From The United Irishman, July 29, 1899.
It may be taken as granted that all who give any thought whatever to the condition of the country recognise and deplore the state to which the combined effects of so-called Catholic Emancipation, National Schools, and the policy of compromise have brought us. That it is recognised is something, for it means that so far as the few are concerned who have foresight, a change will take place. But the recognition is not enough – measures must be taken sharp and speedy to arrest the decay which threatens everything in Ireland. The success which has met the movement for the resuscitation of our native language is full of hope for other matters, for it proves that the people only need to be awakened to take steps to protect whatever through indifference they have jeopardised. There can be no question the work before those who undertake the directing of the nation on the right road is stupendous. It means that the lackadaisical spirit of two generations the influence of British opinion in school, press, platform, and everyday life, the exigencies of existence, personal comfort, in many cases, and the innate lack of energy, in almost all, have got to be met, combatted, and conquered. It may even yet be heresy to many to declare that we are today without a National Press, party, or policy; that our lives are absolutely objectless, and that we are leading a merely vegetable existence, watching the sun’s rise and sink, and drifting every day nearer to seed; to seed that cannot duplicate its stock for all that gave it life and individual existence is being sapped and drained from it.
It will sound somewhat strange, possibly, to assert that the spirit which kept a perpetual fight in existence for seven centuries is likely to wither and disappear. We need not look far for an example of its truth. Anyone who has experience of our people in England and Scotland can say how absolutely disheartening it is to find the second generation of Irishmen and women without a single thought, nay, without the slightest idea or the smallest sympathy, for the land of their fathers. Boys and girls with Irish names – names that carry even the O or Mac – join the Britisher in reviling the latest revival from Ireland – ridiculing his accents, sneering at his manner, casting contumely on everything he possesses. Let me not be taken as in any sense implying that this is the invariable fact, but it is undoubtedly and unfortunately true of many great towns and cities throughout Britain, whether the necessities of his situation drove the poor, unlettered, and simple-minded Celt after the famine. His sons, in most cases, were in the Fenian ranks; but their sons and daughters, reared in a different atmosphere, have imbibed the spirit of their surroundings, and become – not as English as the English – but more dull, plodding, mindless beings, without a thought beyond their personal needs, and without the spirit to resent, or the knowledge to know, that an insult to their nation is an insult to themselves. To this they have been brought principally by the loss of their language, but to a material degree also by the absence of those influences in the home which impress the mind of childhood and waken its budding ideas to thought and interest. Fenianism has undoubtedly preserved many thousands still to Ireland, among our countrymen abroad, but there are circles which its influence never reached, and there, alas! Are lost, possibly beyond redemption.
Towards the same state we are drifting, slower, it is true, but not a whit less certain. It is idle to repine. The present is the time potent to undo what has been done. We may not control either today or tomorrow, but we can, at least, endeavour to make them better than yesterday – or else there will most certainly dawn for Ireland a day that can have no tomorrow. How, then, must me work? Our resources, whether of men or means, are limited. We have been taught to look abroad for the power of regeneration; we have been accustomed to regard Acts of Parliament as the initial steps towards any change. We have been trained to believe that nothing of good to the nation, nothing of permanent effect, can come from the people themselves. We have, in a word, been taught by rely upon the goodwill and conscientious scruples of the foreigner rather than upon our own right arms and our own resolve. When we have knocked the bottom out of all these absurdities, when we have begun to think out matters for ourselves, we shall have begun to check the canker which has been gnawing at the heart of the nation, ever since the eyes of our people were first turned towards the British Parliament.
How, I ask again, are we to proceed? We must begin in our homes; we must make them National, we must make them native; we must create a spirit which, ridding itself of the fashions supplied by penny British periodicals, strikes out for itself, and in its every characteristic proves to the foreigner at once that he is in a land entirely distinct and apart from others in tastes and ideas. Our songs must be Irish, our books must be Irish in subject and sympathy, our furniture, as far as it is possible, must be made in the country; everything we use, wherever obtainable, must be Irish. This would be a change radical and revolutionary, without doubt; but will anyone deny its necessity? We may be told such conduct is behind the times, narrow, bigoted, and confined. But let us ask the superior person who affects such broad conceptions of the duty of the hour, whether he thinks the Frenchman would place Frederick the Great or Bismarck over his mantel-piece, or whether Goethe or Schiller would be found on the shelves that had no place for Beranger or Victor Hugo? Does anyone imagine that the Italian or the Austrian moulds his habits or his views by those of his foreigner neighbour? Does even the Belgian, the Swiss, or the Hollander do so? And if they do not, why should we? No one accuse them of narrow-mindedness, of littleness of purpose, of poverty of ambition, because they mould all their daily lives by standards of their own. Let us do likewise, and leave to the man who has lost hope, the man who has no confidence in himself, the man who talks of “the gallant but foolish struggles of the past,” the contemplation of the grandeur and the glory of the citizenship of the British Empire.
But making our homes what they ought to be will not be quite sufficient. We must work a change in the system of instruction which keeps every child in Ireland ignorant of an elementary knowledge of his own country. This cannot be done in a day, or a year, but a little headway may always be made. The Acts of a British Parliament compel the children to attend the National schools; it remains to be seen whether the unanimous wish of the people cannot have some influence towards making the instruction reproductive to the country. The Board of Education is just as amenable to agitation as any other institution, and ought not to be less secure from it. Let the people express their desire of reform and the struggle will be comparatively easy, but till they do so we must, what few of us perceive the evident failings of the system, endeavour, as far as we may, to direct public attention on them, and never cease attacking them until they are remedied. We cannot, under British rule, ever except a National system of education; but we may, possibly, utilise what does exist much better than we do – that is to say, we can use the schools as they stand, and bring about such reforms as shall at least secure that the children will not be drilled into believing that Ireland is “sometimes called West Britain,” and that “nothing is definitely known of it for several centuries after the Christian era.” [Sullivan’s “Geography Generalised.”]
Towards this end, the reform of the primary school system, the greatest aid would be a National Press. That we do not possess, nor are we likely to possess it for some time. One cannot reasonably expect much from the British Institute of Journalists, no more than from any other British institution, and we shall therefore have to wait for a National Press and National pressmen. The commercialism and money-grubbing spirit of our times has garnered to its views most journalists in Ireland, and the men to reform the system of education must be men who will not barter their minds and principles for money. Consequently, for the present, we must rely on whatever organisations exist amongst the people. We must look to the national clubs and assemblies throughout the land to inform and direct public opinion on this matter, and when the spirit of the people has been aroused to the full dangers of the situation, the Press, or rather the journalists who always fight with the big battalions, will know sufficiently well upon which side their bread is buttered to need no directing. Nothing makes a Press so humble and useful as the knowledge that people can afford to dispense with it. The people must make up their minds to force the Press to voice their opinions, and not to pervert them.
Recently in these columns the potency and necessity of native manufactures have been advocated. I merely mention the matter here to point out how great a factor it must be for building up the Nation. It is, possibly, one of the few matters upon which we are all of a mind, but on it, as on most of the rest, the public sadly needs to be informed. We must endeavour to bring before the people every article and fabric made inside our four shores; we must try to make the shopkeepers take an interest in stocking Irish goods. We must make what influence we can command an agency in pushing the sale and use of these manufactures. We must train ourselves to judge between them and similar articles produced elsewhere, and thus, though our knowledge may not be technical, gradually eradicate whatever inferiorities the native articles may possess.