From The United Irishman, August 26, 1899.
One of the features of the present Irish language movement is its aggressiveness, or, perhaps, it is less a feature of the movement than of some of those in it. To some extent it is a laudable and commendable thing, but, like many other things, it can lead people too far. Its latest phase is an assertion that all the literature of ’48 and ’67, and everything produced since, instead of being, as we all fondly and foolishly imagined, “native and national,” is merely English, and not in any sense National, least of all Irish. From the superior height of an acquaintance with Father O’Growney’s primers, the enlightened owners look down on the mass of their benighted countrymen, and patronisingly pity the unfortunates who see anything worthy of imitation in the prose or poetry of Young Ireland or the Fenian Days.
With the idea that the truest and best Irish literature must seek expression in the Irish language there will be found but few to differ; on the sentiment that anything else is unnecessary and un-national there will not be quite the same unanimity. Whether Finland, or Poland, or Bohemia, or anywhere else, have or have not National literatures, except in their own language, is not the question, when the relative difference of Ireland these countries is considered. No person seeks to claim that our English-writing dramatists and poets of the last century were Irish in their work, for they did not go to Irish sources for their inspiration; but the same thing does not apply to any man who voiced the life and the sentiments of our people, even though he did use the foreign tongue. A characteristic vehicle of expression is an essential of a National literature; but there are such things as sentiment and thought to be considered, and the man who asserts that they have nothing to do in determining the nationality of a literature either wilfully misstates or wholly misunderstands the case. I have no desire to become the apologist for Young Ireland; but since the founders of the Nation have been blamed for creating a new literature instead of continuing the old, it is just as well to point out that when the Nation was started the short-sighted policy of certain of the Catholic Bishops had brought the Gaelic-reading population to an almost-irreducible minimum. The creation of the National Schools had all but wiped out the hedge schoolmaster, and the policy of O’Connell had reduced the National spirit down to the most harmless and old-womanish of spirits. There was some hope of getting at the people through the medium of the men who could read English; there was none by any other, for neither books nor teachers were available, and a cure for the growing canker was imperative. That the remedy was effective the present Gaelic language movement testifies, for if the soul of the land had been depending merely on academic programmes or antiquated idealists Irish Nationality as a positive force would long since have disappeared.
Is the motto of Young Ireland true? Did “a new soul come into Erinn” at the call of Davis, and if there did is that an un-national or an un-Irish process by which the work was wrought? Was it a new soul that drove the slavish toasting of her Britannic Majesty from our public dinners and substituted a spirit of honest belief in the powers of the people? Was it a new soul that shivered the hoary fraud of “the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland,” and raised instead the Ideal of an Irish Nation, self-dependent and self-defending? Was it a new soul that brought life back to Ireland when famine and the fever-ship had taken from her two millions of people and the weak-kneed had left her “like a corpse on a dissecting-table”? If it be the mission of a National literature to preserve and perpetuate high and lofty ideals, then assuredly the writings of ’48, by whatever name they may be called, have fulfilled their mission, and deserve ell of the people for whom they were designed. The men who have preserved a political ideal for the people, who have kept before their eyes the separate and individual entity of an Irish Nation, have guarded the plain and prepared the way for those who in our day are setting the seeds, or, rather, resetting the seeds, that O’Connell tried to scatter to the winds of Heaven.
But there are other reasons why this work of our writers in English should not be contemned on the summing up of people manifestly full of the proselyte’s fresh-born zeal. It must be remembered that most of the literature at all claiming to be representative of Ireland is the creation of this present century, and consequently depicting an existence wholly foreign to any Gaelic writer, but yet part of the life of Ireland. Now, a literature to be representative must have found its types amongst the people. Will anyone who knows anything about the subject deny that the “Croppy Boy” is not a perfectly faithful picture of an incident of Wexford life in ’98? Will anyone say that “Coach O’Leary” is not a true, a homely, and a touching sketch of Leinster life in the early forties? Will anyone have the hardihood to attribute falseness to any single character in “Knocknagow”? And if these are not false, how are we to reconcile the fact with the assertion which would have them considered un-native and un-Irish? Let us consider a moment what they represent. They depict an abnormal state of existence – a people using a tongue not their own and still retaining all the other characteristics which go to make up individuality. If they were drawn speaking Irish they would be false, for in two of the cases, in any event, they never knew it; consequently it would be as untrue of them as it is to make Aodh O’Donnell or Shane O’Neill talk English. It is a regrettable fact, but the fault lies neither with the painter nor the people depicted. He draws them as he found them, and if they are not Irish, then we fall to place them, for they certainly are not English in tastes, sentiments, or surroundings.
It will sound like heresy, possibly, but it is a fact, nevertheless, that the literature which is now discovered to have been a huge mistake is really the most National, in the sense that it is the most Ante-English, that we possess. The minstrelsy of Munster is sonorous and musical, eminently singable and limpid as a stream in a mountain glen; but it has not in it the swinging tramp of a people marching to freedom. The present writer has the advantage of being able to judge at first hand. He is not indebted to translations, and except MacCurtain’s “A Chlanna Gaedhil Fáisgidhidh bhúr láimhe le céile,” there is nothing in the writings of any of the poets, from Seaghan O’Neachtain to Seaghan O’Coiléain, that can be dignified with the name of a National poem. Ephemeral verses reviling “Seaghan Buidhe,” are only on a part with T. D. Sullivan’s “Lays of the Land War,” for “Seaghan Buidhe” was not England, but the Hanoverian. I am not to be taken as believing that the ideal of an Irish Nation was not abroad both before and after Limerick, but there is very little evidence of it in the minstrelsy of Munster. It is, on the contrary, the very essence of this literature so abhorrent to the Gaelic movement. It is, apparently, a foreign spirit, an English, more than likely a West British spirit, which has inspired the “Memory of the Dead,” “The Rising of the Moon,” and every other song and ballad that has kept alive the ideals that all but overset English authority here in ’98, and today, despite all its power, are a menace and a danger to the British Empire in every quarter of the globe.
It is difficult to understand the position of these guardians of the National taste. We have, in spite of ourselves, an English-reading public in Ireland, supplied with an illimitable periodical literature wholly British in tone. The National School has kept us wholly ignorant of ourselves and our history in childhood; this vendetta of the hyper-Gaelic element would deprive us of all the writings likely to preserve in our souls the ghost of a National tradition, hope, or sentiment. Surely no one is lunatic enough to imagine that we can de-Anglicise Ireland by teaching the people to regard as non-Irish the writings of Davis, Mitchel, Mangan, and their confréres and followers? Father Hickey, one of the leaders of the present Gaelic movement, has admitted that an essay of Davis’s first directed his attention to Irish. Are we to shut off all possibility of stirring others in the same fashion? Are we to ask the young men and women who have had the misfortune to have never heard Irish spoken to give up reading until they are able to satisfy themselves with the literature of Gaelic Ireland? Are we further to force those of our kith and kin who can write to go over to the service of the enemy because they are unable to give their thoughts to us in a tongue which, through no fault of theirs, they do not know? I am not by any means to be taken as making an ad misericordium appeal for the creators of an Irish literature in English. They have a raison d’etre, and the popularity that their works have won, and still find amongst the most Irish of Irishmen, is a proof of their truth to Ireland and their service to her cause.
It strikes me that the Gaelic cause will be far better advanced by encouraging the reading of this literature than by reviling it. It is primarily and principally intended to keep Ireland Irish; being so it is the most potent weapon for these parts of Ireland where Gaelic has been lost. Whatever may be said to the contrary, it is a fact that the history of Ireland, a whole host of her traditions, legends, performances, hopes, and sacrifices are enshrined in it. It has never sought, and none of those who write in it ever wish it should, supplant the older and the more truly Irish literature. Gaelic cannot be brought back into general use in Ireland by a miracle. Nothing less than a miracle could give us at once Gaelic writers and Gaelic readers, and we must read something if we are to remain reasonable beings. This Anglo-Irish literature, which certainly mirrors the life of this present Ireland that is ours, provides us with the necessary material. It is not the perfection of Irish thought, it is not claimed for it that it is, but it is a saving salt that will secure the heart of the country from complete decay. A generation, full of its ideals and working out its views, is not the one that will let any characteristic willingly depart; least of all the language. It is, as I have already said, outside the question to point to Finland or Bohemia to establish a contrast. Neither of these places had any literature until within recent times. Even then they were primitive peoples, free from all the conflicting elements which lie across the path of regeneration in Ireland. If any of those who so loudly protest against the idea of further taking to our hearts the “Spirit of the Nation,” or “Knocknagow,” feel that these works are too anti-English in tone, let them, by all means, raise their voices, and the Irish public will know how to value the criticism.