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A Very Special Case

The Making of Modern Ireland: 1603-1923

by J.C. Beckett
Knopf, 496 pp., $8.95

The Irish Question: 1840-1921

by Nicholas Mansergh
University of Toronto, 412 pp., $7.00

Ireland Since the Rising

by Timothy Patrick Coogan
Praeger, 370 pp., $6.95

There is nothing commoner in history than oppression—of one class by another, of one religion by another, of one people by another. Even in this dismal record Ireland is a very special case. Nowhere did oppression go on longer, and nowhere was it so compact of all three characters, class, religion, and nationality. Ireland is a special case in another way. Nowhere, except in one corner, has liberation been more complete, and even the remaining grievance of the Border is losing its harshness. The nations of eastern Europe also liberated themselves after oppressions of varying durations, but only to fall under the domination of Soviet Russia. The Irish are truly their own masters. Nothing remains of the old tyranny except burnt-out barracks and ruined mansions. Odder still, the Irish, after a triumphantly successful revolution, have settled down into a prosaically conservative existence. Their bright boys complain that life is dull. Few would really have it otherwise.

The strangeness is not all on one side. The oppressors were also a very special case. This was not a story of despotic tyrants—Sultans, Tsars, or Kaisers. It was not even the story of a race usually brutal and ruthless, as, say, the Prussians have been. Quite the contrary. The English have been renowned throughout modern history as champions of liberty. Yet the more advanced and enlightened a British statesman was, the worse he behaved in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell cut off the king’s head and defended religious freedom; he was responsible for the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford. William of Orange, The Liberator, led the Glorious Revolution; he was responsible, whether he liked it or not, for the broken treaty of Limerick. Lord John Russell promoted the Great Reform Bill; he was responsible for mass starvation during the Famine. Joseph Chamberlain, the great nineteenth-century radical, defeated Home Rule; Lloyd George, the great twentieth-century radical, launched the Black and Tans. Only Gladstone, among British statesmen, had a spotless record, and his vision matured late in life. Otherwise an Englishman can only bow his head in shame. And now it is all over. The history of Ireland can be written in detachment, all passion spent, as though the oppression ended centuries ago. There is no resentment, no repetition of fradulent legends, and it is often difficult to tell whether the writer is a Republican, a Unionist, or even an Englishman.

THE THREE BOOKS REVIEWED here are all examples of this historical impartiality. Taken together, they give a full and rounded picture of what is, fortunately, no longer “the Irish Question.” Mr. Beckett was born in Belfast and is now a professor there. No one would guess this from his book, which is the best general history of modern Ireland. It is uniformly fair to every party from the Fenians to the Ulster covenanters. The Curragh mutiny and the Easter rising are presented in the same even tones. O’Donovan Rossa and Sir Edward Carson would have been alike surprised at the charity extended to them. Mr. Beckett emphasizes the injustices which the Roman Catholics suffered at the hands of the Protestant minority. He is less insistent on apprehensions the other way round and has, I suspect, a private belief that Protestants and Roman Catholics could get along very well in the same community. At any rate, this book by a citizen of Belfast asserts, in title, spirit, and treatment, the existence of a united Ireland. Nor does this reflect a spirit peculiar to Belfast. Mr. Coogan, son of a prominent Sinn Feiner, is equally dispassionate. He is interested in practical achievements, not in ancient feuds. Though he covers competently the shifting patterns of political change, his main concern is with the state of Ireland now and with what will come next. Perhaps the most remarkable part of Mr. Coogan’s book is his discussion of religious issues and the interviews which he records with leaders of the different denominations. The Protestant spokesmen seem the most confidently Irish, and the Roman Catholics, though adroit, are clearly on the defensive. Mr. Coogan even managed to interview the prime minister of Northern Ireland in a friendly, sympathetic way, though admittedly not quite concealing his surprise that such a strange creature should exist.

Professor Mansergh’s book, the work of a Cambridge professor, is perhaps the most historical of the three. It is concerned to explain, not to narrate. Professor Mansergh describes the approach of important nineteenth-century figures to the Irish question, and his presentation of the Continental view is particularly rewarding. He analyzes the development of Gladstone’s ideas and shows how Ulster was elevated, rather artificially, into an obstacle against Irish emancipation. His book also contains regrets: regrets for British follies and misunderstandings, regret especially at the lost chance for Dominion status, a subject on which Professor Mansergh is an authority. Altogether it is a blessed relief that at least one subject in the world can be treated in purely historical fashion, without provoking political prejudice and abuse.

Ireland remains difficult even as a historical subject. Everything about it seems so clear now and was so obscure once. The Irish are a nation. They have long wanted their national freedom. Once they obtained it, they became a contented, conservative, and happy people. Why did it take so long to arrive at this simple solution? Why in particular did so many excellent judges insist that the problem was excessively complicated and that, whatever the answer, national freedom was not the right one? Of course there is no great puzzle in earlier times. Throughout the ages, almost until the beginning of the nineteenth century, oppressors were not ashamed of their wickedness or at the existence of discontent. No doubt humble Anglo-Saxons were discontented after the Norman conquest. This only made the barons fiercer and more brutal. The old-style answer to discontent and, still more, to political or religious separatism, was extermination. This was what the English hoped to achieve in Ireland in the seventeenth century, just as the British in America (now absurdly called “Americans”) did with the Red Indians. Cromwell did not imagine that he was being cruel when he massacred Roman Catholics. He thought that for the sake of Ireland, and even for their own, they were better dead. Even the cautious, civilized Whigs who imported William III supposed, maybe rightly, that they were in imminent danger of extermination by Louis XIV and used similar measures in order to secure Ireland. After all, my predecessors as Fellows of Magdalen College were expelled by James II simply because they held out against his Roman Catholic illegalities; and I suppose that in their place I should have been eager to exclude Roman Catholics from public life.

THE IRISH PROBLEM emerged when men began to think that discontent was a reproach to those in power and something which ought to be remedied. These feelings originated with humanitarianism and with the doctrines of the French revolution. The Union with Great Britain in 1801 was meant to be an alleviating measure, for it was taken as preliminary (which did not come off) to Roman Catholic emancipation. Actually, the Union was Ireland’s greatest misfortune in modern times. If the Protestant parliament in Dublin had survived a few years longer, it would surely have been reformed and become a genuinely Irish body without all the turmoil of revolutionary violence. As it was, Irish policy throughout the nineteenth century had to be made at West-minster and by British statesmen. They were nearly all men of good will. They nearly all recognized that something ought to be done for Ireland. But, in the perverse high-minded fashion of the age, they did not conclude that what should be done for Ireland should be what the Irish wanted. On the contrary, in Ireland as in most other spheres, Victorian statesmen imagined that they knew what was good for people better than the people did themselves.

The Irish wished to govern themselves in their own national state, as was asserted by every Irish leader from O’Connell to De Valera. British statesmen other than Gladstone consistently refused to meet this wish, and historians usually imply that they did so for selfish British reasons—the maintenance of the great landed estates or of the Protestant church, military security, or the separate character of Ulster. British politicians certainly used these arguments, but I think they did so mainly because they genuinely believed that Irish independence was not in the interest of Ireland herself. They “invented” the obstacle of Ulster for this reason, though, once invented, the obstacle became real enough. Professor Mansergh shows that the lack of faith in national freedom was not peculiar to the British. Cavour did not think it the right solution for Ireland, despite his work in unifying Italy. Even Mazzini was doubtful. So, one may add, were many Irishmen, and not entirely without cause. The Irish were truly in a muddle after centuries of oppression. They were not really sure that they could rule themselves entirely alone. They were not even sure that they were a true nationality. The enthusiasts of the Gaelic League who proposed to revive the Irish language at the end of the nineteenth century implied, by so doing, that the Irish would not be a distinct nationality unless they had their own language. Events have proved them wrong. Irish has not been restored as a living language. Yet few would now dispute that the Irish are a nation.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY is a long record of giving the Irish what they ought to want and of repeated disappointment when they were not satisfied with it. The behavior of the British government during the Famine is the most wrong-headed example. British policy was excessively wicked. It could have saved a million Irish people from death by starvation and refused to do so. But it claimed to be acting for the most enlightened reasons. The Irish ought to have wanted to become an advanced industrial country like Great Britain, and they could not do this so long as Ireland remained predominantly agrarian. “Economic law” would be her salvation. Even Gladstone tried many evasions before he arrived at Home Rule—disestablishment of the Protestant church, security of tenure for the peasants, better education, more railways. Home Rule was something of an evasion, perhaps encouraged by Parnell himself—a belief, as well as a hope, that the Irish did not really want full national independence. At the very end, when peace was made, some of those who supported the treaty did so because they held that nothing better could be attained. But some, including Griffith, supported it because attentuated union with Great Britain, in the form of Dominion status, was what they genuinely wanted.

There was a further difficulty in the way of Irish independence. During the course of the nineteenth century it came increasingly to be believed that any revolution must be social, indeed Socialist, in character. Marxists and Communists claimed to be the only serious revolutionaries. Ireland was about the last place in Europe suited for a Communist revolution. Hence it seemed to follow that the Irish did not really want a revolution after all. There were attempts to evade or to ignore this difficulty. Marx himself took the view that the British working class were corrupted, that is non-Marxist, because they cooperated in the oppression of Ireland. An Irish revolution would therefore free the British workers also. In fact, nothing of the kind happened. The break with Ireland removed a radical, if not a revolutionary, element from British politics, and one reason for the persistent docility of the British working-class movement in the last forty years has been the lack of Irishmen to stir it up. James Connolly carried the evasion further when he founded the Irish Citizen Army and so imagined that he would capture the national movement for socialist policies. In the event, he was captured—literally—by the national revolutionaries and gave his life solely for national freedom. The conclusion seems inescapable. The desire for national independence has been the strongest cause of revolutionary activity in modern times; social discontent is trivial in comparison. Ireland demonstrates this truth; the most successfully revolutionary country in Europe, and now the most conservative.

PERHAPS THIS IS NOT THE END of the story. Northern Ireland is becoming more Irish in spirit, maybe even in economic ties. Ulster separatism may soon appear the curiosity of a short historical period. Is Irish separatism becoming a historical curiosity also? In a few years’ time, there will be Free Trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom. More than this, Ireland is losing her separate character. The native language never got off the ground. Many Irishmen earn their living in Great Britain, and Ireland is becoming a favorite holiday resort for English people, indistinguishable from Cornwall or North Wales. For years past moderate leaders in Dublin have been saying that once the Border with Northern Ireland disappeared Ireland would again become a Dominion. This is more likely to happen in practice than in theory. We are convinced now that national independence was the right and only answer to the Irish question. It may be only a passing phase. Fifty years on, those who insisted that the Irish ought to want something else may be vindicated. However, it is difficult enough to make sense of the past, and the future must look after itself.

Letters

Irish History October 20, 1966

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