THE ENGLISH IN IRELAND: A COMEDY / BY ROBERT LYND

in the book  “Ireland a nation” as THE ENGLISH IN IRELAND : A SCENE

May 17, 1919

IRELAND marched for many generations under the green flag. It became an emblem of defeat and of compromise, however, even of humiliation, for the withholding of Home Rule affected the most moderate of Irishmen like the rebuff of a proferred handshake. Parnell always hated green as an unlucky colour. Whether it is or not, Ireland has apparently had enough of it. Her young men and women have in the past two years taken a new flag and a new national anthem. Their flag is now the orange-white-and-green tricolour, and their song is “The Soldiers’ Song.”
Dublin Castle does not quite know what to do about it. There is a minority of very well-fed persons whose flag is the Union Jack and whose anthem is “God save the King,” and these people heatedly call on Dublin Castle to preserve order. By preserving order they mean cracking the skull of anyone who sings “The Soldiers’ Song” and precipitating bodies of policemen and soldiers, armed with bludgeons and bayonets, upon every little crowd that happens to raise the orange-white-and-green flag. It is difficult to distinguish this view of order from the theory of terrorism. The preservation of order means nothing to the partisan save a free hand for violence on one’s own side.
Dublin Castle on the whole prefers to rule by threat rather than by deed. Liberty Hall, for instance, the headquarters of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union, is opposite a railway bridge which is guarded by armed sentries. During the past few weeks an iron structure has been raised above the parapet of the bridge with an arrangement of loopholes through which rifles could fire straight into the windows of the most important trade union in Ireland. So long as the rifles do not go off, however, it is possible for a casual visitor to Dublin on a sunny day to feel that this is the best of all possible worlds, with nothing to complain about but the noise of the trams. People do not walk along the streets in actual chains, nor are babes-in-arms transfixed on the points of bayonets by passing soldiers. In these respects, at least, life in contemporary Ireland bears a resemblance to life in the Golden Age.
When the Irish-American delegates arrived in Dublin last week, Dublin Castle stood aside at first. The delegates drove up to the Mansion House in taxis from which the orange-white-and-green tricolour was flying on the right hand and the stars-and-stripes on the left. Every evening, as they returned from their travels, they were met at the railway station by the same beflagged taxis, which would then proceed slowly through the streets, surrounded by a bodyguard, followed by a brass band playing “The Soldiers’ Song”:

Soldiers are we;
Our lives are pledged to Ireland,

an army of volunteers in civilian clothes, and a dense mass of sightseers. This was all done in defiance of the law, which forbids processions, and an occasional volunteer even risked court-martial by appearing in uniform. It was important, however, to give the American delegates the impression that they were on a visit to a free country; and so the law slept, and good order reigned. On the second evening a long file of policemen, the white metal of their helmets making them look like a musical-comedy chorus of Prussians in the darkness, marched quickly behind the crowd; but the next night there was not a policeman to be seen on the route of the procession, and half Dublin trooped after the Republican flags and the Republican tunes to the fashionable Unionist square where the delegates stayed, and cheered Republican speeches made from a balcony under a huge tricolour, and then went home as quietly as if they had been coming out of a Sunday-school. On the Friday, again, the Dail Eireann, as the Republican Parliament is called, met in the Round Room of the Mansion House, and once more the police stood aside, while volunteers with white armlets discharged the duties assigned to policemen in ordinary free States. Everything seemed quiet to the point of dullness. I met one man who had just left the Mansion House, and he complained bitterly of the dullness of some of the speeches. I was all the more astonished on turning into Dawson Street between five and six o’clock to find cordons of huge policemen throwing themselves across the street and soldiers in tin hats and full kit marching in columns towards the Mansion House, with a fleet of motor-lorries (more crowded than the wooden horse of Troy) following, out of which other soldiers poured, carrying monstrous-looking weapons which may have been machine-guns or grenade-throwers (I am a child in these matters, and do not know which). The police said that I could not pass; but, on my protesting that I lived in Dawson Street, one of them said genially: “Well, go ahead, but if you’re bluffing, you’re done for; for you can’t get out at the other end.” As another company of soldiers swept up to the pavement, a lady at my side ran up to them and said : “Why don’t you fight for liberty in this country? Why don’t you fight for liberty in this country?” She went up to a young officer in a tin hat and passionately put the same question to him. He looked slightly taken aback, but replied with a smile: “My dear lady, I’m only a soldier obeying orders.” By this time the throb of the motor lorries, the tramp of marching feet, and the click of bayonets being fixed filled the street with the preliminary din of war. No one knew what was happening. People said that the Republican Parliament was being suppressed on account of some inflammatory speeches. Others said that the public reception arranged by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House for that evening had been prohibited. An officer came up to a group of people near me and said it was ” only a demonstration.” Whatever may have been the purpose of it all, the street was now held at each end by a cordon of policemen. A few yards behind this came a row of soldiers with fixed bayonets. A few yards behind this, again, came more soldiers with fixed bayonets. An armoured car with the nose of a gun projecting threateningly started every few minutes with a grunt and sailed up and down the street. Beyond the police and soldiers a crowd was now gathering and singing “The Soldiers’ Song” and other seditious airs. As each song came to an end they cheered defiantly. At the end of one chorus the soldiers rattled their rifle butts derisively on the stones, but an officer called out angrily: “Stop that.” Singing and cheering went on in this fashion, while the crowd increased; and every time the armoured car went off on its minatory prowl there was a voluminous boo. An old woman ran out of a house crying: “This is going to be worse than the rebellion.” “Prussianism!” declared a little man with a rough moustache. “Here’s Prussianism for you!” Meanwhile, tramcars were still allowed to pass along the street, each with a crowd of people standing on the roof, angry and amazed. A travelling musician who happened to be on one tram had his trumpet with him; and, as he passed through the soldiers, he raised it to his lips and blew a defiant “Come to the cookhouse door”—which set both soldiers and Republicans laughing.
An officer assured some people in a doorway that nothing was going to happen. He protested good-naturedly against a comparison between the British Army in Ireland and the Germans in Belgium. “You surely don’t think we’re like the Huns?” he said. He denied that no English soldier had any but friendly feelings towards the Irish. “You know,” he said, “you people often complain about Oliver Cromwell. But we dislike Oliver Cromwell as much as you do. After all, we got rid of him as soon as we could, didn’t we?” During the evening another officer came up and expressed his bewilderment as to the cause of the trouble between the English and the Irish. I said to him that it all arose from England’s incapacity to see that the Irish were like the Poles and the Bohemians. “I hope not like the Poles,” he said with a charming smile. While he was speaking a tiny mouse, terrified by the continuous singing, cheering and clamour, appeared in the street and rushed off down the gutter with its tail up. A soldier in heavy boots ran after it and attempted to trip it. He thrust at it with his bayonet, and it turned and fled across the street. Half-a-dozen other soldiers made at it with their bayonets, scuffling for it like men playing hockey, and laughing uproariously. As soon as the officer saw what they were doing, he curtly told them to stop; but the mouse lay dead on the stones. Strange that a man should find pleasure in bayoneting a mouse!
Suddenly the crowd ceased singing and began to cheer and wave arms rapturously, and a taxi flying the Sinn Fein colours was received into its bosom. Other cars and motors had already arrived, with people in evening dress waiting to be admitted to the Mansion House. A police inspector put up his hand and brought the Sinn Fein taxi to a halt. At first it seemed as if the crowd was eager to rush the taxi through the police and soldiers, but the American delegates got out and approached the police on foot. As the crowd behind them became more excited and urgent, some of the soldiers in the front rank raised their rifles into the air, and a shot rang out. Some people declare that only a “slap-bang” was discharged, but the rifles were certainly pointed skywards at the time, and the effect was that of a rifle shot. Some of the onlookers on the outskirts of the crowd ran backwards, but the crowd as a whole pressed forward, cheering angrily and singing “The Soldiers’ Song,” and shouting for the Republic. Officers, police, and American delegates stood in the middle of the road arguing—and thousands of guests waited, wondering whether they were going to a war or a tea-party.
At last the Americans were passed through the police cordon amid yells of triumph; but as Mr. de Valera and their other hosts were forbidden to accompany them, they returned to the side of the taxi. Then followed more arguments with military and police officers, the armoured car commanding the mouth of the street. After some time it was clear that the guests were to be allowed through. Out of the crowd a number of volunteer stewards appeared and passed like a rope round the edge of their followers. The soldiers drew up and unfixed their bayonets. The men with the machine-guns (or whatever they were) tumbled out of the alley where they had been waiting and scrambled into the motor lorries. They began to move off amid the boos of the crowd. To the crowd it had all the appearance of a flight. Soldiers and police withdrew, and the Sinn Fein colours drove through, a host of cheering men and women pouring after them, carrying the volunteer stewards before them like driftwood on a wave. What all the trouble had been about no one in the crowd knew; but there was not a child present who did not believe that Sinn Fein had routed the British Army. I see that Mr. Macpherson explains that this imposing display of bayonet, machine-gun, and armoured car had for its object the arrest of a single Sinn Fein Member of Parliament. Whatever the object may have been, the result was merely to give the American visitors an unusually vivid spectacle of methods of terrorism in Ireland and to bring ridicule on the British Army. The whole display may be described as an immense success for Sinn Fein. So generally is this felt that an officer expressed his belief to me the next day that the Sinn Feiners had deliberately planned it for the sake of the American visitors, and had played a hoax for this purpose on the Dublin police. It would be amusing to think so, but the comedy of Irish life is not, I am afraid, a comedy of “practical-joking” Sinn Feiners, but a comedy of the stupidity of General Shaw and Mr. Macpherson. Never was “The Soldiers’ Song” played with greater gusto than by the band at the Lord Mayor’s reception that evening. True, a mouse lay dead outside in Dawson Street. Otherwise there was no shadow cast on the festivities of the occasion.

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