|Is the Irish Nation Dying?
|by D. P Moran|
"We are a great race,"
said a priest to me the first day I arrived in
The resident native of a country is, perhaps, too familiar with everything to see anything. The foreigner is always prejudiced; everything that differs from his view is, so far, bad, for we know that each country would like to rule the destinies of the world for the greater good of the human race. I suggest that the native who has lived for years among a different people is usually the best equipped for the role of observer and critic.
I have no desire to add to the existing definitions of that which we call a nation. But if we regard countries as several collections of human energies, then one is differentiated from another by certain general characteristics affecting the manner in which these energies are put forth. A characteristic way of expressing thought, a distinct language, is usually the most prominent mark of a nation. Then there will be found a native colour in arts, industries, literature, social habits, points of view, music, amusements, and so on, throughout all phases of human activity.
It is scarcely necessary to point
out that of the things which go to the making of nation, some, such as art,
practically do not exist in
The condition of a country might
appear quite hopeless at the first glance, but if there were a real and virile
national spirit left in it it would be too soon to say that the nation was dying. That reflection brings us to the
question: Is there such a national spirit in
One can never dare to find fault
with one’s countrymen but he will instantly [be] told that there are historical
causes which explain all our defects. We are ever laying contribution on poor
history to explain away our shortcomings. Was it not Fergus O’Connor, of
Chartist fame, something of a giant in physique, who told a gaping English mob
that only for famines every Irishman would be as fine a specimen as he? And you
will meet men every day who will ask you how in the world could Ireland be
prosperous considering that England stole our woollen industry from us some
hundreds of years ago. Heaven knows we have overdone that sort of nonsense.
Those who don’t see eye to eye with the “national” politicians are held up as
the enemies of their race – a state of public feeling which is responsible, I
think, for the regrettable fact that in
Still, it were well to look at things as they are, apart from our boasting, our invincible spirit – of which we talk so much – and our ’98 processions. There are after all no penal laws now, and we are getting little bits of freedom by degrees. Of course it is true that we cannot make our laws yet. That is a fact which we never forget, and, when we are playing at excuses, it is our trump card. There is an old saying about the making of a country’s ballads, the significance of which it would appear we have never rightly appreciated. Everything is to come straight when we can make those precious laws; in the meantime it would be futile to do anything. In other words, all the national life is to be left to bleed out of us, until we come by our right to make laws from the corpse.
Throughout my visit a few
unwelcome questions would keep troubling me for an answer. Has the relief, such
as it is, come too late? Have we been crushed so thoroughly that we are unable
to rise now that the weight has been somewhat lightened? I look in vain for
that fiery hate of subjection we hear so much of from the political platforms.
The tendencies of the people, at
the present time are not altogether inspiring. The ignorant peasants are the
most interesting portion of the population. In them are yet to be seen,
undeveloped and clouded perhaps, the marks of the Gaelic race. An impassable
gulf separates them from any type to be met with in
If you go into a Kerry town in
the centre of an Irish-speaking district at the fall of the day, you will
probably meet the bank clerk in his knickers and brown boots stroking his
moustachios with one hand and petting his dog with the other. He, of course, is
above the interests of the common folk. He is not a bad looking specimen of a
man, all the same, and he is a Gael if his name is any indication. The type
will stand for thousands who are not in banks. A great world of interest and
romance surrounds him. Not a stone nor a stream in the neighbourhood but has
its history. Most of the interest is, however, inseparable from a knowledge of
the Irish language, and of course he knows nothing so common as that; even if
he did he would deny it. He might learn much about his country in the English
tongue if he cared to, but he prefers to read Tit Bits, and discover how many times one issue if stretched out
would go round the world and that sort of thing. He is a man of culture amongst
the native savages. He may know an Irish phrase which he will hurl now and
again at the head of the servant-maid and laugh consumedly at the brilliant
joke. But where are the distinctive marks of nationality about this man?
Further up the street you will probably meet a
young fellow who considers himself very clever, and who is credited, in
a vague sort of way, with being a classical scholar, and who certainly has
written letters to the newspapers. Though about thirty years of age, he has
never done anything for his living, as his father keeps him. The four or five others
along with him by no means run any risk of sinking into an early grave by
reason of the amount of work they have to do. This group are very “patriotic.”
The Irish language, it is well to remember, is spoken in their hearing every
day. However, upon the language and upon the people who speak it, they look
down with bragging contempt until they are challenged to justify their
attitude. Then their superior airs desert them, and they begin to look sheepish.
If you ask them why, as they are patriotic men and have leisure, they are not
anxious to learn something of their native tongue and their native literature,
they all have the one reply. If they said that the language was too difficult,
it might pass as a kind of excuse, even though we knew that some of them stayed
up of nights learning a little bit of French or Latin. But nothing of the kind.
The universal answer is – “Ah, sure, what use would it be to us?” The
utilitarian point of view of these young men, who during the greater part of
the day have nothing useful to do, is really exasperating. The busy man who can
get profitable work for his every waking hour, may, with some reason, refuse
work otherwise desirable, because it would be of no use to him; but when ones
hears men whose sentiments are hotly “patriotic” and whose chief business is to
kill time, talking in this way, it fills one with dismay. Has the iron gone in
so far that even the sense of the ludicrous has been driven out? Of course the
fact is, these men take no interest whatever in their country; they have ceased
to be Irish, except in name and in what they call “politics.” How they would
chaff one of their friends if he told them that he loved one girl and despised
another and showed his feelings by giving all his attention to the latter! For
it is to
I am being misunderstood if this
is considered as a wholesale denunciation of the people; rather it is a
denunciation of the false standards of Nationality that have grown up
everywhere and are quickly driving everyone into the mire. The native charm of
the Gaelic race takes a lot of killing, and good nature we have always with us.
When this much has been admitted, all that remains to be added is that the
people have “patriotic” opinions. It would be interesting to inquire into the
development of that strange idea, that a set of professed political opinions,
which may or may not be believed in, constitutes a man a patriot. Any person
Are there any causes, besides
national degeneration, for this deplorable state of affairs? We must allow at
once that an aristocracy and society, more or less alien in blood and almost
exclusively alien in feeling, is a great stumbling-block to the growth and
development of character racy of the soil. Irish fashionable society is, as we
know, a satellite of
Of course, everybody agrees to give up the well-to-do and “respectable” natives – those who send, or would like to send, their children to English schools for good-breeding and the accent – as hopeless. Further, we are constantly told that the mainstay of “nationality” is the working men in the towns; the people who preserve in some degree the traditions of the Gael are the ignorant peasants. This state of affairs points to a rather hopeless outlook. Improve the condition of the peasants and you wipe out the traditions and the language; advance the more intelligent of the working men, as a consequence of material prosperity, into a higher class, and you weaken the prop even of “nationality,” and add to the already large contingent of the vulgar-genteel. Truly, there is something rotten in the state.
It is hard to put much blame on the masses. For what are they to do? They look for light and they get none. All the guidance they receive from those who would lead them is to join this political league or that political league, and cry – “Down with the English.” When they have done that they are taught that they have performed the whole duty of Irishmen. As for the language and such trifles as that, the politicians have taught them to ask – What use are they? That material standard has been drummed into them with unwearied energy. It has one bright side. The people are now asking – What use are the politicians?
Has history ever presented such a sorry spectacle as an historic nation wiping herself out while her flags are flying and her big drums beating? Why not call ourselves British right away and have done with all this clatter and clap-trap about nothing, which we miscall nationality? It deceives no one but ourselves; and if we would only stop this self-deception for a while we might get a better perspective of things and a clearer view of what nationality means. If instead of talking pikes and blunderbusses and bragging about being a great people we learned in public, what so many have a suspicion of in private, that we are getting parlously near that time when we shan’t be a distinctive people at all, we might then mend our ways and do something masculine.