From The United Irishman, September 15, 1900.
The yearly return of the Registrar-General has filled all hearts that beat for Ireland with dismay and awakened anew the cry of sorrow throughout the land. Westward still hies the youth, the strength, and the vigour of the land leaving to us who remain behind, only the empty seats and the vacant places that once knew laughing eyes and merry vices. Why this should be, and apparently must continue to be need not be dilated upon here. Sufficeth it that it is, that daily we are losing those to whom all Nations look for perpetuation. Language, music, art, customs, manners, traditions are vital characteristics of Nationhood – but men and women are the Nation itself. If Ireland continues to lose them as se is losing them, a bare half century will see her as effectually wiped off the map as if the Sea of Moyle had risen above her mountains, and Cliodhna’s wave rolled over her plains and valleys.
It has been pointed out repeatedly in these columns that no agrarian agitation can effectually solve the emigration question. Though every acre of Ireland were rent-free to the occupiers, emigration would still go on, for the day has passed when a farm can support in perpetuity an average Irish family. We shall need to establish in, at least, our county towns local manufacturies to turn out the articles needed for the personal and household necessities of the people. We shall need to make it as dishonourable to use or wear foreign goods as it is to grab a farm. We shall need to turn our towns into something more than a collection of huxters’ shops, designed for the exploiting of British wares, and as a natural consequence, wells of Anglicisation, poisoning every section of our people. We are not heartily in love with the co-operative policy of Horace Plunkett, but if it in anywise tends to throw the people back on the road which preserved their individuality for centuries then most decidedly let it be welcomed with open arms.
But though we have a mill or a factory of some kind or another in every village our work would be but half done. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” in Ireland, as everywhere else. A few years’ work would wear the novelty off of the most interesting daily labour to which we could call our people. It is not for their hands alone we must find employment, not alone must we occupy their days, we must give them the means of developing their minds and provide them with amusement for their evenings. The Ireland of old was a self-supporting Ireland, she looked for little of her physical or mental sustenance from outside, she produced all she needed herself. Her cornfields and her sheep-tracks, her flax and cattle, fed and clothed her men and women, and left them surplus enough to compete in the markets of Holland, France, Spain and Italy. She sought no mental recreation from the literary offal of Britain, for her poets and scholars were known to the people and round the winter hearths one heard the songs and romances which had delighted generations or heard from the lips of the travelling pedlar the last new song of Eoghan Ruadh Ó Suileabhain or An Mangaire Sugach. In the summer evenings there were friendly contests in the hurling field, agility competed in the high jump, the long jump, or the foot race, muscles were exercised in the casting of the stone, and the full breath of the mountain was inhaled following the fleet hound over moss and heather. Nor were the girls without their pleasant evenings either. While the turf fire glowed and the shanachus went round, the hum of the round brown wheel rang in the kitchen accompanying soft and sweet voices that so well know how to make the accents of the Gael full of glamour and music. Of summer evenings when the bees were gone, and the birds piping their last notes to the world, one heard the piper’s music at the cross-roads mingled with the rippling melody of cailins’ laughter and the shouts of encouragement to some pair more nimble-footed than their fellows. There were merry-makings too within doors that filled our peoples’ lives for many a day with pleasant memories; and at fair and market one never missed the signs that told at once of a people distinct from all the world – a people working along their own lines and living within their own environment, conscious of their wrongs, and nursing a steady hate of foreign laws and foreign institutions that would blaze to action at the least sign of a possibility of success. This is the Ireland we have lost, and the loss of it as much as anything else conduces to the stream of emigration which has hurried our youthful millions beyond the waves within this present century.
Let us not be mistaken. No one recognises more than we the truth that the presence of English laws and organisations here more than anything else deprived us of the manhood which would have made O’Connell invincible had he been in earnest. We know that the average landowner had no sympathy with anything native and no interest in Ireland save as a rent producer. We have seen the evidences of his work, and indeed one needs not go very far in any direction to find grass-grown hearths and roofless houses to attest the spirit of Irish landlordism. We know the people fled from famine and pestilence, but much of that has been changed now, as much as can be hoped for while the British connection lasts. We rush away today, not from famine in all cases or from pestilence in any, but from idle days and monotonous evenings. We rush away from a land which has lost its storied charms drawn from the lives, deeds, and sacrifices of heroic men and women since the dawn of history. The ties of kindred and tradition keep the old people at home, but the young ones lured by the rosy-coloured pictures of places afar off gleaned from odd sentences in emigrants’ letters, and inspired by the occasional arrival of remittances from the children abroad, grow disgusted with the unceasing round of work with little to brighten it, and the longing grows to be away in the whirl of the world where one’s life, if it were not exactly bright, would be busy enough to prevent thought from darkening the future. We know how illusive a few months of exile prove these ideas, and how the memory wanders back to hill and valley in the old land, till in the silent night, when the great cities of America have hushed their noises for a few brief hours, the lonely Irish exile in his lodgings, feels his eyes grow dim as he thinks of the days when he went gathering nuts in the woods and knew the hiding-place of every fish in all the rivers. No amount of success can conquer memory, and those emigrants of ours, who like birds of passage flit as often as they can to Ireland when the blossoms fill the trees and the fields are sweet with clover know in their hearts that they would rather live their lives in Ireland than elsewhere. But why do they not? You will say. Why not resume their olden lives and quiet memory by coming back to the glens and hills that haunt them in their dreams. The prime reason is, of course, the country can give them nothing to do save the huxtering of a country-town, but the lack of any amusement or entertainment for the vacant hours has its influence likewise. We should be sorry to see many of the things which are supposed to make life endurable in great cities, imported into rural Ireland, but we must endeavour, if we wish to stop the emigration, to make the lifetime of our young people brighter than it has been since the Gaelic civilisation and entertainment which knitted our people to their native places was allowed to be submerged by the culture of the National school and the “literature” of the foreigner.
Davis recognised the necessity of brightening rural life when he insisted on the establishment of Repeal reading rooms in the villages. He probably foresaw what the absence of all entertainment, save that of the public-house, would mean to Ireland, when the rest of the world was using every effort to provide itself with something to fill the vacant hours. The “practical” politicians naturally looked coldly on the effort, and eventually succeeded in killing it. The National Schools crushed the language, mainly because the Catholic representatives on the Board had not the grit to demand reasonable and rational treatment for it. The Famine came to deaden the people’s hearts, and the false standards set up by those who presumed to lead the people abolished the seanachus, the cross-roads’ dance, and the hurling field. The pathron was denounced, the piper was despised, the seanachuidhe was unappreciated, but we received the waltz and the London penny periodical in their stead. Fenianism came and crushed for a time the growing slavishness; but the “practical” politician arrived once more, and after twenty-five years of oratory and “orderly” agitation we have the population reduced to nearly four millions, and with no amusement save the reading of some “great National organ” run by the British Institute of Journalists and built up of clippings from the offal of British journalism.
This is as things are; but the real question is whether or not we can remedy them, and how. The complaint everywhere is that the people have nothing to employ their evenings. Let us then give them something, and if we are earnest in our desire to keep the people in the country we can do so. In the Irish-speaking districts, as well as insisting on Irish being taught in the schools from the first stage, and taught up to the fourth or fifth as if English had no existence, we must restore reverence to the seanachuidhe, for he is still with us in the Gaelic places. We must reorganise the fireside college, and make the songs and poems of the district once again popular. Nay more, we must have an evening Irish class in every village and town, Irish-speaking or otherwise, where, as well as calling into service the seanachuidhe, the scribe shall again become an institution to set down and prepare for the permanency of print the stories, histories, songs and ballads that are even yet bring produced in every part of Gaelic Ireland.
The work incidental to such exercises will go far to invest anew with interest all the old places sacred to myriad saints and heroes, and, developing, become a network linking each end of the island so indissolubly together that united action on economic, industrial, and international questions shall become more easy of accomplishment than it is now. The Feiseanna have done much towards this end, but every possible pathron must be revived, restored as far as is feasible to its original purpose, the cross-road dance should be re-initiated, hurling and football clubs should be called into existence everywhere, and anything that will make a dull hour pleasant, or a place interesting, should be done if it can at all be accomplished. On the clergy and the schoolmasters of Ireland a great deal depends towards making this prospect possible. They have not done anything like their duty in the past; they must prepare to do so now – and at once – else the people taking the matter in their own hands may see their way towards a system of education where clerical managers and board teachers shall have no existence, and where English ideas of everything shall not predominate. There is no valid reason why the teacher should be prevented from taking his place in making Ireland interesting to Irishmen; that bugbear of “no politics” must be disposed of. Every other public servant can work in the National ranks in whatsoever way he wills – subject to certain risks, of course – but the teacher is supposed, or imagines he is supposed, not to have any political convictions. The time has come to do away with that absurdity. The rural parts of Ireland and the cities of Ireland need to be made Irish in order that they may become interesting to the growing youth of Ireland. If the teacher wishes to take his part in that noble work he must not be obstructed; and if he does not, then he must be prepared to go the way of all the other agencies against which Irish Nationalists have – heaven be thanked! – begun to set themselves determinedly and relentlessly.