“Do We Learn From History?”

“Do We Learn From History?”

The Saturday Review, 5 September, 1942

The Irish literary revival somehow gives the impression of having petered out, or, maybe, there is simply a lull until the younger generation brings it forward to another phase. Whatever is happening, to read through a number of the English magazine, Horizons, of a couple of months ago, devoted to the more recent Irish writers, is to receive a shock. The bulk of the stuff in that issue would not have passed muster in an American college magazine. A whine of complaint about the country ran through several of the contributions as if the country was not doing its duty by these writers either in the inheritance or the life it supplied. Now a writer of genius can put what life he wants to into a country; writers have done it here in America where it is more difficult than in an old country like Ireland with a long and complex history, a folk lore, and that rare possession of a few fortunate countries, a mythology. For writers to complain of the life of a country or the material it offers is to admit the meagreness of their own minds, of their psychic endowment.

Writers in this country, especially the poets, have been able since the beginning of this century to put a vibrating life into things and places that to start with had not much life of their own,—Frost into the desolate places of New England, Robinson into the lonely and inarticulate figures belonging to a new country, Stephen Vincent Benet and Edgar Lee Masters into traditions and traditional personalities, while the everyday life, the accustomed things—Chinese launderies, soap box orators, Santa Fe Trail, the Salvation Army, the speeches of the politicians, were endowed with lyricism by Vachel Lindsay. These writers have all augmented the life they wrote about, for it is the business of the artist to augment life, and here is exactly where the bulk of the Irish writers who have come up since 1914 have failed: they seem to have no augmenting potentiality, and, consequently, most of them have made little impression on the outside world. Of those who are published in this country and who work in native Irish material, Liam O’Flaherty has written effective and dramatic novels with an approach of his own. The bulk of the others seem merely to be working over fields already tilled and cultivated by those elders who made the Irish renaissance, so that of many Irish novels, short stories, and poems, one feels that one has read them all before.

On many writers the literary tradition seems to have a weakening effect, and we find some of them trying to produce literature who might be all right as entertainers if they stopped trying to be geniuses. Of the men writers, Sean O’Faolain is a good enough trade writer of a kind common in America who can write a competent if laborious novel and who might be far better if he did not strive so much for literary effects. There is Frank O’Connor, a far finer artist, who is really a short story writer but who gives the impression of a limited response to life. The best of the poets since 1914 seems to be Austin Clarke, and by far the best two of the novelists are Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien. Miss Bowen has a more sensitive imagination and more variety of emotion than any of the others. Also she has that effective style that writers seem to get who are brought up in Ireland, especially in Dublin where the wit and excellence of the conversation is a good school for prose. Then Elizabeth Bowen has the real artist’s power of adding life to whatever she works on, so that the material does not become exhausted but is increased in value for other writers.

If Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien stand out from so many of the men writers, so indeed do several other women, especially the scholar artists like Helen Waddell, Eileen Power, Alice Curtayne, and the literary biographer, Enid Starkie. Traditionally Ireland has been good on producing scholars, and one cannot help noting the excellence of the women as writers and as scholars. is, as far as I am aware, the first book in which Elizabeth Bowen has dealt with specifically Irish material, and in it she shows herself possessed of a fine critical intellect and a genuine feeling for history. Here she is the historian of a period of Irish history as well as the biographer of members of her family, and she is able to endow both the history and the personages with a life that is impressive. Apparently the last of her family, she is the present owner of Bowen’s Court, an eighteenth-century mansion built by a descendant of that group of invaders who were and still are probably the most detested of all in Irish traditions, the Cromwellians.

The Bowen lands were given by Cromwell to Elizabeth Bowen’s ancestor, one Henry Bowen, for his help in the Cromwellian army which subdued Ireland, and the portrait of the Lord Protector stands over the staircase in the Bowen house, as does that of William of Orange. Right away it should be said that any household in Ireland which harbors a portrait of Oliver Cromwell is not Irish though it may be something more respectable, such as Anglo-Irish or English. The term Anglo-Irish is in need of definition; it does not mean, as might seem off hand, a person with a mixture of English and Irish blood. After all the invasions a large proportion of the population has probably that mixture. But even in cases where they are half English, people of mixed blood decline to call themselves Anglo-Irish, just as people here decline to call themselves Anglo-American. In Ireland, Anglo-Irish is really a property designation. Those calling themselves Anglo-Irish are the descendants of an array of adventurers, the fighters or the backers of the Cromwellian and Williamite wars who, after the defeat of the Irish, were given the lands of the native aristocracy and whose hold on the said lands was through support from England. After they had lived in the country a few generations, some of them acquired Irish characteristics so that they became known in England as Irish, though in Ireland they were called English.

In Bowen’s Court Elizabeth Bowen is inclined to regard the Cromwellian invaders of Ireland and those who emigrated to America about thirty years previously as the same kind of people. There is, of course, some resemblance; the bulk of both were townspeople of what, to use present-day terminology, are called the petty bourgeoisie. But the political and social ideology of the Mayflower emigrants, of the men and women who made the Mayflower compact, was different from that of Cromwell’s troopers. Then the Mayflower emigrants came into a country which had not a history as history is reckoned. Cromwell’s troopers came into a country which had an old settled population, an old civilization, a long history, and they destroyed the pattern of that thousand year old civilization.

The publisher’s note on this book tells us that the Protestant ascendency as symbolized by the Bowens has been Ireland’s cross, the reason for her bloody troubles. Now, in a way this is a very nonsensical statement, for there were many bloody troubles and some not so bloody before the Cromwellians, and unless these are understood, in outline, anyway, Elizabeth Bowen’s book will not be understood. The Irish people, Irish culture, Irish institutions and laws, had received many assaults before Cromwell’s invasion. The first really damaging trouble was started by Henry II of England who made no attempt at military conquest but who announced that he had received a present of the lordship of Ireland from his friend, the English Pope, Adrian IV. How his English Holiness imagined he had the right to give away the country is one of the diverting episodes in history. He got it through what was known as the donations of Constantine. This can best be explained by quoting the historian, Eoin MacNeill. “The Roman Emperors were imagined to have been supreme feudal lords of the whole earth, and Constantine was held to have granted to the bishops of Rome the feudal lordship of Ireland.”

The history of the country from Henry II was the history of invasions, attempts to destroy the native Irish, and penal laws of all kinds. The racial laws began in 1367 with the Statutes of Kilkenny, when marriage between the invaders and the natives and the use of the Irish language were forbidden. As all Christendom had more or less the same religion at this time there were no religious prohibitions, but these came later. The invaders with the most affinity with the Irish people were the Normans who settled down and became Irish, as indeed did also the early English invaders. Some of the Elizabethans had been amiable poetry-writing rascals who were said to have shown considerable personal consideration for the native lords whose property they they came over to grab. But with the change in England to Protestantism came laws against religion, against education, and limiting the value of the possessions the natives could own. Miss Bowen’s narrative really begins with the period after the death of Queen Elizabeth and the defeat of the great Ulster lords and their flight (“the Flight of the Earls”) to the Continent. The intermediate history between this period and the coming of Cromwell may be a little complicated for readers unfamiliar with the doings of the generals, the gauleiters, and the crop-destroyers of the period, to wit, the Mountjoys and the Straffords, etc.

Miss Bowen really gets into her stride when she comes to Cromwell and the Cromwellians, for here begins the life of the Bowens in Ireland, fairly recently according to Irish memory, quite a while ago in Miss Bowen’s. She gives a succinct account of Cromwell’s conquest and his methods of establishing a New Order. He would have finished the nation for ever only no native population that once owned a country is ever finished; it always comes up again if it can hold on to its tradition. Cromwell and his generals did the same sort of thing that is now being done in Europe in invaded countries. When Ireland was conquered the natives had to be shifted before the division of the spoils could begin. On the western seaboard was the province of Connacht, supposed to contain the least fruitful lands: this was fixed on as a sort of ghetto for the native lords and their retainers. “To hell or to Connacht with you,” said Cromwell. It was the leaders he especially wanted out of the way. In the trek westward went the ancestors of many of the well known Irish families of the present day; there went the owners of the great Irish names— “those princes, ” as the poet Egan O’Rahilly said, “whom my ancestors served since the time of Christ.” There went the Lady Dunsany of the period who died on the way. There, it was said, went the descendants of Edmund Spenser, and there to this day in Connacht are the descendants of the people Cromwell dispossessed. They talk of it all as if it had happened yesterday, and of the descendants of the Cromwellians as if they were still the same dour, ignorant, and ill-bred troopers who first took away their lands. Some of the dispossessed went neither “to hell nor to Connacht”: they took refuge in the mountains, in huts and cabins, waiting for the day when they could get back their possessions. Many of the defeated armies went to the continent, some of the younger people of both sexes were sold into slavery in the West Indies; some lived to fight another day, and were once more “worsted in the game” in the Williamite wars; there was again a flight to the continent.—

The morning breeze will wing us
Across the seas and bring us
To wave a brand and take our stand
Among the sons of France.
. . . . . .
For, Sean O’Dwyer a glanna,
We were worsted in the game.

That the Bowens were not amongst the worst of the spoilers, that they settled down to become Irish, there seems to be good evidence. For one thing, the bulk of them were educated in Ireland and not in the English public schools as was the habit with the descendants of the invaders. Miss Bowen’s recent ancestors were educated in St. Columbia’s college near Dublin. But they had somehow to acquire an English accent, for, as the author points out, to speak with an Irish accent (or even an American accent) was regarded as underbred. Her father practised as a barrister in Dublin; he would have been surprised, doubtless, to be considered as anything but an Irishman, for, to be sure, the Cromwellians and the Williamites often became patriotic citizens of the country they dispoiled, and some of them, indeed, have figured in the latest rebellions against England. The author of this review guesses that the president of present-day Ireland and one of its greatest poets, Douglas Hyde, is of Cromwellian ancestry. “If Ireland did not accept them,” the author of Bowen’s Court remarks, “they did not know it, and it is in that unawareness of being looked at from some secretive, opposed life that the Anglo-Irish native dignity and even tragedy seems to stand. Themselves they felt Irish and acted as Irishmen.” Not always, it should be objected, for their chief feeling was for their property and to hold it they were dependant on English force and military forces, and this kept them for ever apart from the historic Irish nation. The newcomers never really seemed to own the lands they held. “Only the dispossessed,” says Elizabeth Bowen dramatically, “can find their way across their lands in the dark.” A real message from history, for invaders can ever learn from history.

But if they were never accepted, the Puritans left strong marks on the country they tried to take over; they left their Puritanism with its touch of insanity, or maybe added their Puritanism to a native one; they brought in some dismal superstitions; the native Irish had got along with fairies— the Shee—the Land of the Ever Living; the Puritans brought in a belief in witches. The native Irish had been getting along nicely in Christianity with the gospels and the psalms, along with the sword and slaughter they brought in Bible reading. The Puritans imposed a Calvinism, and this was added to through so many Irish being educated at the Jansenist schools and colleges abroad when education was forbidden to Catholics In Ireland.

Though Elizabeth Bowen does not understand it all, she understands a great deal, but to know thoroughly the period that she writes of it is necessary to read that very revealing book, Daniel Corkery’s , written from the side of the dispossessed. In spite of all she leaves out and all she soft pedals, no section of Irish history has been written of in our day with more distinguished talent and imagination than this by a daughter of the Cromwellians and with such love and such power of rendering the physical features of the countryside.

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