The Damnable Question
Some months ago Conor Cruise O’Brien, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the Irish government, addressed the students of University College, Dublin, on a text from Yeats’s poem “September 1913”:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
The burden of Dr. O’Brien’s speech was that Romantic Ireland is not dead and gone, alas. The ideology of Romantic Ireland is still active: and life in Ireland cannot be peaceful until that ideology is abandoned. According to his argument, we have been schooled to revere as heroes only the men of violence and blood: our saints are martyrs, our demonology English, our modern history is supposed to have begun in 1169 when Dermot MacMurrough called upon Henry II of England to help him recover the province of Leinster. From that day to this we have had only one theme, the hated presence of England in Ireland. One theme, and a corresponding rhetoric: the true story of Ireland is recited as a sequence of revolutions, glorious in feeling, heroic in failure. Our educational system, as practiced for instance by the Irish Christian Brothers, is obsessed with this vision of Romantic Ireland. Yeats, great poet as he was, put his genius at the disposal of a cause which has again brought Ireland to the brink of civil war.
Dr. O’Brien’s speech embodies the policy of his government, and of many people who do not support the government in any other respect. “They have gone about the world like wind,” Yeats wrote of the fame of Ireland’s revolutionary heroes, but in Ireland today it is increasingly common to say that this wind brought good to nobody. Or at least it is common among the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals, who now regard the men of Easter Week 1916 as self-deluded fanatics, driven by lust of sacrifice and blood, including most particularly their own.
What the plain people of Ireland think, feel, and believe is harder to discover. They did not protest when Reverend Francis Shaw published in the Jesuit quarterly Studies an essay demonstrating that Padraic Pearse, archetype of Irish revolutionary feeling, sought his own death in 1916 so that, perfect in his kind, he would transcend that kind and become for every Irishman an immortal symbol, a type, an indestructible idea. But the plain people of Ireland do not read quarterlies. They are sick of violence, presumably, and vaguely aware of some connection between a bombed Belfast and an island already in a desperate economic mess. But I see no evidence that they are ready to go to school again to learn a more congenial version of Irish history. They probably feel that the story of Romantic Ireland is essentially true, and that Dr. O’Brien is practicing an “economy of truth” in his skepticism.
The real problem is that the Irish have had, indeed, only one continuous theme in modern history, and only two distinct traditions in modern politics. Their historical experience is limited in its kind and monstrous in its degree: it is impossible to make a full life or a coherent history on the strength of a single idea, to drive the English out. But the Irish Christian Brothers have not told lies: the other themes of Irish history, such as the Land War and the Labour movement, are relatively minor, intermittent motifs. We resort to violence and hysteria precisely because the range of our historical concerns has been so limited: that is the price we pay for having as our essential history one story and one story only.
We are a fractured country, not chiefly because Partition divides North from South and Protestant from Catholic but because our historical experience has been grievously incomplete. We have remained imprisoned in our rhetoric while other European countries have engaged in the diverse experience represented by the Industrial Revolution, the development of railways, Factory Acts, the Trade Union Movement, universal education, Marx, the Welfare State.
We are just now facing this experience and pretending that we know how to deal with it. As for our two traditions in politics: one is parliamentary, the other violent. In The Damnable Question George Dangerfield refers to “existential Irish history,” meaning the second kind, as distinct from the conventional persuasions of diplomacy and parliament. In its contemporary version the Republican form of violence is embodied in the two versions of the IRA, the Provisionals (Catholic and Right-Wing) and the Officials (Marxist). The fact that initiative has passed entirely to the Provisionals is enough to show how thin and rootless a Marxist political force is likely to be in Ireland. In the North the conflicts between the several versions of Unionism are temperamental and strategic rather than ideological.
Dr. O’Brien has been urging us, since violence broke out again eight years ago, to give up the ideology of Romantic Ireland, postpone indefinitely the question of England’s departure from the North, and attend to the chore of making daily life more equable, more tolerant. We are to live by bread alone, but to bake better bread and offer a wider choice among the loaves. Instead of poetry good and bad, he urges us to resort to decent prose. Disgusted by the consequences of a myth, he admonishes us to live in a clear air, humanist and secular, without complaint or nostalgia. His rhetoric offers us a life without passion, unless we are ready to develop a passion for mundane experience.
Dr. O’Brien’s colleague, Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, has offered Ireland a new, safe symbol in the ostensible unity embodied in the EEC, but without much success: we are in the EEC only for the money. Besides, that institution now appears mean rather than radiant, and pretty hopeless as a potentially sacred object, even if we longed for such a thing. We cannot resort to it for a myth more stirring than our own. The trouble is that Dr. O’Brien’s demand that we transcend the past makes him sound as if he really wanted us to disown it. He deplores the Easter Rising as willful and unnecessary; but in deploring it he sounds as if he thought an Irishman in, say, 1914 should have been content to find himself represented by the squires of the Irish National Party. The point is that in 1914 there were not enough possibilities of choice: a fractured tradition, a dying party, a war elsewhere, and political passion for which no practical embodiment could yet be found.
Mr. Dangerfield’s book shows, if the show were still necessary, that in modern Irish politics there have been only two procedures: parliamentary negotiation between a weak Irish Nationalist Party and a British government incapable of taking Irishmen seriously; or the gun of Republicanism. In theory, there may be a third possibility, but Irish history has not yet disclosed it. If you were a man of peace in 1914 you found your values embodied in the gullible Wicklow squire John Redmond, a decent man fooled by Asquith and turned into a recruiting sergeant for the British army, about to fight in France. On September 20, 1914, Redmond urged the Irish Volunteers to prepare themselves to fight “not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing line extends, in defense of right, of freedom, and of religion.” After that, it was inevitable that the Volunteers would split into a Redmondite faction, led by John D. Nugent, and a Republican faction, led by Padraic Pearse, who had no intention of shedding his precious blood for any country, large or small, except Ireland.
The point to be emphasized is that in the months after September 1914 the choice between Nugent and Pearse had to be faced along those lines; it was impossible to transcend it or appeal to a higher idiom. During those months it would have been perfectly reasonable for a nationalist to support Pearse’s Irish Volunteers against Nugent’s National Volunteers even if he suspected that Pearse’s force was already infiltrated by the gun-loving Irish Republican Brotherhood. Dr. O’Brien speaks as if a patriot in 1916 had a wide range of choices, but the fact is that the Irish Nationalist Party was in ruins, and the collapse of the Home Rule negotiations in the summer of 1916 showed that the British government had no intention of giving Ireland a genuine form of self-government.
This was clear to the Irish people who rejected the Party and turned to Sinn Fein in the election of 1917. Cogent reasons, rather than a self-deluding ideology, caused Irishmen to vote for Count Plunkett, Joseph MacGuiness, Eamon De Valera, and William Cosgrave, men who had distinguished themselves in the Easter Rising and done time in English jails. There is no merit in maintaining that those who ensured De Valera’s victory in 1917 were simply the victims of a crazy mythology: the alternative at that time was to trust England to do the decent thing at the behest of a few exhausted Redmondites. In the face of Protestant Unionism in the North and the barely concealed support of Unionism by the English Tories, the nationalist Irishman had no serious choice: it was Sinn Fein republicanism or nothing. I deplore the situation in which Irishmen are killing Irishmen and Englishmen, but I do not think anything is gained by arguing that a mythology of Romantic Ireland is a sufficient explanation of our troubles. The roots of violence in Ireland are far deeper than Dr. O’Brien is willing to admit. It is an embarrassment to him that Irish politics cannot even yet be negotiated in a language entirely secular and humanist, but he must put up with that situation as best he may.
Material for debate along these lines is provided by The Damnable Question, a study of Irish history from the Act of Union (1800) to the Civil War (1922-1923). The crucial event is deemed to be the Easter Rising of 1916. Mr. Dangerfield is in such a hurry to reach the General Post Office in Easter Week that he disposes of the years 1800 to 1908 in forty pages. The only story he wants to tell begins for him on a political platform on November 13, 1913 when the Labour leader James Connolly talked open sedition and brought the Irish Citizen Army into being. The story ends with the collapse of Dail Eireann (the Irish Parliament) in December 1921.
Mr. Dangerfield is chiefly interested in political and diplomatic narrative; he does not spend many pages on the social history of Ireland, apart from the Famine. Nor does he concern himself much with the religious question or the fact that Ireland is one of the few remaining countries in which it is possible to find avowed Christians killing each other. It is my impression that Mr. Dangerfield is most excited to describe those occasions on which the conflict may be explained in terms of character and will. He gives a splendid account of the occasion, March 1914, on which Asquith forced Redmond, John Dillon, and Joseph Devlin to agree to exclude six of the nine counties of Ulster from the application of Home Rule. The idea was rejected, of course, by Sir Edward Carson and the Unionists, but the fact that it was entertained at all disgraced the Irish Party and, far more serious, gave credence to the notion that Partition of some kind was a possible solution. Seven years later Lloyd George and his secretary Thomas Jones fooled Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, with the same scheme, selling him the idea of setting up a Boundary Commission to determine the size and shape of a Northern Ireland. The principle of Partition was entertained by arguing about its precise form: a betrayal of the Republican Cause today as in 1921.
I shall commit an Irish bull by saying that the Partition of Ireland is acceptable to everybody today, except those who are ready to kill and be killed rather than accept it. In the South, very few people are ardent in their desire to have the Border removed. In the North, the ardent are more numerous, but still a small minority. But there is little joy in these facts. Arm a few diehard Republicans and a few diehard Unionists, and you get today’s slaughter. If the issue were left to the politicians, I have no doubt that Partition would be accepted on a permanent or at least an indefinite basis: compromise would ensure a few improvements in local government, a few face-saving pronouncements would make the diplomats happy. But for the moment the politicians have been set aside. Dr. O’Brien’s government has just now enacted tougher laws in an effort to defeat the violent men, but no one believes that laws will make any difference.
Mr. Dangerfield’s narrative ends with the Civil War, but he adds a little reflection upon the desperate situation of the country since 1968. I do not find his argument convincing. He is sympathetic to the ideal of an independent Ireland, united in its thirty-two counties, and he regards as “perfidious” Asquith’s determination to proceed with an Amending Bill granting permanent exclusion from Home Rule to the six northern counties. But I think he is naïve in believing that if the Tories had accepted Home Rule for Ireland in 1912 “this constitutional path would have led in the long run to independence without Partition.”
I doubt it. The run would have been too long to satisfy the passions of men like Pearse and Tom Clarke. Home Rule, even in the paltry form contemplated by Asquith, would have driven Carson and the Northern Unionists mad; they would never have accepted it any more than their descendants would accept it now. On the negotiations leading to the Treaty in December 1921, Mr. Dangerfield thinks that the Irish delegates should have called Lloyd George’s bluff, refused to sign, and gone back to Dublin to a Dail still intact. The British government should have accepted De Valera’s famous Document No. 2—removing the Oath of Allegiance to the King of England—as an alternative to the official Articles of Agreement. The Irish Revolution, “once its political appetites had been appeased, would become moderately respectable and reasonably safe.”
As for the Unionist James Craig and his followers: the British government should have forced them to accept Document No. 2 by withdrawing from the Northern government the means of governing, namely, the money. Mr. Dangerfield thinks that financial pressure, especially in regard to taxation, would have been enough to force the Unionists to accept the situation. “Ulster had not yet hardened into the Ulster of today,” he maintains, on no real evidence. “Thus,” he says, “the possibility of a privileged, safeguarded Ulster coming in under an All-Ireland parliament, with all the happy consequences which this would have had for Ulster and the Ireland of today, flits for a moment before one’s mind.” But the happy vision ignores the virulence of the Unionist hatred for the very idea of Home Rule, which men like Craig identified with Rome Rule.
Well, it’s too late now, anyway. Partition gives every sign of permanence, of “such permanence as time has.” The English will probably withdraw from the North, sooner or later, since they have nothing more to gain and only lives and money to lose by staying there; but I agree with Dr. O’Brien that British withdrawal at this moment would be incalculably dangerous. The presence of British soldiers in Belfast is not bringing peace to hate-ridden streets, but for the moment it is probably preventing a massacre. Even if the British were to withdraw, the Irish would probably continue murdering one another without foreign assistance: killing seems to have moved into its self-delighting phase.
Mr. Dangerfield is concerned with these matters, though his story does not officially include them. He is interested in the origin of these conflicts, and especially in the characters who defined them and suffered their exacerbations. An elegant writer, he is particularly gifted in the composition of “brief lives,” succinct accounts of Parnell, Lloyd George, Asquith, Carson, Connolly, James Larkin, Pearse, De Valera. The story he tells is indeed well known to readers of F.S.L. Lyons’s Ireland Since the Famine and other studies of the period: there have been many books on the subject incited by events since 1968. It is too late to expect that much new material can be produced. So the merit of Mr. Dangerfield’s book is mainly in the telling; the story is told with nuances and inflections enough to redeem its familiarity and to raise again certain questions of interpretation.
Few historians would think of describing Redmond as “a man who, though his principles would never be compromised, might come to accept compromise as a principle.” That’s worth pondering. Of Asquith and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, Mr. Dangerfield says that “they took a somewhat dispassionate view of the world, as if they expected the millennium, should it ever arise, to be run by people very much like themselves.” Of the conference held in July 1914 to consider the question of the northern counties, Mr. Dangerfield remarks that it got bogged down on the nature of county Tyrone: the statesmen “were endeavoring to settle by Act of Parliament what could only have been decided by Act of God, for Tyrone was so liberally pockmarked with Catholic and Protestant communities that nothing short of an earthquake or a general conversion could have drawn a boundary line.” The events of Mr. Dangerfield’s narrative are dire, but they have not undermined the vitality of his prose.
Despite the impression of continuous slaughter which American television programs ascribe to Ireland, nearly every American visitor knows that it is possible to go through the country without being inconvenienced by the men of violence. Edna O’Brien seems to have met, on a recent visit to her native soil, nothing more violent than a verbose taxi driver. True, she does not appear to have gone North, presumably because the North has not played a role in her drama. Mother Ireland lives in the South. Ms. O’Brien is a Clare girl, and the most dramatic road in her early life brought her to Dublin. Go East, she told herself; so Clare, Westmeath, the midlands, and Dublin provide her with musings in Mother Ireland as in her novel A Pagan Place.
Her themes include religion, death, sex, superstition, urine, childhood, school, De Valera, the neighbors, and marriage, because Mother Ireland is a loose, meandering, self-indulgent book of this and that rather than the travel book for which it may be mistaken. Edna O’Brien, a famous and popular novelist, goes back to Ireland for a spell, a touch of nostalgia, a bit of grousing, making a few obvious points about a Romantic Ireland dead and gone to her: the text conveys these sentiments in a prose she presumably thinks good enough for a sloppy occasion. The style is damnable, the language of the Irish Tourist Board in which, to give a few samples from Mother Ireland, women are the fair sex, plans come to fruition, people are souls, the yew tree sheds a dim religious light, girls are exultant dusk-haired beauties, cottages nestle, twenty-five is five and twenty, death is demise, dysentery is rife, deaf ears are turned, ways are wended, and drink is imbibed:
When it rained and the yard was too wet for playtime, we huddled in the porch—forty or fifty girls—like hens except that we were chattering, huddled next to the reek of turf. Turf can get into one’s head, making thoughts brown and sodden and flaky as the stuff itself…. Our coats would be on hooks, coats slung on top of one another all threatening to fall off, then pixie caps of multifarious orders, scarfs and wool gloves that had been chewed and re-chewed and were anything but pristine.
Such language attracts to itself the story of Ireland in the guise of romantic fiction. The most interesting passage of Mother Ireland tells of schooldays and the world offered to the girls in history class, a world of “arms, crests, spears,” with Owen Roe O’Neill recited as “Him they poisoned whom they feared to meet with steel,” and Sarah Curran, Wolfe Tone, Shane O’Neill, Patrick Sarsfield:
All had sacrificed themselves for the Cause, and each had failed—one went into lowly exile, the other had his head on the castle battlement, a third was executed in the Liberties and made a speech from the dock that wrung our hearts.
Ms. O’Brien assimilates these heroic acts to her lamentably hospitable prose. The mild irony which she exerts upon them does not intend to deprive them of their glamour: she, too, has an interest in romance, and a novelist’s perhaps facile awe in the presence of an achieved mythology. There is no joy in this for Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Ms. O’Brien’s text is glossed by Fergus Bourke’s photographs, charming, touching, decent, responsive to their themes, and incomplete only in one respect: not a gun or a bomb in sight.