The Love of the Irish

Jan. 23 2002 2:37 PM

The Love of the Irish

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, accompanied by their two colleagues Mr. Pat Doherty from Derry and Ms Michelle Gildernew, a stout girl in a silly mini-skirt, swanned into Westminster this week to claim their entitlements as Sinn Fein members of parliament. They will not sit, speak, vote, or swear allegiance to the Queen, but they have already planted the Irish Republican flag in their offices, and they will claim expenses of, reportedly, £430,000 ($614,000) a year. Some British voices are outraged: A senior Tory accused Downing Street of "licking Sinn Fein's boots". But most MPs accept the Sinn Fein members as a pragmatic reality, and a few will indeed positively fawn upon the quartet. The stronger the reputation held by Martin McGuinness and, to a lesser extent, of Mr. Doherty for having been men of the gun, the more attractive they seem to some. Mr McGuinness has, in the past, actually told the former Conservative minister Peter Lilley that he personally executed 12 Catholics whom he judged to be "informers", Marty himself acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Very democratic, eh? However, this will in no way diminish the applause that I notice he receives whenever he enters a public gathering, or reduce the number of political groupies who follow him around thinking him a great fellow.

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But then, it is a good time to be an Irish nationalist of any kind. If a movie appears—say, Michael Collins, or In the Name of the Father (Daniel Day-Lewis starring in a story about the Guildford Four)—or a new television docudrama such as ITV's Bloody Sunday, Irish nationalists emerge as history's victims, courageously resisting all efforts to suppress their identity, while the British are universally the snakey baddies. Part of the murdering rage of Ulster Protestants at the present time is frustration at either being made invisible, or, as always, being perceived negatively. A great deal of this general okayness towards the Catholic Irish arises from a historical guilt felt subconsciously by the British at having treated Ireland so badly throughout many centuries. And this, after all, is true. Much of British parliamentary democracy draws on an enlightened tradition of liberty and tolerance—except where Ireland is concerned. Almost any progressive measure the English achieved can be seen as a social advance—except in Ireland. Many English heroes and heroines were wonderful people—except that they so often hated Ireland, or Catholics, or both. Elizabeth I has just been voted the greatest of all English monarchs in a BBC poll, and so she was—except in Ireland. (Somewhere in the annals of history there is a missive from the Earl of Essex assuring the Virgin Queen that he had almost pacified Ireland: just a few more military measures and the job would be done by Christmas of 1590.)

Free trade and law and order were among the very great achievements of Great Britain during the 19th century: but not in Ireland, where free trade made the appalling sequence of famines that rolled over the country infinitely worse, and the introduction of the police brought not the domestic peace of England, but a perception of uniformed repression of an unwilling peasantry. Britain sometimes meant well in trying to govern Ireland, but the contempt felt by Englishmen towards the Irish kept surfacing. Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria's favourite Prime Minister, couldn't stand the Irish. He described the native Irish way of life as consisting of "clannish brawls and coarse idolatry". Lord Salisbury, the influential Conservative Prime Minister at the end of the 19th century, denied that the Irish could ever have self-government with this doubly racist sentiment that: "You would not confide free representative institutions to the Hottentots, for example." (Although, in a moment of sanity, he conceded that Ireland did need "lots and lots of money", which, at last, it has got.) James Anthony Froude, a discipline of Carlyle's and a professor of history at Oxford described the Irish as being "more like squalid apes than human beings" and Charles Kingsley, the author of The Water Babies, continued the primate analogy by writing from Ireland that he was "haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country". The humorous magazine Punch repeatedly, throughout the reign of Victoria, portrayed the Irish as Simian creatures, chimp-like, with long arms and the long upper lip of the monkey, and The Times' editorials excoriated the Irish at every turn for their "want of character", fecklessness, hopelessness, and so on.

The Left was as vehement as the Right in deploring the failures of the Irish character. Famines occurred in Ireland, it was claimed by socialist-minded reformers, not because of bad harvests or a mismanaged economy, but because the Irish had brought these things on themselves, largely by insisting upon remaining Roman Catholic and clinging to the "priestcraft" of that misguided faith, instead of becoming sensible Biblical Protestants. Sydney Webb, founder of TheNew Statesman, suggested in 1911 that the Irish (and the Jews) should be forcibly sterilised for bringing into English cities their large families and criminal genes. The bossy Webbs had actually spent their honeymoon in Dublin (investigating trade union practices—what a honeymoon!) and had written home: "The people here are charming but we detest them, as we should the Hottentots [those poor Hottentots again!], for their very virtues." Ireland was, to be sure, disordered and unruly, and outrages, like the terrible Phoenix Park Murders of 1882, were committed against its rulers. But good government and reasonable property laws that gave the peasant a chance to acquire land could—and eventually did—bring Ireland out of the poverty that haunted the country. Relations between England and Ireland only really began to improve once an Irish state was established. Home Rule was also a large part of the answer to Ireland's woes, as the saintly Gladstone came to realise.

Political correctness is, to some extent, an attempt to correct, and even to compensate for, past wrongs, real or perceived (and perhaps a bit of both). Thus, as women suffered under male dominance in the past, now women must be deliberately favoured in every arena. Because blacks suffered the barbs of racism, now the tables must be turned to such a degree that a bad black leader gets away with a lot more badness, before being rumbled, than a bad white leader would do. And for the native Catholic Irish, having had scorn and jokes about their dimness poured upon them for so long, even by those trying to improve Ireland, the reverse must now be the case. Adams, McGuinness and Co. are political celebrities—no matter what they might have done in their own past lives—because they are reaping the benefits of the correcting tendency of history. Because people were beastly about the Irish in the past, now Gerry and Martin and their ilk will usually get their way with the English and, probably, their boots licked when they indicate that is what would please them.