Ideals Of The New Rural Society by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

For a country where political agitations follow each other as rapidly as plagues in an Eastern city, it is curious how little constructive thought we can show on the ideals of a rural civilization. But economic peace ought surely to have its victories to show as well as political war. I would a thousand times rather dwell on what men and women working together may do than on what may result from majorities at Westminster. The beauty of great civilizations has been built up far more by the people working together than by any corporate action of the State. In these socialistic days we grow pessimistic about our own efforts and optimistic about the working of the legislature. I think we do right to expect great things from the State, but we ought to expect still greater things from ourselves. We ought to know full well that, if the State did twice as much as it does, we shall never rise out of mediocrity among the nations unless we have unlimited faith in the power of our personal efforts to raise and transform Ireland, and unless we translate the faith into works. The State can give a man an economic holding, but only the man himself can make it into Earthly Paradise, and it is a dull business, unworthy of a being made in the image of God, to grind away at work without some noble end to be served, some glowing ideal to be attained.

Ireland is a horribly melancholy and cynical country. Our literary men and poets, who ought to give us courage, have taken to writing about the Irish as people who “went forth to battle, but always fell,” sentimentalizing over incompetence instead of invigorating us and liberating us and directing our energies. We have developed a new and clever school of Irish dramatists who say they are holding up the mirror to Irish peasant nature, but they reflect nothing but decadence. They delight in the broken lights of insanity, the ruffian who beats his wife, the weakling who is unfortunate in love and who goes and drinks himself to death, while the little decaying country towns are seized on with avidity and exhibited on the stage in every kind of decay and human futility and meanness. Well, it is good to be chastened in spirit, but it is a thousand times better to be invigorated in spirit. To be positive is always better than to be negative. These writers understand and sympathize with Ireland more through their lower nature than their higher nature. Judging by the things people write in Ireland, and by what they go to see performed on the stage, it is more pleasing to them to see enacted characters they know are meaner than themselves than to see characters which they know are nobler than themselves.

All this is helping on our national pessimism and self-mistrust. It helps to fix these features permanently in our national character, which were excusable enough as temporary moods after defeat. The younger generation should hear nothing about failures. It should not be hypnotized into self-contempt. Our energies in Ireland are sapped by a cynical self-mistrust which is spread everywhere through society. It is natural enough that the elder generation, who were promised so many millenniums, but who actually saw four million people deducted from the population, should be cynical. But it is not right they should give only to the younger generation the heritage of their disappointments without any heritage of hope. From early childhood parents and friends are hypnotizing the child into beliefs and unbeliefs, and too often they are exiling all nobility out of life, all confidence, all trust, all hope; they are insinuating a mean self-seeking, a self-mistrust, a vulgar spirit which laughs at every high ideal, until at last the hypnotized child is blinded to the presence of any beauty or nobility in life. No country can ever hope to rise beyond a vulgar mediocrity where there is not unbounded confidence in what its humanity can do. The self-confident American will make a great civilization yet, because he believes with all his heart and soul in the future of his country and in the powers of the American people. What Whitman called their “barbaric yawp” may yet turn into the lordliest speech and thought, but without self-confidence a race will go no whither. If Irish people do not believe they can equal or surpass the stature of any humanity which has been upon the globe, then they had better all emigrate and become servants to some superior race, and leave Ireland to new settlers who may come here with the same high hopes as the Pilgrim Fathers had when they went to America.

We must go on imagining better than the best we know. Even in their ruins now, Greece and Italy seem noble and beautiful with broken pillars and temples made in their day of glory. But before ever there was a white marble temple shining on a hill it shone with a more brilliant beauty in the mind of some artist who designed it. Do many people know how that marvelous Greek civilization spread along the shores of the Mediterranean? Little nations owning hardly more land than would make up an Irish barony sent out colony after colony. The seed of beautiful life they sowed grew and blossomed out into great cities and half-divine civilizations. Italy had a later blossoming of beauty in the Middle Ages, and travelers today go into little Italian towns and find them filled with masterpieces of painting and architecture and sculpture, witnesses of a time when nations no larger than an Irish county rolled their thoughts up to Heaven and miked their imagination with the angels. Can we be contented in Ireland with the mean streets of our country towns and the sordid heaps of our villages dominated in their economics by the vendors of alcohol, and inspired as to their ideals by the vendors of political animosities?

I would not mind people fighting in a passion to get rid of all that barred some lordly scheme of life, but quarrels over political bones from which there is little or nothing wholesome to be picked only disgust. People tell me that the countryside must always be stupid and backward, and I get angry, as if it were said that only townspeople had immortal souls, and it was only in the city that the flame of divinity breathed into the first men had any unobscured glow. The countryside in Ireland could blossom into as much beauty as the hillsides in mediaeval Italy if we could but get rid of our self-mistrust. We have all that any race ever had to inspire them, the heavens overhead, the earth underneath, and the breath of life in our nostrils. I would like to exile the man who would set limits to what we can do, who would take the crown and sceptre from the human will and say, marking out some petty enterprise as the limit–“Thus far can we go and no farther, and here shall our life be stayed.” Therefore I hate to hear of stagnant societies who think because they have made butter well that they have crowned their parochial generation with a halo of glory, and can rest content with the fame of it all, listening to the whirr of the steam separators and pouching in peace of mind the extra penny a gallon for their milk. And I dislike the little groups who meet a couple of times a year and call themselves co-operators because they have got their fertilizers more cheaply, and have done nothing else. Why, the village gombeen man has done more than that! He has at least brought most of the necessaries of life there by his activities; and I say if we co-operators do not aim at doing more than the Irish Scribes and Pharisees we shall have little to be proud of. A poet, interpreting the words of Christ to His followers, who had scorned the followers of the old order, made Him say:

Scorn ye their hopes, their tears, their inward prayers?
I say unto you, see that your souls live
A deeper life than theirs.

The co-operative movement is delivering over the shaping of the rural life of Ireland, and the building up of its rural civilization, into the hands of Irish farmers. The old order of things has left Ireland unlovely. But if we do not passionately strive to build it better, better for the men, for the women, for the children, of what worth are we? We continually come across the phrase “the dull Saxon” in our Irish papers, it crops up in the speeches of our public orators, but it was an English poet who said:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

And it was the last great, poet England has produced, who had so much hope for humanity in his country that in his latest song he could mix earth with heaven, and say that to human eyes:

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Hung betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Shall we think more meanly of the future of Ireland than these “dull Saxons” think of the future of their island? Shall we be content with humble crumbs fallen from the table of life, and sit like beggars waiting only for what the commonwealth can do for us, leaving all high hopes and aims to our rulers, whether they be English or Irish? Every people get the kind of Government they deserve. A nation can exhibit no greater political wisdom in the mass than it generates in its units. It is the pregnant idealism of the multitude which gives power to the makers of great nations, otherwise the prophets of civilization are helpless as preachers in the desert and solitary places. So I have always preached self-help above all other kinds of help, knowing that if we strove passionately after this righteousness all other kinds of help would be at our service. So, too, I would brush aside the officious interferer in co-operative affairs, who would offer on behalf of the State to do for us what we should, and could, do far better ourselves. We can build up a rural civilization in Ireland, shaping it to our hearts’ desires, warming it with life, but our rulers and officials can never be warmer than a stepfather, and have no “large, divine, and comfortable words” for us; they tinker at the body when it is the soul which requires to be healed and made whole. The soul of Ireland has to be kindled, and it can be kindled only by the thought of great deeds and not by the hope of petty parsimonies or petty gains.

Now, great deeds are never done vicariously. They are done directly and personally. No country has grown to greatness mainly by the acts of some great ruler, but by the aggregate activities of all its people. Therefore, every Irish community should make its own ideals and should work for them. As great work can be done in a parish as in the legislative assemblies with a nation at gaze. Do people say: “It is easier to work well with a nation at gaze?” I answer that true greatness becomes the North Pole of humanity, and when it appears all the needles of Being point to it. You of the young generation, who have not yet lost the generous ardour of youth, believe it is as possible to do great work and make noble sacrifices, and to roll the acceptable smoke of offering to Heaven by your work in an Irish parish, as in any city in the world. Like the Greek architects–who saw in their dreams hills crowned with white marble pillared palaces and images of beauty, until these rose up in actuality–so should you, not forgetting national ideals, still most of all set before yourselves the ideal of your own neighborhood. How can you speak of working for all Ireland, which you have not seen, if you do not labor and dream for the Ireland before your eyes, which you see as you look out of your own door in the morning, and on which you walk up and down through the day?

“What dream shall we dream or what labor shall we undertake?” you may ask, and it is right that those who exhort should be asked in what manner and how precisely they would have the listener act or think. I answer: the first thing to do is to create and realize the feeling for the community, and break up the evil and petty isolation of man from man. This can be done by every kind of co-operative effort where combined action is better than individual action. The parish cannot take care of the child as well as the parents, but you will find in most of the labors of life combined action is more fruitful than individual action. Some of you have found this out in many branches of agriculture, of which your dairying, agricultural, credit, poultry, and flax societies are witness. Some of you have combined to manufacture; some to buy in common, some to sell in common. Some of you have the common ownership of thousands of pounds’ worth of expensive machinery. Some of you have carried the idea of co-operation for economic ends farther, and have used the power which combination gives you to erect village halls and to have libraries of books, the windows through which the life and wonder and power of humanity can be seen. Some of you have light-heartedly, in the growing sympathy of unity, revived the dances and songs and sports which are the right relaxation of labor. Some Irishwomen here and there have heard beyond the four walls in which so much of their lives are spent the music of a new day, and have started out to help and inspire the men and be good comrades to them; and calling themselves United Irish-women, they have joined, as men have joined, to help their sisters who are in economic servitude, or who suffer from the ignorance and indifference to their special needs in life which pervade the administration of local government. We cannot build up a rural civilization in Ireland without the aid of Irish women. It will help life little if we have methods of the twentieth century in the fields, and those of the fifth century in the home. A great writer said: “Woman is the last thing man will civilize.” If a woman had written on that subject she would have said: “Woman is the last thing a man thinks about when he is building up his empires.” It is true that the consciousness of woman has been always centered too close to the dark and obscure roots of the Tree of Life, while men have branched out more to the sun an wind, and today the starved soul of womanhood is crying out over the world for an intellectual life and for more chance of earning a living. If Ireland will not listen to this cry, its daughters will go on slipping silently away to other countries, as they have been doing–all the best of them, all the bravest, all those most mentally alive, all those who would have made the best wives and the best mothers–and they will leave at home the timid, the stupid and the dull to help in the deterioration of the race and to breed sons as sluggish as themselves. In the New World women have taken an important part in the work of the National Grange, the greatest agency in bettering the economic and social conditions of the agricultural population in the States. In Ireland the women must be welcomed into the work of building up a rural civilization, and be aided by men in the promotion of those industries with which women have been immemorially associated. We should not want to see women separated from the activities and ideals and inspirations of men. We should want to see them working together and in harmony. If the women carry on their work in connection with the associations by which men earn their living they will have a greater certainty of permanence. I have seen too many little industries and little associations of women workers spring up and perish in Ireland, which depended on the efforts of some one person who had not drunk of the elixir of immortal youth, and could not always continue the work she started; and I have come to the conclusion that the women’s organizations must be connected with the men’s organizations, must use their premises, village halls, and rooms for women’s meetings. I do not believe women’s work can be promoted so well in any other way. Men and women have been companions in the world from the dawn of time. I do not know where they are journeying to, but I believe they will never get to the Delectable City if they journey apart from each other, and do not share each other’s burdens.

Working so, we create the conditions in which the spirit of the community grows strong. We create the true communal idea, which the Socialists miss in their dream of a vast amalgamation of whole nationalities in one great commercial undertaking. The true idea of the clan or commune or tribe is to have in it as many people as will give it strength and importance, and so few people that a personal tie may be established between them. Humanity has always grouped itself instinctively in this way. It did so in the ancient clans and rural communes, and it does so in the parishes and co-operative associations. If they were larger they would lose the sense of unity. If they were smaller they would be too feeble for effectual work, and could not take over the affairs of their district. A rural commune or co-operative community ought to have, to a large extent, the character of a nation. It should manufacture for its members all things which it profitably can manufacture for them, employing its own workmen, carpenters, bootmakers, makers and menders of farming equipment, saddlery, harness, etc. It should aim at feeding its members and their families cheaply and well, as far as possible, out of the meat and grain produced in the district. It should have a mill to grind their grain, a creamery to manufacture their butter; or where certain enterprises like a bacon factory are too great for it, it should unite with other co-operative communities to furnish out such an enterprise. It should sell for the members their produce, and buy for them their requirements, and hold for them labor-saving machinery. It should put aside a certain portion of its profits every year for the creation of halls, libraries, places for recreation and games, and it should pursue this plan steadily with the purpose of giving its members every social and educational advantage which the civilization of their time affords. It should have its councils or village parliaments, where improvements and new ventures could be discussed. Such a community would soon generate a passionate devotion to its own ideals and interests among the members, who would feel how their fortunes rose with the fortunes of the associations of which they were all members. It would kindle and quicken the intellect of every person in the community. It would create the atmosphere in which national genius would emerge and find opportunities for its activity. The clan ought to be the antechamber of the nation and the training ground for its statesmen. What opportunity leadership in the councils of such a rural community would give to the best minds! The man of social genius at present finds an unorganized community, and he does not know how to affect his fellow-citizens. A man might easily despair of affecting the destinies of a nation of forty million people, but yet start with eagerness to build up a kingdom of the size of Sligo, and shape it nearer to the heart’s desire. The organization of the rural population of Ireland in co-operative associations will provide the instrument ready to the hand of the social reformer.

Some associations will be more dowered with ability than others, but one will learn from another, and a vast network of living, progressive organizations will cover rural Ireland, democratic in constitution and governed by the aristocracy of intellect and character.

Such associations would have great economic advantages in that they would be self-reliant and self-contained, and would be less subject to fluctuation in their prosperity brought about by national disasters and commercial crises than the present unorganized rural communities are. They would have all their business under local control; and, aiming at feeding, clothing, and manufacturing locally from local resources as far as possible, the slumps in foreign trade, the shortage in supplies, the dislocations of commerce would affect them but little. They would make the community wealthier. Every step towards this organization already taken in Ireland has brought with it increased prosperity, and the towns benefit by increased purchasing power on the part of these rural associations. New arts and industries would spring up under the aegis of the local associations. Here we should find the weaving of rugs, there the manufacture of toys, elsewhere the women would be engaged in embroidery or lace-making, and, perhaps, everywhere we might get a revival of the old local industry of weaving homespuns. We are dreaming of nothing impossible, nothing which has not been done somewhere already, nothing which we could not do here in Ireland. True, it cannot be done all at once, but if we get the idea clearly in our minds of the building up of a rural civilization in Ireland, we can labor at it with the grand persistence of medieval burghers in their little towns, where one generation laid down the foundations of a great cathedral, and saw only in hope and faith the gorgeous glooms over altar and sanctuary, and the blaze and flame of stained glass, where apostles, prophets, and angelic presences were pictured in fire: and the next generation raised high the walls, and only the third generation saw the realization of what their grandsires had dreamed. We in Ireland should not live only from day to day, for the day only, like the beasts in the field, but should think of where all this long cavalcade of the Gael is tending, and how and in what manner their tents will be pitched in the evening of their generation. A national purpose is the most unconquerable and victorious of all things on earth. It can raise up Babylons from the sands of the desert, and make imperial civilizations spring from out a score of huts, and after it has wrought its will it can leave monuments that seem as everlasting a portion of nature as the rocks. The Pyramids and the Sphinx in the sands of Egypt have seemed to humanity for centuries as much a portion of nature as Erigal, or Benbulben, or Slieve Gullion have seemed a portion of nature to our eyes in Ireland.

We must have some purpose or plan in building up an Irish civilization. No artist takes up his paints and brushes and begins to work on his canvas without a clear idea burning in his brain of what he has to do, else were his work all smudges. Does anyone think that out of all these little cabins and farmhouses dotting the green of Ireland there will come harmonious effort to a common end without organization and set purpose? The idea and plan of a great rural civilization must shine like a burning lamp in the imagination of the youth of Ireland, or we shall only be at cross-purposes and end in little fatuities. We are very fond in Ireland of talking of Ireland a nation. The word “nation” has a kind of satisfying sound, but I am afraid it is an empty word with no rich significance to most who use it. The word “laboratory” has as fine a sound, but only the practical scientist has a true conception of what may take place there, what roar of strange forces, what mingling of subtle elements, what mystery and magnificence in atomic life. The word without the idea is like the purse without the coin, the skull without the soul, or any other sham or empty deceit. Nations are not built up by the repetition of words, but by the organizing of intellectual forces. If any of my readers would like to know what kind of thought goes to the building up of a great nation, let him read the life of Alexander Hamilton by Oliver. To that extraordinary man the United States owe their constitution, almost their existence. To him, far more than to Washington, the idea, plan, shape of all that marvelous dominion owes its origin and character. He seemed to hold in his brain, while America was yet a group of half-barbaric settlements, the idea of what it might become. He laid down the plans, the constitution, the foreign policy, the trade policy, the relation of State to State, and it is only within the last few years almost, that America has realized that she had in Hamilton a supreme political and social intelligence, the true fountain-head of what she has since become.

We have not half a continent to deal with, but size matters nothing. The Russian Empire, which covers half Europe, and stretches over the Ural Mountains to the Pacific, would weigh light as a feather in the balance if we compare its services to humanity with those of the little State of Attica, which was no larger than Tipperary. Every State which has come to command the admiration of the world has had clearly conceived ideals which it realized before it went the way which all empires, even the greatest, must go; becoming finally a legend, a fable, or a symbol. We have to lay down the foundations of a new social order in Ireland, and, if the possibilities of it are realized, our thousand years of sorrow and darkness may be followed by as long a cycle of happy effort and ever-growing prosperity. We shall want all these plans whether we are ruled from Westminster or College Green. Without an imaginative conception of what kind of civilization we wish to create, the best government from either quarter will never avail to lift us beyond national mediocrity. I write for those who have joined the ranks of the co-operators without perhaps realizing all that the movement meant, or all that it tended to. Because we hold in our hearts and keep holy there the vision of a great future, I have fought passionately for the entire freedom of our movement from external control, lest the meddling of politicians or official persons without any inspiration should deflect, for some petty purpose or official gratification, the strength of that current which was flowing and gathering strength unto the realization of great ideals. Every country has its proportion of little souls which could find ample room on a threepenny bit, and be majestically housed in a thimble, who follow out some little minute practice in an ecstasy of self-satisfaction, seeking some little job which is the El Dorado of their desires as if there were naught else, as if humanity were not going from the Great Deep to the Great Deep of Deity, with wind and water, fire and earth, stars and sun, lordly companions for it on its path to a divine destiny. We have our share of these in Ireland in high and low places, but I do not write for them. This essay is for those who are working at laying deep the foundations of a new social order, to hearten them with some thought of what their labor may bring to Ireland. I welcome to this work the United Irishwomen. As one of their poetesses has said in a beautiful song, the services of women to Ireland in the past have been the services of mourners to the stricken. But for today and tomorrow we need hope and courage and gaiety, and I repeat for them the last passionate words of her verse:

Rise to your feet, O daughters, rise,
Our mother still is young and fair.
Let the world look into your eyes
And see her beauty shining there.
Grant of that beauty but one ray,
Heroes shall leap from every hill;
Today shall be as yesterday,
The red blood burns in Ireland still.

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