Wednesday 15 February 2017

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1917) part 33



In the particular period under review what I have been and am anxious to emphasise is that whatever may have changed in Ireland, and much has changed for the better, Irish Nationalism has not changed either in its irreconcilability or in its imperfectability, in its helplessness of initiative except in agitation; in its criminality and rebellion, and in its hopeless divisiveness, and in its internal jealousies. No sooner does one leader come to the front than he is pecked at by some more ambitious or more violent adventurer. It was so in O’Connell’s time; it was so in Butt’s leadership, and in Shaw’s leadership. It was so in Parnell’s time, and he only held undivided sway so long because he was not a Celt, and kicked his followers rather than courted them. It has been so in Mr. Redmond’s time. Parnell himself was little more than a voice in the wilderness till Michael Davitt started the Land League, with all the crime that dogged its steps, and till Mr. Parnell summoned from their horrid depths the Fenian forces in Ireland and in the United States. I can well remember the delight that filled his audience and his followers when he announced that am Irish-American had sent him a small Contribution for the famine and a large one for lead.

If he had united his followers in his life through his underground machinations and his ostentatious contempt, he divided them in his death, and the Parnellites and anti-Parnellites fought rings round each other for years. When Mr. Redmond emerged he had a hard road to hoe, and when, by one circumstance and another, became nominally the leader of what he called a united party, he was no sooner enthroned aloft in awful state than he was made a mark for attack by jealous or rival spirits of his own section. If ever there was a case of one set of fleas finding other fleas to bite them, it was this. We had Mr. Healy and Mr. Wm. O’Brien, and we have John Dillon, whose only reason for acquiescing in Mr. Redmond’s nominal supremacy is that he has been the power behind the throne. I do not attribute jealousy or rivalry to Mr. Devlin, who is content with the knowledge that power is in his hands, or to Mr. T. P. O’Connor, who, by his brilliant pen and his plausible, eloquent and “deludering” tongue, has done more to advance the Irish Nationalist cause among the simple Saxons than all the rest put together.

I indicated in my last how in the early ’eighties Parnell invaded the outworks of Ulster, but though he did not gain much headway except among those who were not of his own Protestant faith, he was powerful enough to destroy at once and forever all hope of recruiting the Ulster Liberal as well as Conservative to assist him in the work which his successor, Mr. Redmond, is engaged in — namely, breaking the last link of the connection of Ireland with Great Britain. What Liberal Protestant Ulster complained of was not only his principles, but his methods, his bitter hatred of England combined with horror at his policy and means of giving effect to it. While professing respect for law and to a certain extent for constitutionalism, he deliberately let loose the dogs of havoc over the country, and suggested if he did not incite to the boycottings and butcherings that followed. I am aware that he appeared terribly disheartened and distracted by the Phoenix Park murders, and threatened to give up the fight in consequence. But I remember afar times and after deeds, and I have read records of them as chronicled by Nationalist historians. In my last I only gave the headings of part of the murders and assassinations of the ’eighties, and these chiefly while Mr. Gladstone was in power, and, to a very large extent, conciliating and pandering to Mr. Parnell, making even his arrests and imprisonment pleasant interludes. in his life, and making Kilmainham not only the starting place of new and criminal agitations, but the fitting ground for a treaty of peace with Mr. Parnell. It goes without saying that Mr. Parnell did not long observe the terms of the Kilmainham treaty. He voted with the Tories at the next election. I am quite aware of the intermediate nibblings of Lord Carnarvon that led Parnell to think, I hope falsely, that the Tories were going to go one better than Mr. Gladstone in the matter of Home Rule.

But what I want to emphasise is the character and spirit of Mr. Parnell and the methods of agitation he advocated and pursued, and that the present Nationalist leaders of all sections claim to be inheritors of the Parnell traditions and the upholders of his aims and principles, It is this fact which gives a present interest to the past policy, and should serve as a caution and a warning not only Ulster Unionists, but to the Government. I do not suggest that Mr. Parnell did not possess the ordinary feelings or humanity, cold and steel like as was his disposition, or that he was a perfect Hun. I have no doubt he regretted the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish and possibly regretted also the death of Sir Thomas Burke, though many of his followers at the time, at any rate, seemed to think that he got his deserts. At the same time, I had, and still have, a strong impression that, at ell events, the temporary political effect of the crime upon his agitation and policy was as great a factor in his emotional indignation as humanity.

There is another feature of these days that is reproduced in the present, and which makes it impossible for us to forget. In all Parnell’s speeches and in those of his followers almost every crime — perhaps I may make an exception of the Phoenix Park murders — were either palliated, excused, or apologised for. The crimes were not blamed on the criminals who perpetrated them, but the landlords or the Government. The criminals in the main were the heroes of the hour and of the time, and many of them are still treated as heroes in the Nationalist literature. If there is ever reprobation it is mild, suggestive more of a desire to placate Protestant opinion than to promote Nationalist horror. I have in my possession a six volume well bound and well written history of Ireland, by a Roman Catholic ecclesiastic, published only a year or two ago. I was looking over it the other day to see in what light the author regarded the events of this period. I find that the horrors and atrocities of the ten years’ conflict are summarised in about twenty or thirty lines, with an apologetic or explanatory sentence at the end that for the majority of these crimes the landlords and the Government were responsible. I find also that thirty or forty pages are devoted to detailing the action of the Government and lauding the Nationalist leaders with the suggestion that the latter were all the time working to prevent crime and the Government doing their best to further it. What are termed Coercion Acts get pages of chronicle and condemnation. What ordinary men and men not of the Hun type would call crimes are disposed of in as little space as a newspaper paragraphist would give to a street accident; and a reader would be uncertain whether it was the record of a crime or the laudation of a hero that was under review. Mr. Justin M‘Carthy is not much better in his treatment o£ the period.

Those who live outside Ireland and do not know its inner life and workings, often express surprise at its discontented, unrestful, and rebellious condition, and rush to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with the Government. They never seem to ask whether there is anything wrong with the people and with their teaching, something peculiar about their racial and religious ideas that account for their disposition to groan over centuries old wrong and to gloat over British difficulties and dangers. We all know what has been done in recent years to develop the prosperity of the country, and that phenomenal prosperity has been the result. Yet the Nationalists not only show no gratitude for what has been done, but, on the contrary, growl and grumble as if nothing had been done, and try to throttle not only the Government, but the prosperity.

Though Ireland at the present time has better land laws and greater freedom than any country on earth, we hear of little from Nationalists save screeches and screams about shackles and slavery. It is not only asked to do, but it has done less than any part of his Majesty’s dominions in and for the war; and yet one would think, from the Nationalist and Radical babble, that it has done all the fighting and all the sacrificing, whereas the only sacrifice it favours is the sacrifice of Ulster Protestants and Unionists.

It is impossible to account for all this on any principle of fairness, justice, or equality. It can only be accounted for by the supposition that some malicious fairies dropped into the ears of every Irish Celt some distilment, or squeezed some juice into their eyes that affected their sight and hearing and upset their judgment. We say of the Germans that they have come to believe that everything they do is right no matter how cruel, and everything that is done to repress or thwart their virulence and violence is wrong. The Irish Celt seems to have a similar obsession — plus the love of fighting for its own sake. I think there is little doubt that the English were at first brought into the country by one faction in order to help it to overthrow another, and that ever after the erstwhile rival factions made common cause against the English. And that is the case to this day. It is possible, I will admit it is certain, that the English, at many times and under many circumstances, did not- do their ministering as wisely, prudently, or honourably as they should. But it is also possible, and highly practical, that at the earliest times, as at the present, the action of the Irish was so animated by irrational hate and irreconcilable hostility, that measures which might not commend themselves to modem ideas had to be resorted to. We know even at the present day that rebellion is regarded as a virtue and its repression as a crime, and that the heroes of the time are the promoters of the rebellion, and their enemies are the military authorities, for we cannot call it a Government that put it effectually down.

Now, my main reason in dwelling upon this phase of Nationalist life at this time is on account of the efforts that are being made to enthrone the rebels in the government of the country, and to compel the British authority and power to kiss the rod. No doubt there are some who say, “Why trouble yourself about Home Rule; it is dead? No government on earth would be so foolish or weak as to tolerate such a policy at such a time.” I am not sure of that. I am afraid that there are at the very heart of Irish government in Dublin Castle, and even in some Protestant circles in the Metropolis, men and forces at work with the object of securing the practical triumph of the rebels, if not by compulsion, at least by compromise or cajolery. I am afraid this is more serious and more determined than some of my Ulster friends believe; and I desire, for what my opinion may be worth, to offer a word of warning lest while we may be sleeping in confidence, the citadel of our hope and our safety may be entered and our liberties destroyed. I write as to wise men, and I hope they will hear and judge, what I say aright.

Discussing the situation the other day with a Scotchman who has been for some time living in the very heart of Ireland, he saad that there was a “kink” somewhere in the Irish nature that he could not understand that made it difficult to understand him. We are all familiar with the old story about the Irishman being agin the Government, no matter what it was; and so far as this country is concerned he is agin any Government that really governs. The Irishman is a bunch of contradictions; on one hand genial, jovial, kindly, and generous, and on another saturnine, morose, obstinate. He is never content when he has a grievance, and never content when he has not got one. He believes more in preaching and praying than in practising and working, and expects Providence and the Government to provide for all his necessities. He can appreciate personal kindness with any man alive, but regards Government kindness as payment of a debt rather than an expression of a feeling. He is wayward, fractious, and factious, and acts often more as a spoiled child than as a mature man. He is never happy under rule, and never more miserable than when he is left to the freedom of his own will. He is difficult to lead, and more difficult to drive. He will do little for himself, and then blames others for what he lacks in consequence. He divides his time between cursing England and begging from her. According to Lady Limerick, Prince Henry, the brother of the Kaiser, told her that the Irish were the most undisciplined people in the world, and that the only people who could rule them would be the Germans.

Some of the Irish think, or acted as if they thought, that the rule of Germany would mean not the reign of law, but the abolition of all law, which some of them seem to prefer and regard as a Paradisaic condition. We have the Irish Nationalists at the present time doing as little service as possible for the war and the Empire; and, as I have hinted above, claiming reward as if they had done all the fighting themselves. In reading some reminiscences of Lord Redesdale, an old diplomatist, the other day, I came across a reference to the Irish in the United States at the outbreak, and the rush to secure British protection. The paragraph is as follows:—
“An article from a Southern newspaper is worth quoting — ‘We can conceive nothing more disgraceful than the conduct of Irishmen, for example, who have been cursing the British Government ever since they could talk, who have emigrated from their country to escape the British yoke; but who now run to an English Consul and profess themselves subjects of Queen Victoria in order to evade their duties in the land of their adoption.’ That, of course, alludes to the South; but Lord Lyons himself on 11th May, 1863, writes no less bitterly — ‘I have been unwell for more than a month, and am beset by a quantity of small vexatious business concerning the wrongs of the British subjects who have suddenly proclaimed their unswerving loyalty to the British Crown, and demand my protection.’

It is, no doubt, difficult for any Government to deal with such people; but the worst way of dealing with them would be to give them what they ask, for then the summer of their discontent would become a veritable winter of discord and strife, of conspiracy, open and secret; of the dangerous development of that hatred and hostility to England that is taught and preached to the Irish Celts from youth to age.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 16th February 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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