Ireland: Prologue

Frank Mathew & Francis S. Walker
The Other Country

THE fishermen of Connemara believe that an island not to be found by any voyage exists near their shore, and they call it the Other Country. That near and remote place is a symbol of Ireland. Giraldus Cambrensis wrote that Ireland "was separated from the rest of the known world, and in some sort to be distinguished as another world"; and among its early names there were two that support that opinion, the Oldest Place and the Country at the End of the Earth. If it was the Island of Saints, why did it produce so many sinners? If its people were always rightly renowned for courage, why did that never procure any success? By what spell did it conquer its conquerors, making so many stocks blend with the Irish? For what cause has it been haunted by trouble? Why has it given so much trouble to England? Here are questions that ought to be answered; for even the many who care little about Ireland are concerned with the last of them, and this problem cannot be solved alone. In this book I propose to suggest answers to them and to others equally hard.

If you think that you know all about Ireland, you are probably wrong. It is an undiscovered country. As an Irishman, I can bear witness to the fact that its people are by no means agreed in their opinions about it. We are aware how difficult its problems remain, even in these days of enlightenment; and for that reason I shall leave you to take my views for what they are worth, which may be little or nothing. At least, they are honest, not consciously distorted by prejudice and quite unconcerned with politics. There is one point on which we are agreed: we are convinced that foreigners, and in especial our dear English neighbours, misunderstand us, and not seldom betray a deplorable ignorance.

This book will be no more than a quiet introduction to Ireland. If you are content with your knowledge, you had better throw it aside; those who pine for statistics must turn to somebody else, and so must all who require political wrangling.

In it you will have two impressions,—the Artist's and mine. Just as the Artist wandered where he chose and painted what he liked, without any thought of depicting notable scenes, so my independent description will not rival a Guide Book, nor be in any way detailed or complete. Yet it may be that this pleasant method of ours will impart a true notion.

If that notion is true, it must also be new. Let us take the Artist's work first. If you have not visited Ireland, the odds are that you think that it is wholly addicted to the wearing of the Green. Is it not called the Green Isle? Yet few pictures of his give that as a prominent colour, and many of them seize varying shades of brown. The truth is that Ireland has the colouring a wood has in the autumn. In the wide places of bogs and in the Highlands it is brown for the most part, though its tints change as the sky does above them, and are at times purple or red or black: the lesser hills are grey, and so are the moors. In these hues green is latent; it dwells in them as it does in the garb of a wood just before the leaves fall. One might say that one was aware of it without seeing it, as if it was implied. The grey of the hills and the moors will remind you of a mist over leaves.

Though there are some valleys in which the verdure resembles moss, it is more often wan and elusive. England has a far better right to be named the Green Isle, as is natural since it has so many more meadows and woods. Though Ireland was once called the Island of Woods, it is bare: now its verdure is spectral, as if it was haunted by the ghosts of the branches that covered it once. There is in that island an early and delicate light. All the colours are subdued and remote; they have a far purity as if they were seen very early in the morning. In this, as in other things, Ireland is a country apart.

As for my work, a good many people will find that my notion of Ireland is not theirs. Certain it is that all who have borrowed their ignorance from English or American humorists will form that conclusion. We have many accents in Ireland, some of them musical and all of them characteristic: when we hear a man speak we know whether he is one of the mournful and ruminating people of Connaught, or one of the light-hearted and eloquent natives of Cork. We have many shades of character too; each county has one of its own: when we know whence a man comes we trust or distrust him, like or dislike him, accordingly. At the same time there is a pervading character common to all; it is visible or latent in us as our unusual green is in the many tints of our home. But this is not like the one given to us by English or American humour; neither are any accents of ours heard on the Stage.

In this introduction I shall describe Ireland briefly for the benefit of those who have never been there, and of those more fortunate people who will be glad to be reminded of the charms they have seen, and in so doing I shall accentuate some of those different characters, and then I shall dwell on the one that exists in them all. In other words, I shall deal with the nature of Ireland and with the consequent natures of Irishmen. You will be free to draw your own deductions from this. Of course I take it for granted that everyone has learnt Irish history; and therefore I need not relate how, in the earliest times of which anything is really known (for the tales of the Tuatha-dé-Danann, Fomorians and Fenians, cannot now be distinguished from Romance or Mythology), Ireland was peopled by Celts, or Gaels, who, according to Tacitus, were much superior to the Britons in culture and character; how they were divided in miniature nations perpetually at war; how, being taught Christianity, they took to it kindly, and not only produced many saints but converted and educated their barbarous neighbours; how, either through a soldierly scorn of commerce—as their descendants prefer to believe—or through natural laziness—as Cambrensis alleged—they permitted their sea-going trade to be controlled by the Danes, who, in course of time, attempted to conquer them and succeeded in founding new cities and kingdoms; and how, some three hundred years afterwards, a few adventurous Norman Knights landed and carved separate realms for themselves.

There is still less need to recount later history, for that would involve the debating of political questions; but I may remind you how the Norman Knights found the country still dislocated, as England had not been for hundreds of years, and in other ways little changed since it had first become Christian; how the English Kings meddled little with it till the times of the Tudors, being content to be its nominal Lords and to hold a narrow slice called the Pale; and how it so happened that England had just become Protestant when it began an effectual conquest, and how this (combined with the fact that the resistance was aided for political reasons by Catholic Spain and the Pope) made the war a religious one; and how all who settled in Ireland before or after that time were subdued by its spell and very soon became Irish. If you recall these things, and consider the natures of the Irish and the English, and reflect that in modern times England could never safely allow Ireland to become independent, you may understand the Other Country's misfortunes. Their chief cause was the fact that Ireland has been, at all times and in every way, a country apart.

For that reason, it has been greatly misunderstood. It is my hope that I may be able to lessen this misunderstanding a little. We should not complain of it, for it has been caused by our own peculiarities. If foreigners take our lamentations and our quarrels too seriously, we have only ourselves to blame. I hope to prove that our natures are only difficult because they are simple, and that the two things for which Ireland is mainly remarkable are peace and content.