IRISH BOOKS AND IRISH PEOPLE
DUBLIN The Talbot Press Ltd. 89 Talbot Street
LONDON T. Fisher Unwin Ltd. 1 Adelphi Terrace
Page INTRODUCTION 1
NOVELS OF IRISH LIFE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY 7
A CENTURY OF IRISH HUMOUR 23
LITERATURE AMONG THE ILLITERATES:
I.—THE SHANACHY 44
II.—THE LIFE OF A SONG 51
IRISH EDUCATION AND IRISH CHARACTER 65
THE IRISH GENTRY 83
YESTERDAY IN IRELAND 97
My publisher must take at least some of the responsibility for reviving these essays. All bear the marks of the period at which they were written; and some of them deal with the beginnings of movements which have since grown to much greater strength, and in growing have developed new characteristics at the expense of what was originally more prominent. Other pages, again, take no account of facts which to-day must be present to the mind of every Irish reader, and so are, perhaps significantly, out of date. Nobody for instance, could now complain that Irish humour is lacking in seriousness. Synge disposed of that criticism—and, indeed, the Abbey Theatre in its tone as a whole may be accused of neglecting Ireland's gift for simple fun. Yet Lady Gregory made the most of it in her "Spreading the News," and Mr. Yeats in his "Pot of Broth."—How beautifully W. G. Fay interpreted an Irish laughter which had no bitterness in it.
But the strong intellectual movement which has swept over Ireland has been both embittering and embittered. These last five and twenty years have been the most formative in the country's history of any since Ireland became the composite nation that she now is, or, perhaps, has yet to become. At the back of it all lies the great social change involved in the transfer of ownership from the landlord to the cultivators of the soil—a change which has literally disenserfed three-fourths of Ireland's people. Yet the relations are obscure, indefinite, and intangible, which unite that material result to the outcome of two forces, allied but distinct, which have operated solely on men's minds and spirits. These are, of course, the Gaelic revival and the whole literary movement which has had its most concrete expression in the Irish theatre, and its most potent inspiration in the personality of Mr. Yeats.
Of these two forces, one can show by far the more tangible effects, for the Gaelic League has issued in action. Setting out to revive and save the Irish language as a living speech, the instrument of a nation's intercourse, it has failed of its purpose; but it has revived and rendered potent the principle of separation. Nationalist, it will have nothing to do with a nationality that is not as plainly marked off from other nationalities as a red lamp from a green lamp; and the essential symbol of separate nationality is for orthodox Gaelic Leaguers a separate language. America, said an able exponent of this doctrine the other day in a public debate, will never and never can be a nation till its language is no longer recognisable as English—till its English differs as much from the language of England as German differs from Dutch. An inevitable corollary to this view is the necessity for complete political separation from Great Britain—if only to provide the machinery for this complete differentiation by daily speech.
I cannot pretend to assess impartially the value of this movement. It asserted itself in passionate deeds at a moment when many thousands of us Nationalists were taking equally vigorous action in pursuit of a less tribal ideal. Thousands of us lost our lives, all of us risked our lives, with the hope of achieving a national unity which could never be built on the basis of regarding no man as an Irishman who did not speak, or at least desire to speak, Gaelic for his mother tongue. The action of Irish soldiers was thwarted and frustrated by the action of a very few separatists, with a very small expense to themselves in bloodshed. But the tribute to the work of the Gaelic League is that Ireland accepted them and rejected us. None can deny that it has been a potent stimulus to national education; and it only lacks official prohibition by the British Government to become more powerful still.
Whatever the outcome, I take back nothing of what is written in these papers concerning the Gaelic revival. In a country governed against the will of its people, forces that, under normal and healthy conditions, would be purely beneficent, may easily grow explosive and disruptive. Yet I have not changed my mind on a critical question which led me to sever my connection with the work of the Gaelic League. When that body decided to rely on compulsion rather than persuasion, it took the wrong road, if its object was to endear the Irish language to all Ireland, and to induce all Irishmen to cherish it as part of the common national heritage. As a result Ulstermen have a perfect right to say that if they accepted Home Rule, one of the first steps of an Irish government formed under the present auspices would be to demand a knowledge of Gaelic as the necessary qualification for holding any public office.
I do not believe that this tribal idealism which is now so potent will endure. It is out of harmony with the world's development—a world which in order to preserve the very principle of small nationalities, is growing more and more international. America is not only a nation, but is the type of the modern nation—bound together less by what it inherits from the past, than by what it hopes from the future.
The other force which has been operating through these years is, in a sense, obliged to give the lie to the pretensions of the Gaelic League. Yeats and Synge have showed how completely it is possible to be Irish while using the English language. They have accepted the fact that Ireland to-day thinks in English, but they have endeavoured to give to Ireland a distinctively Irish thought, coloured by the whole racial tradition and temperament. With them has been allied a personality not less Irish, yet less obviously Irish—"A.E.," George Russell. Between them, these writers and thinkers have profoundly influenced the mind of the generation younger than themselves. It is not possible to deny that Ireland's literary output during those last twenty years is far more important and serious than that of the whole preceding century. The only part of it exempt from these influences is the work of Edith Somerville and Martin Ross; and even that is based on a closer study of distinctively Irish speech than had ever been attempted in earlier days. The propagandist work of Pearse and Arthur Griffiths—equal in merit to that of their forerunners, Davis and Mitchel—was Irish only in substance and spirit, not in form or accent—a thing the less surprising, since both men were only half Irish by parentage. But the whole group of writers, of whom it may be said that their writings are almost as unmistakably Irish as the work of Burns is Scotch, have followed Mr. Yeats and Synge in this, that in writing they assume an Irish public, not an English one; they make no explanations, they speak as to those who share their own inheritance. In this group has been fostered a spirit of the freedom which belongs properly to art. Thus the school, for it may justly be called a school, has created its own tradition, and it has been a tradition of freedom, not asserted but exercised: a freedom, not as against England, but as against all the world. Everywhere, but especially in countries undergoing revolutionary change, there is a tyranny of the crowd. When the Gaelic League decided to make the learning of Irish compulsory, it attorned to this tyranny. On the other hand, Mr. Yeats, at a moment when the Abbey Theatre seemed about to become popular, was threatened by a fiat of this mob-dictatorship; he was told that his theatre must become unpopular unless he would throw overboard most of Synge's work. By the stand which he then made he did a greater service to freedom of the mind in Ireland than has yet been at all recognised; he helped to make his country fearless and strong. Thanks mainly to him and to those who worked with him, Ireland's thought is freer and more outspoken; there is more thought in Ireland than there used to be. This does not make the country easier to govern, and just now, Ireland, if given the opportunity, would have a hard task to govern itself. But Ireland would not be the only country in the world in that predicament. The schoolmaster has been abroad, and where you have education without liberty there is bound to be trouble. The only cure is, not to suppress education, but to give the responsibility of freedom.
I have left these papers in order as they were written, with dates annexed. One of them, Literature among the Illiterates, was published in an earlier volume, To-day and To-morrow in Ireland which is now out of print. I include it here, because it completes the companion essay, called The Life of a Song.
My acknowledgments are due to the various publications in which they have all, except the last, previously appeared.
Dublin, March, 1919.
NOVELS OF IRISH LIFE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
"What Ireland wants," said an old gentleman not very long ago, "is a Walter Scott." The remedy did not seem very practical, since Walter Scotts will not come to order, but the point of view is worth noting, for there you touch the central fact about Irish literature. We desire a Walter Scott that he may glorify our annals, popularise our legends, describe our scenery, and give an attractive view of the national character. In short, we know that Ireland possesses pre-eminently the quality of picturesqueness, and we should like to see it turned to good account. We want a Walter Scott to advertise Ireland, and to fill the hotels with tourists; but as for desiring to possess a great novelist simply for the distinction of the thing, probably no civilised people on earth is more indifferent to the matter. At present, indeed, a Walter Scott, should he appear in Ireland, would be apt to have a cold welcome. To write on anything connected with Irish history is inevitably to offend the Press of one party, and very probably of both. Lever is less of a caricaturist than Dickens, yet Dickens is idolised while Lever has been bitterly blamed for lowering Irish character in the eyes of the world; the charge is even repeated in the Dictionary of National Biography. That may be patriotic sentiment, but it is not criticism.
Literature in Ireland, in short, is almost inextricably connected with considerations foreign to art; it is regarded as a means, not as an end. During the nineteenth century the belief being general among all classes of Irish people that the English know nothing of Ireland, every book on an Irish subject was judged by the effect it was likely to have upon English opinion, to which the Irish are naturally sensitive, since it decides the most important Irish questions. But apart from this practical aspect of the matter, there is a morbid national sensitiveness which desires to be consulted. Ireland, though she ought to count herself amply justified of her children, is still complaining that she is misunderstood among the nations; she is for ever crying out for someone to give her keener sympathy, fuller appreciation, and exhibit herself and her grievances to the world in a true light. The result is that kind of insincerity and special pleading which has been the curse of Irish or Anglo-Irish literature. I write of a literature which has its natural centre in Dublin, not in Connemara; which looks eastward, not westward. That literature begins with the Drapier Letters: it continues through the great line of orators in whom the Irish genius (we say nothing of the Celtic) has found its highest expression; and it produced its first novelist, perhaps also its best, in the unromantic person of Maria Edgeworth.
Miss Edgeworth had a sound instinct for her art, disfigured though her later writings are by what Madame de Stael called her triste utilite. Her first story is her most artistic production. Castle Rackrent is simply a pleasant satire upon the illiterate and improvident gentry who have always been too common in her country. In this book she holds no brief; she never stops to preach; her moral is implied, not expressed. A historian might, it is true, go to Castle Rackrent for information about the conditions of land tenure as well as about social life in the Ireland of that day; but the erudition is part and parcel of her story. Throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, setting aside great towns, the main interest of life for all classes is the possession of land. Irish peasants seldom marry for love, they never murder for love; but they marry and they murder for land. To know something of the land-question is indispensable for an Irish novelist, and Miss Edgeworth graduated with honours in this subject. She was her father's agent; when her brother succeeded to the property she resigned, but in the troubles of 1830 she was recalled to the management, and saved the estate. Castle Rackrent is, therefore, like Galt's Annals of the Parish, a historical document; but it is none the worse story for that. The narrative is put dramatically into the mouth of old Thady, a lifelong servant of the family. Thady's son, Jason Quirk, attorney and agent to the estate, has dispossessed the Rackrents; but Thady is still "poor Thady," and regards the change with horror. Before recounting the history of his own especial master and patron, Sir Condy Rackrent, last of the line, Thady gives his ingenuous account of the three who previously bore the name; Sir Patrick, Sir Murtagh, and Sir Kit. Sir Patrick, the inventor of raspberry whiskey, died at table: "Just as the company rose to drink his health with three cheers, he fell down in a sort of fit, and was carried off; they sat it out, and were surprised in the morning to find that it was all over with poor Sir Patrick." That no gentleman likes to be disturbed after dinner, was the best recognised rule of life in Ireland; if your host happened to have a fit, you knew he would wish you to sit it out. Gerald Griffin in The Collegians makes the same point with his usual vigour. A shot is heard in the dining-room by the maids downstairs. They are for rushing in, but the manservant knows better: "Sure, don't you know, if there was anyone shot the master would ring the bell." After Sir Patrick, who thus lived and died, to quote his epitaph, "a monument of old Irish hospitality," came Sir Murtagh, "who was a very learned man in the law, and had the character of it"; another passion that seems to go with the land-hunger in Ireland. Sir Murtagh married one of the family of the Skinflints: "She was a strict observer for self and servants of Lent and all fast days, but not holidays." However, says Thady (is there not a strong trace of Swift in all this?).
"However, my lady was very charitable in her own way. She had a charity school for poor children, where they were taught to read and write gratis, and where they were well kept to spinning gratis for my lady in return; for she had always heaps of duty yarn from the tenants, and got all her household linen out of the estate from first to last; for after the spinning, the weavers on the estate took it in hand for nothing, because of the looms my lady's interest could get from the Linen Board to distribute gratis.... Her table the same way, kept for next to nothing; duty fowls, and duty turkeys, and duty geese came as fast as we could eat them, for my lady kept a sharp look-out and knew to a tub of butter everything the tenants had all round.... As for their young pigs, we had them, and the best bacon and hams they could make up, with all young chickens in the spring; but they were a set of poor wretches, and we had nothing but misfortunes with them, always breaking and running away. This, Sir Murtagh and my lady said, was all their former landlord, Sir Patrick's fault, who let 'em get the half year's rent into arrear; there was something in that, to be sure. But Sir Murtagh was as much the contrary way—"
I have abridged my lady's methods, and I omit Sir Murtagh's, who taught his tenants, as he said, to know the law of landlord and tenant. But, "though a learned man in the law, he was a little too incredulous in other matters." He neglected his health, broke a blood-vessel in a rage with my lady, and so made way for Sir Kit the prodigal. Sir Kit was shot in a duel, and Sir Condy came into an estate which, between Sir Murtagh's law-suits and Sir Kit's gaming, was considerably embarrassed; indeed, the story proper is simply a history of makeshifts to keep rain and bailiffs out of the family mansion. Poor Sir Condy; he was the very moral of the man who is no man's enemy but his own, and was left at the last with no friend but old Thady. Even Judy Quirk turned against him, forgetting his goodness in tossing up between her and Miss Isabella Moneygawl, the romantic lady who eloped with him after the toss. She deserted before Judy; here is a bit of the final scene. Thady was going upstairs with a slate to make up a window-pane.
"This window was in the long passage, or gallery, as my lady gave orders to have it called, in the gallery leading up to my master's bedchamber and hers. And when I went up with the slate, the door having no lock, and the bolt spoilt, was ajar after Mrs. Jane (my lady's maid), and as I was busy with the window, I heard all that was saying within. 'Well, what's in your letter, Bella, my dear?' says he. 'You're a long time spelling it over.' 'Won't you shave this morning, Sir Condy?' says she, and put the letter into her pocket. 'I shaved the day before yesterday,' says he, 'my dear, and that's not what I'm thinking of now; but anything to oblige you, and to have peace and quietness, my dear,'—and presently I had the glimpse of him at the cracked glass over the chimney-piece, standing up shaving himself to please my lady."
However, the quarrel comes on in a delightful scene, where Sir Condy shows himself at all events an amiable gentleman; and so my lady goes home to her own people. There you have Miss Edgeworth at her very best; and, indeed, Castle Rackrent received such a tribute as no other novel ever had paid to it. Many people have heard how when Waverley came to the Edgeworth household, Mr. Edgeworth, after his custom, read it aloud almost, as it would appear, at one sitting. When the end came for that fascinated circle, amid the chorus of exclamations, Mr. Edgeworth said: "What is this? Postscript which ought to have been a preface." Then there was a chorus of protests that he should not break the spell with prose. "Anyhow," he said, "let us hear what the man has to say," and so read on to the passage where Scott explained that he desired to do for Scotland what had been done for Ireland: "to emulate the admirable fidelity of Miss Edgeworth's portraits." What Maria Edgeworth felt we know from the letter she posted off "to the Author of 'Waverley,' Aut Scotus aut Diabolus."
It would be unkind to compare Scott with his model. For the poetry and the tragic power of his novels one would never think of looking in Miss Edgeworth. Her work is compact of observation; yet the gifts she has are not to be under-valued. She is mistress of a kindly yet searching satire, real wit, a fine vein of comedy; and she can rise to such true pathos as dignifies the fantastic figure of King Corny in Ormond, perhaps the best thing she ever did. But she had in her father a literary adviser, not of the negative but of the positive order, and there never was a more fully developed prig than Richard Edgeworth. His view of literature was purely utilitarian; to convey practical lessons was the business of all superior persons, more particularly of an Edgeworth. In Castle Rackrent his suggestions and comments are happily relegated to the position of notes; in the other books they form part and parcel of the novel. The Absentee, for instance, contains admirable dialogue and many life-like figures; but the scheme of the story conveys a sense of unreality. Every fault or vice has its counterbalancing virtue represented. Lady Clonbroney, vulgarly ashamed of her country, is set off by the patriotic Lady Oranmore; the virtuous Mr. Burke forms too obvious a pendant to the rascally agents old Nick and St. Dennis. It is needless to say that the exclusively virtuous people are deadly dull. It is the novel with a purpose written by a novelist whose strength lies in the delineation of character. Miss Edgeworth can never carry you away with her story, as Charles Reade sometimes can, and make you forget and forgive the virtuous intention.
What was unreal in Miss Edgeworth became mere insincerity in her contemporary, Lady Morgan. Few people could tell you now where Thackeray got Miss Glorvina O'Dowd's baptismal name; yet The Wild Irish Girl had a great triumph in its day, and Glorvina stood sponsor to the milliners' and haberdashers' inventions ninety years before the apotheosis of Trilby. O'Donnell, which is counted Lady Morgan's best novel, gives a lively ideal portrait of the authoress, first as the governess-grub, then transformed by marriage into the butterfly-duchess. But the book is a thinly-disguised political pamphlet. "Look," she says in effect, "at the heroic virtues of O'Donnell, the young Irishman, driven to serve in foreign armies, despoiled of his paternal estates by the penal laws; look at the fidelity, the simplicity, the native humour (so dramatically effective) of his servant Rory; and then say if you will not plump for Catholic Emancipation." "My dear lady," the reader murmurs, "I wondered why you were so set upon underlining all these things. Can you not tell us a story frankly, and let us alone with your conclusions?"
Unfortunately, very much the same has to be said of a far greater writer, William Carleton, even in those tales which are based upon his own most intimate experience. The Poor Scholar, his most popular story, proceeds directly from an episode in his own life. He had himself been a poor scholar, had set out from his northern home to walk to Munster, where the best known schools were, trusting to charity by the way to lodge him, and to charity to keep him throughout his schooling for the sake of his vocation, and for the blessing sure to descend upon those who aided a peasant's son to become a priest. Nothing could be more vivid than the early scenes, the collection made at the altar for Jimmy McEvoy, the priest's sermon, the boy's parting from home, and the roadside hospitality; there is one infinitely touching episode in the house of the first farmer who shelters him. Then come the school itself, and the tyranny of its master, till the boy falls sick of a fever, and is turned out of doors. Then, alas, the conventional intervenes in the person of the virtuous absentee ignorant of his agent's misdoings: the long arm of coincidence is stretched to the uttermost; and we have to wade through pages of discussion upon the relations of landlord and tenant till we are put wholly out of tune for the beautiful scene of Jimmy's return home in his priestly dress.
Carleton did for the peasantry what Miss Edgeworth had done for the upper classes. In her books the peasants have only an incidental part, and she describes them shrewdly and sympathetically enough, but with a mind untouched either by their faith or by their superstitions; seeing their good and bad qualities clearly in a dry light, but never in imagination identifying herself with them. Superior to Miss Edgeworth in power and insight, he is immeasurably her inferior in literary skill. One should remember, in commenting upon the poverty of Irish literature in English, that, so far as concerns imaginative work, it began in the nineteenth century. Carleton only died in 1869, Miss Edgeworth in 1849; and before them there is no one.
On the other hand the speech of Lowland Scots, with whose richness in masterpieces our poverty is naturally contrasted, has been employed for literature as long as the vernacular English. A king of Scotland wrote admirable verse in the generation after Chaucer; the influence of the Court fostered poetry, and the close intercourse with France kept Scotch writers in touch with first-rate models. Dunbar, strolling as a friar in France, may have known Villon, whom he often resembles. In Ireland, till a century ago, English was as much a foreign language as Norman French in England under the Plantagenets. Among the English Protestants, settled in Ireland, and separated by a hard line of cleavage from the Catholic population, there arose great men in letters, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, who showed their Irish temperament in their handling of English themes. But in Ireland itself, before the events of 1782 added importance to Dublin, there was no centre for a literature to gather round. Such national pride as exists in English-speaking Ireland dates from the days of Grattan and Flood. And Irish national aspirations still bear the impress of their origin amid that period of political turmoil, than which nothing is more hostile to the brooding care of literary workmanship, the long labour and the slow result. Irishmen have always shown a strong disinclination to pure literature. The roll of Irish novelists is more than half made up of women's names; Miss Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, Miss Emily Lawless, and Miss Jane Barlow. Journalists Ireland has produced as copiously as orators; the writers of The Spirit of the Nation, that admirable collection of stirring poems, are journalists working in verse; and Carleton, falling under their influence, became a journalist working in fiction. In his pages, even when the debater ceases to argue and harangue, the style is still journalistic, except in those passages where his dramatic instinct puts living speech into the mouths of men and women. Politics so monopolise the minds of Irishmen, newspapers so make up their whole reading, that the class to which Carleton and the poet Mangan belonged have never fully entered upon the heritage of English literature. If an English peasant knows nothing else, he knows the Bible and very likely Bunyan; but a Roman Catholic population has little commerce with that pure fountain of style. Genius cannot dispense with models, and Carleton and Mangan had the worst possible. Yet when it has been said that Carleton was a half-educated peasant, writing in a language whose best literature he had not sufficiently assimilated to feel the true value of words, it remains to be said that he was a great novelist. He cannot be fairly illustrated by quotation; but read any of his stories and see if he does not bring up vividly before you Ireland as it was before the famine; Ireland still swarming with beggars who marched about in families subsisting chiefly on the charity of the poor; Ireland of which the hedge-school was plainly to him the most characteristic institution.
Carleton does not stand by himself; he is the head and representative of a whole class of Irish novelists, among whom John Banim is the best known name. All of them were peasants who aimed at depicting scenes of peasant life from their own experience. What one may call the melodramatic Irish story, in which Lever was so brilliantly successful, has its first famous example in The Collegians of Gerald Griffin. The novel has no concern with college life, and is far better described by its stage-title, The Colleen Bawn. Here at least is a man with a story to tell and no object but to tell it. Griffin belonged to the lay order of Christian Brothers: his book deals principally with a society no more familiar to him than was the household of Mr. Rochester to Charlotte Bronte; and his method recalls the Brontes by its strenuous imagination and its vehement painting of passion. The tale was suggested by a murder which excited all Ireland. A young southern squire carried off a girl with some money, and procured her death by drowning. He was arrested at his mother's house and a terrible scene took place, terribly rendered in the book. Griffin, of course, changes the motive; the girl is carried off not for money but for love, and she is sacrificed to make way for a stronger passion. Eily O'Connor, the victim, is a pretty and pathetic figure; the hero-villain Hardress Cregan, and the mother who indirectly causes the crime, are effective though melodramatic; but the actual murderer, Danny the Lord, Hardress Cregan's familiar, is worthy of Scott or Hugo.
In his sketches of society, Hyland Creagh, the duellist, old Cregan, and the rest, Griffin is describing a state of affairs previous to his own experience, the Ireland of Sir Jonah Barrington's memoirs; he is not, as were Carleton and Miss Edgeworth, copying minutely from personal observation. Herein he resembles Lever who, when all is said and done, remains the chief, as he is the most Irish, of Irish novelists. It is true that Lever had two distinct manners: and in his later books he deals chiefly with contemporary society, drawing largely on his experiences of diplomatic life. Like most novelists he preferred his later work; but the books by which he is best known, Harry Lorrequer and the rest, are his earliest productions; and though his maturer skill was employed on different subjects, he formed his imagination in studies of the Napoleonic Wars and of a duelling, drinking, bailiff-beating Ireland. His point of view never altered, and the peculiar attraction of his writings is always the same. Lever's books have the quality rather of speech than of writing; wherever you open the pages there is always a witty, well-informed Irishman discoursing to you, who tells his story admirably, when he has one to tell, and, failing that, never fails to be pleasant. Irish talk is apt to be discursive; to rely upon a general charm diffused through the whole, rather than upon any quotable brilliancy; its very essence is spontaneity, high spirits, fertility of resource. That is a fair description of Lever. He is never at a loss. If his story hangs, off he goes at score with a perfectly irrelevant anecdote, but told with such enjoyment of the joke that you cannot resent the digression. Indeed the plots are left pretty much to take care of themselves; he positively preferred to write his stories in monthly instalments for a magazine; he is not a conscientious artist, but he lays himself out to amuse you, and he does it. If he advertises a character as a wit, he does not labour phrases to describe his brilliancy; he produces the witticisms. He has been accused of exaggeration. As regards the incidents, one can only say that the memoirs of Irish society at the beginning of this century furnish at least fair warranty for any of his inventions. In character-drawing he certainly overcharged the traits: but he did so with intention, and by consistently heightening the tones throughout obtained an artistic impression, which had life behind it, however ingeniously travestied. His stories have no unity of action, but through a great diversity of characters and incidents they maintain their unity of treatment. That is not the highest ideal of the novel, but it is an intelligible one, not lacking famous examples; and Lever perfectly understood it.
If one wishes to realise how good an artist Lever was, the best way is to read his contemporary Samuel Lover. Handy Andy appeared somewhat later than Harry Lorrequer. It is just the difference between good whiskey and bad whiskey; both are indigenous and therefore characteristic, but let us be judged by our best. Obviously the men have certain things in common; great natural vivacity, and an easy cheerful way of looking at life. Lover can raise a laugh, but his wit is horseplay except for a few happy phrases. He has no real comedy; there is nothing in Handy Andy half so ingenious as the story in Jack Hinton of the way Ulick Bourke acquitted himself of his debt to Father Tom. And behind all Lever's conventional types there is a real fund of observation and knowledge which is absolutely wanting in Lover, who simply lacked the brains to be anything more than a trifler.
A very different talent was that of their younger contemporary J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The author of Uncle Silas had plenty of solid power; but his art was too highly specialised. No one ever succeeded better in two main objects of the story-teller; first, in exciting interest, in stimulating curiosity by vague hints of some dreadful mystery; and then in concentrating attention upon a dramatic scene. It is true that, although an Irishman, he gained his chief successes with stories that had an English setting; but one of the best, The House by the Churchyard, describes very vividly life at Chapelizod in the days when this deserted little village, which lies just beyond the Phoenix Park, was thickly peopled with the families of officers stationed in Dublin. Yet somehow one does not carry away from the reading of it any picture of that society; the story is so exciting that the mind has no time to rest on details, but hurries on from clue to clue till finally and literally the murder is out. Books which keep a reader on the tenter-hooks of conjecture must always suffer from this undue concentration of the interest; and in spite of cheery, inquisitive Dr. Toole, and the remarkable sketch of Black Dillon, the ruffianly genius with a reputation only recognised in the hospitals and the police-courts (a character admirably invented and admirably used in the plot) one can hardly class Le Fanu among those novelists who have left memorable presentments of Irish life. It is a pity; for plainly, if the man had cared less for sensational incident and ingenious construction, he might have sketched life and character with a strong brush and a kind of grim realism.
Realism Lever does not aim at: he declines to be on his oath about anything. What he gives one, vividly enough, is national colour, not local colour; he is essentially Irish, just as Fielding is essentially English; but he aims at verisimilitude rather than veracity. The ideal of the novel has changed since his day. Compare him with the two ladies who stand out prominently among contemporary writers of Irish fiction, Miss Jane Barlow and Miss Emily Lawless. To begin with, Lever's stories are always concerned with the Quality; peasants only come in for an underplot, or in subordinate parts; and the gentry all through Ireland resemble one another within reasonable limits. It is different with the peasantry. In every part of Ireland you will find people who have never been ten miles away from the place of their birth, and upon whom a local character is unmistakably stamped. The contemporary novelists delight to mark these differences, these salient points of singularity; and their studies are chiefly of the peasantry. They settle down upon some little corner of the country and never stir out of it. Miss Lawless is not content to get you Irish character; she must show you a Clare man or an Arran islander, and she is at infinite pains to point out how his nature, even his particular actions, are influenced by the place of his bringing up. Lever avoids this specialisation; he prefers a stone wall country for his hunting scenes, but beyond that he goes no further into details. Again Miss Lawless both in Grania and in Hurrish makes you aware that young Irishmen of Hurrish's class are curiously indifferent to female beauty. Lever will have none of that: his Irishman must be "a divil with the girls," although Lever is no sentimentalist, and does not talk of love matches among the Irish peasantry.
The greatest divergence of all, however, is in the temper attributed to the Irish. Lever makes them gay, Miss Lawless and Miss Barlow make them sad. No one denies that sadness is nearer the reality, but it is unreasonable to call Lever insincere. Naturally careless and lighthearted he does not trouble himself with the riddle of the painful world; the distress which touches him most nearly is a distress for debt. But if Lever is not realistic he is natural; he follows the law of his nature as an artist should; he sees life through his own medium; and if books are to be valued as companions, not many of them are better company than Charles O'Malley or Lord Kilgobbin; for first and last Lever was always himself.
Yet, I must own it, it does not do to read Lever soon after Miss Barlow. Her stories of Lisconnel and its folk have a tragic dignity wholly out of his range. It is a sad-coloured country she writes of, gray and brown; sodden brown with bog water, gray with rock cropping up through the fields; the only brightness is up overhead in the heavens, and even they are often clouded. These sombre hues, with the passing gleam of something above them, reflect themselves in every page of her books. She renders that complete harmony between the people and their surroundings which is only seen in working folk whose clothes are stained with the colour of the soil they live by, and whose lives assimilate themselves to its character. She has a fineness of touch, a poetry, to which no other Irish story-teller has attained.
Yet, Miss Barlow has never succeeded with a regular novel: and she may have been only a forerunner. All great writers proceed from a school, and there does exist now undeniably a school of Irish literature which differs from Miss Edgeworth in being strongly tinged with the element of Celtic romance, from Carleton in possessing an admirable standard of style, and from Lever in aiming at a sincere and vital portraiture of Irish life.
A CENTURY OF IRISH HUMOUR.
In a preface to the French translation of Sienkiewicz's works, M. de Wyzewa, the well-known critic, himself a Pole, makes a suggestive comparison between the Polish and the Russian natures. The Pole, he says, is quicker, wittier, more imaginative, more studious of beauty, less absorbed in the material world than the Russian—in a word, infinitely more gifted with the artistic temperament; and yet in every art the Russian has immeasurably outstripped the Pole. His explanation, if not wholly convincing, is at least suggestive. The Poles are a race of dreamers, and the dreamer finds his reward in himself. He does not seek to conquer the world with arms or with commerce, with tears or with laughter; neither money tempts him nor fame, and the strenuous, unremitting application which success demands, whether in war, business, or the arts, is alien to his being.
The same observation and the same reasoning apply with equal force to the English and the Irish. No one who has lived in the two countries will deny that the Irish are apparently the more gifted race; no one can deny, if he has knowledge and candour, that the English have accomplished a great deal more, the Irish a great deal less. Nowhere is this more evident than in the productions of that faculty which Irishmen have always been reputed, and justly reputed, to possess in peculiar measure—the faculty of humour. Compare Lever, who for a long time passed as the typical Irish humorist, with his contemporaries Thackeray and Dickens. The comparison is not fair, but it suggests the central fact that the humour of Irish literature is deficient in depth, in intellectual quality, or, to put it after an Irish fashion, in gravity.
'Humorous' is a word as question-begging as 'artistic,' and he would be a rash man who should try to define either. But so much as this will readily be admitted, that humour is a habit of mind essentially complex, involving always a double vision—a reference from the public or normal standard of proportion to one that is private and personal. The humorist refuses to part with any atom of his own personality, he stamps it on whatever comes from him. "If reasons were as plenty as blackberries," says Falstaff, achieving individuality by the same kind of odd picturesque comparison as every witty Irish peasant uses in talk, to the delight of himself and his hearers. But the individuality lies deeper than phrases: Falstaff takes his private standard into battle with him. There is nothing more obviously funny than the short paunchy man, let us not say cowardly, but disinclined to action, who finds himself engaged in a fight. Lever has used him a score of times (beginning with Mr. O'Leary in the row at a gambling-hall in Paris), and whether he runs or whether he fights, his efforts to do either are grotesquely laughable. Shakespeare puts that view of Falstaff too: Prince Hal words it. But Falstaff, the humorist in person, rises on the field of battle over the slain Percy and enunciates his philosophy of the better part of valour. Falstaff's estimate of honour—"that word honour" ("Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it?"), the "grinning honour" that Sir Walter Blunt wears where the Douglas left him—is necessary to complete the humorist's vision of a battle-piece. Lever will scarcely visit you with such reflections, for the humorist of Lever's type never stands apart and smiles; he laughs loud and in company. Still less will he give you one of those speeches which are the supreme achievement of this faculty, where the speaker's philosophy is not reasoned out liked Falstaff's, but revealed in a flash of the onlooker's insight. Is it pardonable to quote the account of Falstaff's death as the hostess narrates it?
"How now, Sir John, quoth I, what, man! be of good cheer. So a' cried out God, God, three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet."
Humour can go no farther than that terrible, illuminating phrase, which is laughable enough, heaven knows, but scarce likely to make you laugh. Contrast the humour of that with the humour of such a story as Lever delighted in. There were two priests dining with a regiment, we all have read in Harry Lorrequer, who chaffed a dour Ulster Protestant till he was the open derision of the mess. Next time they returned, the Protestant major was radiant with a geniality that they could not explain till they had to make their way out of barracks in a hurry, and found that the countersign (arranged by the major) was "Bloody end to the Pope." Told as Lever tells it, with all manner of jovial amplifications, that story would make anyone laugh. But it does not go deep. The thing is funny in too obvious a way; the mirth finds too large an outlet in laughter; it does not hang about the brain, inextricable from the processes of thought; it carries nothing with it beyond the jest. And just as tears help to an assuaging of grief, so in a sense laughter makes an end of mirth. Give a feeling its instinctive vent, and you will soon be done with it, like the child who laughs and cries within five minutes; check it, and it spreads inward, gaining in intellectual quality as it loses in physical expression. The moral is, that if you wish to be really humorous you must not be too funny; and the capital defect of most Irish humour is that its aim is too simple—it does not look beyond raising a laugh.
There are brilliant exceptions in the century that lies between Sheridan and Mr. Bernard Shaw, between Maria Edgeworth and Miss Barlow. But serious art or serious thought in Ireland has always revealed itself to the English sooner or later as a species of sedition, and the Irish have with culpable folly allowed themselves to accept for characteristic excellences what were really the damning defects of their work—an easy fluency of wit, a careless spontaneity of laughter. They have taken Moore for a great poet, and Handy Andy for a humorist to be proud of. Yet an Irishman who wishes to speak dispassionately must find humour of a very different kind from that of Handy Andy or Harry Lorrequer either, to commend without reserve, as a thing that may be put forward to rank with what is best in other literatures.
Taking Sheridan and Miss Edgeworth as marking the point of departure, it becomes obvious that one is an end, the other at a beginning. Sheridan belongs body and soul to the eighteenth century; Miss Edgeworth, though her name sounds oddly in that context, is part and parcel of the romantic movement. The "postscript which ought to have been a preface" to Waverley declared, though after Scott's magnificent fashion, a real indebtedness. Sheridan's humour, essentially metropolitan, had found no use for local colour; Miss Edgeworth before Scott proved the artistic value that could be extracted from the characteristics of a special breed of people under special circumstances in a special place. Mr. Yeats, who, like all poets, is a most suggestive and a most misleading critic, has declared that modern Irish literature begins with Carleton. That is only true if we are determined to look in Irish literature for qualities that can be called Celtic—if we insist that the outlook on the world shall be the Catholic's or the peasant's. Miss Edgeworth had not a trace of the Celt—as I conceive that rather indefinite entity—about her; but she was as good an Irish woman as ever walked, and there are hundreds of Irish people of her class and creed looking at Irish life with kindly humorous Irish eyes, seeing pretty much what she saw, enjoying it as she enjoyed it, but with neither her power nor her will to set it down. Castle Rackrent is a masterpiece; and had Miss Edgeworth been constant to the dramatic method which she then struck out for herself, with all the fine reticences that it involved, her name might have stood high in literature. Unhappily, her too exemplary father repressed the artist in her, fostered the pedagogue, and in her later books she commits herself to an attitude in which she can moralise explicitly upon the ethical and social bearings of every word and action. The fine humour in Ormond is obscured by its setting; in Castle Rackrent the humour shines. Sir Condy and his lady we see none the less distinctly for seeing them through the eyes of old Thady, the retainer who narrates the Rackrent history; and in the process we have a vision of old Thady himself. Now and then the novelist reminds us of her presence by some extravagantly ironic touch, as when Thady describes Sir Condy's anger with the Government "about a place that was promised him and never given, after his supporting them against his conscience very honourably and being greatly abused for, he having the name of a great patriot in the country." Thady would hardly have been so ingenuous as that. But for the most part the humour is truly inherent in the situation, and you might look far for a better passage than the description of Sir Condy's parting with his lady. But it is better to illustrate from a scene perhaps less genuinely humorous, but more professedly so—Sir Condy's wake. Miss Edgeworth does not dwell on the broad farce of the entertainment; she does not make Thady eloquent over the whisky that was drunk and the fighting that began and so forth, as Lever or Carleton would certainly have been inclined to do. She fixes on the central comedy of the situation, Sir Condy's innocent vanity and its pitiable disappointment—is it necessary to recall that he had arranged for the wake himself, because he always wanted to see his own funeral? Poor Sir Condy!—even Thady, who was in the secret, had forgotten all about him, when he was startled by the sound of his master's voice from under the greatcoats thrown all atop.
"'Thady,' says he, 'I've had enough of this; I'm smothering and can't hear a word of all they're saying of the deceased.' 'God bless you, and lie still and quiet a bit longer,' says I, 'for my sister's afraid of ghosts, and would die on the spot with fright if she was to see you come to life all on a sudden this way without the least preparation.' So he lays him still, though well-nigh stifled, and I made haste to tell the secret of the joke, whispering to one and t'other, and there was a great surprise, but not so great as he had laid out there would. 'And aren't we to have the pipes and tobacco after coming so far to-night?' said some one; but they were all well enough pleased when his honour got up to drink with them, and sent for more spirits from a shebeen house where they very civilly let him have it upon credit. So the night passed off very merrily; but to my mind Sir Condy was rather upon the sad order in the midst of it all, not finding there had been such great talk about himself after his death as that he had always expected to hear."
In the end Sir Condy died, not by special arrangement. "He had but a poor funeral after all," is Thady's remark; and you see with the kindly double vision of the humorist Thady's sincere regret for the circumstance that would most have afflicted the deceased, as well as the more obviously comic side of Thady's comment and Sir Condy's lifelong aspiration. Indeed, the whole narrative is shot with many meanings, and one never turns to it without a renewed faculty of laughter.
If it were necessary to compare true humour with the make-believe, a comparison might be drawn between Thady and the servant in Lady Morgan's novel O'Donnell. Rory is the stage Irishman in all his commonest attitudes. But it is better to go straight on, and concern ourselves solely with the work of real literary quality, and Carleton falls next to be considered.
Of genius with inadequate equipment it is always difficult to speak. Carleton is the nearest thing to Burns that we have to show; and his faults, almost insuperable to the ordinary reader, are the faults which Burns seldom failed to display when writing in English. But to Burns there was given an instrument perfected by long centuries of use—the Scotch vernacular song and ballad; Carleton had to make his own, and the genius for form was lacking in him. Some day there may come a man of pure Irish race who will be to Carleton what Burns was to Ferguson, and then Ireland will have what it lacks; moreover, in the light of his achievement we shall see better what the pioneer accomplished. Every gift that Carleton had—and pathos and humour, things complementary to each other, he possessed in profusion—every gift is obscured by faulty technique. Nearly every trait is overcharged; for instance, in his story of the Midnight Mass he rings the changes interminably upon the old business of the wonderful medicine in the vagrants' blessed horn that had a strong odour of whisky; but what an admirably humorous figure is this same Darby O'More! Out of the Poor Scholar alone, that inchoate masterpiece, you could illustrate a dozen phases of Carleton's mirth, beginning with the famous sermon where the priest so artfully wheedles and coaxes his congregation into generosity towards the boy who is going out on the world, and all the while unconsciously displays his own laughable and lovable weaknesses. There you have the double vision, that helps to laugh with the priest, and to laugh at him in the same breath, as unmistakably as in the strange scene of the famine days where the party of mowers find Jimmy sick of the fever by the wayside and "schame a day" from their employer to build him a rough shelter. That whole chapter, describing the indefatigable industry with which they labour on the voluntary task, their glee in the truantry from the labour for which they are paid, their casuistry over the theft of milk for the pious purpose of keeping the poor lad alive, the odd blending of cowardice and magnanimity in their terror of the sickness and in their constant care that some one should at least be always in earshot of the boy, ready to pass in to him on a long-handed shovel what food they could scrape up, their supple ingenuity in deceiving the pompous landlord who comes to oversee their work,—all that is the completest study in existence of Irish character as it came to be under the system of absolute dependence. There is nothing so just as true humour, for by the law of its being it sees inevitably two sides; and this strange compound of vices and virtues, so rich in all the softer qualities, so lacking in all the harder ones, stands there in Carleton's pages, neither condemned nor justified, but seen and understood with a kindly insight. Carleton is the document of documents for Ireland in the years before the famine, preserving a record of conditions material and spiritual, which happily have largely ceased to exist, yet operate indefinitely as causes among us, producing eternal though eternally modifiable effects.
But, for the things in human nature that are neither of yesterday, to-day, nor to-morrow, but unchangeable, he has the humorist's true touch. When the poor scholar is departing, and has actually torn himself away from home, his mother runs after him with a last token—a small bottle of holy water. "Jimmy, alanna," said she, "here's this an' carry it about you—it will keep evil from you; an' be sure to take good care of the written characther you got from the priest an' Squire Benson; an', darlin', don't be lookin' too often at the cuff o' your coat, for feard the people might get a notion that you have the banknotes sewed in it. An', Jimmy agra, don't be too lavish upon their Munsther crame; they say 'tis apt to give people the ague. Kiss me agin, agra, an' the heavens above keep you safe and well till we see you once more."
Through all that catalogue of precautions, divine and human, one feels the mood between tears and laughter of the man who set it down. But I think you only come to the truth about Carleton in the last scene of all, when Jimmy returns to his home, a priest. Nothing could be more stilted, more laboured, than the pages which attempt to render his emotions and his words, till there comes the revealing touch. His mother at sight of him, returned unlooked-for after the long absence, loses for a moment the possession of her faculties, and cannot be restored. At last, "I will speak to her," said Jimmy, "in Irish; it will go directly to her heart." And it does.
Carleton never could speak to us in Irish; the English was still a strange tongue on his lips and in the ears of those he lived among; and his work comes down distracted between the two languages, imperfect and halting, only with flashes of true and living speech.
When you come to Lever, it is a very different story. Lever was at no lack for utterance; nobody was ever more voluble, no one ever less inclined to sit and bite his pen, waiting for the one and only word. Good or bad, he could be trusted to rattle on; and, as Trollope said, if you pulled him out of bed and demanded something witty, he would flash it at you before he was half awake. Some people are born with the perilous gift of improvisation; and the best that can be said for Lever is that he is the nearest equivalent in Irish literature, or in English either, to the marvellous faculty of D'Artagnan's creator. He has the same exuberance, the same inexhaustible supply of animal spirits, of invention that is always spirited, of wit that goes off like fireworks. He delighted a whole generation of readers, and one reader at least in this generation he still delights; but I own that to enjoy him you must have mastered the art of skipping. Whether you take him in his earlier manner, in the "Charles O'Malley" vein of adventure, fox-hunting, steeple-chasing, Peninsular fighting, or in his later more intellectual studies of shady financiers, needy political adventurers, and the whole generation of usurers and blacklegs, he is always good; but alas and alas, he is never good enough. His work is rotten with the disease of anecdote; instead of that laborious concentration on a single character which is necessary for any kind of creative work, but above all for humorous creation, he presents you with a sketch, a passing glimpse, and when you look to see the suggestion followed out he is off at score with a story. In the first chapter of Davenport Dunn, for instance, there is an Irish gentleman on the Continent, a pork-butcher making his first experience of Italy, hit off to the life. But a silhouette—and a very funny silhouette—is all that we get of Mr. O'Reilly, and the figures over whom Lever had taken trouble—for in that work Lever did take trouble—are not seen with humour. Directly he began to think, his humour left him; it is as if he had been funny in watertight compartments. And perhaps that is why, here as elsewhere, he shrank from the necessary concentration of thought.
There is always a temptation to hold a brief for Lever, because he has been most unjustly censured by Irishmen, even in so august and impartial a court as the Dictionary of National Biography, as if he had traduced his countrymen. Did Thackeray, then, malign the English? The only charge that may fairly be brought against him is the one that cannot be rebutted—the charge of superficiality and of scamped work, of a humour that only plays over the surface of things—a humour which sees only the comic side that anybody might see. And because I cannot defend him, I say no more. Lever is certainly not a great humorist, but he is delightful company.
One may mention in passing the excursions into broad comedy of another brilliant Irishman—Le Fanu's short stories in the Purcell Papers, such as the Quare Gander, or Billy Molowney's Taste of Love and Glory. These are good examples of a particular literary type—the humorous anecdote—in which Irish humour has always been fertile, and of which the ne plus ultra is Sir Samuel Ferguson's magnificent squib in Blackwood, Father Tom and the Pope. Everybody knows the merits of that story, its inexhaustible fertility of comparison, its dialectic ingenuity, its jovialty, its drollery, its Rabelaisian laughter. But, after all, the highest type of humour is humour applying itself to the facts of life, and this is burlesque humour squandering itself in riot upon a delectable fiction. Humour is a great deal more than a plaything; it is a force, a weapon—at once sword and shield. If there is to be an art of literature in Ireland that can be called national, it cannot afford to devote humour solely to the production of trifles. Father Tom is a trifle, a splendid toy; and what is more, a trifle wrought in a moment of ease by perhaps the most serious and conscientious artist that ever made a contribution to the small body of real Irish literature in the tongue that is now native to the majority of Irishmen.
Of contemporaries, with one exception, I do not propose to speak at any length, nor can I hope that my review will be complete. There is first and foremost Miss Barlow, a lady whose work is so gentle, so unassuming, that one hears little of it in the rush and flare of these strident times, but who will be heard and listened to with fresh emotion as the stream is heard when the scream and rattle of a railway train have passed away into silence. Is she a humorist? Not in the sense of provoking laughter—and yet the things that she sees and loves and dwells on would be unbearable if they were not seen through a delicate mist of mirth. The daily life of people at continual handgrips with starvation, their little points of honour, their little questions of precedence, the infinite generosity that concerns itself with the expenditure of six-pence, the odd shifts they resort to that a gift may not have the appearance of charity,—all these are set down with a tenderness of laughter that is peculiarly and distinctively Irish.
Yet, though we may find a finer quality of humour in those writers who do not seek to raise a laugh—for instance, the subtle pervasive humour in Mr. Yeats's Celtic Twilight—still there are few greater attractions than that of open healthy laughter of the contagious sort; and it would be black ingratitude not to pay tribute to the authoresses of Some Experiences of an Irish R.M.—a book that no decorous person can read with comfort in a railway carriage. These ladies have the keenest eye for the obvious humours of Irish life, they have abundance of animal spirits, and they have that knack at fluent description embroidered with a wealth of picturesque details that is shared by hundreds of peasants in Ireland, but is very rare indeed on the printed page. And, mingling with the broad farce there is a deal of excellent comedy—for instance, in the person of old Mrs. Knox of Aussolas. But there is the same point to insist on—and since these witty and delightful ladies have already the applause of all the world one insists less unwillingly—this kind of thing, admirable as it is, will not redeem Irish humour from the reproach of trifling. But in the novel, The Real Charlotte, there is humour as grim almost as Swift's—and as completely un-English; it is a humour which assuredly stirs more faculties than the simple one of laughter.
There is indeed a literature which, if not always exactly humorous, is closely allied to it—the literature of satire and invective; and in this Ireland has always been prolific. In the days of the old kings the order of bards had grown so numerous, that they comprised a third of the whole population, and they devoted themselves with such talent and zeal to the task of invective that no man could live in peace, and the country cried out against them, and there was talk of suppressing the whole order. The king spared them on condition that they would mend their manners. We have those bards still, but nowadays we call them politicians and journalists; and frankly I think we are ripe for another intervention, if only in the interests of literature. So much good talent goes to waste in bad words; and, moreover, an observance of the decencies is always salutary for style. And it seems that as the years have gone on, humour has diminished in Irish politics, while bad humour has increased; and therefore I leave alone any attempt to survey the humour of the orators, though Curran tempts one at the beginning and Mr. Healy at the close. Of purely literary satire there has been little enough, apart from its emergence in the novel; but there is one example which deserves to be recalled. I have never professed enthusiasm for Thomas Moore, but I am far indeed from agreeing with a recent critic who would claim literary rank for him rather in virtue of the Fudge Family than of the Irish Melodies. That satire does not seem to get beyond brilliancy; it is very clever, and not much more. Still, there are passages in it which cannot be read without enjoyment; and one quotation may be permitted, since it puts with perfect distinctness what it is always permissible to put—the English case against Ireland.
I'm a plain man who speak the truth. And trust you'll think me not uncivil When I declare that from my youth I've wished your country at the devil. Nor can I doubt indeed from all I've heard of your high patriot fame, From every word your lips let fall, That you most truly wish the same.
It plagues one's life out; thirty years Have I had dinning in my ears— Ireland wants this and that and t'other; And to this hour one nothing hears But the same vile eternal bother. While of those countless things she wanted, Thank God, but little has been granted.
The list of writers of humorous verse in Ireland is a long one, but a catalogue of ephemera. Even Father Prout at this time of day is little more than a dried specimen labelled for reference, or at most preserved in vitality by the immortal Groves of Blarney. But neither that work, nor even The Night before Larry was stretched, nor Le Fanu's ballad of Shemus O'Brien, can rank altogether as literature. About the humorous song I need only say that, so far as my experience goes, there is one, and one only, which a person with no taste for music and some taste for literature can hear frequently with pleasure, and that song of course is Father O'Flynn. To recall the delightful ingenuity and the nimble wit shown by another Irishman of the same family in the Hawarden Horace, and in a lesser degree by Mr. Godley in his Musa Frivola, leads naturally to the inquiry why humour from Aristophanes to Carlyle has always preferred the side of reaction—a question that would need an essay, or a volume, all to itself.
But the central question is after all why in a race where humour is so preponderant in the racial temperament does so little of the element crystallise itself in literature. Humour ranks with the water power as one of the great undeveloped resources of the country. Something indeed has been done in the past with the river of laughter that almost every Irish person has flowing in his heart; but infinitely more might be done if these rivers were put in harness.
Yet, take away two Irish names from the field of modern comedy in the English language written during the nineteenth century, and you have uncommonly little for which literary merit can be claimed. The quality of Oscar Wilde's is scarcely disputed. There is the more reason to dwell on Mr. Bernard Shaw's plays, because they have not even in the twentieth century been fully accepted by that queer folk, the theatre-going public. But I never yet heard of anyone who saw You Never can Tell, and was not amused by it. That was a farce, no doubt, but a farce which appealed to emotions less elementary than those which are touched by the spectacle of a man sitting down by accident on his hat; it was a farce of intellectual absurdities, of grotesque situations arising out of perversities of character and opinion; a farce that you could laugh at without a loss of self-respect. But it is rather by his comedies than by his farces that Mr. Shaw should be judged. If they are not popular, it is for a very good reason: Mr. Shaw's humour is too serious. His humour is a strong solvent, and one of the many things about which this humorist is in deadly earnest is the fetish worship of tradition. To that he persists in applying—in Candida as in half a dozen other plays—the ordeal by laughter—an ordeal which every human institution is bound to face. Candida will not only make people laugh, it will make them think; and it is not easy to induce the public to think after dinner on unaccustomed lines. They will laugh when they have been used to laugh, weep when they have been used to weep; but if you ask them to laugh when they expect to weep, or vice versa, the public will resent the proceeding. The original humorist, like every other original artist, has got slowly and laboriously to convert his public before he can convince them of his right to find tears and laughter where he can.
Whatever Mr. Shaw touches, whether it be the half-hysterical impulse that sometimes passes current for heroism, as in Arms and the Man, or, as in the Devil's Disciple, the conventional picturesqueness of a Don Juan—that maker of laws, breaker of hearts, so familiar with the limelight, so unused to the illumination by laughter, who finds himself in the long run deplorably stigmatised as a saint—there is a flood of light let in upon all manner of traditional poses, literary insincerities that have crept into life. There are few things of more value in a commonwealth than such a searching faculty of laughter. Like Sheridan, Mr. Shaw lives in England, and uses his comic gift for the most part on subjects suggested to him by English conditions of life, but with a strength of intellectual purpose that Sheridan never possessed. Irishmen may wish that he found his material in Ireland. But an artist must take what his hand finds, and there is no work in the world more full of the Scottish spirit or the Scottish humour than Carlyle's French Revolution. If it be asked whether Mr. Shaw's humour is typically Irish, I must reply by another question: "Could his plays have conceivably been written by any but an Irishman?"
Is there, in fact, a distinctively Irish humour? In a sense, yes, no doubt, just as the English humour is of a different quality from the Greek or the French. But nobody wants to pin down English humour to the formula of a definition; no one wants to say, Thus far shalt thou go, and beyond that shalt cease to be English. Moreover, a leading characteristic of the Irish type is just its variety—its continual deviation from the normal. How, then, to find a description that will apply to a certain quality of mind throughout a variable race; that quality being in its essence the most complete expression of an individuality, in its difference from other individualities, since a man's humour is the most individual thing about him? Description is perhaps more possible than definition. One may say that the Irish humour is kindly and lavish; that it tends to express itself in an exuberance of phrase, a wild riot of comparisons; that it amplifies rather than retrenches, finding its effects by an accumulation of traits, and not by a concentration. The vernacular Irish literature is there to prove that Irish fancy gives too much rather than too little. One may observe, again, that a nation laughs habitually over its besetting weakness; and if the French find their mirth by preference in dubious adventures, it cannot be denied that much Irish humour has a pronounced alcoholic flavour. But it is better neither to define nor to describe; there is more harmful misunderstanding caused by setting down this or that quality, this or that person, as typically French, typically English, typically Irish, than by any other fallacy; and we Irish have suffered peculiarly by the notion that the typical Irishman is the funny man of the empire. What I would permit myself to assert is, first, that the truest humour is not just the light mirth that comes easily from the lips—that, in the hackneyed phrase, bubbles over spontaneously—but is the expression of deep feeling and deep thought, made possible by deep study of the means to express it; and secondly, that literature, which through the earlier part of last century never received in Ireland the laborious brooding care without which no considerable work of art is possible, now receives increasingly the artist's labour; and consequently that among our later humorists we find a faculty of mirth that lies deeper, reaches farther, judges more subtly, calls into light a wider complex of relations. After all, laughter is the most distinctive faculty of man; and I submit that, so far as literature shows, we Irish can better afford to be judged by our laughter now than a century ago.
LITERATURE AMONG THE ILLITERATES
There is nothing better known about Ireland than this fact: that illiteracy is more frequent among the Irish Catholic peasantry than in any other class of the British population; and that especially upon the Irish-speaking peasant does the stigma lie. Yet it is, perhaps, as well to inquire a little more precisely what is meant by an illiterate. If to be literate is to possess a knowledge of the language, literature, and historical traditions of a man's own country—and this is no very unreasonable application of the word—then this Irish-speaking peasantry has a better claim to the title than can be shown by most bodies of men. I have heard the existence of an Irish literature denied by a roomful of prosperous educated gentlemen; and, within a week, I have heard, in the same county, the classics of that literature recited by an Irish peasant who could neither write nor read. On which part should the stigma of illiteracy set the uglier brand?
The Gaelic revival sends many of us to school in Irish-speaking districts, and, if it did nothing else, at least it would have sent us to school in pleasant places among the most lovable preceptors. It was a blessed change from London to a valley among hills that look over the Atlantic, with its brown stream tearing down among boulders, and its heathy banks, where the keen fragrance of bog-myrtle rose as you brushed through in the morning on your way to the head of a pool. Here was indeed a desirable academy, and my preceptor matched it. A big, loose-jointed old man, rough, brownish-gray all over, clothes, hair, and face; his cheeks were half-hidden by the traditional close-cropped whisker, and the rest was an ill-shorn stubble. Traditional, too, was the small, deep-set, blue eye, the large, kindly mouth, uttering English with a soft brogue, which, as is always the case among those whose real tongue is Irish, had no trace of vulgarity. Indeed, it would have been strange that vulgarity of any sort should show in one who had perfect manners, and the instinct of a scholar, for this preceptor was not even technically illiterate. He could read and write English, and Irish, too, which is by no means so common; and I have not often seen a man happier than he was over Douglas Hyde's collection of Connacht love-songs, which I had fortunately brought with me. But his main interest was in history—that history which had been rigorously excluded from his school training, the history of Ireland. I would go on ahead to fish a pool, and leave him poring over Hyde's book; but when he picked me up, conversation went on where it broke off—somewhere among the fortunes of Desmonds and Burkes, O'Neills and O'Donnells. And when one had hooked a large sea-trout, on a singularly bad day, in a place where no sea-trout was expected, it was a little disappointing to find that Charlie's only remark, as he swept the net under my capture, was: "The Clancartys was great men too. Is there any of them living?" The scholar in him had completely got the better of the sportsman.
Beyond his historic lore (which was really considerable, and by no means inaccurate) he had many songs by heart, some of them made by Carolan, some by nameless poets, written in the Irish which is spoken to-day. I wrote down a couple of Charlie's lyrics which had evidently a local origin; but what I sought was one of the Shanachies who carried in his memory the classic literature of Ireland, the epics or ballads of an older day. Charlie was familiar, of course, with the matter of this "Ossianic" literature, as we all are, for example, with the story of Ulysses. He knew how Oisin dared to go with a fairy woman to her own land; how he returned in defiance of her warning; how he found himself lonely and broken in a changed land; and how, in the end, he gave in to the teaching of St. Patrick ("Sure how would he stand up against it?" said Charlie), and was converted to Christ. But all the mass of rhymed verse which relates the dialogues between Oisin and Patrick, the tales of Finn and his heroes which Oisin told to the Saint, the fierce answers with which the old warrior met the Gospel arguments—all this was only vaguely familiar to him. I was looking for a man who had it by heart.
The search for the repositories of this knowledge leads sometimes into strange contrasts. One friend of mine lay stretched for long hours on top of a roof of sticks and peat-scraws which was propped against the wall of a ruined cabin, while within the evicted tenant, still clinging to his home as life clings to the shattered body, lay bedridden on a lair of rushes, and chanted the deeds of heroes; his voice issuing through the vent in the roof, at once window and chimney, from the kennel in which was neither room nor light for a man to sit and record the verses. My own chance was luckier and happier. It came on a day when a party of us had set out in quest of a remote mountain lough. Our way led along the river, and as we drove up to where the valley contracted, and the tillage land decreased in extent and fertility, the type of the people changed. They were Celts and Catholics, evident to the least practised eye. A little further still from civilisation we reached the fringe that was Gaelic not merely in blood; the kindly woman whose cottage warmed and sheltered us when we returned half-foundered from plunging through bogs was an Irish speaker. She had no songs herself, but if I wanted them her neighbour, James Kelly, was the best of company, and would keep me listening the length of a night.
I pushed my bicycle through a drizzle of misty rain up the road over mountainous moor, before I saw his cottage standing trim and white under its thatch in a screen of trees, and as I was nearing it, the boy with me showed me James down in a hollow, filling a barrow with turf. He stopped work as I came down, and called off his dog, looking at me curiously enough, for, indeed, strangers were a rarity in that spot, clean off the tourist track, and away from any thoroughfare. One's presence had to be explained out of hand, and I told him exactly why I had come. He looked surprised and perhaps a little pleased, that his learning should draw students. But he made no pretence of ignorance; the only question was, how he could help me. Did I want songs of the modern kind, or the older songs of Finn Mac-Cool? If it was the latter, it seemed I was not well able to manage the common talk, and these songs were written in "very hard Irish, full of ould strong words."
I should like to send the literary Irishmen of my acquaintance one by one to converse with James Kelly as a salutary discipline. He was perfectly courteous, but through his courtesy there pierced a kind of toleration that carried home to one's mind a profound conviction of ignorance. People talk about the servility of the Irish peasant. Here was a man who professed his inability to read or write, but stood perfectly secure in his sense of superior education. His respect for me grew evidently when he found me familiar with the details of more stories than he expected. I was raised to the level of a hopeful pupil. They had been put into English, I told him. "Oh, ay, they would be, in a sort of a way," said James, with a fine scorn. Soon we broke new ground, for James had by heart not only the Fenian or Ossianic cycle, but also the older Sagas of Cuchulain. He confused the cycles, it is true, taking the Red Branch heroes for contemporaries of the Fianna, which is much as if one should make Heracles meet Odysseus or Achilles in battle; but he had these earlier legends by heart, a rare acquirement among the Shanachies of to-day.
Here then was a type of the Irish illiterate. A man somewhere between fifty and sixty, at a guess; of middle height, spare and well-knit, high-nosed, fine-featured, keen-eyed; standing there on his own ground, courteous and even respectful, yet consciously a scholar; one who had travelled too—had worked in England and Scotland, and could tell me that the Highland Gaelic was far nearer to the language of the old days than the Irish of to-day; finally, one who could recite without apparent effort long narrative poems in a dead literary dialect. When I find an English workman who can stand up and repeat the works of Chaucer by heart, then and not till then I shall see an equivalent for James Kelly.
And yet it would be a different thing entirely. Chaucer has never survived in oral tradition. But in the West of Donegal, whence James Kelly's father emigrated to where I found his son, every old person had this literature in mind, and my friend was no exception. It is among the younger generation, who have been taught in the National Schools (surely the most ironic of all titles), that the language and the history of the nation are dying out. Yet that is changing. For instance, James Kelly's son reads and writes Irish, and on another day helped me to note down some of his father's lore.
For it was late when I came first to the house, and though the Shanachie pressed me (not knowing even my name) to stay the night, I had to depart for that day, after I had heard him recite in the traditional chant some staves of an Ossianic lay, and sing to the traditional air Carolan's famous lyric, "The Lord of Mayo." We drank a glass of whisky from my flask, a cup of tea that his wife made; and as we went into the house he asked a favour in a whisper. It was that I should eat plenty of his good woman's butter. He escorted me a good way over the hill, for, said he, when I had come that far to see him, it was the least that he should put me a piece on my road, and he exhorted me to come again for "a good crack together." And if I deferred visiting him for another year that was largely because I did not like to face again this illiterate without acquiring a little more knowledge.
What came of my second visit must be written in another paper. But here, let it be understood this is no exceptional case. In every three or four parishes along the Western seaboard and for twenty miles inland, from Donegal to Kerry, there is the like of James Kelly to be found. It may be that in another fifty years not one of these Shanachies will linger; education will have made a clean sweep of illiteracy. And yet again, it may be that by that time, not only in the Western baronies but through the length and breadth of Ireland, both song and story and legend will be living again on the lips and in the hearts of the people. Go leigidh Dia sin.
LITERATURE AMONG THE ILLITERATES
THE LIFE OF A SONG
There was a great contention some years ago fought out in a law court between the British Museum and the Royal Irish Academy, for the custody of certain treasure trove, gold vessels and ornaments disinterred on an Irish beach. The treasures went back, as was only right, to Ireland, where is a rich storehouse of such things, for the soil has been dug over in search for the material relics of ancient art. Yet little heed has been paid to treasures of far greater worth and interest, harder to sell, it is true, but easier to come by—the old songs and stories which linger in oral tradition or in old manuscripts handed down from peasant to peasant. Only within the last few years did the Irish suddenly awake to a consciousness that the authentic symbols, or, rather, the indisputable proofs of the national existence so dear to them, were slipping out of their hands. So far had the heritage perished, so ill had the tradition been maintained, that when they turned to revive their expiring language and literature, the first question asked was, "What is it you would revive? Was there ever a literature in Irish or merely a collection of ridiculous rhodomontade? Is there a language, or does there survive merely a debased jargon, employed by ignorant peasants among themselves, and chiefly useful, like a thieves' lingo, to baffle the police?"
These were the questions put, and not one in a thousand of Irish Nationalists could give an answer according to knowledge.
Now, matters are changed. The books that were available in print have been read; the work of poets extant only in manuscript has been printed and widely circulated; the language is studied with zeal, and not in Ireland only, but wherever Irishmen are gathered. Yet nothing has so strongly moved me to believe that we cherish the living rather than pay funeral honours to the dead, as certain hours spent with a peasant who could neither write nor read.