The New Nation by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

In that cycle of history which closed in 1914, but which seems now to the imagination as far sunken behind time as Babylon or Samarcand, it was customary at the festival of the Incarnation to forego our enmities for a little and allow freer play to the spiritual in our being. Since 1914 all things in the world and with us, too, in Ireland have existed in a welter of hate, but the rhythm of ancient habit cannot altogether have passed away, and now if at any time, it should be possible to blow the bugles of Heaven and recall men to that old allegiance. I do not think it would help now if I, or another, put forward arguments drawn from Irish history or economics to convince any party that they were wrong and their opponents right. I think absolute truth might be stated in respect of these things, and yet it would affect nothing in our present mood. It would not be recognized any more than Heaven, when It walked on earth in the guise of a Carpenter, was hailed by men whose minds were filled by other imaginations of that coming.

I will not argue about the past, but would ask Irishmen to consider how in future they may live together. Do they contemplate the continuance of these bitter hatreds in our own household? The war must have a finale. Many thousands of Irishmen will return to their country who have faced death for other ideals than those which inspire many more thousands now in Ireland and make them also fearless of death. How are these to co-exist in the same island if there is no change of heart? Each will receive passionate support from relatives, friends, and parties who uphold their action. This will be a most unhappy country if we cannot arrive at some moral agreement, as necessary as a political agreement. Partition is no settlement, because there is no geographical limitation of these passions. There is scarce a locality in Ireland where antagonisms do not gather about the thought of Ireland as in the caduceus of Mercury the twin serpents writhe about the sceptre of the god. I ask our national extremists in what mood do they propose to meet those who return, men of temper as stern as their own? Will these endure being termed traitors to Ireland? Will their friends endure it? Will those who mourn their dead endure to hear scornful speech of those they loved? That way is for us a path to Hell. The unimaginative who see only a majority in their own locality, or, perhaps, in the nation, do not realize what a powerful factor in national life are those who differ from them, and how they are upheld by a neighboring nation which, for all its present travail, is more powerful by far than Ireland even if its people were united in purpose as the fingers of one hand. Nor can those who hold to, and are upheld by, the Empire hope to coerce to a uniformity of feeling with themselves the millions clinging to Irish nationality. Seven centuries of repression have left that spirit unshaken, nor can it be destroyed save by the destruction of the Irish people, because it springs from biological necessity. As well might a foolish gardener trust that his apple-tree would bring forth grapes as to dream that there could be uniformity of character and civilization between Irishmen and Englishmen. It would be a crime against life if it could be brought about and diversities of culture and civilization made impossible. We may live at peace with our neighbors when it is agreed that we must be different, and no peace is possible in the world between nations except on this understanding. But I am not now thinking of that, but of the more urgent problem how we are to live at peace with each other. I am convinced Irish enmities are perpetuated because we live by memory more than by hope, and that even now on the facts of character there is no justification for these enmities.

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We have been told that there are two nations in Ireland. That may have been so in the past, but it is not true today. The union of Norman and Dane and Saxon and Celt which has been going on through the centuries is now completed, and there is but one powerful Irish character–not Celtic or Norman-Saxon, but a new race. We should recognize our moral identity. It was apparent before the war in the methods by which Ulstermen and Nationalists alike strove to defend or win their political objects. There is scarce an Ulsterman, whether he regards his ancestors as settlers or not, who is not allied through marriage by his forbears to the ancient race. There is in his veins the blood of the people who existed before Patrick, and he can look backward through time to the legends of the Red Branch, the Fianna and the gods as the legends of his people. It would be as difficult to find even on the Western Coast a family which has not lost in the same way its Celtic purity of race. The character of all is fed from many streams which have mingled in them and have given them a new distinctiveness. The invasions of Ireland and the Plantations, however morally unjustifiable, however cruel in method, are justified by biology. The invasion of one race by another was nature’s ancient way of reinvigorating a people.

Mr. Flinders Petrie, in his “Revolutions of Civilization,” has demonstrated that civilization comes in waves, that races rise to a pinnacle of power and culture, and decline from that, and fall into decadence, from which they do not emerge until there has been a crossing of races, a fresh intermingling of cultures. He showed in ancient Egypt eight such periods, and after every decline into decadence there was an invasion, the necessary precedent to a fresh ascent with reinvigorated energies. I prefer to dwell upon the final human results of this commingling of races than upon the tyrannies and conflicts which made it possible. The mixture of races has added to the elemental force of the Celtic character a more complex mentality, and has saved us from becoming, as in our island isolation we might easily have become, thin and weedy, like herds where there has been too much in-breeding. The modern Irish are a race built up from many races who have to prove themselves for the future. Their animosities, based on past history, have little justification in racial diversity today, for they are a new people with only superficial cultural and political differences, but with the same fundamental characteristics. It is hopeless, the dream held by some that the ancient Celtic character could absorb the new elements, become dominant once more, and be itself unchanged. It is equally hopeless to dream the Celtic element could be eliminated. We are a new people, and not the past, but the future, is to justify this new nationality.

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I believe it was this powerful Irish character which stirred in Ulster before the war, leading it to adopt methods unlike the Anglo-Saxon tradition in politics. I believe that new character, far more than the spirit of the ancient race, was the ferment in the blood of those who brought about the astonishing enterprise of Easter Week. Pearse himself, for all his Gaelic culture, was sired by one of the race he fought against. He might stand in that respect as a symbol of the new race which is springing up. We are slowly realizing the vigor of the modern Irish character just becoming self-conscious of itself. I had met many men who were in the enterprise of Easter Week and listened to their spirit their speech, but they had to prove to myself and others by more than words. I listened with that half-cynical feeling which is customary with us when men advocate a cause with which we are temperamentally sympathetic, but about whose realization we are hopeless. I could not gauge the strength of the new spirit, for words do not by themselves convey the quality of power in men; and even when the reverberations from Easter Week were echoing everywhere in Ireland, for a time I, and many others, thought and felt about those who died as some pagan concourse in ancient Italy might have felt looking down upon an arena, seeing below a foam of glorious faces turned to them, the noble, undismayed, inflexible faces of martyrs, and, without understanding, have realized that this spirit was stronger than death. I believe that capacity for sacrifice, that devotion to ideals exists equally among the opponents of these men. It would have been proved in Ireland, in Ulster, if the need had arisen. It has been proved on many a battlefield of Europe. Whatever views we may hold about the relative value of national or Imperial ideals, we may recognize that there is moral equality where the sacrifice is equal. No one has more to give than life, and, when that is given, neither Nationalist nor Imperialist in Ireland can claim moral superiority for the dead champions of their causes.

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And here I come to the purpose of my letter, which is to deprecate the scornful repudiation by Irishmen of other Irishmen, which is so common at present, and which helps to perpetuate our feuds. We are all one people. We are closer to each other in character than we are to any other race. The necessary preliminary to political adjustment is moral adjustment, forgiveness, and mutual understanding. I have been in council with others of my countrymen for several months, and I noticed what an obstacle it was to agreement how few, how very few, there were who had been on terms of friendly intimacy with men of all parties. There was hardly one who could have given an impartial account of the ideals and principles of his opponents. Our political differences have brought about social isolations, and there can be no understanding where there is no eagerness to meet those who differ from us, and hear the best they have to say for themselves. This letter is an appeal to Irishmen to seek out and understand their political opponents. If they come to know each other, they will come to trust each other, and will realize their kinship, and will set their faces to the future together, to build up a civilization which will justify their nationality.

I myself am Anglo-Irish, with the blood of both races in me, and when the rising of Easter Week took place all that was Irish in me was profoundly stirred, and out of that mood I wrote commemorating the dead. And then later there rose in memory the faces of others I knew who loved their country, but had died in other battles. They fought in those because they believed they would serve Ireland, and I felt these were no less my people. I could hold them also in my heart and pay tribute to them. Because it was possible for me to do so, I think it is possible for others; and in the hope that the deeds of all may in the future be a matter of pride to the new nation I append here these verses I have written:–

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To the Memory of Some I knew Who are Dead and Who Loved Ireland.

Their dream had left me numb and cold,
But yet my spirit rose in pride,
Refashioning in burnished gold
The images of those who died,
Or were shut in the penal cell.
Here’s to you, Pearse, your dream not mine,
But yet the thought, for this you fell,
Has turned life’s water into wine.

You who have died on Eastern hills
Or fields of France as undismayed,
Who lit with interlinked wills
The long heroic barricade,
You, too, in all the dreams you had,
Thought of some thing for Ireland done.
Was it not so, Oh, shining lad,
What lured you, Alan Anderson?

I listened to high talk from you,
Thomas McDonagh, and it seemed
The words were idle, but they grew
To nobleness by death redeemed.
Life cannot utter words more great
Than life may meet by sacrifice,
High words were equaled by high fate,
You paid the price. You paid the price.

You who have fought on fields afar,
That other Ireland did you wrong
Who said you shadowed Ireland’s star,
Nor gave you laurel wreath nor song.
You proved by death as true as they,
In mightier conflicts played your part,
Equal your sacrifice may weigh,
Dear Kettle, of the generous heart.

The hope lives on age after age,
Earth with its beauty might be won
For labor as a heritage,
For this has Ireland lost a son.
This hope unto a flame to fan
Men have put life by with a smile,
Here’s to you Connolly, my man,
Who cast the last torch on the pile.

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You too, had Ireland in your care,
Who watched o’er pits of blood and mire,
From iron roots leap up in air
Wild forests, magical, of fire;
Yet while the Nuts of Death were shed
Your memory would ever stray
To your own isle. Oh, gallant dead–
This wreath, Will Redmond, on your clay.

Here’s to you, men I never met,
Yet hope to meet behind the veil,
Thronged on some starry parapet,
That looks down upon Innisfail,
And sees the confluence of dreams
That clashed together in our night,
One river, born from many streams,
Roll in one blaze of blinding light.

December 1917

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