Epilogue (1922-1930) (3)

Eleanor Hull
Epilogue (1922-1930) | start of chapter

Another matter in which the Government took the high hand with excellent results was the clearing out of the corrupt Corporations of Dublin and Cork and replacing them by young and active Commissioners, who put in hand a number of improvements in housing, sanitation and the cleansing of these cities. Their example was speedily followed by other municipalities to the great advantage of the inhabitants.

Hardly less important is the reorganization in the Poor Law and Workhouse system and the reduction, by badly-needed economies, of the excessive rates. More important still is the calling into being of a new Judiciary, the necessity for which had become apparent during the years of “the Terror,” when all the courts of law had been disorganized and justice was administered over the country by simple means which had won the confidence of the people.

A similar decentralization of the courts has been carried out under the new system for local disputes, many of which have been settled satisfactorily and with the minimum of expense. In the appointment of Judges, Mr. Cosgrave has shown the same impartiality and freedom from prejudice that he has manifested throughout his career. A number of the senior judges having retired on pensions under the terms of the Treaty, their places were filled by the Government with a complete disregard to party considerations or to differences in religious belief.

The assistance of Lord Glenavy, former Lord Chancellor of Ireland, as Chairman of the Senate, has been of much value and has given confidence to Unionists and Protestants that their claims would not be overlooked. As a matter of fact, they have received a consideration which has been more than once gratefully acknowledged.

Efforts to effect greater efficiency have led to a reorganization of the old Government Boards, such as the Congested Districts Board, which was established under Lord Balfour’s administration in 1891 and received Government grants for the development of agriculture and industries in the most neglected districts round the western sea-boards; the Fisheries Board, and the Department of Agriculture. Similar efforts to introduce greater economies in working have been applied to the railways and transport and to the improvement of roads.

The work of the Land Purchase Act of 1923, completed the establishment of peasant ownership which was initiated by George Wyndham’s Act of 1903, and the Department of Agriculture turned its attention to questions of marketing, grading of eggs and butter, and in general to the better management of farm produce. The participation of Irish Free State produce in the Empire Marketing Scheme may open new avenues for trade with the other self-governing Dominions and lead to a closer community of interest between them.

At present the main trade of the South of Ireland is, as it has always been, with Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As a purchaser of British produce and manufactures, the Irish Free State ranks fifth, while it ranks tenth as a supplier of goods to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In examining the statistics of other countries it is shown that there is no live stock trade between any two countries in the world which approaches the dimensions of that between the Irish Free State and Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the group Cattle and Beef, it was second only to Argentina, and in the group Sheep and Mutton, the Irish Free State ranked fourth. Imports increased from £59,852,000 in 1928, to £61,302,000 in 1929, an increase of £1,450,000; and in the same year, exports increased from £45,591,000 to £46,803,000, an increase of £1,212,000. There has thus been a slight increase on both sides of the balance sheet. Nevertheless, there has only been a partial recovery of trade, for there was a steady decrease from 1924 to 1926 in both exports and imports, and neither have yet attained the total of the former year.[21]

Every economic sign shows the necessity, if the Irish Free State is to hold its own in the world markets, of closer intercourse with Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the extension of its trade with other countries. The theory that Mr. de Valera has recently been developing in the Dáil, of closing Ireland to outside trade and making her entirely self-supporting within her own borders, seems, in view of these figures, to be one of those picturesque but impossible ideals derived from the early years of the Gaelic League, when it was even held to be a highly patriotic act to discourage visitors, especially English visitors, from touring in Ireland, because Ireland was meant only for Irishmen, with its consequent impoverishment of the hotels and railways. The sound common sense of the present Ministers is opposed to all such doctrinaire theories, but much time that might be more profitably spent in the Dáil is lost in discussing them.

The census returns of population cannot be considered satisfactory. In the fifteen years between April 2, 1911, to April 18, 1926, the population of the Irish Free State decreased from 3,139,688 to 2,972,802 or 5.3 per cent., while Northern Ireland showed a slight increase of 5,791, or 0.5 per cent.[22]

There has been a rapid loss of population in the country districts and smaller towns while Dublin and its four urban districts have considerably gained in numbers. In other words, the trend of movements in Ireland, as elsewhere, has been from the country into the town. Emigration received recently a severe check in the United States, the numbers admitted from Ireland being drastically reduced, and the present tendency is to emigrate to Great Britain with the hope of getting work. The average net loss to Ireland during the period above mentioned was 33,468, but some part must be ascribed to unusual circumstances, such as the 50,000 soldiers killed in the war and those withdrawn with the British army after the Treaty along with the 8,000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary. But there is no doubt that the conditions of life in Ireland were from 1916 to 1923 so terrible to young farmers and labourers that many fled the country along with those of another class who suffered the loss of their homes.[23] The great and crying need is for the establishment of industries sufficient to provide work for the youth of the population.

In spite of the great main manufactures, distilleries and breweries, biscuit manufacturies, and in the North shipbuilding and linen, there is not sufficient work of an industrial kind to keep the young people at home. It is for this reason that the bold effort of the Government to provide an ample supply of power for industry by the completion of the Shannon Scheme is to be warmly welcomed. This, the most ambitious undertaking hitherto set on foot by the Free State Government, owes its inception to the ability of a young graduate of the National University who was studying engineering in the firm of Siemens-Schuckert in Germany, and who single-handed worked out the details of the scheme. The Directors of the firm having conducted investigations at their own expense and proved its feasibility, the work was confided to this firm; they have now carried it through to completion. The capital cost has been about five million pounds, but for this outlay, it is believed that a sufficient electric current can be supplied both for domestic and for industrial purposes over the south of Ireland; it will in all probability be used also for the railways. All the superior electrical work of this vast scheme has been done by German experts, Irish labourers being only employed for the rougher work; but now that it is accomplished, it opens up wide new possibilities for industry in the Free State. The Ford factory in the city of Cork was at the end of last year (November, 1929) turning out large quantities of tractors, going to all parts of the world, and was paying a fortnightly wages bill of over £35,000 to its employees.

The other main industries of Southern Ireland, other than animal and dairy products, such as spirits, porter, biscuits, hosiery and woollen goods show—with the exception of porter, which is on the increase—a decline during the year 1929; it is possible that the new electrical power now at their disposal may help to reinstate them. In the North, linen and the shipbuilding trades are also suffering from the universal trade depression and its consequent unemployment; fresh impetus and more modern appliances and wider advertising are to be desired all over the country.

The pressing problem is to find occupation for the population. So long as the old idea that Ireland is only fitted to be an agricultural and not an industrial country continues, there will always be a large surplus population, unable to find sufficient work by which to live. Yet to a traveller in the south of Ireland there is much to encourage hope for the future.

In Dublin there are signs of increasing confidence in the cleaner streets, the rebuilding going on in parts of the city and the activity of the shops. In the country the acquisition of their own holdings has led to great improvements in the cottages and their surroundings, and the housing problem has been one of the first attacked by the Government, though, as yet, without very marked results.

Ireland is gradually emerging from the period of disillusionment which followed upon the civil war and the five years of terror that preceded it. This mood of despondent self-criticism has left its mark upon the literature of the country in plays like those of Sean Casey or novels like those of Liam O’Flaherty, which hold up to the public a terrible side of Irish life, sordid and hopelessly corrupt. It will no doubt pass with the circumstances that gave rise to it.

One of the early clauses of the Constitution laid it down that “the national language of the Irish Free State is the Irish language but the English language may be equally recognised as an official language.” Since then great efforts have been made to put this expression of opinion into practice. In January, 1925, a Commission was appointed to enquire into the preservation of the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking districts of the South and West. It was found that these Irish-speaking districts corresponded to a large extent with the areas formally dealt with by the Congested Districts Board, in other words to the poorest and most isolated portions of the counties under consideration, and the report dealt in consequence almost equally with the question of employment and that of the language. The census of the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking districts in whole or in part, for the seven counties of Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork and Waterford, showed that while there was an apparent increase in the number of Irish speakers in these districts between the years 1871 and 1881, this was owing largely to the inaccurate returns made for the earlier date.

Again in 1901, some counties, particularly counties Kerry, Cork, Waterford, and Clare, showed a slight rise in the number of Irish-speakers, but the Commissioners attributed this rise chiefly to the activities of the Gaelic League, which was beginning to be felt as an impetus to the preservation of the language from its foundation in 1892, rather than to a natural increase in the number of native speakers. From this onward the downward tend has been continuous and marked, especially in the partially Irish speaking areas; those districts where the Irish speakers formed over 70 per cent. of the population, having shown, on the contrary, a tendency to rise between 1911 and 1925.[24]

There are at the present time few or no areas where the English language has not to some degree penetrated, and of the three-quarters of a million persons who spoke Irish as their native tongue in the early eighties a large proportion have disappeared through emigration caused by agricultural distress, in spite of the efforts of the Congested Districts Board, the Fisheries Board and other agencies, to ameliorate the conditions of life at home.[25]

Professor Eoin MacNeill, as first Minister of Education, set himself to push forward the revival of the language by every possible means. It was made compulsory in the National University, and was ordered to be taught as a medium of instruction for not less than one full hour in every school in which there was a teacher found capable of giving such instruction. Summer classes and other means of acquiring the necessary knowledge of Irish were started and the teachers were required to attend them; gradually, in an increasing number of elementary schools, Irish is not only being taught as a part of the curriculum but is being used, especially in the more Irish speaking districts, as a means of teaching other subjects on the programme. The secondary schools have been left free to arrange their own curriculum, but the necessity of qualifying in Irish for the entrance examination in the National University, is having its effect in an increasing number of schools of this type.

In the debates in the Dáil, both languages are used, but the necessity of translating speeches made first in Irish into English is becoming irksome as a waste of valuable time and the practice may fall into disuse. But the tendency to make a knowledge of Irish an essential qualification for all posts under the Government and in the civil service, is growing, even for membership of the civic guard. It is no doubt honestly believed by many enthusiasts that the existence of nationality is dependent on the survival of the nation’s language.

Cathal Brugha (Charles Burgess), the fighting right arm of the Irregular forces, is reported to have said that “if the language died, there would be an end to the ancient Irish nation.” Yet Switzerland, though intensely national, has never evolved a language of its own; its individuality survives with the help of three foreign tongues. The same may be said of the United States of America. The prevalent idea that Ireland is sharply divided into a pure Gaelic race, naturally Irish speaking, and a race of English descent, speaking English, cannot in this day be seriously held. Cathal Brugha, though he conceals his descent under an assumed Irish name, must presumably be of English origin; and so were several of the leading signatories to the Proclamation of Easter week, beginning with Pearse himself.[26] The same remark applies to many of the leading figures in the Gaelic League.

Yet, though the two races are now so inextricably mixed that the English settlers or descendants of settlers often rank as the best Gaels, the instinct that led the Government to lay stress on the revival of the language was a sound one. A language enshrines as nothing else can do the thought and sentiments of a people. It is self-created, the outcome of a natural need for self-expression, and it cannot be lost without a corresponding loss of individuality. The acquisition of two languages is in itself a culture and it is right and natural that one of these languages should be the native tongue. It cannot now replace English but it can take its place beside it.

The very geographical names call for its retention, for in them are enshrined the legends and traditions of the past, the imagination and affections of the race. As Laveleye, the Belgian economist has said, “As the culture of a people advances, race exercises less power over all people and historic memories more.”

To be united by common sympathies leading to co-operation between themselves more fully and more readily than with any other people, is that which constitutes a nation, and the outward expression of that nationhood is Government by themselves. “The Treaty,” in the words of Arthur Griffith[27] “is a recognition of the Irish nation. It gave to Ireland such powers as she had not possessed for centuries, it gave to Ireland the power to root her own people and give them a foothold in their own country—a thing they never had for a century past; it gave them power to build up a Gaelic State, to de-anglicise the land and make it what it ought to be—a distinctive speaking nation, with a distinctive culture; it gave them the power to banish from their midst the miserable poverty they knew to exist in the country; it gave them the power to deal with all the social problems that to-day could not be dealt with by them but were dealt with by an external and non-understanding country.” His dying message to his countrymen was this: “People of Ireland, stand by your Treaty. It is an economic necessity; it is for you political safety.”

We end on the cheering words of Kevin O’Higgins, written to the French people shortly before his death, and when the Free State was still very young:

“The impression that I would leave with you above all is of a nation that has no longer before it problems of the importance of those which she has resolved with success, of a nation which, having recognised its social and economic weaknesses, has set herself to surmount them, of a nation that views the future with tranquil confidence, persuaded that that future will be the best justification of her long struggle for independence.”[28]