The Making of Ireland
and Its Undoing
December 12, 1908 — Irish Club, Charing Cross Road, London, UK
I think, perhaps, I had one qualification for writing the history of Ireland so far as I have done it. That was, I had no idea of what I was going to face in it, and, therefore, I may hope I was impartial. It was not written with a preconceived idea of what it was going to be.
I have heard that anyone who attempted to spread a knowledge of Irish history was open [to] forms of criticism — one, that it was an act of folly, and the other tha[t] it was an act of malice. As to the folly of history, we might enter into long abstract discussions as to what use men could make of history, or why they should trouble about it. We need not be concerned ourselves with such disputations. For we are confronted by one big overwhelming fact. Ever since man got out of the ape stage every human community has made its history — aboriginal tribes of the tropical forests, wandering races that peopled Egypt, Greece, Rome; the later emigrants that made the United States, Canada, Africa, even town Corporations of the last century, Birmingham, Manchester, and the like — all those communities, as soon as they come to any kind of self-consciousness, express it by shaping to themselves a history. It is as if some compelling instinct forced them to drive their roots deep down into the soil where they live, lest, perchance, they might be like some tree with vast spreading branches and roots, diseased or severed, so that it became the mockery and sport of every gust of wind that swept across this troublesome world till it lay upturned and its miserable and shallow hold was revealed to all.
The people that has no history, that has ceased to hallow its allotted earth with great recollections and filial pieties, has sunk below the prerogative of man, that which distinguished him from the brute beasts, and has fallen to the plane of the unreasoning things who see with indifferent stupidity the passing generations swallowed up by silent death. Such people are themselves doomed to the rapid oblivion they have meted out to their ancestors. Let us remember, too, that in Ireland we have had a fine, a magnificent experiment in proclaiming the folly of history…
The success of obliteration in Ireland has been prodigious. It is as if the habitations of men had been ploughed and sown with salt. You may ask a bo in Cavan or on the shore of Lough Oughter who was Owen Roe O’Neill or Bishop Bedell; he will but gaze at you bewildered. In Ireland, therefore, the experiment of proclaiming the folly of history has been fully tried — and what is the result? Well, man being man, history is no sooner drien out of the door than it comes in through the window. But it is not the same history. Authentic history is gone; and what we may here call unauthorised programmes have taken its place. There are several of them in Ireland. Let us take two that represent the two races in the island. There is teh history of the Irish people; against a dim, pre-historic background there emerges the colossal figures of heroes, warriors, statesmen and prodigious conflicts, all exalted by a passionate poetry, with a thousand sites consecrated by the great deeds done there. Then come a thousand years or so of confusion, into which no one looks very closely, because that time is represented as a sort of cauldron of anarchy and ruin . . .
Then follows the time from Elizabeth to Victoria, where across the centuries pass the endless procession of ghosts of slaughtered men slain by hunger, prison, exile by the sword, the scourge, the hangman, and luminous figures in the dock proclaiming the righteousness of their cause. There is plenty of truth in this history, and it is hopelessly incomplete. For the last 300 years, so far as I know, not a single word to justify the industry, the commerce, the learning, the civil policy of Irish Ireland throughout the Middle Ages after about 1000 A.D.
What effect can such history have, moral or intellectual? Morally we are a people torn between pride and abasement; pride of their antique glories and of their later fortitude in every form of martyrdom; abasement of a high-spirited people at ehe fact that they stand before Europe with a history of defeat, ruin, and rebuke; a race without the dignity of having ever had a trust civilisation; a race condemned as incapable of development in the land they wasted, poor suppli[c]ants for the crumbs of industry falling from rich England’s table . . .
Intellectually, too, we see too well its evil consequences. What can an Irishman see in such a history but a medley of catastrophes, a whirl of chance, the triumph of successful violence? What is there in such a record to steady his mind or train his judgment? The law of chance and violence, the spirit of helpless indignation or self-distrust, and despair — this is all that so imperfect a tale can teach him. Truly there have been false prophets in the land.
Side by side with the Irish we have the Englishman’s history. he has invented for himself a story compounded of his national conceit and his Puritan conscience. He pictured an island, inhabited by inveterate savages that nothing could cure — a people of which only the human form remained to show that they are men — for the honour of England and the glory of God, and island blessed by nature had to be redeemed from these children of the devil, predestined to bring forth naughty fruits. The Englishmen in this acted the emissaries of Providence, but they showed as much humanity as was possible under the circumstances. They used, in fact, no more force than was necessary to slay half the inhabitants, and they only took all the land and all the trade.
The attempt to develop the country into a good portion for their younger sons was much impeded by the remnant of the natives, whom, therefore, a righteous God from time to time, through Englishmen’s hands, swept with the besom of destruction, and this with no more difficulty than the virtuous man must expect in this naughty world. They continued to hope that by firm government they would repress the unruly and extend civilisation. It seems wonderful to have invented a story so dull. n intelligent people might have done better. What a lost opportunity.
Suppose they had thought of an epic to math the Irish; the clash of two fine civilisations, a Titanic conflict at the meeting of worlds new and old; splendid tales of chivalry, of high honour, of victory won from gallant foes; of a heroic contest ending in the respect of brave soldiers for each other. This would seem more stirring than a record of ferocious man hunts and poison cups, and massacres at feasts and the legend of a wealthy, highly civilised, well-armed people, pursuing with their guns and their Bibles starving savages over bogs, and pounding naked beggars with their cannot. What credit is to be got out of such a tale? What writer can make a readable hash about it? Who has any curiosity to read such a tale? The intellectual effect of such a history must evidently be to stop all curiosity or inquiry. No one cares to investigate farther a history of no importance, and instead of study we have vague clamour. Hear common opinion as Tennyson puts it “Kelts are all made furious fools. . . They live in a horrible island, and have no history of their own worth the least notice. Could not anyone blow up that horrible island with dynamite and carry it off in pieces — a long way off? and so on. Here we see the paralysing effect on the intelligence of attempting to live with no better substitute for history than this barbarian legend. It is a poison bed for the growth of folly and ignorance — what wisdom of statesmanship can spring out of it? . . .
I am led to think that it will be no action of mlice when a saner and more dignified history is restored to Ireland — and when both people, the English and the Irish, are given back the self-respect, and the respect for others, which that history must teach: when the tremendous character of the conflict shall be seen, and the part played by brave men, and when chivalrous men will have no more of slanders. There will be no danger in the true history, and in men who honour one another. All danger lies in the false and mutilated fictions. Surely in the work that lies before me, and the real University for Ireland, there can be no greater obligation, and no more beneficent accomplishment, than the restoration of a true Irish history.
Source: “Mrs. J.R. Green’s book: ‘Brilliant address by the authoress’,” Freeman’s Journal, 14 December 1908.