'Try Your Hap Against the Irishmen'

To Ireland will you lead a band of men, Collected choicely, from each county some, And try your hap against the Irishmen?

II Henry VI

I

AFTER the domestication of the North and South Poles, and when enterprising world cruisers had made of Bali a residential suburb for Manhattan malcontents, it seemed as though no further world remained to be exploited. But there were still secrets to be revealed, and to the haute bourgeoisie of America belongs one of the greatest and most fruitful discoveries of the past decade — that of Ireland, up to that time known only as the semifabulous home of America’s grooms, nurses, and cooks. This discovery has been amusing to watch — the snob’s progress, as it were; though there is perceptible now a sort of decline in the social scale.

When I first discovered America, — all Irish people being then a mixture of the Lily of Killarney, the Shaughraun, and the Arrah-na-Pogue, and expected to behave accordingly, — I was treated with a mixture of pity and wonder as one who seemed civilized enough, but whose antecedents must be odd, to put it mildly. Indeed, I remember being asked if I had been married in native costume or if I had had a real wedding dress. After a while I ceased to try to explain and even felt a kind of pity for the hostesses who had to temper the shock of introducing me to their friends by saying that, though I came from Ireland, I did have English connections, and that, though I liked claret and confessed to a weakness for John Jameson and Son, I was not drunken, nor a winebibber. These were merely my funny Irish ways.

In spite of all this, I did muster up courage enough to invite one very good friend to visit my home in Ireland, and with much tact and real good feeling she begged me to explain to my people that, though she was used to a civilized life, she liked adventure and would gladly overlook such trifles as worn-out dinner napkins and tattered sheets, and would herself provide all the Keating’s Powder necessary for sweet repose and pleasant dreams. But all that is long ago and far away; and as America grew more sophisticated she became more huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’minded, and Ireland swam into her ken as a spot where beautiful old places were to be had, with a chance of getting in with the neighboring ‘high ginthry,’ up to that time as close a corporation as there was in Europe. Why, even Derby winners were bred there, a run with the Meath or the Galway Blazers was not to be despised, the slaying was sporting, and the fish accommodating and uncommon good.

This horsy, tweedy, mixed-bag phase was comparatively innocuous and bearable in comparison with the phase which succeeded it, when the intelligentsia came into its own, when the Irish Players introduced the folk drama and the dialect, and your friends greeted you with ‘avick’ and ‘alanna’ and ‘God save all here,’ and the ‘Native’ was discovered and found amusing — as long, of course, as he stuck to his native heath and was not too unruly in his political aspirations, or too aggressive in his demands for selfexpression.

The Irishman is always referred to as a ‘native,’ you will remark, as though he were a rather strange but wholly delightful kind of savage. No one dreams of calling the English, Germans, or French ‘natives,’ that term being reserved in a tone of kindly patronage for a people who, by the very accident of geographical position, have had to be far less insular than their more fortunately placed neighbors.

II

And now, of course, it is quite the ‘done’ thing to include Ireland in your itinerary, when you go abroad. You must spend at least a part of your time touring the ‘romantic little isle,’ absorbing its quaint culture, its ‘marvelous local color,’ and enjoying the delicious humor and the ‘semifeudal courtesy ’ of its people. Why, even art historians and scientists have now joined the throng, and spend a great deal of their money and quite a lot of their time reinterpreting art forms and primitive culture and performing miracles of efficiency in fields which the Irish have not had the money or the opportunity to exploit. When these travelers return and tell me their adventures (some of them have even heard the Banshee — a privilege that is granted to very few Irish), and are ecstatic over their encounters with the ‘ rugged rough-headed ’ natives, it is all too terribly ‘Little Jack Horner,’ and I, as an Irishwoman, do not know whether to resent their condescension or to be amazed at their lack of perception. But I am generally consoled by the thought that the Irish know their onions as well to-day as in the days when they had to keep England guessing, and that probably, in their dealings with American visitors, transient or semipermanent, they get quite as good as they give.

Of all the enthusiasts, however, who have made life a burden, the worst are those Americans who have been bitten with the bug of going native in Ireland and living with nature in the raw in the ‘glens and back hills.’ There they would have you think of them as very close to the Great Mother, ‘sitting looking from a door and seeing nothing but the mists rolling down the bog and the mists again and they rolling up the bog, and hearing nothing but the wind crying out, and the streams roaring with the rain ’ — a state of affairs which is quite as unpleasant as it sounds and which no Irishman ever really enjoys.

Och! but I’m weary of mist and dark,
And roads where there’s never a house nor bush,
And tired I am of bog and road,
And the crying wind and the lonesome hush!
And I am praying to God on high,
And I am praying Him night and day,
For a little house — a house of my own —
Out of the wind’s and the rain’s way.

That is the way the ‘native’ feels about it and I have no doubt he would be glad to let the sentimental foreigners have all there is of it. They will make good copy on their frequent returns from the wilds, extolling the poetry of those very conditions which the Irish are fast trying to do away with. There are times when one wonders how the aboriginal inhabitants bore as patiently as they did with the discoverers of these United States, especially if those discoverers were in any way like their modern counterparts.

I think of one family of Americans who decided to go back to nature and get all the kick possible out of that experience. So to the hills near Dublin they went and wallowed in primitive conditions. They decided to share their adventures with the less fortunate, and soon there appeared glowing accounts of life in the ‘wee whitewashed thatched cabin ’ at the end of a long ‘boreen,’ where the four-footed beasties mooed a morning welcome through the open windows — quite unlike any Irish cows I have ever known.

There our pioneers communed with Nature in the long Celtic Twilight, almost seeing their souls sprout amid the silence of the everlasting hills. Quite too beautiful, if one had not happened to know that the wee thatched cabin was a two-storied stone cottage with a slate roof, and that the boreen was the perfectly good main road to Dublin down which Jacob’s Biscuit vans and Guinness’s Stout lorries thunder daily, to say nothing of noisy tourists in motor car or char-à-bancs on their way to the wilds. But it was all grand grist for the mill of American journalism, and many a stay-athome read it entranced, and thrilled vicariously to these flights from reality and the sentimental symbolism of the Celtic Twilight as interpreted by U. S. A.

Another family occurs to mind who sought the Great Realities in the Wicklow hills for a time, doing the stunt in the grand manner. There we went one brilliant summer day a few years ago for tea and enlightenment. Our hostess met us barefoot, complete with shawl and short homespun skirt. Outside the cottage — the real thing this time, thatched and whitewashed — we had our tea. The dogs, a motley crew from neighboring cottages, shared the rugs on which we sat. The fleas leapt from the dogs to the rugs, and from the rugs into our teacups and on to the very excellent homemade bread. When we choked slightly and evinced no further interest in tea, our hostess gazed reproachfully at us and, having told us to turn our minds from minor discomforts to the scene before us, calmly went on with her own tea and fleas.

True, the setting was perfect. Larks were singing, the hills swam in a blue haze, the green of the larches was at its tenderest. The fields were gay with the bog orchis and the flag, and against the low gray stone walls there shot up the abrupt beauty of the foxglove. And yet and yet, the Irishwoman does like her tea and does not like fleas, and, being above all a realist, she feels definitely irritated when told to rise above minor discomforts and set her mind on higher things than food.

Fortunately for the future of Irish life and letters, the voices of these synthetic Granuailes go unheard in the land. Indeed, the native-born — and among them are many authors and artists — who have made their homes in the ‘wilds’ of Wicklow and Dublin show a nice appreciation of the good things of life. Their gardens are charming, as is the way of Irish gardens, their houses boast some of the amenities of civilization — plumbing is not enough, to be sure, but it goes a long way. And, since even in Ireland nowadays one has to get about, they prefer the motor to the ass cart as a means of transportation. Nor do a slight sophistication and a moderate interest in the pleasant things of life appear to diminish intellectual and artistic activities, for seldom has Ireland’s literary output been so rich and so vigorous as it is to-day.

III

It is curious, then, that in a land as intensely self-conscious as Ireland is become, such a spirit of patronage and exploitation on the part of foreigners should have been endured so patiently and for so long. As a matter of fact, it must be confessed that the Irish are themselves partly to blame for it. Indeed, there are times when one suspects them of fostering it. Centuries of dealing with a conqueror who consistently adopts the holier-than-thou or the richer-than-thou or the moresuccessful-than-thou attitude must develop in the conquered a certain defense mechanism, so that your Irishman is very often as much what he knows you want him to be as what he is. And with perfect sincerity, too, for it is difficult to have to apologize for yourself through the ages and yet remain completely yourself. Why not boast the ‘two soul-sides’ if you can?

Interestingly enough, this particular national ability was very clear to Keats even in his short dealings with the ‘native.’ In Miss Lowell’s life of the poet there is quoted a letter from Keats to his brother Tom, in which he describes his travels in Scotland and Ireland and compares the differing traits of the two peoples, with, as might be expected, a definite bias in favor of the Scotch. Their minds seemed to him tidier and less tortuous in their workings than those of the Irish, who are ‘remote’ and ‘puzzling.’ You can seldom wring a commitment on any subject from the Scotchman, he writes, but you can come ‘ in nigher neighborhood’ to him than to the Irishman, who commits himself in so many ways at once that your head swims. The Irishman, of course, is a bore with his laughter and his repartee, and the Scotch never laugh! In one short trenchant observation, however, Keats puts his finger on the spot when he says that both Scotch and Irish know the reputation in which they are held in England and behave accordingly to Englishmen.

As Miss Lowell remarks, Keats’s attitude is here that of the Englishman ‘dazed’ and ‘puzzled’ by what he met — ‘ his opinions bear the stamp of their origin for all to see.’ He speaks as one who went out to find what he found. But in that one sentence, ‘They are both sensible of the character they hold in England and act accordingly to Englishmen,’ you have, I think, a clue to the Irishman’s willingness to provide copy to all and sundry; and if he piles on the colors a bit, who can blame him for giving free rein to his innate sense of drama? Watch a group of Irish together, notice their rapid gestures, the quick changes of mood, listen to the excited voices — their very inflections betray their incorrigible theatricality. And so, when some unsuspecting foreigner comes along, all primed with theories from ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ and all agog for local color, the simple ‘native’ gives him good measure, pressed down, running over, and acts his part so well that he convinces even himself; but acting it is.

The Irish appreciate — none better — American money; they like being put on the map in more ways than one; they have a weakness for a bit of good réclame; but they are not the simple unsophisticated naturals that so many of their ‘ fans’ would have them be. When all is said and done, Sinn Fein is not the slogan of a race of happy-go-lucky playboys; and the last twenty years of Irish history have shown us a race of hard-headed realists with a talent for getting the better of their adversaries and a political sophistication it would be hard to rival.

To this instinct for the theatrical there is added an almost uncanny perceptiveness in the Irish make-up. The average beggar in the street can tell by the look of you what particular type of blarney you will fall for; the tramp you meet on the country road knows in a glance what you come from and what kind of history you will most delight in.

There was current in Dublin, some years ago, the story of a local newspaper boy who had the reputation of selling more newspapers (and they to be a day old) than any of his rivals in the field. A clubman, with archæological proclivities, determined to find out the secret of this strange success. After a long period devoted to research, he found that the boy’s methods were very simple — as simple as they were effective. When the lad saw a prospective buyer come in sight, he sized him up rapidly as a Protestant or a Catholic. If the former, he would shout, ‘Diabolical outrage! Young Protestant girl violated by Catholic priest!’ If the latter, he would yell, ‘Diabolical outrage! Young Catholic girl violated by Protestant bishop!’ And the fish would bite. It is said that he seldom missed his guess.

I cannot vouch for the truth of this story; it was told me by the clubman in question and he was Irish; but, even if apocryphal, it does serve as a clue to the traits which ‘dazed’ and ‘puzzled’ Keats.

IV

The reason for this extraordinary quickness of perception is to be found, I think, in the fact that the Irish are a bilingual people, for Irish has always been spoken in some part of the country, and a race which is bilingual is usually much more nimble-witted than a people who speak but one language. Many traces of the Irish still remain in the spoken English, which is, therefore, much less regulated by convention and consequently much more picturesque than the same language across the Channel.

There is a strange mixture of realistic and of what one might call ‘highfalutin’ speech in Ireland, but a great deal of the so-called ‘poetic’ language is straight translation from the Irish and in reality as prosaic as the stolid talk of the Maine farmer. So the ‘ears polite’ of the tourist are just as likely to be shocked by the plain unvarnished realism of Irish talk as to be soothed by its sweet sounds; he will hear ‘I’ll give him a lick over the gob with the gut-board’ as often as he will thrill to ‘I ’ll lave me hands in the clear stream.’

An artist who lived in Achill for many years is said to have observed that Synge’s plays were merely a literal reproduction of the talk among the Galway and Mayo islanders, and no doubt he knows whereof he speaks. But the language of Sean O’Casey is quite as true to Irish life as that of Synge; and Joxer Daly and the ‘Paycock’ are no whit less characteristically Irish than Pegeen Mike and Christy Mahon.

Far too much has been written and said about the quaintness and colorfulness of the Irish language and the romance and mystery of Ireland itself. To lay undue emphasis upon such aspects is to hamper the free literary and artistic development of a people and fosters a certain hypocritical spirit. Years of political change apparently have failed to make clear to the sentimental foreigner (who likes his Irish served with ice and soda water) the tremendously strong strain of cynicism and realism in the national character, which is bound to predominate finally; and even now the rising generation of poets, dramatists, and artists are casting off the musty conventions of the past. Young Ireland, whose middle name is sophistication, does not want to be suckled in a creed outworn, and the voice of Young Ireland is insistent and not to be denied. The new generation is out for blood, and the upholders of a stale tradition who are trying to prop the ruins of ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ may look to themselves.

Nothing is more significant in recent years than the work of the Gate Theatre — for, as was to be expected, the voice of Young Ireland is the theatre. It has forged ahead from very small beginnings until to-day its directors have been asked to America to help produce plays this summer, and the work of such young men as E. W. Tocher is too well known to those whose concern is the theatre to need mention here. These young people are fast breaking away from the old forms of the traditional folk play, and, by adapting to their own use all the best of the experiments of America and Europe in the field of drama, are well on the way to creating a thoroughly characteristic national theatre whose voice is destined to go out into all lands.

But bookings are still being made for the Sentimental Journey! Better go while the going is good, for the accommodations are getting a bit outmoded, and your fellow passengers will smack of Brooklyn Heights rather than Park Avenue. If you hurry you may get a fleeting glimpse of the last ’little Irish colleen in her ould plaid shawl,’ whatever that may be, as she trips in silk stockings and smart shoes (Irish manufacture) Dublinwards. You may even succeed in reaching America’s Mecca — ‘ the wild and windy corner of far-distant hills.’ If you do, you will see against the sky line of those hills, at regular intervals, the poles of the Shannon Electric Power Company, which has forever routed the shadows of the Celtic Twilight.