New Statesman – December 6, 1919
IF anybody has any doubt as to whether Ireland is a nation, he need only look round and see the number of books that are written about it. These books are not, for the most part, about beauty-spots or openings for capital. They are in nine cases out of ten about a distinct people called the Irish, who may be worse than other people or better than other people—according to the writer’s prejudice—but who are at least not the same as any other people. To deny that Ireland is a nation would be possible only to a party politician, or to one of those learned playboys who will prove that Shakespeare or St. Francis or whoever you please is a myth. There is, it must be admitted, nothing more creditable in being a nation than in being a human being. But, just as a human being would not like to be regarded as a myth on the day on which his salary became due, so a nation dislikes being regarded as a myth especially by its chief debtor. The whole of Irish politics may be said to have grown up round the question whether Ireland is a myth or a nation.
The worst of it is, nobody can tell you what is a nation, any more than what is beauty or truth or goodness. We know these things when we see them, or think we do, though we dispute about them and though one man’s beauty may to another man seem ugly. We are at once desperately vague in our definitions and entirely confident in our assertions. What we see, we see by faith. It is only by faith that any man can recognize a nation or know that the Kreutzer Sonata is beautiful. Imagination is in both cases more necessary than argument. Without imagination it is as useless to approach Irish (or any but party) politics as it is to approach Beethoven. The library of anti-Irish literature has mainly been compiled by unimaginative men or by imaginative men in an unimaginative mood. There has not been a good Unionist poem written since the Union, though several good poets have been Unionists. On the other hand, the literature of the Irish nation contains a remarkable number of good poems, from Mangan’s Dark Rosaleen to Mr. Yeats’s Cathleen the Daughter of Houlihan. The English poems that have been inspired by Ireland have not been so good. Shelley is not at his best on Emmet, nor Swinburne on the Manchester Martyrs. Lionel Johnson, on the other hand, who wrote little good poetry, wrote two beautiful poems on Ireland, and the Australian Francis Adams wrote a fierce and sombre poem on behalf of Dublin, the “conquered city.” But perhaps the most poetic tribute that any Englishman has yet paid Ireland is to be found in Mr. Chesterton’s book of prose, Irish Impressions. Mr. Chesterton went to Ireland with his imagination—with enough imagination to sink (or to float) the Kingstown boat. As a result, his book, fantastic and playful patchwork though it is, is of great interest and importance on account of the author’s insight into essentials and his grasp of significant things. Much he has missed, but what a multitude of things he has discovered! Mr. Chesterton strings truths together like pennons dancing between gold-topped scarlet poles, and he makes our progress, as we read, a holiday and a triumphal procession. His treatment even of the Irish question makes us feel that we are taking part in a triumphal procession. He would probably have written a still more triumphal book if he had not gone to Ireland. He would almost certainly have done so twenty years ago. But he can still introduce, as no other writer can, a riot of colour into political argument. Many readers will be disappointed on reading Irish Impressions for the first time, who, on a second reading will find it crowded with wise and amusing discoveries.
On the question of Irish nationality Mr. Chesterton is as justly dogmatic as he would be on the question of Hamlet’s being poetry. “If Ireland is not a nation,” he declares, “there is no such thing as a nation. France is not a nation, England is not a nation; there is no such thing as patriotism on this planet.” This being so, he does not pretend that Ireland is in some way in a more pleasant position than other nations that have been deprived of their liberty. “We must know by this time,” he declares, “or the sooner we know it the better, that the whole mind of that European society which we have helped to save, and in which we have henceforth a part right of control, regards the Anglo-Irish story as one of those black-and-white stories in a history book. It sees the tragedy of Ireland as simply and clearly as the tragedy of Christ or Joan of Arc.” He understands better than most writers why men are filled with anger and bitterness at the spectacle of their country under the rule of another. Most men realise this when it is the freedom of their own country that is in peril. They would die rather than permit their country to be absorbed into another. The desire not to be absorbed, however, is regarded as an all but factitious grievance on the part of a small nation. Mr. Chesterton is not one of those who look on Ireland as a neurasthenic suffering from an imaginary ailment. He sees that Irish Nationalism is the faith not of men who have the right to be angry about the past; so much as of men who have the right to be angry about the present. The Unionist is often willing to repent of his grandfather’s behaviour to Ireland: he is unwilling to repent of his own. Kettle said in one of his books that Ireland’s grievance is not what England did to her a hundred years ago but what England is doing to her to-day. Mr. Chesterton realises this, “I am not yet,” he writes, “far gone in senile decay, but already I have lived to hear my countrymen talk about their own blind policy in the time of the Land League, exactly as they talked before of their blind policy in the time of the Limerick Treaty. The shadow on our past shifts forward as we advance into the future, and always seems to end just behind us. I was told in my youth that the age-long misgovernment of Ireland lasted down to about 1870; it is now agreed among all intelligent people that it lasted at least down to about 1890. A little common-sense, after a hint like the Sheridan case, will lead one to suspect the simple explanation that it is going on still.” To Mr. Chesterton, Sheridan has the same startling significance in the history of the Union as the Zabern incident has to many people in the history of Prussianism. Sheridan is the symbolic figure of English rule in Ireland. If Ireland had been ruled by Germany, Sheridan, the police-sergeant, would have been a better-known character to English readers. He would have been chosen as a summary of all that was evil in an evil system of domination. Mr. Chesterton treats him in this fashion in order to convince his country-men of the iniquity of the thing in which they are acquiescing in Ireland. He describes Sheridan as a “Neronian monster”—not an exaggerated description of a policeman who got poor men convicted of agrarian crimes and was afterwards discovered to have committed the crimes himself. He was, of course, not punished, but “was bowed out of the country like a distinguished stranger, his expenses politely paid, as if he had been delivering a series of instructive lectures.” Many readers will comfort themselves with the thought that Sheridan was an exception. Mr. Chesterton, seeing deeper, contends that he is really a type. “A British official in Ireland”—so he expounds the matter—”can run a career of crime, punishing innocent people for his own felonies, and when he is found out he is found to be above the law. This may seem like putting things at the worst, but it is really putting them at the best. This story was not told us on the word of a wild Fenian, or even a responsible Irish Nationalist. It was told, word for word as I have told it, by the Unionist Minister in charge of the matter and reporting it, with regret and shame, to Parliament. He was not one of the worst Irish Secretaries, who might be responsible for the worst regime; on the contrary, he was by far the best. If even he could only partially restrain or reveal such things, there can be no deduction in common-sense, except that in the ordinary way such things go on gaily in the dark, with nobody to reveal and nobody to restrain them.” “That peephole into hell,” Mr. Chesterton adds grimly, “has afforded me ever since a horrible amusement, when I hear the Irish softly rebuked for remembering old, unhappy, far-off things and wrongs done in the Dark Ages.”
The truth is, no one has even begun to understand the Irish question, who does not understand that the Dark Ages still exist in Ireland as a Government institution. One might describe the Dublin Castle policy of the moment as one of cautious terrorism. Terrorism is ultimately the only method by which one nation can keep down another, and reactionaries during the last few years have made no secret of their belief that what Ireland needed was a little blood-letting. One would think that the futility of attempting to terrorise a nation had been proved clearly enough to convince even an octogenarian dunce fifty years ago. “Any attack on it,” as Mr. Chesterton says, “is like an attempt to abolish grass; which is not only the symbol of it in the old national song, but it is a very true symbol of it in any new philosophic history; a symbol of its equality, its ubiquity, its multiplicity, and its mighty power to return. To fight against grass is to fight against God; we can only so mismanage our own city and our own citizenship that the grass grows in our own streets. And even then it is our own streets that will be dead; and the grass will still be alive.”
I have dwelt almost entirely on one aspect of Mr. Chesterton’s book—the aspect that is most relevant to the controversies of the moment. In doing so, I have been compelled to pass over his fantastic discovery of the statue in St. Stephen’s Green, his discourse on the family and private property in Ireland, his interpretation of the rebellion, his reasons why no sound Nationalist could be a pro-German, and his chapter on Unionist Ulster, which is like a pronouncement of doom. As regards the Unionist Ulsterman, it is interesting to find the opinion of so perspicacious a stranger that, “the Calvinist Ulsterman may be more of a Catholic Irishman than is commonly realised, especially by himself.” Mr. Chesterton’s impressions are loosely arranged and frequently disputable. But they are the impressions of a traveller of genius, a traveller exuberant in fancy and rich in generous understanding. The discovery of the new vision of Ireland, he declares, “for most Englishmen will be like touching the trees of a faded tapestry and finding the forest alive and full of birds.” That is what his book suggests. What one misses most in it is an attempt to understand Sinn Fein as a policy and a serious ideal.
George A. Birmingham, in his new book, An Irishman Looks at His World, does not commit himself to large and starry generalisations about Ireland as Mr. Chesterton does. In his book we find, not the humour of the imagination, so much as the humour of reason. He is consequently neither so sombre nor so gay as Mr. Chesterton. He shares neither his wrath nor his hopes. He has the destructive mind of a wit, and this frequently leads to a commonsense pessimism. He prefers analysis to creation. He likes to know what the Irish farmer is like, but he does not see him as a figure in a vision. He does not grow passionate on questions of liberty. He almost gives politics up in despair. He feels that human beings will after all survive even if their country is not free. It is not that he fails in devotion to his country. His book is a book of affectionate explanation, and many Englishmen (for whom the book is professedly written) will find more of the information they want here than in Mr. Chesterton’s book. They will find a great many interesting facts about education, religion, culture, farmers, politics, and the Ulster Protestant, written with a running pen. Some of the author’s judgments seem to me to be not quite accurate. Irishmen nowadays read more books than he admits, and Sinn Fein has at least disproved the theory that the farmer is a complete materialist in politics. The book would have been better, I think, if the author were not a victim of his smiling scepticism. As it is, he dexterously mixes entertainment with information and may help others to understand even where he himself is most perplexed.