Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
THE REVOLUTION IN IRELAND, 1906-1923. BY W. ALISON PHILLIPS. New York: Longmans, 1923.
THE DRAMA OF SINN FEIN. BY SHAW DESMOND. New York: Scribner's, 1923.
THE IRISH REVOLUTION AND HOW IT CAME ABOUT. BY WILLIAM O'BRIEN. London: Allen & Unwin, 1923.
MICHAEL COLLINS' OWN STORY. TOLD BY HAYDEN TALBOT. London: Hutchinson, 1923.
THE IRISH STATESMAN. EDITED BY GEORGE W. RUSSELL (AE.) Dublin: Vol. 1, No. 1, 15th September, 1923.
WHEN Sir Horace Plunkett remarked that Irish history was for Englishmen to remember and for Irishmen to forget, he overlooked one of the greatest obstacles to that happy consummation, to wit, the absence of any history of Ireland which one could agree to remember or to forget. Volumes on every conceivable aspect of Irish history exist in plenty, but there is not one work which enjoys the credit and confidence which have made a classic of John Richard Green's "History of the English People," of Bryce's "American Commonwealth." No historian, I imagine, ever expects to escape censure; inaccuracies and prejudices will occur in the best regulated histories, and there are always partisans and parties which protest against the presentation or analysis of given circumstances where their interests are involved. But there is an irreducible minimum of objectivity which the historians of other countries achieve to the satisfaction of the majority of their readers at home and abroad.
Not so in Ireland. From the "Annals of the Four Masters" to "Michael Collins' Own Story" every contribution to the history of Ireland is challenged on fundamental questions and on matters of fact that ought to be established beyond dispute. Even British Blue Books and White Papers, compiled in London by bureaucrats of an aloofness wholly admirable, do not evade the destiny of all documents relating to Ireland. Ulster accepted the official report on the Irish Insurrection of 1916 because its bias was naturally in favor of the loyalists. The report of the Financial Relations Commission, an equally authentic official British publication, is rejected there with scorn to this day and ignored by most teachers of history who are unsympathetic to Irish national aspirations, for the simple reason that it establishes the fact of English overtaxation in Ireland to a degree where, in the eyes of Irish patriots, it constitutes one of the most popular of England's services to Ireland. But statistics and calculations which are good enough for His Majesty's Treasury are not good enough for those who hold that the King can do no fiscal wrong.
Although I myself when young eagerly frequented expert economists and heard great argument as to whether Ireland's mineral resources and industrial possibilities were unlimited or non-existent, I sorrowfully confess that I am still unaware whether the machinations of John Bull are really responsible for our undeveloped harbors and wretched railway system. I should not like to imperil my immortal soul by swearing that there is fine Irish coal unmined because of British monopoly interests. Experts have proved that there is coal, and I have burned it in my own stove, but other experts declare that the deposits are small, and that, commercially speaking, there is nothing to justify coal-mining operations on the large scale of modern industry. It is out of such simple matters as this that the fires of controversy, if not the home fires, are kept burning in Ireland. Even the climate is not excluded from controversial imbroglios, for it is argued that de-forestation--by the invader, of course--has altered the climatic conditions of what was once a land literally flowing with milk and honey. From which it follows, I need hardly say, that if an Irish government would plant trees, gayly plumaged birds would enchant the ear and the susurration of innumerable bees would restore the ancient Gaelic practice of drinking mead--that is in southern Ireland, but not in northeast Ulster where Cuchulain came from, before the present era of prohibition. This parenthetic fact is in itself characteristic of the troubles that overtake delvers after Irish facts, for the most northerly county in Ireland geographically belongs by British law to Southern Ireland, and the portion of Ulster which is now outside the boundaries of the Free State is precisely that part in which the legendary heroes of Ireland were cradled and fought their battles, where Deirdre's adventures earned for her the title of the Irish Helen of Troy.
The four volumes which have recently been added to the vast literature of the "Irish Question" depart in no particular from their countless predecessors. That is to say, it is inconceivable that any person in search of reliable information would arise from the perusal of these tomes in the possession of it. Their alleged purpose is to trace the history of events which led to the extinction of the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, the rise of Sinn Fein, and the creation of the Irish Free State under the Treaty of 1921. Messrs. Shaw Desmond, William O'Brien, and Michael Collins write from a definitely Irish Nationalist standpoint, while Professor Alison Phillips, who is Lecky Professor of Modern History in the University of Dublin, endeavors to be unbiased, with results so extraordinary that I propose to examine his book at more length than the others. This is all the more justifiable inasmuch as Mr. Phillips is the only professional historian in the group, and one of high standing amongst his colleagues. His history, moreover, is a perfect example of the perverse conditions which I have indicated as rendering the study of Irish problems peculiarly baffling.
Mr. Hayden Talbot is an American journalist who gained the confidence of Michael Collins, and in this book he has collected and expanded material contributed to the English press. It gives an account of the Easter Insurrection, the Black and Tans, and the whole campaign against England, as seen by Collins. A great deal of space is devoted to the reasons which led Collins and Griffith to accept the treaty, from which it is evident that these two men had some sense of realities and tried to act as practical statesmen rather than heroes in a political melodrama. Very naturally there is sharp criticism of Erskine Childers and de Valera, the former being described as "the evil genius of Ireland" and the latter an "illogical, incompetent, inexperienced school-teacher."
"The Drama of Sinn Fein" is also an essentially journalistic work, though it is more elaborate than most of its kind. It tells the familiar story of the Easter Rising without adding materially to the facts, whether accepted or rejected, of that enterprise, and, as it traces the course of events to the signing of the treaty, full allowance is made for every circumstance in favor of Sinn Fein. Documentary proofs, facsimiles, and so forth, are produced, but it would be rash to pretend that they will convince any one not previously well disposed to the cause which Mr. Shaw Desmond champions. As an Irishman I confess that the very wealth of the author's documentation and "inside" knowledge induces in me a native scepticism, especially when he purports to report the conversations, thoughts and prayers of those concerned in the peace negotiations. Mr. Shaw Desmond is merely one journalist amongst many, and his authority is not greater than that of the many competent news gatherers who followed events in Ireland from 1920 to 1921. He calls the Free State the "monstrous birth of a mutilated Ireland," and his lurid style contributes to a picture of the negotiations which is just a little too close to the legends of Republican propaganda: baffled and trapped men, lured into the spider's web of Lloyd George; betrayals of old comrades in arms; corruption and despair.
As for Mr. William O'Brien's bulky volume, it continues the tale of the rise and fall of the Parliamentary Party from the point in 1910 where his "Olive Branch in Ireland" stopped. Mr. O'Brien continues also his vendettas against John Dillon and Joseph Devlin, the villains of the piece in his opinion, and he contrives, as usual, to prove that everybody was wrong who did not think as he did. For which reason his final judgment of Sinn Fein, the Free State and the Republicans, resumes itself into still another apologia pro vita sua. All parties in Ireland, apparently, have been destined to blunder to the greater glory of William O'Brien.
After reading these books one turns with interest to the work of Professor Alison Phillips who sets out, as he says, "to write history, not propaganda." At the outset, however, he declares that when he first took up his duties at Dublin University, in the autumn of 1914, he was ignorant of "the merits of the Irish Question," but was inclined to favor the Union. In the space of a year his belief in the Union had reached a point where it seemed to him that it "alone stood between Ireland and a sea of troubles." The fact that the Union now no longer exists, that the six counties of northeast Ulster are outside the Free State, and that grave disorders both preceded and followed the signing of a treaty of peace with England--are all so many painful proofs to Professor Phillips that he was right, much as he may regret to remind us of it. It is in this frame of mind, historical elation chastened by the stern horrors of everyday life during a period of terror, that the author of "The Revolution in Ireland" sets about his task, which is "to find out the truth, if possible, and tell it;" history, not propaganda. Nothing could be fairer, were it not for the disturbing thought of that conviction of his that the Union was the only remedy. Is it not perilously like the situation of a doctor who, confronted with a patient obviously suffering from the effects of cocaine, declares: "I shall make an absolutely impartial diagnosis of this case, but understand that I am a believer in cocaine, first, last, and all the time."
The introductory chapters are the logical expression of Professor Phillips' view, for they contain all the stereotyped arguments once employed by the Irish Unionist Alliance. The Irish never could govern themselves; their boasted civilization was nothing more than a collection of warring chiefs and fighting clans; if they had been converted to Protestantism in their own native language they would be as contented with English rule as the Scottish people. The Union was carried by corruption and bribery, but that was a regrettable weakness of the period; it did not cause any of the disasters commonly attributed to it, because those disasters had other contributory causes; the financial results of the Union need not be discussed, because they have been too much talked about, and, in any case, another expert Commission is going to inquire into the matter. In brief, the Union must be diagnosed on the same principle as the imaginary patient mentioned above, and so it is done, to the satisfaction of all who believe that such economic injustice and disaster as the Financial Relations Commission attributed to the amalgamation of the British and Irish Exchequers can be ignored in a consideration of the effects of the Union of Britain and Ireland in 1801.
Professor Phillips' premises, of course, exclude the equally vital factor in the case, namely, that the Union was obnoxious to the majority of the Irish people and that the entire agitation against England, the whole problem which the two countries had to face, rested precisely upon that factor. It was a factor which held, even though it could be proved beyond a doubt that material prosperity increased by leaps and bounds in Ireland from the moment the Act of Union was passed. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that this history regards every step towards an alleviation of the pressure of the yoke of Union as a step downward, and refers to the negotiations which led to the treaty and the creation of the Irish Free State as a "surrender" on the part of Britain. Although the author goes at length into the differences engendered in the ranks of Sinn Fein, although he admits that a powerful minority opposed the agreement, it never crosses his mind that the signatories on the Irish side also "surrendered," in so far as that word has any meaning in this case. In fact he actually quotes Commander-in-Chief Mulcahy's admission that it was mere heroics to pretend that the Irish army had beaten the British troops, or that they could ever hope to do so, and then proceeds to the conclusion that an agreement was negotiated because Sinn Fein had terrorized the British authorities into submission. Where Mr. Shaw Desmond insinuates that the Irish delegation was bamboozled, Professor Phillips alleges that England abjectly submitted to the worst exactions of the brutal and unscrupulous Irish. Neither of these gentlemen can entertain an idea so commonplace as that both sides welcomed an escape from the barbarism of sheer force, and by the exercise of some intelligence and reason arrived at the sort of compromise by which history is really made.
It follows that Professor Phillips necessarily abandons all pretence of impartiality which might conflict with his thesis. Facts quoted from loyalist newspapers such as The Irish Times are given as absolute truth, but all quotations from the other side are presented with a twist which weakens their effectiveness. Notes from Ireland, the official bulletin of the Irish Unionist Alliance, is not described as propaganda, but "an invaluable supply of historical material," whereas Sinn Fein and the Irish Bulletin are "propagandist publications" to be "used with great caution." By a similar process of reasoning, once the agreement was reached, the British Government is accused of betraying loyal Irishmen, of handing over the country to the Irish Republican Army and to anarchy. At the same time this I. R. A. is used as an argument in favor of the theory that the Sinn Fein representatives were powerless to maintain order. The Free State thus looms up as a species of Jekyll and Hyde. When it suits Professor Phillips, the Irish representatives with whom Britain concluded the treaty are a sinister band of scoundrels known as the I. R. A., otherwise they are a handful of timid and inexperienced men utterly incapable of coping with the I. R. A. An Irish Unionist suspected of favoring the Black and Tans and the victim of an outrage is a "loyalist" deserted by base English politicians. But an Irish Nationalist who loyally abides by the agreement with England and is victimized is not a loyalist. Minority Irishmen who resist the Free State are anarchical desperados, but the Free Staters are themselves merely ex-desperados, so no tears need be wasted on them. Ulstermen, however, who armed against the King in 1914 and who still denounce the Free State and refuse to cooperate on the Boundary Commission, are just decent, loyal citizens, trying to make the best of a gross betrayal.
In other words, to those whose mentality remains unchanged, even the obsolete political vocabulary of John Redmond's time seems adequate and serves as a substitute for thought. Professor Alison Phillips can write a history, after all that has happened, in which every argument and every political label seems like some remote survival from the days of Gladstone and the Land League. Although ex-Lord Chancellor Campbell, once Lord Carson's right hand man, sits in the Senate of the Irish Free State, although the Civil Service is largely the same, and the administration is carried on literally by those formerly denounced as tools of the oppressor, this book speaks of terrorized Unionists, of Protestants exposed defenceless to the wicked fanaticism of a Catholic Free State, and conjures up a picture which more accurately describes the position of active agents of the British régime at the worst period of the Black and Tan terror than the present amiable coöperation of Southern Nationalists and Unionists, who have injected into their relations none of the peculiar religious intolerance of northeast Ulster.
The ancient gibes recur, in the approved manner of the Carsonite campaign before the war, as when Professor Phillips writes: "The British people, who are at bottom neither cowardly nor ungenerous, will some day awake to the fact that it was the cowardly and ungenerous policy of their government, culminating in the great surrender, which has been largely responsible for the woes of Ireland, and that they cannot rid themselves of a share in this responsibility by shutting their eyes and ears. The American people, whose sense of their own exceptional righteousness is apt to lead them into blundering interference in the concerns of other nations, have also their share of responsibility. It is hardly for them to affect indifference to the misfortunes which their ill-informed clamor helped to create."
This impatience of America's "blundering interference" will sound a little curious to American ears which not so long ago were assailed by appeals that did not go unanswered, and which still are more familiar with demands that America interfere "in the concerns of other nations" than with orders to keep out. It is typical of this method of writing history that this charge is made by an historian who elsewhere records President Wilson's refusal to support Ireland's claim at the Peace Conference. Perhaps it will enable readers in this country to grasp at once the strange workings of Professor Phillips' mind when the facts clash with his preconceptions.
Fortunately, outside the fanatical ranks of the Republican Diehards there is little of this spirit abroad in Ireland today. The Irish Free State is more accurately represented by the ideals and teaching of The Irish Statesman, which Sir Horace Plunkett has revived and entrusted to the admirable editorship of George W. Russell, in whose vision of Ireland there is more than is dreamt of in the philosophy of either Mr. de Valera or Professor Alison Phillips. Here one leaves behind the ancient shibboleths of both groups of impossibilists, those who argue that the Irish are incapable of unity and self-government, and those whose affecting superstition it is that Ireland is a heaven-sent island republic of saints and scholars, whose destiny is thwarted by a treaty which confers upon it all the powers that can make for real independence and prosperity. The Irish Statesman says: "We have blundered badly, and are by no means at the end of our blunders. There is, however, a clearer recognition of the truth that it is national character which shapes social and political institutions, not institutions which shape character." The whole tone of the paper, the diversity of its contributors, and the tolerant sanity of its conception of Irish nationhood are a reflection of a changed and changing Ireland.
The one serious problem which is now imminent is that of determining the boundaries of Northern Ireland in accordance with the political and religious opinions of the inhabitants. Apart from smaller areas in the Six Counties which might go to the Free State if a plebiscite were held, the two large counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh as clearly belong to the Free State as the remaining four counties to Northern Ireland. If the principle which partitioned Ulster has any justification, it should have been extended to the point of excluding Fermanagh and Tyrone from the jurisdiction of Belfast for exactly the same reasons as Belfast claimed to be exempted from the jurisdiction of Dublin. Partition is the issue on which Republicans and Free Staters alike are agreed, in so far as they regard it as inherently objectionable, and The Irish Statesmen expresses the reasonable attitude towards this question when it hopes that persuasion and a policy of conciliation will eventually bring the little corner of Northern Ireland back into a united Ireland.
Meanwhile, after much hesitation on part of the Belfast Government, Northern Ireland has at last consented to confer with representatives of Britain and of the Free State with a view to a modification of the boundary line drawn by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which created the Six County area of Northern Ireland. The logic of the situation would involve the reduction of that area to four counties, obviously an unattractive prospect for the Northern Government. So long as obsolete political ideas are in vogue the conciliatory policy on which friends of Ireland, North and South, rely will be hampered. Belfast will have to learn, like the historians, that England has recognized the Irish Free State as an integral part of the commonwealth of British self-governing dominions, that the convenient habit of identifying President Cosgrave with his bitterest I. R. A. opponents will have to be abandoned by those whose boast is that they "think imperially." A fundamental dissociation of ideas, to use Remy de Gourmont's phrase, is required of Irish publicists and statesmen, of politicians and people, before they can properly envisage the revolutionized Ireland of today.