is often done and with what manner of conversation the leisure is often filled. In a day’s routine, where men work together, harmonious relations are necessary; yet what bickerings, contentions, animosities fill many a day over points never worth a thought. You will see two men squabble like cats for the veriest trifle, and then go through days like children, without a word. You will see something similar in social life among men and women equally—petty jealousies, personalities, slanderings, mean little stories of no great consequence in themselves, except in the converse sense of showing how small and contemptible everything and everyone concerned is. A keen eye notes with some depression the absence from both spheres of a fine manliness, a generous conception of things, a large outlook, that prevents a squabble with a smile, and because of a consciousness of the need for determination in a great fight for a principle, holds in true contempt the trivialities of an hour. For in all the mean little bickerings of life there is involved not a principle, but a petty pride. One has to note these things and decide a line of action. In the abstract the right course seems quite natural and easy, but in fact it is not so. A man finds another act towards him with unconscious impudence or arrogance, and at once flies into a rage; there is a fierce wrangle, and at the end he finds no purpose served, for nothing was at stake. He has lost his temper for nothing. In his heat he may tell you “he wouldn’t let so-and-so do so-and-so,” but on the same principle he should hold a street-argument with every fish-wife who might call him a name. He may tell you “he will make so-and-so respect him,” but he offends his own self-respect if he cannot consider some things beneath him. One must have a sense of proportion and not elevate every little act of impudence into a challenge of life to be fought over as for life and death. It may be corrected with a little humour or a little disdain, but always with sympathy for the narrow mind whose view of life cannot reach beyond these petty things. Yet, to repeat, it is not easy. An irritable temper will be on fire before reason can check it; the process of correction will prove uncomfortable—the reasons will be there, but the feelings in revolt. Still, little by little, it is brought under, and in the end the nasty little irritability is killed just like a troublesome nerve; and, by and by, what once provoked a fierce rage becomes a subject for humorous reflection. Let no one fear we kill the nerve for the great Battle of Life; this we but strengthen and make constant. Every act of personal discipline is contributing to a subconscious reservoir whence our nobler energies are supplied for ever. And so, little things lead to great; and in an office wrangle or a social squabble there is need for developing those very qualities of judgment, courage, and patience which equip a man for the trials of the battlefield or the ruling of the state.
We have considered the individual in business and social life. Let us now follow him into a political assembly. We find the same conditions prevail. Again, men fight bitterly but most frequently for nothing worth a fight; and again those rightly judging the situation must resolve not to be tempted into a wrangle even if their restraint be called by another name. What in a political assembly is often the first thing to note? We begin by the assumption, “this is a practical body of men,” the words invariably used to cover the putting by of some great principle that we ought all endorse and uphold. But, first, by one of the many specious reasons now approved, we put the principle by, and before long we are at one another’s throats about things involving no principle. It is not necessary to particularise. Note any meeting for the same general conditions: a chairman, indecisive, explaining rules of order which he lacks the grit to apply; members ignoring the chair and talking at one another; others calling to order or talking out of time or away from the point; one unconsciously showing the futility of the whole business by asking occasionally what is before the chair, or what the purpose of the meeting. This picture is familiar to us all, and curiously we seem to take it always as the particular freak of a particular time or locality; but it is nothing of the kind. It is the natural and logical result of putting by principle and trying to live away from it. Yet, that is what we are doing every day. It means we lack collectively the courage to pursue a thing to its logical conclusion and fight for the truth realised. If we are to be otherwise as a body, it will only be by personal discipline training for the wider and greater field. We must get a proper conception of the great cause we stand for, its magnitude and majesty, and that to be worthy of its service we must have a standard above reproach, have an end of petty proposals and underhand doings, be of brave front, resolute heart, and honourable intent. We must all understand this each in his own mind and shape his actions, each to be found faithful in the test. In fine, if in private life there is need for developing the great virtues requisite for public service, even more is it necessary in public life to develop the courage, patience and wisdom of the soldier and the statesman.
A concrete case will give a clearer grasp of the issue than any abstract reasoning. Our history, recent and remote, affords many examples of the abandoning by our public men of a principle, to defend which they entered public life; and our action on such an occasion is invariably the same—to regard the delinquent as simply a traitor, to load him with invective and scorn and brand him for ever. We never see it is not innate wickedness in the man, but a weakness against which he has been untrained and undisciplined, and which leaves him helpless in the first crisis. Ireland has recently been incensed by the action of some of her mayors and lord mayors in connection with the English Coronation festival; the feeling has been acute in the metropolis. Certain things are obvious, but how many see what is below the surface? Let me suggest a case and a series of circumstances; the more pointed the case, the more interesting. I will suppose a particular mayor is an old Fenian: let us see how for him a web is finely woven, and in the end how securely he is netted. First a mayor is a magistrate, and must take the judicial oath, but the old Fenian has taken an oath of allegiance to Ireland—clash number one. It is not simply a question of yes or no; there are attendant circumstances. Around a public man in place circulates a swarm of interested people, needy friends, meddling politicians, “supporters” generally. The chief magistrate will have influence on the bench which they all wish to invoke now and then, and they all wish to see him there. They don’t approve of any principle that stands in the way. They group themselves together as his “supporters,” and claiming to have put him into public life, they act as if they had acquired a lease of his soul. Not what he knows to be right, but what they believe to be useful, must be done; and before the first day is done the first fight must be made. However, the old Fenian has enough of the spirit of old times to come safe through the first round. But the second is close on his heels: Dublin Castle has been attentive. The mayor, as chief magistrate, has privileges on which the Castle now silently closes. There are private and veiled remonstrances by secret officials: “The mayor is acting illegally; he must not do so-and-so; such is the function of a magistrate; he has not taken the oath,” etc. All this renewing the fight of the first day, for the Castle, too, wants the mayor on the bench to brand him as its own and alienate him from the old flag. It puts on the pressure by suppressing his privileges, weakening his influence, and disappointing his “supporters.” All this is silently done. Still, the mayor holds fast, but he has not counted on this, and is beginning to be baffled and worried. Meanwhile a sort of guerilla attack is being maintained: invitations arrive to garden parties at Windsor, lesser functions nearer home, free passages to all the gay festivals, free admissions everywhere, the route indicated, and a gracious request for the presence of the mayor and mayoress. Genuine business engagements now save the situation, and the invitations are put by, but our chief citizen is now bewildered. These social missiles are flying in all directions, always gracious and flattering, never challenging and rude—who can withstand them? Still he is bewildered, but not yet caught. A new assault is made: the great Health Crusade Battery is called up. Here we must all unite, God’s English and the wild Irish, the Fenian and the Castleman, the labourer and the lord. Surely, we are all against the microbes. There is a great demonstration, their Excellencies attend—and the mayor presides. Under the banner of the microbe he is caught. It is a great occasion, which their Excellencies grace and improve. His Excellency is affable with the mayor; her Excellency is confidential and gracious with the mayoress—we might have been schoolchildren in the same townland we are so cordial. Everything proceeds amid plaudits, and winds up in acclamation. Their Excellencies depart. Great is the no-politics era—you can so quietly spike the guns of many an old politician—and keep him safe. The social amenities do this. Their Excellencies have gone, but they do not forget. There is a warm word of thanks for recent hospitality. Perhaps the mayor has a daughter about to be married, or a son has died; it is remembered, and the cordial congratulation or gracious sympathy comes duly under the great seal. What surly man would resent sympathy? And so, the strength of the old warrior is sapped; the web is woven finely; in its secret net the Castle has its man. You who have exercised yourselves in Dublin recently over mayoral doings, note all this—not to the making light of any man’s surrender, but to the true judging of the event, its deeper significance and danger. Whoever fails must be called to account. When a man takes a position of trust, influence, and honour, and, whatever the difficulty, abandons a principle he should hold sacred, he must be held responsible. A battle is an ordeal, and we must be stern with friend and foe. But there is something more sinister than the weakness of the man: remember the net.
The concrete case makes clear the principle in question. The man whom we have seen go down would have been safe if he had to fight no battle but one he could face with all his true friends, and in the open light of day. Having to fight a secret battle was never even considered: threats direct or vague or subtle, blandishments, cajolery, graciousness, patronage, flattery, plausible generalities, attacks indirect and insidious—all coming without pause, secret, silent, tireless. He who is to be proof against this, and above threat or flattery, must have been disciplined with the discipline of a life that trains him for every emergency. You cannot take up such a character like a garment to suit the occasion: it must be developed in private and public by all those daily acts that declare a man’s attitude, register his convictions, and form his mind. It gives its own reward at once, even in the day where nothing is apparently at stake; where men scramble furiously over the petty things of life; for he who sees these things at their proper value is unruffled. His composure in all the fury has its own value. But the mind that held him so, by the very act of dismissing something petty, gets a clearer conception of the great things of life; by intuition is at once awake to a hovering and fatal menace to individual or national existence, unseen of the common eye; and in that hour proves, to the confusion of the enemy, clear, vigorous and swift. Let us, then, for this great end note what is the secret of strength. Not alone to be ready to stand in with a host and march bravely to battle—the discipline that provides for this is great and valuable and must be always observed and practised. This gives, however, only the common courage of the crowd, and can only be trusted on an even field where the chances of war are equal. But when there is a struggle to restore freedom, where from the nature of the case the chances are uneven and the soldiers of liberty are at every disadvantage, then must we seek to adjust the balance by a finer courage and a more enduring strength. The mustering of legions will not suffice. The general reviewing this fine array who would rightly estimate the power he may command, must silently examine the units, to judge of this brave host how large a company can be formed to fight a forlorn hope. If this spirit is in reserve, he is armed against every emergency. If the chances are equal, he will have a splendid victory; if by any of the turns of war his legions are shaken and disaster threatened, there is always a certain rallying-ground where the host can re-form and the field be re-won, and the flag that has seen so many vicissitudes be set at last high and proudly in the light of Freedom.