From The United Irishman, January 13, 1900.
The weekly meeting of the Celtic Literary Society was held on Friday evening last, at the rooms, 32 Lower Abbey-street. Mr. M. J. Quinn presided, and Mr. Wm. Rooney delivered the following lecture on “The Development of the National Ideal.” He said: –
The subject upon which I have chosen to say something tonight is one of which you will say you have already heard quite enough – a subject which is so well thrashed out that nothing worth hearing remains to be said upon it. I do not claim that I shall be able to say tonight very much that is fresh upon it. I have no doubt I shall in the course of this paper bring you back to matters which you have given time and study to, but I do trust to be able to show that there is a National Ideal – and that there always has been one. Of course there are ideals of all possible forms. There is the ideal of the land reformer which masquerades as a national ideal, “Ireland for the Irish – the Land for People,” blazoned on all its banners and bellowed from all its platforms. There is the Home Rulers’ ideal – a body of men meeting under the shadow of Grattan’s statue, under the shade of the Union jack, and passing a series of harmless and equally useless bills for the better government of Ireland – a body of green-livered henchmen of the British connection, with the spoils of office for their faithful stewardship. There is the ideal of the Irish Agricultural Reformer, whose soul yearneth for a millennium of practical poets and poetical dairyboys – and there are again the academic language enthusiasts who look to the resurgence of Gaelic to dissipate all our ills. Now each one possesses elements of a National Ideal – but none of them can reasonably be allowed to be so. We can best realise the extent and limits of a national ideal by endeavouring to understand what the citizen of any free nation would understand by the term. There are, possibly, no greater Nationalists in the world than those of Germany. They would not consider that a national policy which, though giving to them land proprietary, a subsidised agriculture, liberty to make their own laws and use their own languages still allowed a foreign State to claim their allegiance and exact their services. Frenchmen would scarcely tolerate the man who could suggest that they should be satisfied with a Legislature in Paris, subject to the veto of the Hohenzollerns. Belgium did not seek to identify the Flemish language and Flemish freedom as similar things, nor did the Greeks imagine that they enjoyed liberty while the accents of Hellas were uttered under the shadow of the Crescent. I have said that all the movements before the public are in a sense national – but as they all admit the supremacy and acknowledge the right of British law in Ireland they cannot claim to be the national ideal, which rightly interpreted ought to mean an Irish State governed by Irishmen for the benefit of the Irish people.
This subject is at once a retrospective and a prospective one, and the study of it from both sides cannot fail to be of advantage to the general good of the nation. Various reasons have been advanced from time to time to account for the Irish allowing a faith, let us not give it the hard word. English supremacy to grow from the insignificant following of Strongbow. The innate inability to unite for any purpose has been discovered by the keen observers of our history, and has become the excuse of the timid and the weak-minded.
There is a little truth in the allegation – but it is not the all-influencing factor which it has been attempted to be made by those who have based their ideas on English views of the matter. When the Normans came to this country, as we know, they found Roderick O’Connor the nominal monarch, but all the chiefs doing pretty much as they liked in their own respective districts, and as much in their own neighbour’s country as his watchfulness or worthlessness permitted them. That state of chaos was due to social reasons extending back centuries – but unite immediately to the usurpation of Brian Boroimhe. That Brian was in many respects the greatest monarch who ever sat on the throne of Ireland should not blind us to the fact that he was a usurper, pure and simple; and that his action inspired less able men to emulate him, and by dividing the forces of the nation in a great degree prepared the way for the Norman. Roderick O’Connor’s only recommendation for the crown was that he was the son of Toirdhealbhach Mór. He might have been a good enough king for a country not called upon to face the difficulties which the rebellion of Diarmuid and the subsequent advent of the Normans entailed. He was rash without being resolute, brave without being earnest, and altogether lacking in those characteristics which win the confidence of a people. He had not the dash of Muirceartach of the Leather Cloaks, nor his own father’s persistence and fixity of purpose. He appears to have been ambitious, but utterly incapable of making it a spur to secure him the reality of the title which he claimed. It is scarcely to be wondered therefore that he did not win the entire support of the nation in his effort to stifle the treason of Diarmuid. He undoubtedly assaulted the auxiliaries of Strongbow as King of Ireland, and, in the name of the Irish nation, summoned to his assistance the chiefs of the country. Had he possessed other characteristics than those he did he undoubtedly would not have gone to his grave without having by the complete route of the enemy fixed himself firmly in the hearts of his people and figured in history as scarcely less of a saviour than great Brian himself. His retirement practically left the country without any visible, not to speak of virtual head. The murder of his son, Conor Moinmoy, removed the most likely successor, for Cathal Crobh Dearg, though a man of wonderful powers, never appears to have realised, even to the limited extent of Roderick, the necessity for a movement uniting all the forces of the country against the foreigner. Cathal was decidedly the greatest enemy the English encountered in the West, and while he lived he kept his people free from the attentions of the foreigner; but his operations were local, and like all such labours, were not of that all-influencing nature which makes nations.
Several chieftains advanced their claims to the Crown during the century succeeding the advent of the Normans, but only one is of noticeable importance – and, in fact, of such importance as marks him out above all his contemporaries, that was Domhnaill O’Neill who sent the famous letter to Pope John III indicating the reasons for Irish resistance to the foreigner:
MOST HOLY FATHER – We transmit to you some exact and candid particulars concerning the state of our nation, and the wrongs we suffer, and which our ancestors suffered from the kings of England and their agents, and from the English barons born in Ireland.
After driving us by violence from our habitations, our fields, and our paternal inheritances, and compelling us, in order to save our lives, to make our abode in the mountains, marshes, woods, and caverns of the rocks, they incessantly harass us in these miserable retreats, to expel us from them and appropriate to themselves the whole extent of our country. Hence there has resulted an implacable enmity betwixt them and us, and it was a former Pope who originally placed us in this miserable condition.
We cherish in our breasts an inveterate hatred, produced by lengthened recollections of injustice, by the murder of our fathers, brothers, and kindred, and which will not be extinguished in our time, nor in that of our sons. So that as long as we have life we will fight against them, without regret or remorse, in defence of our rights.
We will not cease to fight against, and annoy them until the day when they themselves, for want of power, shall have ceased to do us harm, and the supreme Judge shall have taken just vengeance on their crimes, which we firmly hope will sooner or later come to pass.
Until then we will make war upon them unto death, to recover the independence which is our natural right, being compelled thereto by very necessity, and willing rather to face danger like brave men, than to languish under insults.
This decidedly national prince, who appears to have had a broad and just conception of the needs and rights of the nation, was followed by his son, Brian O’Neill, who at the ford of Caol Uisge on the Erne in the year 1258 was elected King of Ireland by the men of Connacht, under Feidhlim O’Connor, and the men of Thomond under Tadhg O’Brien. This was the prince who, fighting the national cause, was killed at the battle of Down by the Normans under de Courcy. This union of Caol Uisge was a wholly spontaneous idea on the part of the Princes of Thomond and Connacht, and proves that there were, even in such far-off days, men with a thorough conception of the national ideal. Similarly with the landing of Edward Bruce we find the chiefs of Ulster banding themselves together against the enemy, and we find Feidhlim O’Connor heading all Connacht to his assistance, and risking the whole strength and future of his cause at Athenree. It is not unreasonable to assert that this movement circling round Bruce was essentially a national one, and that it was wrecked wholly through the impatience and impetuosity of its central figure.
Art MacMorrough looms up the greatest figure of the immediately succeeding years, but he, like Cathal Crobh Dearg, does not appear to have grasped the necessity for a great national struggle. Of course, during his lifetime he bore the full brunt of the English attack, and kept its forces so busy that they were unable to attend to anything else; but he does not seem to have ever ambitioned a higher title than that of Prince of Leinster, and to have been satisfied when the Saxons were driven out of his own territories or those of his allies. The battle of Kilmainham should have encouraged him to end forever the English occupation by the razing of Dublin to the ground. But that, like many other opportunities, was lost, for what exact reason is inconceivable, for one cannot accuse Art either of faint-heartedness nor of very decided leanings towards the Saxon. We all know how easily English power might have been extinguished from the reign of Henry IV to Henry VII, but no man of commanding influence and convincing mind seems to have arisen to perform it. The Irish nobles, like those of Poland, seem in most instances to have been conservative only of their own privileges and careless of the condition of the country. The people at all times, as far as we have any evidence, had a truer appreciation of their duty. When the chiefs of the O’Neills, O’Donnells, and Burkes accepted English titles and repaired to Dublin to have them confirmed, they found themselves deposed on their return to their territories, and native chiefs installed in their places. Thus was Seaghan O’Neill – Shane, the great chieftain of the North – exalted in the place of his father, Con Bacagh. Shane, though a veritable thorn in the side of the English, cannot be said to have treasured a national ambition either. We cannot, of course, judge him too severely, for he was at all times sore beset, and that he succeeded in making native rule recognised from the Boyne to the furthest stretches of the North is in itself evidence of his striking superiority to his contemporaries. But he stood alone, and his arrogant assumption of superiority of birth prevented the chieftains of the South from making any overtures. The Desmond Confederacy of 1578 was not in any sense national, nor indeed was Clancarthy’s agitation for the princedom of Munster anything but a purely personal ruse. The two greatest national chieftains of Gaelic Ireland – the men who of all the assailants of English rule were actuated by the truest and most perfect nationality – were the two Hughs, Aodh O’Neill and his gallant contemporary, Aodh Ruadh O’Domhnaill. O’Neill may be regarded as the most astute, the most politic, the most resourceful, the most influential, and the most skilful enemy England had faced up to his time. He most certainly aimed at the sovereignty of Ireland, and he recognised that the aid of all his countrymen was essential to secure it. He was the first soldier of Irish freedom who recognised that the crafty English politician was scarcely less dangerous than the soldier or the hired assassin. The soldier, he knew, could be met with the native courage of his people; the assassin might be checkmated by the exercise of a little care and watchfulness. The statesman, vindictive and cunning, could not be effectually opposed by anything but his own weapons. These Hugh’s English training placed at his command, and he utilised them till the preparations of years fitted him to take the field and maintain an Irish army. While his foresight and patriotism places him at the head of Irish chieftains, the national spirit of such men as O’Donnell, Maguire, MacMahon, O’Ruarc, O’Sullivan, and all the others who loyally served under his banner is beyond all praise.
The advent of James I, notwithstanding many things to the contrary, was regarded by the Irish chiefs as a favourable omen. A spirit somewhat of a fashion with that to which we are treated nowadays – the kinship of the Scots – induced the people to believe that the sons of the Stuarts would be true to his origin and remember the ties of blood. Some of the chiefs were so far led away as to sit in the Dublin Parliament with the old English and the new English, and found themselves after a short time swamped by the intrusion of nearly eighty persons selected by the Lord Deputy to represent a number of imaginary boroughs which even up to today have no existence. “When a Catholic proprietor died leaving children under age, the King, like a true father of his people, undertook the charge of the children,” had them educated in London as Protestants, and thus in time were evolved from the Gaels, the Thomonds, Donaghmores, Dunravens, Lismores, Clancartys, &c., who have been ever since the bitterest enemies of Ireland. I need not detail here the history of the years which witnessed the plantation of Ulster and the confiscation of Connacht. I pass to the movement of which Rurie O’More was the head and front and Phelim O’Neill the military chief. Few nowadays hear of Rurie O’More, but as an organiser and a conceiver of broad National views he is eclipsed, among civil leaders, by Tone alone. “Roger More of Ballynagh,” as he is called by the contemporary British scribes, was a man of no ordinary calibre, and his ideal of an Irish nation was vastly different from that erected by the Confederation of Kilkenny. That he aimed at the creation of an Irish monarchy there can be no question, for all his negotiations were conducted among the old Irish or such of the Seanghall as had become through intermarriage and family ties as Irish as themselves. That these were wholly Catholic cannot affect the case, for Protestantism and the English interest were as interwoven and as identical as they are today, only a great deal more open and more pronounced. In fact the National character of the movement needs little further recommendation than the fact that the Catholic peers and gentlemen of English descent offered to take up arms against it, and being contemptuously refused by Parsons and Borlase, joined the Confederation and eventually proved its ruin. His enemies’ estimate of him is a gauge to O’More’s ability and ideas.
Owen Roe arrived from Spain. Phelim O’Neill patriotically gave up the command of the North to him, Benburb was fought, the British statesman once again plied his calling, Owen died, and under the iron heel of Cromwell the country fell smothered in her own blood, the dark story relieved alone by Aodh Dhubh’s heroic stand at Clonmel, O’Ferrall’s successful fight at Waterford, and the gallant defence of Limerick. If Owen had lived he might have beaten Cromwell, but he was a soldier, not a statesman, and it is just as likely that he might have been vanquished by the lawyers and the Parliament men. Rurie O’More, the one man fit to cope with them, mysteriously disappeared while the movement was still in its infancy.
The conduct of the two Charleses might, without any strain of opinion, be held to justify at least the suspicion of the Irish race. Yet, no sooner did the English Protestants run James off the throne for an exhibition of impartiality than all that was left representative of the country rallied to his support. Not that they liked him – for he was a plantator of 170,000 acres in Tipperary – but because they recognised in him the descendant of all their kings of historic and heroic times – and possibly also because they felt by supporting him they could smite the Saxon. We are all familiar with the main facts of the events which culminated in the Treaty of Limerick, but of the National composition of the Parliament which met to support James in 1689 much more ought to be known. By its acts we can judge it, and save that it linked its future to a wretched cause, one is forced to concede to its foresight, prudence, and tolerance. It was decidedly the most representative assembly which had met in Ireland from the first day the Norman entered Ireland. One of its first acts declares the independence of the Parliament and kingdom of Ireland, and prohibits the bringing of lawsuits to the British House of Lords for settlement. It repealed Charles II’s Act of Settlement confirming to the Cromwellians the land of the old families. It prohibited the importation of English, Scotch, or Welsh coals, designing thus to aid and extend the Kilkenny coal pits, and it endeavoured to assist and advance “trade, shipping, and navigation,” authorising the establishment in the leading towns of schools of mathematics and navigation. These were some of its enactments, and one can but marvel that the minds which so readily grasped the necessities of the country did not also see how much more easily their ideal could be attained by severing at once all connection with England than by supporting the claims of the aspirant to its throne. Davis, in his history of this Parliament, laments that there was no effort made to join the forces of Catholic and Protestant for such a National purpose – but the Catholics can scarcely be blamed for only being up to the standard of their times.
Men smarting under a sense of robbery could not be expected to take a very dispassionate view of the situation. Many of them had been personally dispossessed, and regarded rightly the occupiers as robbers. Anything less than the restitution of their property could not be accepted by them as the basis of a settlement, and such a thing, of course, would not be entertained by the Protestants. A very slight percentage of them were Irish-born and scarcely one at all Irish in sympathy. They condemned the people as savages, their religion as idolatry, their customs, language, and habits as barbarous. They had attained position, wealth, influence, and importance at the price of the blood and spoliation of the rest of the people – and they were not prepared to fall in with anything likely to jeopardise their possession. Hence the heroics of Enniskillen, and Butler’s-bridge and Derry. I am not disposed to minimise the courage of these men. I impeach only their motives; they were fighting for the ascendancy of their class, the main tenance of their tens over the Catholic thousands, the perpetuation of robbery, jobbery and confiscation. That they would have had nothing to fear from sharing the Government with the Catholics, history can attest. That such men as Tyrconnell had no other object than the mere resurgence of Catholic rule ought in no sense blind us to the fact that all the Gaelic soldiers and chiefs, and those of semi-Gaelic blood like Sarsfield, favoured a more complete independence. Aughrim was fought not for James’ pretensions, but for the preservation of all the characteristics and privileges of the Gael. In the rout there, there was settled the fate not only of James, but of Irish Nationhood for that generation. It is more than doubtful if even the relieving of the siege of Limerick could have preserved the cause. Sarsfield was simply a soldier; he was not even an elementary statesman, and the diplomats scored again. “Briseadh Eacdroma” is even to today the Gaelic peasants’ synonym for disaster. The purposelessness and apparent powerlessness of the Gael which the succeeding years witnessed had their germ there. But those years were not by any means so effete and so uninfluencing as most people imagine. The Penal Days were not wholly clouds and sorrow. Education was banned by British law; Catholicity was proscribed; every position was shut except to the alien, the knave, and the coward – but yet the race lived on, and the ideal of an Irish nation blazed brighter and stronger than ever. It poured into the armies of England’s enemies recruits by the thousand; it manned the fleets of a hundred little bays in the South and West, and traded with the Continent in spite of English laws and English administration. It produced poets, scholars, and divines, whose reputation abroad reflected honour on their native land, and, scarcely less than the soldiers of Cremona and Almanza, indicated unmistakeably the individuality of Ireland.
In Ireland herself, of course, we know that men were not inactive. Scarcely had the first flock of the “Wild Geese” flown when William Molyneux rose to assert the independence of the Parliament meeting in Dublin, and of the entire independence of the Irish nation. The one dissatisfying part of his argument is his admission of the right of the English king to rule Ireland. His claim for Irish independence he based on the historic existence of Ireland as a separate nation – his claim for the independence of the Parliament on the resolution passed by that body as far back as the 38th year of the reign of Henry VI. Molyneux’s idea had in it an element of nationality, seeing that it resented the interference of any English body to pass a law affecting the country, but it was not the nationality which at a little earlier period wrested the Netherlands from Spain, or erected Switzerland into an independent nation. It was a narrow spirit, too, for it only recognised the civil rights of the Protestants, but it was a commendable and a patriotic spirit, for it kindled greater things in later days. Swift’s campaign had in it rather more of nationality for it united all the elements of Irish society for the first time in centuries, and frightened the British Minister into the possibilities of Irish Union. But it was also narrow, for it did not look beyond the mere legislative freedom demanded by Molyneux. Lucas, Flood, Grattan, the Volunteers, their ideals were all more or less patriotic, but recognising the claim of an English king on Irish loyalty their views cannot be accepted as marking the ideal of an Irish nation. The first man to adequately voice the truest and fullest conception of an independent Irish State were Tone and the United Irishmen. We can honour all the patriots of Confederate and Williamite days, we can be proud of Molyneux, Swift, and Lucas for their courage and persistence in the face of all the opposition of their times. Flood and Grattan and the Volunteers may stir us to the opportunities which English difficulties afford to Ireland. But our whole hearts can go out unreservedly, enthusiastically to the United Irishmen who for the first time banded all classes of Irishmen, the Gael and the Gall, the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Dissenter into one great united body, and who sealed their convictions with their blood at Antrim, at Ballynahinch, in Kildare, in Wexford, in Wicklow, and in almost every country from Mayo to the streets of Dublin.
“I made what was to me a great discovery, though I might have found it in Swift and Molyneux, that the influence of England was the radical vice of our Government, and consequently Ireland would never be either free, prosperous, or happy until she was independent, and that independence was unattainable while the connection with England lasted.”
Thus Tone, and his words must ever remain for the Irish nationalist the cardinal feature of his political faith. An Irish State self-supporting, self-defending, her flag respected in every port, her shores and her sympathy for the oppressed of every race and colour. Her voice in the council of the nations; her language, her laws, and her achievements the pride of all her people. Such is a national ideal, and to Tone do we owe the fact that any of its most militant features still recommend themselves to the vast bulk of our countrymen. It outlived the horrors and the gloom of ’98, it survived the sacrifice of 1803, and though it showed not its head during O’Connell’s years of work, it lived and throbbed in all the cabins of the country. No one can claim the Catholic agitation as a National one, though of its necessity there is no question, and while we must regard O’Connell as a man devoid of all National ambition – we must give him credit for what he did. He probably wielded more power during his prime than any Irishman up to his time. He found the Irish Catholic on his knees, he lifted him to his feet, and taught him the power that lay within him. What he must be blamed for, eternally blamed for, is that he endeavoured to confound religious freedom with National liberty. His slavish loyalty to the British crown, his bitter enmity to the United Irishmen, and his horror of the very name of revolution, all contributed to make his influence hurtful to the ideal of his immediate predecessors, and consequently injurious to the nation generally. But though he and his satellites either wilfully or unwittingly endeavoured to humbug the people, no one can doubt the popular fidelity to the old ideal. The millions who thronged to the meetings of the early forties – to Tara, to Mullaghmast, to Westport – they had conceptions of something higher than the Parliament of ’82. They had views of the Ireland of Tone, and their rally to the standard of the Nation on its appearance in 1842 proves how ready they were for all eventualities had the man been forthcoming to sound the tocsin. I need not delay to indicate how true to the ideal were the Young Irelanders and the men of ’67.
It was reserved for our time to bring the ideal lower than it had ever fallen at any time in our history. It was reserved for us to trail the banner of the centuries in the mud, to prostrate ourselves before the foreigner, and pander to him for favours that could be of no possible use. True, the leader who concentrated behind him or united race, refused to indicate the limits of our demand. But how painfully low, how pitifully slavish, how utterly false to the past all the talking and truckling of the last twenty years have made the people, anyone seriously interested in the question can see for himself. Today we see ourselves inert and disunited, without a policy, without any visible organisation to keep the nation alive, distrust, disgust and despair eating at the national heart. Our population dwindling, our prestige at vanishing point, all our characteristics dying, all our customs consuming, our credit almost nil. A hundred years and the Irish nation must be sought anywhere but in Ireland. Must this be? Assuredly not, if Irishmen still survive to prevent it – but how? Firstly, we must unite the people, and we must unite them on some broad platform, on some wide plan that can embrace them all. We must give them an objective, and as all Irishmen willing to consider themselves such honour and reverence Tone, let us lift up the old ideal. Let us ask the people to unite and work for an Irish nation – not a mere shadow in College Green or anywhere else, but a veritable Irish nation. Irish in everything, in language, laws and policy, in prestige and importance. Let each man as his convictions lead him work in whatever way he deems it best to reach that ideal, but let that be the goal – nothing less, nothing nearer. It may be a long way off, but it is worth working and waiting for. It may never be achieved without the loss of lives, and without such means as we cannot just now command, but let us see that such weapons as we may use are not allowed to remain idle. We are only a handful at home, but we are numerous elsewhere; and let us look to it that our numbers and our influence are given their due effect. Let us see that the millions of our race in the Americas, in the British Colonies, in Britain herself, and in all other places are consolidated towards the perpetuation of all our characteristics, language, music, traditions, and convictions, and the prosecution of our right to rank with the rest of the nations. Let us educate foreign opinion to the intensity and the utility of our beliefs, and we shall be, at least, on the road to progress. The Brigade of old was a standing earnest of our individuality; within the last twenty-five years that has been lost, but the action of our countrymen away beneath the Southern Cross has done much to restore it. Let us look to it that no opportunity escapes of thus emphasising it. Let us link “Language to Liberty.” Let us teach the world what it is we seek, and while refusing to utilise no weapon which the necessities and the difficulties of the enemy force him to concede, let us still go on making each concession a stepping-stone to higher things. Nothing is to be gained by shuffling or shoneenism. We must be men if we mean to win. No tyranny can endure forever.
“We will not cease to fight against and annoy them until the day when they themselves, for want of power, shall have ceased to do us harm… Until then we will make war upon them unto death to recover the independence which is our right… willing rather to face danger like brave men than to languish under insults.”
Let these – the words of Domhnall O’Neill to Pope John – burn into our souls. Six hundred years have elapsed since they were written. Let us show that the spirit which inspired them is still a living, breathing power. Let us teach it to the young, so that if the opportunity is denied to us, they may know the truth and feel their duty.