Map of Ireland

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


THE IRISH QUESTION IN IRELAND.


Whilst attributing the long continued failure of English rule in Ireland largely to a misunderstanding of the Irish mind, I have given England--at least modern England--credit for good intentions towards us. I now come to the case of the misunderstood, and shall from henceforth be concerned with the immeasurably greater responsibility of the Irish people themselves for their own welfare. The most characteristic, and by far the most hopeful feature of the change in the Anglo-Irish situation which took place in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and upon the meaning of which I dwelt in the preceding chapter, is the growing sense amongst us that the English misunderstanding of Ireland is of far less importance, and perhaps less inexcusable, than our own misunderstanding of ourselves.

When I first came into practical touch with the extraordinarily complex problems of Irish life, nothing impressed me so much as the universal belief among my countrymen that Providence had endowed them with capacities of a high order, and their country with resources of unbounded richness, but that both the capacities and the resources remained undeveloped owing to the stupidity--or worse--of British rule. It was asserted, and generally taken for granted, that the exiles of Erin sprang to the front in every walk of life throughout the world, in every country but their own--though I notice that in quite recent times endeavours have been made to cool the emigration fever by painting the fortunes of the Irish in America in the darkest colours. To suggest that there was any use in trying at home to make the best of things as they were was indicative of a leaning towards British rule; and to attempt to give practical effect to such a heresy was to draw a red herring across the path of true Nationalism.

It is not easy to account for the long continuance of this attitude of the Irish mind towards Irish problems, which seems unworthy of the native intelligence of the people. The truth probably is that while we have not allowed our intellectual gifts to decay, they have been of little use to us because we have neglected the second part of the old Scholastic rule of life, and have failed to develop the moral qualities in which we are deficient. Hence we have developed our critical faculties, not, unhappily, along constructive lines. We have been throughout alive to the muddling of our affairs by the English, and have accurately gauged the incapacity of our governors to appreciate our needs and possibilities. But we recognised their incapacity more readily than our own deficiencies, and we estimated the failure of the English far more justly than we apportioned the responsibility between our rulers and ourselves. The sense of the duty and dignity of labour has been lost in the contemplation of circumstances over which it was assumed that we have no control.

It is a peculiarity of destructive criticism that, unlike charity, it generally begins and ends abroad; and those who cultivate the gentle art are seldom given to morbid introspection. Our prodigious ignorance about ourselves has not been blissful. Mistaking self-assertion for self-knowledge, we have presented the pathetic spectacle of a people casting the blame for their shortcomings on another people, yet bearing the consequences themselves. The national habit of living in the past seems to give us a present without achievement, a future without hope. The conclusion was long ago forced upon me that whatever may have been true of the past, the chief responsibility for the remoulding of our national life rests now with ourselves, and that in the last analysis the problem of Irish ineffectiveness at home is in the main a problem of character--and of Irish character.

I am quite aware that such a diagnosis of our mind disease--from which Ireland is, in my belief, slowly but surely recovering--will not pass unchallenged, but I would ask any reader who dissents from this view to take a glance at the picture of our national life as it might unfold itself to an unprejudiced but sympathetic outsider who came to Ireland not on a political tour but with a sincere desire to get at the truth of the Irish Question, and to inquire into the conditions about which all the controversy continues to rage.

This hypothetical traveller would discover that our resources are but half developed, and yet hundreds of thousands of our workers have gone, and are still going, to produce wealth where it is less urgently needed. The remnant of the race who still cling to the old country are not only numerically weak, but in many other ways they show the physical and moral effects of the drain which emigration has made on the youth, strength, and energy of the community. Our four and a quarter millions of people, mainly agricultural, have, speaking generally, a very low standard of comfort, which they like to attribute to some five or six millions sterling paid as agricultural rent, and three millions of alleged over-taxation. They face the situation bravely--and, incidentally, swell the over-taxation--with the help of the thirteen or fourteen millions worth of alcoholic stimulants which they annually consume. The still larger consumption in Great Britain may seem to lend at least a respectability to this apparent over-indulgence, but it looks odd. The people are endowed with intellectual capacities of a high order. They have literary gifts and an artistic sense. Yet, with a few brilliant exceptions, they contribute nothing to invention and create nothing in literature or in art. One would say that there must be something wrong with the education of the country; and most people declare that it is too literary, though the Census returns show that there are still large numbers who escape the tyranny of books. The people have an extraordinary belief in political remedies for economic ills; and their political leaders, who are not as a rule themselves actively engaged in business life, tell the people, pointing to ruined mills and unused water power, that the country once had diversified industries, and that if they were allowed to apply their panacea, Ireland would quickly rebuild her industrial life. If our hypothetical traveller were to ask whether there are no other leaders in the country besides the eloquent gentlemen who proclaim her helplessness, he would be told that among the professional classes, the landlords, and the captains of industry, are to be found as competent popular advisers as are possessed by any other country of similar economic standing. But these men take only a dilettante part in politics, and no value is set on industrial, commercial or professional success in the choice of public men. Can it be that to the Irish mind politics are, what Bulwer Lytton declared love to be, "the business of the idle, and the idleness of the busy"?

These, though only a few of the strange ironies of Irish life, are so paradoxical and so anomalous that they are not unnaturally attributed to the intrusion of an alien and unfriendly power; and this furnishes the reason why everything which goes wrong is used to nourish the anti-English sentiment. At the same time they give emphasis to the growing doubt as to the wisdom of those to whom the Irish Question presents itself only as a single and simple issue--namely, whether the laws which are to put all these things right shall be made at St. Stephen's by the collective wisdom of the United Kingdom, aided by the voice of Ireland--which is adequately represented--or whether these laws shall be made by Irishmen alone in a Parliament in College Green.

It is obviously necessary that, in presenting a comprehensive scheme for dealing with the conditions I have roughly indicated. I should make some reference to the attitude towards Home Rule of both the Nationalists and the Unionists who have joined in work which, whatever be its irregularity from the standpoint of party discipline as enforced in Ireland, has succeeded in some degree in directing the energies of our countrymen to the development of the resources of our country. Many of my fellow-workers were Nationalists who, while stoutly adhering to the prime necessity for constitutional changes, took the broad view, which was unpopular among the Irish Party, that much could be done, even under present conditions, to build up our national life on its social, intellectual, and economic sides. The well-known constitutional changes which were advocated in the political party to which they belonged would then, they believed, be more effectively demanded by Ireland, and more readily conceded by England. Unionists who worked with me were similarly affected by the changing mental outlook of the country. They, too, had to break loose from the traditions of an Irish party, for they felt that the exclusively political opposition to Home Rule was not less demoralising than the exclusively political pursuit of Home Rule. Just as the Nationalists who joined the movement believed that all progress must make for self-government, so my Unionist fellow-workers believed it would ultimately strengthen the Union. Each view was thoroughly sound from the standpoint of those who held it, and could be regarded with respect by those who did not. We were all convinced that the way to achieve what is best for Ireland was to develop what is best in Irishmen. And it was the conviction that this can be done by Irishmen in Ireland that brought together those whose thought and work supplies whatever there may be of interest in this book.

If I have fairly stated the attitude towards each other of the workers to whose coming together must be attributed as much of the change in the Irish situation as is due to Irish initiation, it will be seen that what had so long kept them apart in public affairs, outside politics, was a difference of opinion, not so much as to the conditions to be dealt with, nor, indeed, as to the end to be sought, but rather as to the means most effective for the attainment of that end. I naturally regard the view which I am putting forward as being broader than that which has hitherto prevailed. Some Nationalists may, however, contend that it is essential to progress that the thoughts and energies of the nation should be focussed upon a single movement, and not dissipated in the pursuit of a multiplicity of ideals. I quite admit the importance of concentration. But I strongly hold that any movement which is closely related to the main currents of the people's life and subservient to their urgent economic necessities, and which gives free play to the intellectual qualities, while strengthening the moral or industrial character, cannot be held to conflict with any national programme of work, without raising a strong presumption that there is something wrong with the programme. The exclusively political remedy I shall discuss in the next chapter, but here I propose to consider some of the problems which the new movement seeks to solve without waiting for the political millenium.

It is a commonplace that there are two Irelands, differing in race, in creed, in political aspiration, and in what I regard as a more potent factor than all the others put together--economic interest and industrial pursuit. In the mutual misunderstanding of these two Irelands, still more than in the misunderstanding of Ireland by England, is to be found the chief cause of the still unsettled state of the Irish Question. I shall not seek to apportion the blame between the two sections of the population; but as the mists clear away and we can begin to construct a united and contented Ireland, it is not only legitimate, but helpful in the extreme, to assign to the two sections of our wealth-producers their respective parts in repairing the fortunes of their country. In such a discussion of future developments chief prominence must necessarily be given to the problems affecting the life of the majority of the people, who depend directly on the land, and conduct the industry which produces by far the greater portion of the wealth of the country. It is, of course, essential to the prosperity of the whole community that the North should pursue and further develop its own industrial and commercial life. That section of the community has also, no doubt, economic and educational problems to face, but these are much the same problems as those of industrial communities in other parts of the United Kingdom[4]; and if they do not receive, vitally important as is their solution to the welfare of Ireland, any large share of attention in this book, it is because they are no part of what is ordinarily understood by the Irish Question.

Nevertheless, the interest of the manufacturing population of Ulster in the welfare of the Roman Catholic agricultural majority is not merely that of an onlooker, nor even that of the other parts of the United Kingdom, but something more. It is obvious that the internal trade of the country depends mainly upon the demand of the rural population for the output of the manufacturing towns, and that this demand must depend on the volume of agricultural production. I think the importance of developing the home market has not been sufficiently appreciated, even by Belfast. The best contribution the Ulster Protestant population can make to the solution of this question is to do what they can to bring about cordial co-operation between the two great sections of the wealth-producers of Ireland. They should, I would suggest, learn to take a broader and more patriotic view of the problems of the Roman Catholic and agricultural majority, upon the true nature of which I hope to be able to throw some new light. My purpose will be doubly served if I have, to some extent, brought home to the minds of my Northern friends that there is in Ireland an unsettled question in which they are largely concerned, a rightly unsatisfied people by helping whom they can best help themselves.

The Irish Question is, then, in that aspect which must be to Irishmen of paramount importance, the problem of a national existence, chiefly an agricultural existence, in Ireland. To outside observers it is the question of rural life, a question which is assuming a social and economic importance and interest of the most intense character, not only for Ireland North and South, but for almost the whole civilised world. It is becoming increasingly difficult in many parts of the world to keep the people on the land, owing to the enormously improved industrial opportunities and enhanced social and intellectual advantages of urban life. The problem can be better examined in Ireland than elsewhere, for with us it can, to a large extent, be isolated, since we have little highly developed town life. Our rural exodus takes our people, for the most part, not into Irish or even into British towns, but into those of the United States. What is migration in other countries is emigration with us, and the mind of the country, brooding over the dreary statistics of this perennial drain, naturally and longingly turns to schemes for the rehabilitation of rural life--the only life it knows.

We cannot exercise much direct influence upon the desire to emigrate beyond spreading knowledge as to the real conditions of life in America, for which home life in Ireland is often ignorantly bartered.[5] We cannot isolate the phenomenon of emigration and find a cure for it apart from the rest of the Irish Question. We must recognise that emigration is but the chief symptom of a low national vitality, and that the first result of our efforts to stay the tide may increase the outflow. We cannot fit the people to stay without fitting them to go. Before we can keep the people at home we have got to construct a national life with, in the first place, a secure basis of physical comfort and decency. This life must have a character, a dignity, an outlook of its own. A comfortable Boeotia will never develop into a real Hibernia Pacata. The standard of living may in some ways be lower than the English standard: in some ways it may be higher. But even if statesmanship and all the forces of philanthropy and patriotism combined can construct a contented rural Ireland for the people, it can only be maintained by the people. It will have to accord with the national sentiment and be distinctively Irish. It is this national aspiration, and the remarkable promise of the movements making for its fruition, which give to the work of Irish social and economic reform the fascination which those who do not know the Ireland of to-day cannot understand. This work of reform must, of course, be primarily economic, but economic remedies cannot be applied to Irish ills without the spiritual aids which are required to move to action the latent forces of Irish reason and emotion.

* * * * *


The task which we have to face is, then, a two-sided one, but its economic and its purely practical aspects first demand consideration. Many even of the agrarian aspects of the question have, so far, been somewhat neglected in Ireland owing to a cause which is not far to seek. It has often been asserted that the Irish Question is, at bottom, the Land Question. There is a great deal of truth in this view, but almost all those who hold it have fallen into the grave error of tacitly identifying the land question with the tenure question--an error which vitiates a great deal of current theorising about Ireland. It was, indeed, inevitable that Irish agriculturists, with such an economic history behind them as I have outlined in the previous chapter, should have concentrated their attention during the latter half of the nineteenth century upon obtaining a legislative cure for the ills produced by legislation, to the comparative neglect of those equally difficult, if less obvious economic questions, which have been brought into special prominence by the agricultural depression of the last quarter of a century. Now, however, that the Land Act of 1903 has been passed and the solution of the tenure question is in sight, we in Ireland are more free to direct our attention to what is at present the most important aspect of the agrarian situation--the necessity for determining the social and economic conditions essential to the well-being of the peasant proprietary, which, though it is to be started with as bright an outlook as the law can give, must stand or fall by its own inherent merits or defects. Not only are we now free to give adequate consideration to this question, but it is also imperative that we should do so, for whilst I am hopeful that the Land Act will settle the question of tenure, it will obviously not merely leave the other problems of agricultural existence--problems some of which are not unknown in other parts of the United Kingdom--still unsolved, but will also increase the necessity for their solution, and will, moreover, bring in its train complex difficulties of its own.

The main features of the depressing outlook of rural life in the United Kingdom are well known. The land steadily passes from under the plough and is given over to stock raising. As the kine increase the men decay. In Ireland the rural exodus takes, as I have already said, the shape, mainly, not of migration to Irish urban centres, but rather the uglier form of an emigration which not only depletes our population but drains it of the very elements which can least be spared.

The reason generally given for the widespread resort to the lotus-eating occupation of opening and shutting gates, in preference to tilling the soil, is that in the existing state of agricultural organisation, and while urban life is ever drawing away labour from the fields, the substitution of pasturage for tillage is the readiest way to meet the ruinous competition of Eastern Europe, the Western Hemisphere, and Australasia. Yet upon the economic merits of this process I have heard the most diverse opinions stated with equal conviction by men thoroughly well informed as to the conditions. One of the largest graziers in Ireland recently gave me a picture of what he considered to be an ideal economic state for the country. If two more Belfasts could be established on the east coast, and the rest of the country divided into five hundred acre farms, grazing being adopted wherever permanent grass would grow, the limits of Irish productivity would be reached. On the other hand, Dr. O'Donnell, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Raphoe, who may be taken as an authoritative exponent of the trend of popular thought in the country, not long ago advocated ploughing the grazing lands of Leinster right up to the slopes of Tara.[6] Moreover, many theories have been advanced to show that the decline of tillage, whatever be its cause, involves an enormous waste of national resources. But of practical suggestion, making for a remedy, there is very little forthcoming.

The solution of all such problems largely depends upon certain developments which, for many reasons, I regard as absolutely essential to the success of the new agrarian order. One of these developments is the spread of agricultural co-operation through voluntary associations. Without this agency of social and economic progress, small landholders in Ireland will be but a body of isolated units, having all the drawbacks of individualism, and none of its virtues, unorganised and singularly ill-equipped for that great international struggle of our time, which we know as agricultural competition. Moreover, there is another equally important, if less obvious, consideration which renders urgent the organisation of our rural communities. From Russia, with its half-communistic Mir to France with its modern village commune, there is no country in Europe except the United Kingdom where the peasant land-holders have not some form of corporate existence. In Ireland the transition from landlordism to a peasant proprietary not only does not create any corporate existence among the occupying peasantry but rather deprives them of the slight social coherence which they formerly possessed as tenants of the same landlord. The estate office has its uses as well as its disadvantages, and the landlord or agent is by no means without his value as a business adviser to those from whom he collects the rent.

The organisation of the peasantry by an extension of voluntary associations, which is a condition precedent of social and economic progress, will not, however, suffice to enable them to face and solve the problems with which they are confronted, and whose solution has now become a matter of very serious concern to the British taxpayer. The condition of our agrarian life clearly indicates the necessity for supplementing voluntary effort with a sound system of State aid to agriculture and industry--a necessity fully recognised by the governments of every progressive continental country and of our own colonies. An altogether hopeful beginning of combined self-help and State assistance has been already made. Those who have been studying these problems, and practically preparing the way for the proper care of a peasant proprietary, have overcome the chief obstacles which lay in their path. They have gained popular acceptance for the principle that State aid should not be resorted to until organised voluntary effort has first been set in motion, and that any departure from this principle would be an unwarrantable interference with the business of the people, a fatal blow to private enterprise.[7]

The task before the people, and before the State, of placing the new agrarian order upon a permanent basis of decency and comfort is no light one. Indeed, I doubt whether Parliament realises one-tenth of the problems which the latest land legislation--by far the best we have yet had--leaves unsolved. This becomes only too clear the moment we consider seriously the fundamental question of the relation of population to area in rural Ireland, or, in other words, when we inquire how many people the agricultural land will support under existing circumstances, or under any attainable improvement of the conditions in our rural life. Roughly speaking, the surface area of the island is 20,000,000 acres, of which 5,000,000 are described in the official returns as 'barren mountain, bog and waste.' This leaves us with some 15,000,000 acres available for agriculture and grazing, which area is now divided into some 500,000 holdings. Thus we have an average of thirty acres in extent for the Irish agricultural holding. But, unhappily, the returns show that some 200,000 of these holdings are from one to fifteen acres in extent. Nor do the mere figures show the case at its worst. For it happens that the small holdings in Ireland, unlike those on the Continent, are generally on the poorest land, and the majority of them cannot come within any of the definitions of an 'economic holding.'

These 200,000 holdings, the homes of nearly a million persons, threaten to prove the greatest danger to the future of agricultural Ireland. As the majority of them, as at present constituted, do not provide the physical basis of a decent standard of living, the question arises, how are they to be improved? Putting aside emigration, which at one period was necessary and ought to have been aided and controlled by the State, but which is now no longer a statesman's remedy, there is obviously no solution except by the migration of a portion of the occupiers, and the utilisation of the vacated holdings in order to enable the peasants who remain to prosper--much as a forest is thinned to promote the growth of trees. In typical congested districts this operation will have to be carried out on a much larger scale than is generally realised, for a considerable majority of families will have to be removed, in order to allow a sufficient margin for the provision of adequate holdings for those who remain. In some cases, there are large grazing tracts in close proximity to the congested area which might be utilised for the re-settlement, but where this is not so and the occupiers of the vacated holdings have to migrate a considerable distance, the problem becomes far more difficult. I need not dwell upon the administrative difficulties of the operation, which are not light. I may assume, also, that there will be no difficulty in obtaining suitable land somewhere. I do not myself attach much weight to the unwillingness of the people to leave their old holdings for better ones, or to the alleged objection of the clergy to allow their parishioners to go to another parish. More serious is the possible opposition of those who live in the vicinity of the unoccupied land about to be distributed, and who feel that they have the first claim upon the State in any scheme for its redistribution with the help of public credit. Mr. Parnell promoted a company with the sole object of practically demonstrating how this problem could be solved. A large capital was raised, and a large estate purchased; but the company did not effect the migration of a single family. Still these are minor considerations compared with the larger one, to which I must briefly refer.

Under the Land Act of 1903 much has been done to facilitate the transfer of peasants to new farms, but it is obvious that land cannot be handed over as a gift from the State to the families which migrate. They will become debtors for the value of the land itself, less perhaps a small sum which may be credited to them in respect of the tenant's interest in the holdings they have abandoned. This deduction will, however, be lost in the expenditure required upon houses, buildings, fences, and other improvements which would have to be effected before the land could be profitably occupied. Speaking generally they will have no money or agricultural implements, and their live stock will in many cases be mortgaged to the local shopkeeper who has always financed them. It will be necessary for the future welfare of the country to give them land which admits of cultivation upon the ordinary principles of modern agriculture; but without working capital, and bringing with them neither the skill nor the habits necessary for the successful conduct of their industry under the new conditions, it will be no easy task to place them in a position to discharge their obligations to the State. It is all very easy to talk about the obvious necessity of giving more land to cultivators who have not enough to live upon; and there is, no doubt, a poetic justice in the Utopian agrarianism which dangles before the eyes of the Connaught peasantry the alternative of Heaven or Leinster. But when we come down to practical economics, and face the task of giving to a certain number of human beings, in an extremely backward industrial condition, the opportunity of placing themselves and their families on a basis of permanent well-being, it will be evident that, so far, at any rate, as this particular community is concerned, the mere provision of an economic holding is after all but a part of an economic existence.

I have touched upon this question of migration from uneconomic to economic holdings because it signally illustrates the importance of the human, in contradistinction to the merely material considerations involved in the solution of the many-sided Irish Question. I must now return to the wider question of the relation of population to area in rural Ireland, as it affects the general scheme of agricultural and industrial development.

It is obvious that there must be a limit to the number of individuals that the land can support. Allowing an average of five members for each family, and allowing for a considerable number of landless labourers, it seems that the land at present directly supports about 2,500,000 persons--a view which, I may add, is fully borne out by the figures of the recent census; and it is hard to see how a population living by agriculture can be much increased beyond this number. Even if all the land in Ireland were available for re-distribution in equal shares, the higher standard of comfort to which it is essential that the condition of our people should be raised would forbid the existence of much more than half a million peasant proprietors.[8] Hence the evergreen query, 'What shall we do with our boys?' remains to be answered; for while the abolition of dual ownership will enable the present generation to bring up their children according to a higher standard of living, the change will not of itself provide a career for the children when they have been brought up. The next generation will have to face this problem:--the average farm can support only one of the children and his family, what is to become of the others? The law forbids sub-division for two generations, and after that, ex hypothesi, the then prevailing conditions of life will also prevent such partition. A few of the next generation may become agricultural labourers, but this involves descending to the lowest standard of living of to-day, and in any case the demand for agricultural labourers is not capable of much extension in a country of small peasant proprietors.

Against this view I know it is pointed out that in the earlier part of the nineteenth century the agricultural population of Ireland was as large as is the total population of to-day; but we know the sequel. Instances are also cited of peasant proprietaries in foreign countries which maintain a high standard of living upon small, sometimes diminutive, and highly-rented holdings. We must remember, however, that in these foreign countries State intervention has undoubtedly done much to render possible a prosperous peasant proprietary by, for example, the dissemination of useful information, admirable systems of technical education in agriculture, cheap and expeditious transport, and even State attention to the distribution of agricultural produce in distant markets. Again, in many of these countries rural life is balanced by a highly industrial town life, as, for instance, in the case of Belgium; or is itself highly industrialised by the existence of rural industries, as in the case of Switzerland; while in one notable instance--that of Württemberg--both these conditions prevail.

The true lesson to be drawn from these foreign analogies is that not by agriculture alone is Ireland to be saved. The solution of the rural problem embraces many spheres of national activity. It involves, as I have already said, the further development of manufactures in Irish towns. One of the best ways to stimulate our industries is to develop the home market by means of an increased agricultural production, and a higher standard of comfort among the peasant producers. We shall thus be, so to speak, operating on consumption as well as on production, and so increasing the home demand for Irish manufactures. Perhaps more urgent than the creation or extension of manufactures on a larger scale is the development of industries subsidiary to agriculture in the country. This is generally admitted, and most people have a fair knowledge of the wide and varied range of peasant industries in all European countries where a prosperous peasantry exists. Nor is there much difficulty in agreeing upon the main conditions to be satisfied in the selection of the industries to meet the requirements of our case. The men and boys require employment in the winter months, or they will not stay, and the rural industries promoted should, as far as possible, be those which allow of intermittent attention. The female members of the family must have profitable and congenial employment. The handicrafts to be promoted must be those which will give scope to the native genius and aesthetic sense. But unless we can thus supply the demand of the peasant-industry market with products of merit or distinctiveness, we shall fail in competition with the hereditary skill and old established trade of peasant proprietors which have solved this part of the problem generations ago. This involves the vigorous application of a class of instruction of which something will be said in the proper place.

So far the rural industry problem, and the direction in which its solution is to be found, are fairly clear. But there is one disadvantage with which we have to reckon, and which for many other reasons besides the one I am now immediately concerned with, we must seek to remove. A community does not naturally or easily produce for export that for which it has itself no use, taste, or desire. Whatever latent capacity for artistic handicrafts the Irish peasant may possess, it is very rarely that one finds any spontaneous attempt to give outward expression to the inward aesthetic sense. And this brings me to a strange aspect of Irish life to which I have often wished, on the proper occasion, to draw public attention. The matter arises now in the form of a peculiar difficulty which lies in the path of those who endeavour to solve the problem of rural life in Ireland, and which, in my belief, has profoundly affected the fortunes of the race both at home and abroad.

To a sympathetic insight there is a singular and significant void in the Irish conception of a home--I mean the lack of appreciation for the comforts of a home, which might never have been apparent to me had it not obtruded itself in the form of a hindrance to social and economic progress.[9] In the Irish love of home, as in the larger national aspirations, the ideal has but a meagre material basis, its appeal being essentially to the social and intellectual instincts. It is not the physical environment and comfort of an orderly home that enchain and attract minds still dominated, more or less unconsciously, by the associations and common interests of the primitive clan, but rather the sense of human neighbourhood and kinship which the individual finds in the community. Indeed the Irish peasant scarcely seems to have a home in the sense in which an Englishman understands the word. If he love the place of his habitation he does not endeavour to improve or to adorn it, or indeed to make it in any sense a reflection of his own mind and taste. He treats life as if he were a mere sojourner upon earth whose true home is somewhere else, a fact often attributed to his intense faith in the unseen, but which I regard as not merely due to this cause, but also, and in a large measure, as the natural outcome of historical conditions, to which I shall presently refer.

What the Irishman is really attached to in Ireland is not a home but a social order. The pleasant amenities, the courtesies, the leisureliness, the associations of religion, and the familiar faces of the neighbours, whose ways and minds are like his and very unlike those of any other people; these are the things to which he clings in Ireland and which he remembers in exile. And the rawness and eagerness of America, the lust of the eye and the pride of life that meet him, though with no welcoming aspect, at every turn, the sense of being harshly appraised by new standards of the nature of which he has but the dimmest conception, his helplessness in the fierce current of industrial life in which he is plunged, the climatic extremes of heat and cold, the early hours and few holidays: all these experiences act as a rude shock upon the ill-balanced refinement of the Irish immigrant. Not seldom, he or she loses heart and hope and returns to Ireland mentally and physically a wreck, a sad disillusionment to those who had been comforted in the agony of the leave-taking by the assurance that to emigrate was to succeed.

The peculiar Irish conception of a home has probably a good deal to do with the history of the Irish in the United States. It is well known that whatever measure of success the Irish emigrant has there achieved is pre-eminently in the American city, and not where, according to all the usual commonplaces about the Irish race, they ought to have succeeded, in American rural life. There they were afforded, and there they missed, the greatest opportunity which ever fell to the lot of a people agriculturally inclined. During the days of the great emigrations from Ireland, a veritable Promised Land, rich beyond the dreams of agricultural avarice, was gradually opened up between the Alleghanies and the Rocky Mountains, which the Irish had only to occupy in order to possess. Making all allowances for the depressing influences which had been brought to bear upon the spirit of enterprise, and for their impoverished condition, I am convinced that a prime cause of the failure of almost every effort to settle them upon the land was the fact that the tenement house, with all its domestic abominations, provided the social order which they brought with them from Ireland, and the lack of which on the western prairie no immediate or prospective physical comfort could make good.

Recently a daughter of a small farmer in County Galway with a family too 'long' for the means of subsistence available, was offered a comfortable home on a farm owned by some better-off relatives, only thirty miles away, though probably twenty miles beyond the limits of her utmost peregrinations. She elected in preference to go to New York, and being asked her reason by a friend of mine, replied in so many words, 'because it is nearer.' She felt she would be less of a stranger in a New York tenement house, among her relatives and friends who had already emigrated, than in another part of County Galway. Educational science in Ireland has always ignored the life history of the subject with which it dealt. In no respect has this neglect been so unconsciously cruel as in its failure to implant in the Irish mind that appreciation of the material aspects of the home which the people so badly need both in Ireland and in America If the Irishman abroad became 'a rootless colonist of alien earth,' the lot of the Irishman in Ireland has been not less melancholy. Sadness there is, indeed, in the story of 'the sea-divided Gael,' but, to me, it is incomparably less pathetic than their homelessness at home.

There are, as I have said, historic reasons for the Celtic view of home to which my personal observation and experience has induced me to devote so much space. The Irish people have never had the opportunity of developing that strong and salutary individualism which, amongst other things, imperiously demands, as a condition of its growth, a home that shall be a man's castle as well as his abiding place. In this, as in so much else, a healthy evolution was constantly thwarted by the clash of two peoples and two civilisations. The Irish had hardly emerged from the nomad pastoral stage, when the first of that series of invasions, which had all the ferocity, without the finality of conquest, made settled life impossible over the greater part of the island. An old chronicle throws some vivid light upon the way in which the idea of home life presented itself to the mind of the clan chiefs as late as the days of the Tudors. "Con O'Neal," we are told, "was so right Irish that he cursed all his posterity in case they either learnt English, sowed wheat or built them houses; lest the first should breed conversation, the second commerce, and with the last they should speed as the crow that buildeth her nest to be beaten out by the hawk."[10] The penal laws, again, acted as a disintegrant of the home and the family; and, finally, the paralysing effect of the abuses of a system of land tenure, under which evidences of thrift and comfort might at any time become determining factors in the calculation of rent, completed a series of causes which, in unison or isolation, were calculated to destroy at its source the growth of a wholesome domesticity. These causes happily, no longer exist, and powerful forces are arising to overcome the defects and disadvantages which they have bequeathed to us; and I have little doubt that it will be possible to deal successfully with this obstacle which adds so peculiar a feature to the problem of rural life in Ireland.

If I have dwelt at what may appear to be a disproportionate length upon the Irishman's peculiar conception of a home, it is because this difficulty, which Irish social and economic reformers still encounter, and with which they must deal sympathetically if they are to succeed in the work of national regeneration, strikingly illustrates the two-sided character of the Irish Question and the never-to-be-forgotten inter-dependence of the sentimental and the practical in Ireland. I admit that this condition which adds to the interest of the problem, and perhaps makes it more amenable to rapid solution, is an indication of a weakness of moral fibre to which must be largely attributed our failure to be master of our circumstances. Indeed, as I come into closer touch with the efforts which are now being made to raise the material condition of the people, the more convinced I become, much as my practical training has made me resist the conviction, that the Irish Question is, in its most difficult and most important aspects, the problem of the Irish mind, and that the solution of this problem is to be found in the strengthening of Irish character.

With this enunciation of the main proposition of my book, I may now indicate the order in which I shall endeavour to establish its truth. I have said enough to show that I do not ignore the historical causes of our present state; but with so many facts with which we can deal confronting us, I propose to review the chief living influences to which the Irish mind and character are still subjected. These influences fall naturally into three distinct categories and will be treated in the three succeeding chapters. The first will show the effect upon the Irish mind of its obsession by politics. The next will deal with the influence of religious systems upon the secular life of the people. I shall then show how education, which should not only have been the most potent of all the three influences in bringing our national life into line with the progress of the age, but should also have modified the operation of the other two causes, has aggravated rather than cured the malady.

Whatever impression I may succeed in making upon others, I may here state that, as the result of observation and reflection, the conclusion has been forced upon me that the Irish mind is suffering from considerable functional derangement, but not, so far as I can discern, from any organic disease. This is the basis of my optimism. I shall submit in another chapter, which will conclude the first, the critical part of my book, certain new principles of treatment which are indicated by the diagnosis; and I would ask the reader, before he rejects the opinions which are there expressed, to persevere through the narrative contained in the second part of the book. There he will find in process of solution some of the problems which I have indicated, and the principles for which a theoretical approval has been asked, in practical operation, and already passing out of the experimental stage. The story of the Self-help Movement will strike the note of Ireland's economic hopes. The action of the Recess Committee will be explained, and the concession of their demand by the establishment of a 'Department of Agriculture and other rural industries and for Technical Instruction for Ireland,' will be described. This will complete the story of a quiet, unostentatious movement which will some day be seen to have made the last decade of the nineteenth century a fit prelude to a future commensurate with the potentialities of the Irish people.


Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page



Map of Ireland