“Ulster”, An Open Letter To Mr. Rudyard Kipling by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

I Speak to you, brother, because you have spoken to me, or rather you have spoken for me. I am a native of Ulster. So far back as I can trace the faith of my forefathers they held the faith for whose free observance you are afraid.

I call you brother, for so far as I am known beyond the circle of my personal friends it is as a poet. We are not a numerous tribe, but the world has held us in honor, because on the whole in poetry is found the highest and sincerest utterance of man’s spirit. In this manner of speaking if a man is not sincere his speech betrayeth him, for all true poetry was written on the Mount of Transfiguration, and there is revelation in it and the mingling of heaven and earth. I am jealous of the honor of poetry, and I am jealous of the good name of my country, and I am impelled by both emotions to speak to you.

You have blood of our race in you, and you may, perhaps, have some knowledge of Irish sentiment. You have offended against one of our noblest literary traditions in the manner in which you have published your thoughts. You begin by quoting Scripture. You preface your verses on Ulster by words from the mysterious oracles of humanity as if you had been inflamed and inspired by the prophet of God; and you go on to sing of faith in peril and patriotism betrayed and the danger of death and oppression by those who do murder by night, which things, if one truly feels, he speaks of without consideration of commerce or what it shall profit him to speak. But you, brother, have withheld your fears for your country and mine until they could yield you a profit in two continents. After all this high speech about the Lord and the hour of national darkness it shocks me to find this following your verses: “Copyrighted in the United States of America by Rudyard Kipling.” You are not in want. You are the most successful man of letters of your time, and yet you are not above making profit out of the perils of your country. You ape the lordly speech of the prophets, and you conclude by warning everybody not to reprint your words at their peril. In Ireland every poet we honor has dedicated his genius to his country without gain, and has given without stint, without any niggardly withholding of his gift when his nation was dark and evil days. Not one of our writers, when deeply moved about Ireland, has tried to sell the gift of the spirit. You, brother, hurt me when you declare your principles, and declare a dividend to yourself out of your patriotism openly and at the same time.

I would not reason with you, but that I know there is something truly great and noble in you, and there have been hours when the immortal in you secured your immortality in literature, when you ceased to see life with that hard cinematograph eye of yours, and saw with the eyes of the spirit, and power and tenderness and insight were mixed in magical tales. But you were far from the innermost when you wrote of my countrymen us you did.

I have lived all my life in Ireland, holding a different faith from that held by the majority. I know Ireland as few Irishmen know it, county by county, for I traveled all over Ireland for years, and, Ulster man as I am, and proud of the Ulster people, I resent the crowning of Ulster with all the virtues and the dismissal of other Irishmen as thieves and robbers. I resent the cruelty with which you, a stranger, speak of the lovable and kindly people I know.

You are not even accurate in your history when you speak of Ulster’s traditions and the blood our forefathers spilt. Over a century ago Ulster was the strong and fast place of rebellion, and it was in Ulster that the Volunteers stood beside their cannon and wrung the gift of political freedom for the Irish Parliament. You are blundering in your blame. You speak of Irish greed in I know not what connection, unless you speak of the war waged over the land; and yet you ought to know that both parties in England have by Act after Act confessed the absolute justice and rightness of that agitation, Unionist no less than Liberal, and both boast of their share in answering the Irish appeal. They are both proud today of what they did. They made inquiry into wrong and redressed it. But you, it seems, can only feel sore and angry that intolerable conditions imposed by your laws were not borne in patience and silence. For what party do you speak? What political ideal inspires you? When an Irishman has a grievance you smite him. How differently would you have written of Runnymede and the valiant men who rebelled when oppressed. You would have made heroes out of them. Have you no soul left, after admiring the rebels in your own history, to sympathize with other rebels suffering deeper wrongs? Can you not see deeper into the motives for rebellion than the hireling reporter who is sent to make up a case for the paper of a party? The best men in Ulster, the best Unionists in Ireland will not be grateful to you for libeling their countrymen in your verse. For, let the truth be known, the mass of Irish Unionists are much more in love with Ireland than with England. They think Irish Nationalists are mistaken, and they fight with them and use hard words, and all the time they believe Irishmen of any party are better in the sight of God than Englishmen. They think Ireland is the best country in the world to live in, and they hate to hear Irish people spoken of as murderers and greedy scoundrels. Murderers! Why, there is more murder done in any four English shires in a year than in the whole of the four provinces of Ireland! Greedy! The nation never accepted a bribe, or took it as an equivalent or payment for an ideal, and what bribe would not have been offered to Ireland if it had been willing to forswear its traditions.

I am a person whose whole being goes into a blaze at the thought of oppression of faith, and yet I think my Catholic countrymen more tolerant than those who hold the faith I was born in. I am a heretic judged by their standards, a heretic who has written and made public his heresies, and I have never suffered in friendship or found my heresies an obstacle in life. I set my knowledge, the knowledge of a lifetime, against your ignorance, and I say you have used your genius to do Ireland and its people a wrong. You have intervened in a quarrel of which you do not know the merits like any brawling bully, who passes, and only takes sides to use his strength. If there was a high court of poetry, and those in power jealous of the noble name of poet, and that none should use it save those who were truly Knights of the Holy Ghost, they would hack the golden spurs from your heels and turn you out of the Court. You had the ear of the world and you poisoned it with prejudice and ignorance. You had the power of song, and you have always used it on behalf of the strong against the weak. You have smitten with all your might at creatures who are frail on earth but mighty in the heavens, at generosity, at truth, at justice, and heaven has withheld vision and power and beauty from you, for this your verse is but a shallow newspaper article made to rhyme. Truly ought the golden spurs to be hacked from your heels and you be thrust out of the Court.

1912

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