From The United Irishman, May 26, 1900.
To say men will not lose their lives for an ideal may sound materialistic and false in view of the host of historical evidences to the contrary – yet it is a simple fact. That no man can work well for a cause without exactly understanding it is equally true. We hear and have heard for years protestations of undying fidelity to the cause of liberty – but the speakers have never had the remotest idea of risking their lives – for the object of their undying devotion was not liberty but a mere extension of local governing powers, an exaggerated scheme of corporate control. The crowds have shouted themselves hoarse, primarily because the crowd is invariably true to the ideal of liberty, and secondly, because being befogged and bewildered by the sophistries of the Parliamentarians the crowd has been cajoled into the belief that Irish freedom can be attained by the will of the British Parliament. All the grandiloquence of the “Irish phalanx” at Westminster will fail to secure what the people imagine they are in quest of – Irish liberty; for liberty is not to be won by any power by logic or reasoning. Necessity aided by the arms and resolve of a determined people is the only thing that brings a giant bully to his knees, and nothing less shall ever wring the rights of freedom from the Government and people of England.
We have been asserting all through our history our belief in our right to liberty. While any semblance of a separate individuality, laws, language, and arms, remained with us we met the power of Britain like men, and not infrequently overcame it. Since we allowed ourselves to be deprived of the first and last, and almost of the other of these distinctive tokens of nationality, we have in the main pinned our faith to monster meetings and resolutions. I am not now disposed to go into the relative utility of force and logic, both have their uses and their abuses. What I conceive to be essential just now is the proper understanding of our position, what it is we want, what benefit it may be to us, and what we suffer through lack of it. We may be all said to wish for a free Ireland, but it is essential that we think out how far it could better the individual life of each one of us. At any time in the future the exigencies of the hour may call for the declaration of an Irish constitution, a revolution does not consist entirely in the facing of the enemy in the open field; if chaos and anarchy are to be avoided we must encourage thought on the possibilities following the actual outbreak; the necessity of maintaining the common rights of individuals, order and law. Excesses are inseparable from all upheavals, but anarchy cannot possibly promote either permanent content or public confidence. We must, therefore, educate ourselves and each other to the responsibilities and duties that as citizens rest on all of us. We must prepare to recognise that on each one of us lies the protection of the community from the attentions of the vultures who hover in the wake of all popular uprisings. We must prepare to take a citizen’s interest in the general good, accept a citizen’s risks, that we may deserve a citizen’s honours and rewards. These duties do not consist entirely of marching in procession or polling according to the prevailing opinion of our neighbourhood. In the examination of the defects of our system, in the promotion of objects calculated to provide an opening for the talents of our population, in the fostering of everything likely to keep the people in the country, lie some of the labours which a conscientious citizen of an Irish state will take upon himself. His lifetime may never afford him an opportunity of testing the worth of the schemes which his thought has induced him to believe may be of use to his fellow-countrymen; but the very fact of his having thought out his position and convictions will make him a better man mentally, and by confirming him in his traditional opinions, by providing him with reasons for them, make him a better Irishman. Our first duty to our country manifestly, therefore, is to educate ourselves that we may be of service to her, understand exactly what she is capable of, and how far it is possible to utilise her resources, for no confidence can exist without knowledge, and knowledge, unlike patriotism, unfortunately is not an inheritance; it needs study, demands time and energy, buy yields results equal to all its costs. I speak not merely of that knowledge to be gleaned from books, but that wider teaching which embraces everything, which sees a lesson in every hill and valley, hears a voice in every rath and dun, recognises the utility of bay and inlet, of loch and ford. That knowledge which knowing how far we may rely upon ourselves to sustain ourselves teaches the duty of doing so, and endeavours to impart that confidence in widening circles till the ring embraces the whole island, and by the creation of a self-reliant, self-conscious people takes away at once the strongest weapon of the enemy – the distrust of ourselves which has kept us as we are. It is this individual thinking out of the duty we owe each other and our country that makes men fit to understand and ready to fight for freedom.
“The freedom of individual men is the highest of liberty,” sings Boyle O’Reilly; but we must enfranchise ourselves mentally before we can understand the necessity for political liberty. One hears repeatedly that we enjoy under the British constitution the highest form of individual liberty in the world. A superficial view of the subject seems to strengthen the idea. We are allowed to hold pretty well what opinions we choose, shout ourselves occasionally hoarse and discuss anything we like in debating rooms. The press is allowed latitude enough to blackguard landlord, grabber, or land agent, to shout defiance to resident magistrates, and invite the people to organise against rack rents. Orators can say much what they like from platforms, and one section of the population denounce the other to their heart’s content and the authorities never mind. The loyal and constitutional point triumphantly to such instances, and ask what further freedom any man can wish than to go where and when he pleases, and say whatever he thinks fit. One has no passports to be vised, no officials to pull him up at every turn, no prying eyes to pierce the inmost recesses of one’s trunk and pull forth his most sacred and secret correspondence. No, no these things are unknown under the British flag, every position of influence and importance is open to any man who ambitions them, and has sufficient brains to perform the duties of them. Honours, emoluments, riches, await the consistent and the faithful servant of the British Empire. It is a mere coincidence, of course, that in order to climb to these places one has to become false to all the traditions of his people, to scorn and contemn the opinions of his fathers, to join the aggressors of right and liberty in every land, and even to aid the foreigner to cripple, crush, and exterminate everything that keeps the people of this land antagonistic to annihilation. That is not liberty which keeps the bulk of the nation in yearly dread of starvation, and reserves all the positions, state and commercial, for a dominant party, who, for the sake of a mere living, sink their opinions, sell their principles, and sacrifice their souls. I am not to be taken as believing that there are not men in Ireland who boldly and bravely think for themselves, but they suffer for their independence. I do not speak of mere monetary sacrifice. We do not sufficiently value the merit and the duty of single, strong thought; we think in groups, and the silent, lonely student is more often laughed at than otherwise. Where such a thing exists there is no individual freedom; indirectly by discouraging independent thought we aid the very forces whose ruin we fondly imagine is the object of our lives.
National liberty, to my mind, is but an extended individual liberty. It means, or ought to mean, much more than a flag, an army, and a recognition among nations; it ought to mean the absolute independence in mind and person of every unit of the population. This is an ideal that, of course, no collection of people can ever attain, but in the abstract the constitution of a free people ought to offer no barrier to the growth of such an ideal. A tolerant, educated, self-thinking people may always be relied upon to guard their privileges and characteristics as well, at least, as a collection of individuals whose lives are wrapped up in themselves without any concern for their neighbours. We in Ireland have bothered ourselves very little about what may be called the realities of liberty; some vague idea has always been abroad that it needed but the abolition of English rule to make this country a land of milk and honey. It needs no recognition of the general truth of that dogma here, to add that there lies a long road before us after that has been accomplished, before prosperity can be reached. National liberty, as I have said, is not merely a flag, an army, and a recognition among nations. It is likewise, and to an enormous extent, a nation’s power of self-existence, a nation’s absolute independence of outside influence; its self-sustaining, self-maintaining qualities, which enable its population to build up their strength from within, and defy all intimidation from without. “To depend on the will of another nation,” says Grattan, “is the definition of slavery,”; but to depend on any outside nation for sustenance is mere idiocy. No nation can rely upon itself that cannot support its people from its own resources. These are questions, of course, primarily for free peoples; but they are equally momentous for us; for they alone are fit for freedom who have laboured to achieve and learned to utilise it. Freedom must not come and find us unfit for its reception; for that were but to make us little better than we are. We cannot afford to mismanage it; we have been asserting for ages the inability of the foreigner to govern this land for its people’s benefit. Let us study and learn the responsibilities of national existence, prepare to utilize its powers and make it the source of prosperity to us which it is to all peoples who have wit enough to understand, and earnestness sufficient to make it fulfil its mission.