Irish Impressions – The Paradox Of Labour

MY first general and visual impression of the green island was that it was not green but brown ; that it was positively brown with khaki. This is one of those experiences that cannot be confused with expectations; the sort of small thing that is seen but not foreseen in the verbal visions of books and newspapers. I knew, of course, that we had a garrison in Dublin, but I had no notion that it was so obvious all over Dublin. I had no notion that it had been considered necessary to occupy the country in such force, or with so much parade of force. And the first thought that flashed through my mind found words in the single sentence: ` How useful these men would have been in the breach at St Quentin.’

For I went to Dublin towards the end of 1918, and not long after those awful days which led up to the end of the war, and seemed more like the end of the world. There hung still in the imagination, as above a void of horror, that line that was the last chain of the world’s chivalry; and the memory of the day when it seemed that our name and our greatness and our glory went down before the annihilation from the north. Ireland is hardly to blame if she has never known how noble an England was in peril in that hour; or for what beyond any empire we were troubled when, under a cloud of thick darkness, we almost felt her ancient foundations move upon the floor of the sea. But I, as an Englishman, at least knew it; and it was for England and not for Ireland that I felt this first impatience and tragic irony. I had always doubted the military policy that culminated in Irish conscription, and merely on military grounds. If any policy of the English could deserve to be called in the proverbial sense Irish, I think it was this one. It was wasting troops in Ireland because we wanted them in France. I had the same purely patriotic and even pugnacious sense of annoyance, mingling with my sense of pathos, in the sight of the devastation of the great Dublin street, which had been bombarded by the British troops during the Easter Rebellion. I was bitterly distressed that such a cannonade had ever been aimed at the Irish; but even more distressed that it had not been aimed at the Germans. The question of the necessity of the heavy attack, like the question of the necessity of the large army of occupation, is of course bound up with the history of the Easter Rebellion itself. That strange and dramatic event, which came quite as unexpectedly to Nationalist Ireland as to Unionist England, is no part of my own experiences, and I will not dogmatise on so dark a problem. But I will say, in passing, that I suspect a certain misunderstanding of its very nature to be common on both sides. Everything seems to point to the paradox that the rebels needed the less to be conquered, because they were actually aiming at being conquered, rather than at being conquerors. In the moral sense they were most certainly heroes, but I doubt if they expected to be conquering heroes. They desired to be in the Greek and literal sense martyrs; they wished not so much to win as to witness. They thought that nothing but their dead bodies could really prove that Ireland was not dead. How far this sublime and suicidal ideal was really useful in reviving national enthusiasm it is for Irishmen to judge; I should have said that the enthusiasm was there anyhow. But if any such action is based on international hopes, as they affect England or a great part of America, it seems to me founded on a fallacy about the facts. I shall have occasion to note many English errors about the Irish; and this seems to me a very notable Irish error about the English. If we are often utterly mistaken about their mentality, they were quite equally mistaken about our mistake. And curiously enough, they failed through not knowing the one compliment that we had really always paid them. Their act presupposed that Irish courage needed proof; and it never did. I have heard all the most horrible nonsense talked against Ireland before the war; and I never heard Englishmen doubt Irish military valour. What they did doubt was Irish political sanity. It will be seen at once that the Easter action could only disprove the prejudice they hadn’t got, and actually confirmed the prejudice they had got. The charge against the Irishman was not a lack of boldness, but rather an excess of it. Men were right in thinking him brave, and they could not be more right. But they were wrong in thinking him mad, and they had an excellent opportunity to be more wrong. Then, when the attempt to fight against England developed by its own logic into a refusal to fight for England, men took away the number they first thought of, and were irritated into denying what they had originally never dreamed of doubting. In any case, this was, l think, the temper in which the minority of the true Sinn Feiners sought martyrdom.

I for one will never sneer at such a motive; but it would hardly have amounted to so great a movement but for another force that happened to ally itself with them. It is for the sake of this that I have here begun with the Easter tragedy itself; for with the consideration of this we come to the paradox of Irish Labour.

Some of my remarks on the stability and even repose of a peasant society may seem exaggerated in the light of a Labour agitation that breaks out in Ireland as elsewhere. But I have particular and even personal reasons for regarding that agitation as the exception that proves the rule. It was the background of the peasant landscape that made the Dublin strike the peculiar sort of drama that it was; and this operated in two ways; first, by isolating the industrial capitalist as something exceptional and almost fanatical; and second, by reinforcing the proletariat with a vague tradition of property. My own sympathies were all with Larkin and Connolly as against the late Mr Murphy; but it is curious to note that even Mr Murphy was quite a different kind of man from the Lord Something who is the head of a commercial combine in England. He was much more like some morbid prince of the fifteenth century, full of cold anger, not with-out perverted piety. But the first few words I heard about him in Ireland were full of that vast, vague fact which I have tried to put first among my impressions. I have called it the family; but it covers many cognate things; youth and old friendships, not to mention old quarrels. It might be more fully defined as a realism about origins. The first things I heard about Murphy were facts of his forgotten youth, or a youth that would in England have been forgotten. They were tales about friends of his simpler days, with whom he had set out to push some more or less sentimental vendetta against somebody. Suppose whenever we talked of Harrod’s Stores we heard first about the boyish day-dreams of Harrod. Suppose the mention of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide brought up tales of feud and first love in the early life of Mr Bradshaw, or even of Mrs Bradshaw. That is the atmosphere, to be felt rather than described, that a stranger in Ireland feels around him. English journalism and gossip, dealing with English business men, are often precise about the present and prophetic about the future, but seldom communicative about the past; et pour cause. They will tell us where the capitalist is going to, as to the House of Lords, or to Monte Carlo, or inferentially to heaven; but they say as little as possible about where he comes from. In Ireland a man carries the family mansion about with him like a snail; and his father’s ghost follows him like his shadow. Every-thing good and bad that could be said was said, not only about Murphy but about Murphys. An anecdote of the old Irish Parliament describes an orator as gracefully alluding to the presence of an opponent’s sister in the Ladies’ Gallery, by praying that wrath over-take the whole accursed generation from the toothless old hag who is grinning in the gallery to the white-livered poltroon who is shivering on the floor.’ The story is commonly told as suggesting the rather wild disunion of Irish parties; but it is quite as important a suggestion of the union of Irish families.

As a matter of fact, the great Dublin Strike, a conflagration of which the embers were still glowing at the time of my visit, involved another episode which illustrates once again this re-current principle of the reality of the family in Ireland. Some English Socialists, it may be remembered, moved by an honourable pity for the poor families starving during the strike, made a proposal for taking the children away and feeding them properly in England. I should have thought the more natural course would have been to give money or food to the parents. But the philanthropists, being English and being Socialists, probably had a trust in what is called organisation and a distrust of what is called charity. It is supposed that charity makes a man dependent; though in fact charity makes him independent, as compared with the dreary dependence usually produced by organisation. Charity gives property, and therefore liberty. There is manifestly much more emancipation in giving a beggar a shilling to spend, than in sending an official after him to spend it for him. The Socialists, however, had placidly arranged for the deportation of all the poor children, when they found themselves, to their astonishment, confronted with the red-hot reality called the religion of Ireland. The priests and the families of the faithful organised themselves for a furious agitation, on the ground that the faith would be lost in foreign and heretical homes. They were not satisfied with the assurance, which some of the Socialists earnestly offered, that the faith would not be tampered with; and, as a matter of clear thinking, I think they were quite right. Those who offer such a reassurance have never thought about what a religion is. They entertain the extra-ordinary idea that religion is a topic. They think religion is a thing like radishes, which can be avoided throughout a particular conversation with a particular person, whom the mention of a radish may convulse with anger or agony. But a religion is simply the world a man inhabits. In practice, a Socialist living in Liverpool would not know when he was or was not tampering with the religion of a child born in Louth. If I were given the complete control of an infant Parsee (which is fortunately unlikely) I should not have the remotest notion of when I was most vitally reflecting on the Parsee system. But common sense, and a comprehension of the meaning of a coherent philosophy, would lead me to suspect that I was reflecting on it every other minute. But I mention the matter here, not in order to enter into any of these disputes, but to give yet another example of the way in which the essentially domestic organisation of Ireland will always rise in rebellion against any other organisation. There is something of a parable in the tales of the old evictions, in which the whole family was besieged and resisted together and the mothers emptied boiling kettles on the besiegers; for any official who interferes with them will certainly get into hot water. We cannot separate mothers and children in that strange land. ‘We can only return to some of our older historical methods and massacre them together.

A small incident within my own short experience, however, illustrated the main point involved here; the sense of a peasant base even of the proletarian attack. And this was exemplified not in any check to Labour, but rather in a success for Labour, in so far as the issue of a friendly and informal debate may be classed with its more solid successes. The business originally began with a sort of loose-jointed literary lecture which I gave in the Dublin Theatre, in connection with which I only mention two incidents in passing, because they both struck me as peculiarly native and national. One concerned only the title of my address, which was ` Poetry and Property.’

An educated English gentleman, who happened to speak to me before the meeting, said with the air of one who foresees that such jokes will be the death of him, ` Well, I have simply given up puzzling about what you can possibly mean, by talking about poetry as something to do with property.’ He probably regarded the combination of words as a mere alliterative fantasy, like Peacocks and Paddington, or Polygamy and Potatoes; if indeed he did not regard it as a mere combination of incompatible contrasts, like Popery and Protestants, or Patriotism and Politicians. On the same day an Irishman of similar social standing remarked quite carelessly, I’ve just seen your subject for to-morrow. I suppose the Socialists will reply to you,’ or words to that effect. The two terms told him at once, not about the lecture (which was literary if it was anything), but about the whole philosophy underlying the lecture; the whole of that philosophy which the lumbering elephant called by Mr Shaw the Chesterbelloc laboriously toils to explain in England, under the ponderous title of Distributivism. As Mr Hugh Law once said, equally truly, about our pitting of patriotism against imperialism, ` What is a paradox in England is a commonplace in Ireland.’ My actual monologue, however, dealt merely with the witness of poetry to a certain dignity in man’s sense of private possessions, which is certainly not either vulgar ostentation or vulgar greed. The French poet of the Pleiade remembers the slates on his own roof almost as if he could count them. And Mr W. B. Yeats, in the very wildest vision of a loneliness remote and irresponsible, is careful to make it clear that he knows how many bean-rows make nine. Of course there were people of all parties in the theatre, wild Sinn Feiners and conventional Unionists, but they all listened to my remarks as naturally as they might have all listened to an equally incompetent lecture on Monkeys or on the Mountains of the Moon. There was not a word of politics, least of all party politics, in that particular speech; it was concerned with a tradition in art, or at the most, in abstract ethics. But the one amusing thing which makes me recall the whole incident was this; that when I had finished a stalwart, hearty, heavy sort of legal gentleman, a well-known Irish judge I understand, was kind enough to move a vote of thanks to me. And what amused me about him was this: that while I who am a Radical, in sympathy with the revolutionary legend) had delivered a mild essay on minor poets to a placid if bored audience, the judge, who was a pillar of the Castle and a Conservative sworn to law and order, proceeded with the utmost energy and joy to raise a riot. He taunted the Sinn Feiners and dared them to come out; he trailed his coat if ever a man trailed it in this world; he glorified England; not the Allies, but England ; splendid England, sublime England (all in the broadest brogue), just, wise, and merciful England, and so on, flourishing what was not even the flag of his own country, and a thing that had not the remotest connection with the subject in hand, any more than the Great Wall of China. I need not say that the theatre was soon in a roar of protests and repartees; which I suppose was what he wanted. He was a jolly old gentleman, and I liked him. But what interested me about him was this; and it is of some importance in the understanding of his nationality. That sort of man exists in England; I know and like scores of him. Often he is a major; often a squire; sometimes a judge; very occasionally a dean. Such a man talks the most ridiculous reactionary nonsense in an apoplectic fashion over his own port wine; and occasionally in a somewhat gasping manner at an avowedly political meeting. But precisely what the English gentleman would not do, and the Irish gentleman did do, would be to make a scene on a non-political occasion; when all he had to do was to move a formal vote of thanks to a total stranger, who was talking about Ithaca and Innisfree. An English Conservative would be less likely to do it than an English Radical. The same thing that makes him conventionally political would make him conventionally non-political. He would hate to make too serious a speech on too social an occasion, as he would hate to be in morning-dress when every one else was in evening dress. And whatever coat he wore he certainly would not trail it solely in order to make a disturbance, as did that jolly Irish judge. He taught me that the Irishman is never so Irish as when he is English. He was very like some of the Sinn Feiners who shouted him down; and he would be pleased to know that he helped me to understand them with a greater sympathy.

I have wandered from the subject in speaking of this trifle, thinking it worth while to note the positive and provocative quality of all Irish opinion; but it was my purpose only to mention this small dispute as leading up to another. I had some further talk about poetry and property with Mr Yeats at the Dublin Arts Club; and here again I am tempted to irrelevant but for me interesting matters. For I am conscious throughout of saying less than I could with of a thousand things, my omission of which is not altogether thoughtless, far less thankless. There have been and will be better sketches than mine of all that attractive society, the paradox of an intelligentsia that is intelligent. I could write a great deal, not only about those I value as my own friends, like Katherine Tynan or Stephen Gwynn, but about men with whom my meeting was all too momentary; about the elvish energy conveyed by Mr James Stephens; the social greatness of Dr Gogarty, who was like a witty legend of the eighteenth century; of the unique universalism of A. E., who has something of the presence of William Morris, and a more transcendental type of the spiritual hospitality of Walt Whitman. But I am not in this rough sketch trying to tell Irishmen what they know already, but trying to tell Englishmen some of the large and simple things that they do not always know. The large matter concerned here is Labour; and I have only paused upon the other points because they were the steps which accidentally led up to my first meeting with this great force. And it was none the less a fact in support of my argument because it was something of a joke against myself.

On the occasion I have mentioned, a most exhilarating evening at the Arts Club, Mr Yeats asked me to open a debate at the Abbey Theatre, defending property on its more purely political side. My opponent was one of the ablest of the leaders of Liberty Hall, the famous stronghold of Labour politics in Dublin; Mr Johnson, an Englishman like myself, but one deservedly popular with the proletarian Irish. He made a most admirable speech, to which I mean no disparagement when I say that I think his personal popularity had even more weight than his personal eloquence. My own argument was confined to the particular value of small property as a weapon of militant democracy, and was based on the idea that the citizen resisting injustice could find no substitute for private property; for every other impersonal power, however democratic in theory, must be bureaucratic in form. I said, as a flippant figure of speech, that committing property to any officials, even guild officials, was like having to leave one’s legs in the cloak-room along with one’s stick or umbrella. The point is that a man may want his legs at any minute, to kick a man or to dance with a lady; and recovering them may be postponed by any hitch, from the loss of the ticket to the criminal flight of the official. So in a social crisis, such as a strike, a man must be ready to act without officials who may hamper or betray him; and I asked whether many more strikes would not have been successful, if each striker had owned so much as a kitchen garden to help him to live. My opponent replied that he had always been in favour of such a reserve of proletarian property, but preferred it to be communal rather than individual; which seems to me to leave my argument where it was; for what is communal must be official, unless it is to be chaotic. Two minor jokes, somewhat at my expense, remain in my memory; I appear to have caused some amusement by cutting a pencil with a very large Spanish knife, which I value (as it happens) as the gift of an Irish priest who is a friend of mine, and which may therefore also be regarded as a symbolic weapon, a sort of sword of the spirit. ‘Whether the audience thought I was about to amputate my own legs in illustration of my own metaphor, or that I was going to cut Mr Johnson’s throat in fury at finding no reply to his arguments, I do not know. The other thing which struck me as funny was an excellent retort by Mr Johnson himself, who had said something about the waste of property on guns, and who interrupted my remark that there would never be a good revolution without guns, by humorously calling out, ` Treason.’ As I told him afterwards, few scenes would be more artistic than that of an Englishman, sent over to recruit for the British army, being collared and given up to justice (or injustice) by a Pacifist from Liberty Flail. But all throughout the proceedings I was conscious, as I say, of a very real popular feeling sup porting the mere personality of my opponent; as in the ovation he received before he spoke at all, or the applause given to a number of his topical asides, allusions which I could not always understand. After the meeting a distinguished Southern Unionist, who happens to own land outside Dublin, said to me, ` Of course, Johnson has just had a huge success in his work here. Liberty Hall has just done something that has really never been done before in the whole Trade Union movement. He has really managed to start a Trade Union for agricultural labourers. I know, because I’ve had to meet their demands. You know how utterly impossible it has always been really to found a union of agricultural labourers in England.’ I did know it; and I also knew why it had been possible to found one in Ireland. It had been possible for the very reason I had been urging all the evening; that behind the Irish proletariat there had been the tradition of an Irish peasantry. In their families, if not in themselves, there had been sonic memory of the personal love of the land.

But it seemed to me an interesting irony that even my own defeat was an example of my own doctrine; and that the truth on my side was proved by the popularity of the other side. The agricultural guild was due to a wind of freedom that came. into that dark city from very distant fields; and the truth that even these rolling stones of homeless proletarianism had been so lately loosened from the very roots of the mountains.

In Ireland even the industrialism is not industrial. That is what I mean by saying that Irish Labour is the exception that proves the rule. That is why it does not contradict my former generalisation that our capitalist crisis is on the. English side of the road. The Irish agricultural labourers can become guildsmen because they would like to become peasants. They think of rich and poor in the manner that is as old as the world; the manner of Ahab and Naboth. It matters little in a peasant society whether Ahab takes the vineyard privately as Ahab or officially as King of Israel. It will matter as little in the long run, even in the other kind of society, whether Naboth has a wage to work in the vineyard, or a vote that is supposed in some way to affect the vineyard. What he desires to have is the vineyard; and not in apologetic cynicism or vulgar evasions that business is business, but in thunder, as from a secret throne, comes the awful voice out of the vineyard; the voice of this manner of man in every age and nation: The Lord forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.’