Irish Impressions – The Family And The Feud

THERE was an old joke of my childhood, to the effect that men might be grouped together with reference to their Christian names. I have forgotten the cases then under consideration; but contemporary examples would be sufficiently suggestive today. A ceremonial brotherhood-in-arms between Father Bernard Vaughan and Mr Bernard Shaw seems full of possibilities. I am faintly pleased with the fancy of Mr Arnold Bennett endeavouring to extract the larger humanities of fiction from the political differences of Mr Arnold White and Mr Arnold Lupton. I should pass my own days in the exclusive society of Professor Gilbert Murray and Sir Gilbert Parker; whom I can conceive as differing on some points from each other, and on some points from me. Now there is one odd thing to notice about this old joke; that it might have been taken in a more serious spirit, though in a saner style, in a yet older period. This fantasy of the Victorian Age might easily have been a fact of the Middle Ages. There would have been nothing abnormal in the moral atmosphere of mediaevalism in some feast or pageant celebrating the fellow-ship of men who had the same patron saint. It seems mad and meaningless now, because the meaning of Christian names has been lost. They have fallen into a kind of chaos and oblivion which is highly typical of our time. I mean that there are still fashions in them, but no longer reasons for them. For a fashion is a custom without a cause. A fashion is a custom to which men cannot get accustomed; simply because it is without a cause. That is why our industrial societies, touching every topic from the cosmos to the coat-collars, are merely swept by a succession of modes which are merely moods. They are. customs that fail to be customary. And so amid all our fashions in Christian names, we have forgotten all that was meant by the custom of Christian names. We have forgotten all the original facts about a Christian name; but, above all, the fact that it was Christian.

Now if we note this process going on in the world of London or Liverpool, we shall see that it has already gone even farther and fared even worse. The surname also is losing its root and therefore its reason. The surname has become as solitary as a nickname. For it might be argued that the first name is meant to be an individual and even isolated thing; but the last name is certainly meant, by all logic and history, to link a man with his human origins, habits, or habitation. Historically, it was a word taken from the town he lived in or the trade guild to which he belonged; legally it is still the word on which all questions of legitimacy, succession, and testamentary arrangements turn. It is meant to be the corporate name; in that sense it is meant to be the impersonal name, as the other is meant to be the personal name. Yet in the modern mode of industrialism, it is more and more taken in a manner at once lonely and light. Any corporate social system built upon it would seem as much of a joke as the joke about Christian names with which I began. If it would seem odd to require a Thomas to make friends with any other Thomas, it would appear almost as perplexing to insist that any Thompson must love any other Thompson. It may be that Sir Edward Henry, late of the Police Force, does not wish to be confined to the society of Mr Edward Todd. But would Sir Edward Henry necessarily seek the society of Mr O. Henry, entertaining as that society would be ? Sir John Barker, founder of the great Kensington emporium, need not specially seek out and embrace Mr John Masefield; but need he, any more swiftly, precipitate him-self into the arms of Mr Granville Barker ? This vista of varieties would lead us far; but it is enough to notice, nonsense apart, that the most ordinary English surnames have become unique in their social significance; they stand for the man rather than the race or the origins. Even when they are most common they are not communal. What we call the family name is not now primarily the name of the family. The family itself, as a corporate conception, has already faded into the background, and is in danger of fading from the background. In short, our Christian names are not the only Christian things that we may lose.

Now the second solid fact which struck me in Ireland (after the success of small property and the failure of large organisation) was the fact that the family was in a flatly contrary position. All I have said above, in current language, about the whole trend of the modern world, is directly opposite to the whole trend of the modern Irish world. Not only is the Christian name a Christian name; but (what seems still more paradoxical and even panto-mimic) the family name is really a family name. Touching the first of the two, it would be easy to trace out some very interesting truths about it, if they did not divert us from the main truth of this chapter; the second great truth about Ireland. People contrasting the ` education ‘ of the two countries, or seeking to extend to the one the thing which is called education in the other, might indeed do worse than study the simple problem of the meaning of Christian names. It might dawn at last, even on educationists, that there is a value in the content as well as the extent of culture; or (in other words), that knowing nine hundred words is not always more important than knowing what some of them mean. It is strictly and soberly true that any peasant, in a mud cabin in County Clare, when he names his child Michael, may really have a sense of the presence that smote down Satan, the arms and plumage of the paladin of paradise. I doubt whether it is so overwhelmingly probable that any clerk in any villa on Clapham Common, when he names his son John, has a vision of the holy eagle of the Apocalypse, or even of the mystical cup of the disciple whom Jesus loved. In the face of that simple fact, I have no doubt about which is the more educated man ; and even a knowledge of the Daily Mail does not redress the balance. It is often said, and possibly truly, that the peasant named Michael cannot write his own name. But it is quite equally true that the clerk named John cannot read his own name. He cannot read it because it is in a foreign language, and he has never been made to realise what it stands for. He does not know that John means John, as the other man does know that Michael means Michael. In that rigidly realistic sense, the pupil of industrial intellectualism does not even know his own name.

But this is a parenthesis; because the point here is that the man in the street (as distinct from the man in the field) has been separated not only from his private but from his more public description. He has not only forgotten his name, but forgotten his address. In my own view, he is like one of those unfortunate people who wake up with their minds a blank, and therefore cannot find their way home. But whether or no we take this view of the state of things in an industrial society like the English, we must realise firmly that a totally opposite state of things exists in an agricultural society like the Irish. We may put it, if we like, in the form of an unfamiliar and even unfriendly fancy. We may say that the house is greater than the man; that the house is an amiable ogre that runs after and recaptures the man. But the fact is there, familiar or unfamiliar, friendly or unfriendly; and the fact is the family, The family pride is prodigious, though it generally goes along with glowing masses of individual humility. And this family sentiment does attach itself to the family name; so that the very language in which men think is made up of family names. In this the atmosphere is singularly unlike that of England though much more like that of Scotland. Indeed, it will illustrate the impartial recognition of this, apart from any partisan deductions, that it is equally apparent in the place where Ireland and Scotland are supposed to meet. It is equally apparent in Ulster, and even in the Protestant corner of Ulster.

In all the Ulster propaganda I came across, I think the thing that struck me most sharply was one phrase in one Unionist leading article. It was something that might fairly be called Scottish; something which was really even more Irish; but something which could not in the wildest mood be called English, and there-fore could not with any rational meaning be called Unionist. Yet it was part of a passionately sincere, and indeed truly human and historic outburst of the politics of the north-east corner, against the politics of the rest of Ireland. Most of us remember that Sir Edward Carson put into the Government a legal friend of his named Campbell; it was at the beginning of the war, and few of us thought anything of the matter except that it was stupid to give posts to Carsonites at the most delicate crisis of the cause in Ireland. Since then, as we also know, the same Campbell has shown himself a sensible man, which I should translate as a practical Home Ruler; but which is any-how something more than what is generally meant by a Carsonite. I entertain, myself, a profound suspicion that Carson also would very much like to be something more than a Carsonite. But however this may be, his legal friend of whom I speak made an excellent speech, containing some concession to Irish popular sentiment. As might have been expected, there were furious denunciations of him in the press of the Orange party; but not more furious than might have been found in the Morning Post or any Tory paper. Nevertheless, there was one phrase that I certainly never saw in the Morning Post or the Saturday Review; one phrase I should never expect to see in any English paper, though I might very probably see it in a Scotch paper. It was this sentence, that was read to me from the leading article of a paper in Belfast: ` There never was treason yet but a Campbell was at the bottom of it.’ I give the extract as it was given to me; I am quite conscious of a curious historical paradox about it. A curse against Campbells would seem to be a Jacobite rather than a Williamite tradition. It may suggest interesting complications of Scottish feuds in Ireland; but it serves as one of a thousand cases of this fact about the family.

Let anybody imagine an Englishman saving, about some business quarrel, ` How like an Atkins! ‘ or ‘ What could you expect of a Wilkinson ? ‘ A moment’s reflection will show that it would be even more impossible touching public men in public quarrels. No English Liberal ever connected the earlier exploits of the present Lord Birkenhead with atavistic influences, or the totem of the wide and wandering tribe of Smith. No English patriot traced back the family tree of any English pacifist; or said there was never treason yet but a Pringle was at the bottom of it. It is the indefinite article that is here the definite distinction. It is the expression ` a Campbell ‘ which suddenly transforms the scene, and covers the robes of one lawyer with the ten thousand tartans of a whole clan. Now that phrase is the phrase that meets the traveller everywhere in Ireland. Perhaps the next most arresting thing I remember, after the agrarian revolution, was the way in which one poor Irishman happened to speak to me about Sir Roger Casement. He did not praise him as a deliverer of Ireland; he did not abuse him as a disgrace to Ireland; he did not say anything of the twenty things one might expect him to say. He merely referred to the rumour that Casement meant to become a Catholic just before his execution, and expressed a sort of distant interest in it. He added: ` He’s always been a Black Protestant. All the Casements are Black Protestants.’ I confess that, at that moment of that morbid story, there seemed to me to be something unearthly about the very idea of there being other Casements. If ever a man seemed solitary, if ever a man seemed unique to the point of being unnatural, it was that man on the two or three occasions when I have seen his sombre handsome face and his wild eye; a tall, dark figure walking already in the shadow of a dreadful doom. I do not know if he was a Black Protestant; but he was a black something, in the sad if not the bad sense of the symbol. I fancy, in truth, he stood rather for the third of Browning’s famous triad of rhyming monosyllables. A distinguished Nationalist Member, who happened to have had a medical training, said to me, ` I was quite certain, when I first clapped eyes on him, the man was mad.’ Anyhow the man was so unusual, that it would never have occurred to me or any of my countrymen to talk as if there were a class or clan of such men. I could almost have imagined he had been born with-out father or mother. But for the Irish, his father and mother were really more important than he was. There is said to be a historical mystery about whether Parnell made a pun when he said that the name of Kettle was a household word in Ireland. Few symbols could now be more contrary than the name of Kettle and the name of Casement (save for the courage they had in common) ; for the younger Kettle, who died so gloriously in France, was a Nationalist as broad as the other was cramped, and as sane as the other was crazy. But if the fancy of a punster, following his own delightful vein of nonsense, should see something quaint in the image of a hundred such Kettles singing as he sang by a hundred hearths, a more bitter jester, reading that black and obscure story of the capture on the coast, might utter a similar flippancy about other Casements, opening on the foam of such very perilous seas, in a land so truly forlorn. But even if we were not annoyed at the pun, we should be surprised at the plural. And our surprise would be the measure of the deepest difference between England and Ireland. To express it in the same idle imagery, it would be the fact that even a casement is a part of a house, as a kettle is a part of a house-hold. Every word in Irish is a household word.

The English would no more have thought of a plural for the word Gladstone than for the word God. They would never have imagined Disraeli compassed about with a great cloud of Disraelis ; it would have seemed to them altogether too apocalyptic an exaggeration of being on the side of the angels. To this day in England, as I have reason to know, it is regarded as a rabid and insane form of religious persecution to suggest that a Jew very probably comes of a Jewish family. In short, the modern English, while their rulers are willing to give due consideration to Eugenics as a reasonable opportunity for various forms of polygamy and infanticide, are drifting farther and farther from the only consideration of Eugenics that could possibly be fit for Christian men, the consideration of it as an accomplished fact. I have spoken of infanticide; but indeed the ethic involved is rather that of parricide and matricide. To my own taste, the present tendency of social reform would seem to consist of destroying all traces of the parents, in order to study the heredity of the children. But I do not here ask the reader to accept my own tastes or even opinions about these things; I only bear witness to an objective fact about a foreign country. It can be summed up by saying that Parnell is the Parnell for the English; but a Parnell for the Irish.

This is what I mean when I say that English Home Rulers do not know what the Irish mean by home. And this is also what I mean when I say that the society does not fit into any of our social classifications, liberal or conservative. To many Radicals this sense of lineage will appear rank reactionary aristocracy. And it is aristocratic, if we mean by this a pride of pedigree; but it is not aristocratic in the practical and political sense. Strange as it may sound, its practical effect is democratic. It is not aristocratic in the sense of creating an aristocracy. On the contrary, it is perhaps the one force that permanently prevents the creation of an aristocracy, in the manner of the English squirearchy. The reason of this apparent paradox can be put plainly enough in one sentence. If you are really concerned about your relations, you have to be concerned about your poor relations. You soon discover that a considerable number of your second cousins exhibit a strong social tendency to be chimney-sweeps and tinkers. You soon learn the lesson of human equality, if you try honestly and consistently to learn any other lesson, even the lesson of heraldry and genealogy. For good or evil, a real working aristocracy has to forget about three-quarters of its aristocrats. It has to discard the poor who have the genteel blood, and welcome the rich who can live the genteel life. If a man is interesting because he is a McCarthy, it is so far as he is interesting because he is a man; that is, he is interesting whether he is a duke or a dustman. But if he is interesting because he is Lord FitzArthur and lives at FitzArthur I-louse, then he is interesting when he has merely bought the house, or when he has merely bought the title. To maintain a squirearchy it is necessary to admire the new squire, and therefore to forget the old squire. The sense of family is like a dog and follows the family; the sense of aristocracy is like a cat and continues to haunt the house. I am not arguing against aristocracy, if the English choose to preserve it in England; I am only making clear the terms on which they hold it, and warning them that a people with a strong family sense will not hold it on any terms. Aristocracy, as it has flourished in England since the Reformation, with not a little national glory and commercial success, is in its very nature built up of broken and desecrated homes. It has to destroy a hundred poor relations to keep up a family. It has to destroy a hundred families to keep up a class.

But if this family spirit is incompatible with what we mean by aristocracy, it is quite as incompatible with three-quarters of what many men praise and preach as democracy. The whole trend of what has been regarded as Liberal legislation in England, necessary or unnecessary, defensible and indefensible, has for good or evil been at the expense of the independence of the family, especially of the poor family.

From the first most reasonable restraints of the Factory Acts to the last most maniacal antics of interference with other people’s nursery games or Christmas dinners, the whole process has turned sometimes on the pivot of the State, more often on the pivot of the employer, but never on the pivot of the home. All this may he an emancipation; I only point out that Ireland really asked for Home Rule chiefly to be emancipated from this emancipation. But indeed the English politicians, to do them justice, show their consciousness of this by the increasing number of cases in which the other nation is exempted. We may have harried this unhappy people with our persecutions; but at least we spare them our reforms. We have smitten them with plagues; but at least we dare not scourge them with our remedies. The real case against the Union is not merely a case against the Unionists; it is a far stronger case against the Universalists. It is this strange and ironic truth; that a man stands up holding a charter of charity and peace for all mankind; that he lays down a law of enlightened justice for all the nations of the earth ; that he claims to behold man from the beginnings of his evolution equal, without any difference between the most distant creeds and colours; that he stands as the orator of the human race, whose statute only declares all humanity to be human; and then slightly drops his voice and says, ` This Act shall not apply to Ireland.’