The Fenian "Idea"

IT was a great truth Shelley uttered when he said that slavery would not be the enormous wrong and evil which it is, if men who had long suffered under it could rise at once to freedom and self-government. We see this fact everywhere proved by races, nations, sexes, long held in bondage, and, when at last set free, displaying for years, perhaps for generations, the vices of cowardice, deceit, and cruelty engendered by slavery. Chains leave ugly scars on the flesh, but deeper scars by far on the soul. Even where the exercise of oppression has stopped short of actual serfdom,—where a race has been merely excluded from some natural rights, and burdened with some unrighteous restrictions, — the same result, in a mitigated degree, may be traced in moral degradation, surviving the injustice itself and almost its very memory. Ages pass away, and “ Revenge and Wrong still “ bring forth their kind.” The evil is not dead, though they who wrought it have long mouldered in their forgotten graves.

In a very remarkable manner this sad law of our nature applies to the condition of the Irish race. Doubtless the isolated position of Ireland, the small share it has had in the life and movement of our century, has allowed the old wrongs to fester in memory, and the old feelings of rancor to perpetuate themselves, as they could never have done in a country more in the highway of nations. Vendettas personal and political are ever to be found in islands, like Corsica, Sicily, Ireland; or in remote glens and mountains, such as those of Scotland or Greece. Men who live in New York, London, or Paris must be singularly retentive of passion to keep up even their own hatreds, not to speak of the hatreds of their ancestors. But it is alike the bane and blessing of lives spent in retirement and monotony to retain impressions for years, and live in the past almost more vividly than in the tame and uninteresting present. Ireland, at all events, has had nothing to divert her from her old traditions ; and there is probably no man, woman, or child of Celtic race living in the country in whose mind a certain “historical element,” compounded strangely of truth and falsehood, does not occupy a place such as no analogous impression takes in the thought of an ordinary Englishman or Frenchman. We shall endeavor in this paper to give a little idea of the nature of these Irish traditions and feelings; and if we succeed in doing so, we shall at the same time afford to our readers a clew to some of the supposed mysteries of the recent outbreak of Fenianism. In sober truth, Fenianism is not, to Anglo-Irish observers, a startling apparition, an outburst of insane folly, an epidemic of national hate, but, on the contrary, a most familiar phenomenon, the mere appearance on the suriace of what we always knew lay beneath, — an endemic as natural to the soil as the ague and fever which haunt the undrained bogs. Those who understand what Irishmen are always thinking will find no difficulty in understanding also what things they occasionally do.

The real wrongs inflicted by England upon Ireland are probably as bad as ever disgraced the history of a conquest—in itself without excuse. Not to speak of confiscations, and executions often taking the form of murderous raids into suspected districts, there were laws passed one after another, from the time of Edward I. even to the present century, a collection of which would be a sad commentary on the boasted justice of English Parliaments. Irishmen lay under disabilities, political, social, and ecclesiastical, so severe and numerous that it really seems to have been a question what they were expected to do except to break some of these arbitrary laws, and so incur some cruel penalty. Down to our own century, and for the avowed purpose of injuring the only flourishing trade of tire country (that of linen), the English cotton and woollen manufacturers procured the passing of acts better called destructive than protective ; and in sober truth, if England now deplores the low industrial and commercial state of Ireland, she has only to look over her own statute-book, and see if ingenuity could have further gone in the way of discouragement and depression. When we add to these wrongs the bitter drop of the Irish Church Establishment, it is doubtless clear that an able advocate could make out a very telling case for the plaintiff, in that great case of Ireland vs. England on which Europe and America sit as jury.

But it is a singularly inexact notion of the real historical wrongs of his country which an ordinary Irishman treasures in his heart; in fact, he has no idea of the real wrongs at all, but of other and quite imaginary ones. He sets out with the great fallacy that Ireland was at some indefinite epoch (described as “ former times ”) a wealthy, prosperous, and united country, and that every declension from those characteristics is to be laid at the door of English tyranny and jealousy. When Moore wrote,

“ Let Erin remember the days of old,
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her,
When Malachi wore the collar of gold
Which he won from her proud invader,
“When her kings, with their standards of green tinfurled,
Led the Red Branch knights to danger,
Ere the emerald gem of the Western world
Was set in the crown of a stranger,” —

when, we say, a man of the world, who afterwards wrote a remarkably moderate and sensible History of Ireland, wrote nonsense like this, he was doubtless well aware he was only by poetic license describing what Irishmen commonly believed about “ days of old,” and their glorified circumstances. We once saw an Irish schoolmaster, just one of those who mould the ideas of the humbler classes, shown into a room furnished with the usual luxury of a handsome English drawing-room, — books, pictures, flowers, and china, “an earthly paradise of ormolu.” The good man looked round with great admiration, and then innocently remarked, “ Why, this must be like one of the palaces of our ancient kings ! ” Here was precisely the popular Irish idea. Her “ancient king” — who actually lived in the wattled walls of Tara, enjoying barbarian feasts of beer and hecatombs of lean kine and sheep — is supposed to have been a refined and splendid prince, dwelling in ideal “halls,” (doubtless compounded out of the Dublin Bank and Rotunda.) and enjoying the finest music on a double-action harp. As a fact, there is no evidence whatever that the old Irish Pentarchy was much better than any five chieftainships of the Sandwich Islands. Even the historians who laud it in most pompous phrases, like Keatinge, give nothing but details of wars and massacres, disorders and rebellions without end. Out of one hundred and sixty-eight kings who by this (of course) half - fabulous story reigned from the Milesian Conquest to Roderick O’Connor, vanquished by Henry II. in 1172, no less than seventy-nine are said to have acquired the throne by the murder of their predecessors. The contests between the five kings for the supremacy, or for the acquisition of each other’s territories, offer a spectacle which can only be compared to a sanguinary game of puss-inthe-corner lasting for a thousand years. As to any monuments of civilization, it would indeed be wonderful if they were found in a country so circumstanced. Such existing architecture as can be attributed to a Celtic origin is confined to the simple round towers, Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, and a few humble little stone-roofed edifices like the one known as “ St. Kevin’s Kitchen,” and made, with true Irish magniloquence, to stand wellnigh alone for the “Seven Churches of Glendalough.” For literature, ancient Ireland can show the respectable “ Annals of the Four Masters,” and a few minor chronicles in prose and verse, but not a single work deserving a place in European history. Literally the fame of a few nomad saints, and a collection of torques and brooches (of great beauty, but possible Byzantine workmanship) in the Irish Academy, are the chief grounds on which rest the claims of Ireland to ancient civilization. Yet not merely civilization, but the extreme grandeur and magnificence of Ireland in “former times,” is the first postulate of all Irish discontent. It is because England has dimmed her glory and overthrown her royal state that Irishmen burn with patriot indignation, and not by any means because she has merely left barbarism and disunion still barbarous and disunited after seven centuries, and has checked, instead of encouraging, the industry and commerce of the land.

Proceeding on this false ground, the Celtic Irishman, with his fervid imagination, easily builds for himself a whole edifice of local and personal grievances on the pattern of the supposed national one. Was Ireland once a rich and splendid country ? So was every town and neighborhood once full of gayety and prosperity, when “the family ” lived at home and did not travel or spend the season in London. Full of extravagant reverence for birth and rank, it is always, in the Irishman’s mind, not his fault, nor that of his compeers of the working and middle classes, that trade and agriculture do not flourish in the land; but the fault of some lord or squire who ought to come and spend money there, or some king or queen who should hold court in Dublin and waste as much treasure as possible upon state ceremonials. Nay, every man for himself, almost, has at the bottom of his heart a belief that he ought to be, not a laborer or carter, shoemaker or tailor, but the head of some ancient house, — some O’ or Mac, — living not in his own mud cabin, but in the handsome residence of some English gentleman whose estate was wrongfully taken in “ former times ” from his — the laborer’s or shoemaker’s — ancestors.

Fenians talk of an Irish Republic, and the brave and honest men who led the rising of ’98 undoubtedly heartily desired to establish one on the American model. But to any one really acquainted with Irish character, to dream of such institutions for ages to come seems utterly vain. All the qualities which go to make a republican, in the true sense of the term, are wanting in the Irish nature ; and, on the other hand, there is a superabundance of all the opposite qualities which go to make a loyal subject of a king, — not too despotic, but still a strong-handed, visible, audible, tangible ruler of men. Devotion to an idea, to a constitution, to a flag ; respect for law as law ; sturdy independence and self-reliance ; regard for others’ rights and jealousy of a man’s own, — all these true republican characteristics are most rarely to be found in Irishmen. Nay, the most important of all — the reverence for law — is almost, we might say, reversed in his nature. The true Irishman detests law. He loves, indeed, mercy, retribution, many fine things which law may or may not produce. But the simple fact that a certain proceeding has been by proper authorities constituted a law or rule of any kind, in public matters or private, is reason enough, in high or low, to make it secretly distasteful. As Coleridge used to say, that, “when anything was presented to him as a duty, he instantly felt himself seized by a sense of inability to perform it,” so, to the Celtic mind, when anything comes in the guise of a law, there is an accompanying seizure of moral paralysis. Even if the law or rule be made by the offender himself, it is all the same. Having given it utterance, it is a law, and he hates it accordingly. On the other hand, nothing can exceed the generous, chivalrous personal and family loyalty of the Irish nature. But it is a person he wants, not a constitution or a flag.

Of course, how far all these characteristics may be altered by residence in America we are unable to say. We write of the Irishman in Ireland, from lifelong acquaintance. What dreams the Fenians in America may indulge, we are also in no position to know. But this we may safely aver : The Irishmen in Ireland who are caught by such schemes of rebellion and revolution are not, as might be thought, mere vulgar agitators, eager for notoriety or perhaps plunder. They are (such of them as are the dupes, not the dupers) men whose minds from childhood have been filled with anti - historic visions of Ireland’s former grandeur, and who cherish patriotic indignation for her supposed wrongs, and patriotic hopes of her future glory. In a word, they live in a world of unrealities almost inconceivable to a cool Saxon brain,—unreal splendors of the past and utterly unreal and impossible future hopes. They neither see where England has actually wronged Ireland heretofore, nor how her Constitution opens to them now (were they but once united) the lawful means of obtaining all just redress and beneficial legislation they can desire. Instead of this, they are still talking of Tara and Kincora, of Ollamh Fodhla and Brien Boiromhe, and dream in the year of grace 1866 to set England at naught with a few thousand undisciplined troops, and then burn down the hundred or two of handsome houses and banish all the cultivated men and women in the country (even including the priests !), to inaugurate a grand era of universal prosperity and civilization.

But however delusive the indignation and the hopes of the Fenians must be accounted, the sad fact remains that old misgovernment and oppression have left behind a train of evil feelings, whose existence is only too real, however fantastic may be the shapes they assume. While three or four centuries sufficed to obliterate all trace of the Norman Conquest, and unite in indissoluble bonds of blood and language the two races who contended for mastery at Hastings, in Ireland, on the contrary, seven centuries have failed, not merely to effiice, but even essentially to diminish the sharpness of the distinction between the conquerors and the conquered. Still, to this day, the two nations dwell in the same land, but not united. Still each member of each race learns as his first lesson to which of the two he belongs, and recognizes, by some occult, but well-known tokens, the race and creed of every man with whom he has dealings. Religious differences, of course, have come in to swell the tide of mistrust, and to nullify the most strenuous efforts of the Anglo-Irish to gain the confidence of the Celts. In the books circulated in the baskets of the strolling pedlers, which constitute almost the sole literature of the laboring class, we have constantly seen the favorite tract entitled “A Father’s Advice to his Son,” in which the Catholic peasant is warned to put no faith in the desire of his Protestant neighbor to help him, and advised, not, indeed, to refuse his charity, but to return for it no gratitude, since a Protestant can have no real feeling for a Catholic. We have heard with our own ears O’Connell say almost the same thing in Conciliation Hall, and tell his hearers that English subscriptions at the time of the famine were given from fear, not kindness. But even were all these false teachers silenced, were the enormous insult of the Irish Establishment retracted tomorrow, even then the root of national bitterness would not be killed. It would take generations to kill it.

Between fifty and a hundred years ago the Anglo-Irish gentry, as all the world knows, were a wild and extravagant race. Duelling and drinking were the two great duties of a gentleman. A young man was instructed how to “make his head” early in life, and to acquire the gentle art of pistolling his friends, when now he would be studying Greek under Professor Jowett, or “ coaching” for a civil - service examination. It was in bad taste in those halcyon days for a man to leave a pleasant social party in a state of sobriety, and he was liable to be challenged by his aggrieved companions if he did it frequently. The custom of locking the dining-room door and putting the key in the fire, so us to secure a comfortable night (on the floor), was so common as hardly to deserve notice ; and in many old houses are still preserved the huge glasses bearing the toast of the Immortal Memory of William III., and calculated to hold three bottles of claret, all to be drunk at once by one member of the company, who then won the prize of a seven-guinea piece deposited at the bottom. Gambling was not a pastime, but a business ; and a business shared by the ladies. On rainy days it was customary to lay the card-tables at ten o'clock in the morning, and on all days the work began immediately alter the four-o’clock dinner. Of all field-sports hunting was the favorite ; and, of course, horses and hounds helped to run away with estates as well as cards and claret. Great pomp, however, of a certain semi-barbaric kind was the crowning extravagance. Everybody drove foui horses,—the loftier grandees invariably six, — with due accompaniment of outriders and running footmen. Dresses, jewels, and lace were of course in keeping with the equipage, albeit the furniture of the finest houses was what we should deem a strange mixture of magnificence and bareness,—'beautilul pictures on the walls, and no curtains to the windows, —tapestry fautenils, and a small square of carpet in the midst of a Sahara of plain deal floor. But the kitchen was the true scene of that Wilful Waste which assuredly brought Woful Want often enough in its train. Every gentleman’s house served as a sort of free tavern for tenants, servants, laborers, and the relatives, friends, and acquaintances of tenants, servants, and laborers without end. Up stairs there was endless dinner-giving anil claret-drinking ; down stairs there was breakfasting, dining, and supping, — only substituting beef for venison and whiskey for claret. One famous countess, coming into an estate of twenty thousand a year, with a reserve of one hundred thousand pounds, spent the whole, and left a debt of another hundred thousand, after Garter-King-at-Arms had been summoned from England to see her in state to her mausoleum as a descendant of the Plantagenets. An earl in the North, of no great wealth, was carried to his grave by a procession of five thousand people, all of whom were entertained, and three thousand clothed in mourning, for the occasion. But there is no need to go further into such traditions.

Were these, then, the people who earned the hoarded hate of the Fenian ? Was it this coarse and stupid extravagance, contrasted with the abject penury of the peasantry, (far greater then than now,) which has left such indelible, bitter memories ? Very far indeed is this from being the case. That age of lavish waste is looked back upon universally in Ireland as one of those “former times” which are to be forever contrasted with the present,—an age of gold compared to an age of iron. True, the old landlords were harder on their tenants than any dare now to be ; _true, they neither improved land, nor built cottages, nor endowed schools, nor did one earthly thing to help the wretched and starving people in the face of whose misery they flaunted their splendor. But there was little or no bitterness of feeling toward them ; for their faults were those with which the people sympathized, and their free-handed hospitality would have covered more sins even than they committed. Perhaps one of the very reasons why, in these last years, the never wholly quieted ground-swell of discontent has risen up in Fenianism is this, that the whole generation of which we have spoken has now utterly died out, and, since the Encumbered Estates Court has done its work, the families of landholders have undergone great changes, and, where not changed in race, have wholly changed in habits and mode of life. “Castle Rackrent” exists no more. Irish landlords have now neither power nor inclination to hold free quarters for all comers. On the other hand, (we speak it advisedly.) no class of men in Europe strive more earnestly and selfdenyingly to improve the condition of those dependent on them, to build good houses for their tenants, open schools for the children, and drain and fertilize the land. Let us hope that, as years roll on, and generations pass, the tradition of imaginary wrongs, and the unseen but too real results of actual ones, will both pass away, and there may yet come a day in which it will not seem a satire to speak of the land of the Fenian and the Agrarian murderer as “ The Isle of Saints.”