An accomplished poet, economist as well as Home Rule politician, Tom Kettle was an up and coming figure in moderate Irish nationalism before his death at the Somme while serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1916. With the centenary of partition coming and going just last week, it is worth examining his views on the original Ulster Crisis and criticisms of Unionist leadership. The following are extracts from his work The Open Secret of Ireland (1912)

Ulster Unionism, in the leaders, is not so much a programme of ideas as a demand for domination. In the rank and file it is largely a phenomenon of hysteria. I do not know whether my readers have ever participated in an agreeable game known as odd man out. Each player tosses a penny, and whoever disagrees with the rest, showing a head to their tails or vice versa, captures the pool. 

Such is in all essential particulars the “Ulster Question.” We find ourselves there in presence of a minority which, on the sole ground that it is a minority, claims that in the government of Ireland it shall be not merely secure but supreme. Sir Edward Carson as odd man out (and I do not deny that he is odd enough for anything) is to be Dictator of Ireland. If eighty-four Irish constituencies declare for Home Rule, and nineteen against Home Rule, then, according to the mathematics of Unionism, the Noes have it. 

In their non-Euclidean geometry the part is always greater than the whole. In their unnatural history the tail always wags the dog. On the plane of politics it is not necessary to press the case against “Ulster” any farther than that. Even majorities have their rights. If a plurality of nine to two is not sufficient to determine policy and conduct business in a modern nation, then there is no other choice except anarchy, or rather an insane atomism. Not merely every party, but every household and, in last resort, every individual will end as a Provisional Government. Separatism of this type is a very ecstasy of nonsense, and none of my readers will think so cheaply of his own intelligence as to stay to discuss it. It is in other terms that we must handle the problem of “Ulster.”

The existence in certain nooks and corners of Ireland of a democratic vote hostile to Home Rule is, let us confess, a conundrum. But it is a conundrum of psychology rather than of politics. It may seem rude to say so, but Orangeism consists mainly of a settled hallucination and an annual brainstorm. No one who has not been present at a Twelfth of July procession can realise how completely all its manifestations belong to the life of hysteria and not to that of reason. M. Paul-Dubois, whom we may summon out of a cloud of witnesses, writes of them as “demagogic orgies with a mixed inspiration of Freemasonry and the Salvation Army.” The Twelfth of July is, or rather was, for its fine furies are now much abated, a savage carnival comparable only to the corroborees of certain primitive tribes.

“A monster procession,” continues M. Paul-Dubois, “marches through Belfast, as through every town and village of Orange Ulster, ending up with a vast meeting at which the glories of William of Orange and the reverses of James II. are celebrated in song…. Each ‘lodge’ sends its delegation to the procession with banners and drums. On the flags are various devices: ‘Diamond Heroes,’ ‘True Blues,’ ‘No Pope.’ The participants give themselves over to character dances, shouting out their favourite songs: ‘The Boyne Water’ and ‘Croppies Lie Down.’ The chief part is played by the drummers, the giants of each ‘lodge,’ who with bared arms beat their drums with holy fury, their fists running with blood, until the first drum breaks and many more after it, until in the evening they fall half-dead in an excess of frenzy.”

Such is the laboratory in which the mind of Orange Ulster is prepared to face the tasks of the twentieth century. Barbaric music, the ordinary allowance of drum to fife being three to one, ritual dances, King William on his white horse, the Scarlet Woman on her seven hills, a grand parade of dead ideas and irrelevant ghosts called up in wild speeches by clergymen and politicians—such is Orangeism in its full heat of action. 

Can we, with this key to its intellectual history, be really astonished that Shankhill Road should move all its life in a red mist of superstition. The North of Ireland abounds in instances, trivial and tragic, of this obsession. Here it is the case of the women of a certain town who, in order to prevent their children from playing in a dangerous swamp close by, have taught them that there are “wee Popes” in it. There it is a case of man picked up, maimed and all but unconscious after an accident, screwing up his lips to utter one last “To Hell with the Pope!” before he dies. I remember listening in Court to the examination of an old Orangeman who had been called as a witness to the peaceable disposition of a friend of his. “What sort of man,” asked the counsel, “would you say Jamie Williamson is?” “A quiet, decent man.” “Is he the sort of man that would be likely to be breaking windows?” “No man less likely.” “Is he the sort of man that you would expect to find at the head of a mob shouting, ‘To Hell with the Pope’?” Witness, with great emphasis: “No. Certainly not. Jamie was never any ways a religious man.” These bewildering corruptions of sense and sanity overwhelm you at every turn. Ask your neighbour offhand at a dinner in Dublin: “What is so-and-so, by the way?” He will reply that so-and-so is a doctor, or a government official, or a stockbroker, as it may happen. Ask him the same question at a dinner in Belfast, and he will automatically tell you that so-and-so is a Protestant or a “Papist.”

The plain truth is that it would be difficult to find anywhere a more shameful exploitation, intellectual and economic, than that which has been practised on the Ulster Orangeman by his feudal masters. Were I to retort the abuse, with which my own creed is daily bespattered, I should describe him further as the only victim of clerical obscurantism to be found in Ireland. Herded behind the unbridged waters of the Boyne, he has been forced to live in a very Tibet of intellectual isolation. Whenever he moved in his thoughts a little towards that Ireland to which, for all his separatism, he so inseparably belongs, the ring of blockhouses, called Orange Lodges, was drawn tighter to strangle his wanderings. Mr Robert Lynd in his “Home Life in Ireland,” a book which ought to have been mentioned earlier in these pages, relates the case of a young man who was refused ordination in the Presbyterian Church because he had permitted himself to doubt whether the Pope was in fact anti-Christ. And he writes with melancholy truth:

“If the Presbyterian clergy had loved Ireland as much as they have hated Rome they could have made Ulster a home of intellectual energy and spiritual buoyancy long ago. They have preferred to keep Ulster dead to fine ideas rather than risk the appearance of a few unsettling ideas among the rest.”

It has not been, one likes to think, a death, consummated and final, but rather an interruption of consciousness from which recovery is possible. Drugged with a poisonous essence, distilled from history for him by his exploiters, the Orangeman of the people has lived in a world of phantoms. In politics he has never in his whole career spoken for himself. The Catholic peasant comes to articulate, personal speech in Davitt; the national aristocracy in Parnell. The industrial worker discovers within his own camp a multitude of captains. Even landlordism, although it has produced no leader, has produced many able spokesmen. Every other section in Ireland enriches public life with an interpreter of its mind sprung from its own ranks. Orange Ulster alone has never yet given to its own democracy a democratic leader. This is indeed the cardinal misfortune, as well as the central secret, of Ulster Unionism. The pivot on which it turns resides, not in the farms of Down or the factories of Belfast, but in the Library of the Four Courts. Of the nineteen representatives who speak for it in Parliament no fewer than seven are King’s Counsel. In the whole list there is not one delegate of labour, nor one farmer. A party so constituted is bound to produce prodigies of nonsense such as those associated with Sir Edward Carson. The leaders of the orchestra openly despise the instruments on which they play. For followers, reared in the tradition of hysteria depicted above, no raw-head is thought to be too raw, and no bloody-bones too bloody. And so we have King’s Counsel, learned in the law, devising Provisional Governments, and Privy Councillors wallowing in imaginative treason. As for the Bishops, they will talk daggers as luridly as the rest, but they will not even threaten to use any. And so does the pagan rage, and the heathen prophesy vain things.

That such a farce-tragedy can find a stage in the twentieth century is pitiable. But it is not a serious political fact. It has the same relation to reality that the cap-hunting exploits of Tartarin of Tarascon had to the Franco-German war. It has been devised merely to make flesh creep in certain tabernacles of fanaticism in the less civilised parts of England and Scotland. So far as action goes it will end in smoke, but not in gunpowder-smoke. There will no doubt be riots in Belfast and Portadown, for which the ultimate responsibility will rest on learned counsel of the King. But there have been riots before, and the cause of Home Rule has survived all the blackguardism and bloodshed. It is lamentable that ministers of the gospel of Christ and leaders of public opinion should so inflame and exploit the superstitions of ignorant men; but not by these methods will justice be intimidated.

And if “Ulster” does fight after all? In that event we must only remember how sorry George Stephenson was for the cow. The military traditions of the Protestant North are not very alarming. The contribution of the Enniskilleners to the Battle of the Boyne appears to have consisted in running away with great energy and discretion. Nor did they, or their associates, in later years shed any great lustre even on Imperial arms. I have never heard that the Connaught Rangers had many recruits from the Shankhill Road, or the Dublin Fusiliers from Portadown; consequently the present situation disgusts rather than terrifies us. If rifle-levers ever click in rebellion against a Home Rule government, duly established by statute under the authority of the Crown, it will be astonishing to find that every bullet in Ireland is a member of an Orange Lodge. If “Ulster” repudiates the arbitrament of reason, and the verdict of a free ballot, she simply puts herself outside the law. And she may be quite assured that the law, driven back on its ultimate sanction of force, will very sharply and very amply vindicate itself.

But it is not courteous to the reader to detain him among such unrealities as Sir Edward Carson’s Civil War. Treason, that is to say platform treason, is not so much an eccentricity as a habit of Orangeism. It is a way they have in the Lodges, and their past history supplies a corrective to their present outburst. Perhaps their most notable exploit in armed loyalty was their attempt to dethrone, or rather to defeat in succession to the throne, Queen Victoria. This is a chapter in their history with regard to which they are far too modest and reticent.

But the leading case in recent years is of course the attitude of the Lodges towards the Disestablishment of the Irish Episcopal Church in 1869. The records are singularly rich in what I may perhaps call Carsonese. Dukes threatened to “fight as men alone can fight who have the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other.” Learned counsel of the Queen covenanted to “seal their protest with their blood in martyrdom and battle.” Ministers of the gospel were all for kicking the Crown into the Boyne, keeping their powder dry, shouldering Minié rifles, and finally joining the lawyers in the red grave of martyrdom.

An Ulster poet (a satirist one fears) wrote a famous invocation to the statue of Mr Walker near Derry, beginning:

“Come down out o’ that, Mr Walker,

There’s work to be done by-and-by,

And this is no time to stand glowerin’

Betwixt the bog-side and the sky.”

But Mr Walker did not come down: he remained on his safe pinnacle of immortality. And of course there was no civil war. That period was wiser than our own in one respect: nobody of any common sense thought of spoiling such exquisite blague by taking it seriously. Its motive was universally understood in Ireland. The orators of the movement never for a moment dreamed of levying war on Mr Gladstone, but they were determined to levy blackmail. They saw that they could bluff English opinion into granting all manner of extravagant compensation for the extinction of their privileges and their ascendancy, if only the Orange drum was beaten loudly enough. It was a case of the more cry the more wool. And in point of fact they succeeded. They obtained financial arrangements of the most generous character, and, thereafter, the battle-flags were furled. Within five years of Disestablishment the Episcopalian Synod was praising it as the happiest event in the life of that Church. The lawyers, being denied the martyrdom of the battlefield, stolidly accepted that of promotion to the judicial bench, and a holy silence descended on the divines.

This strategy having succeeded so admirably in 1868 is repeated in 1912. “Ulster” has not the least intention of raising war or the sinews of war; her interest is in the sinews of peace. Although she does not hold a winning card in her hand she hopes to scoop the pool by a superb bluff. By menaces of rebellion she expects to be able to insist that under Home Rule she shall continue encased in an impenetrable armour of privileges, preferences, and safeguards. She is all the more likely to succeed because of the tenderness of Nationalist Ireland in her regard. Short of the absolute surrender by the majority of every shred of its rights (which is, of course, what is demanded) there are very few safeguards that we are not prepared to concede to the superstition, the egotism, or even the actual greed of the Orangemen. But it may as well be understood that we are not to be either duped or bullied.

If the policy of Ulster Unionism is unreal there is no word in any language that can describe the phantasmal nature of the grounds on which it professes to fear national freedom. Home Rule, declare the orators, will obviously mean Rome Rule. The Ne Temere decree will de-legitimise every Protestant in the country. The Dublin Parliament will tax every “Ulster” industry out of existence. One is told that not only do many people say, but that some people even believe things of this kind. But then there are people who believe that they are made of Dresden china, and will break if they knock against a chair. These latter are to be found in lunatic asylums. It is indeed particularly worth noting that when a man begins to see in the whole movement of the world a conspiracy to oppress and injure him our first step is to inquire not into his grievance but into his sanity. One finds the same difficulty in discussing Irish politics in terms of the three hallucinations specified that one finds in discussing, say, Rugby football with a Dresden-china fellow-citizen. It is better not to make the attempt, but to substitute a plain statement of obvious facts.

In the first place, even if any policy of oppression were in our minds, it is not in our power. The overlordship of the Imperial Parliament remains in any scheme of Home Rule unimpaired, and any man damnified because of his religion can appeal in last resort to the Imperial Army and Navy. Shankhill Road is mathematically safe. After all there are in England some forty millions of Protestants who, whatever their religious temperature may be, will certainly decline to see Protestantism penalised. The Protestants in Ireland have a million and a quarter, and they make noise enough for twice the number. There are about three and a quarter millions of Irish Catholics. History concedes to Catholic Ireland the cleanest record in respect of religious tolerance to be found anywhere in Europe. We never martyred a saint, and amid all the witch-hunting devilries of Scotland and England we burned only one witch, a namesake of my own. Deny or suppress all this. Imagine into the eyes of every Catholic neighbour the slumbering but unquenched fires of Smithfield. But be good enough to respect mathematics. Do not suggest that the martial qualities induced by the two religions are so dissimilar that two Catholics are capable of imposing Home Rule on twenty-five Protestants.

The suggestion that we shall overtax “Ulster” is even more captivating. But how are we to do it? Of course we might schedule the sites given up to Protestant church buildings as undeveloped land. Or we might issue income-tax forms with an assessment printed on one side, and the decrees of the Council of Trent on the other. Or we might insist on every orator desirous of uttering that ennobling sentiment, “To Hell with the Pope!” taking out a licence, and charge him a small fee. Positive treason, such as the proclamation of Provisional Governments, would of course pay a higher rate. All these would be most interesting experiments, and would add a picturesque touch to the conventionality of modern administration. But if we were to overtax sugar or coffee, corn or butter, flax or wool, beer or spirits, land or houses, I fear that we should be beating ourselves rather severely with our own sticks. Our revenge on “Ulster” would be rather like that of Savage, the poet, who revenged himself on a friend by sleeping out the whole of a December night on a bridge. The whole suggestion is, of course, futile and fantastic. It is a bubble that has been pricked, and by no one so thoroughly as by Lord Pirrie, the head of Harland and Wolff, that is to say the leader of the industrial North.

The clamour of the exploiters of “Ulster” is motived on this point by two considerations, the one an illusion, the other a reality. The illusion, or rather the pretence, consists in representing the Unionists as the sole holders of wealth in Ireland. It would be a sufficient refutation of this view to quote those other passages in which the same orators assert with equal eloquence that the Tory policy of land purchase and resolute government from Westminster has brought enormous prosperity to the rest of the country. On per capita valuation the highest northern county ranks only twelfth in Ireland. It is the reality, however, that supplies the clue. While the masters of Orangeism do not represent the wealth of Ireland they do certainly represent the largest, or, at least, the most intense concentration of unearned incomes. What they fear is not unjust but democratic taxation. They cling to the Union as a bulwark against the reform movement which in every modern state is resuming for society a small part of certain vast fortunes which in their essence have been socially created. But even on the plane of their own selfishness they are following a foolish line of action. The Union did not save them from the Land Tax Budget, nor, as regards the future, is salvation of the English Tories. Should they ever return to power they will repeat their action respecting the Death Duties. Having in Opposition denounced the land taxes with indecent bitterness they will, when back in office, confirm and extend them. “Ulster” had far better cast in her lot with Ireland. She will find an Irish Assembly not only strikingly but, one might almost add, sinfully conservative in matters of taxation. As to the conflict between the agrarian and the manufacturing interests, that also exists in every nation on the earth. But neither has any greater temptation to plan the destruction of the other than a merchant has to murder his best customer.

There remains the weltering problem of mixed marriages and the Ne Temere decree. It is perhaps worth observing that marriages get mixed in other countries as well as in Ireland. It grieves one that men should differ as to the true religious interpretation of life. But they do in fact differ, and wherever two human beings, holding strongly to different faiths, fall in love there is tragic material. But they do in fact fall in love. The theme recurs, with a thousand reverberations, in the novel literature of England, France, and Germany. The situation occurs also in Ireland. But I am bewildered to know in what way it is an argument for or against Home Rule. Let us appeal once more to colonial experience and practice. There is a Catholic majority in Canada and an overwhelming Catholic majority in Quebec. The policy of the Catholic Church towards mixed marriages is precisely the same there as in Ireland. Does Protestantism demand that the constitutions of the Dominion and the Province respectively shall be withdrawn? Since no such claim is made we must conclude that the outcry on Orange platforms is designed not to enforce a principle but to awaken all the slumbering fires of prejudice. The Ne Temere decree introduces no new departure. Now, as always, the Catholic Church requires simply that her members shall consecrate the supreme adventure of life with the Sacrament of their fathers before the altar of their fathers. It is strange that the Orangemen, believing as they do that the Pope is anti-Christ, should be so annoyed at finding that the Pope teaches a doctrine different from theirs on the subject of marriage. The Pope can inflict no spiritual penalties on them since they are outside his flock. He can inflict no civil penalties on anybody. There is undoubtedly in the matter of divorce a sharp conflict between Catholic ideas and the practice and opinion of Protestant countries. That exists, and will continue, under every variation of government. It is an eternal antinomy. But whom does it aggrieve? We Catholics voluntarily abjure the blessings of divorce, but we should never dream of using the civil law to impose our abnegation on those of another belief. If there is any doubt upon that point it can very easily be removed. The civil law of marriage can be conserved under one of the “safeguards.”

The truth is that in order to test our tolerance Orangeism proposes to us a series of exercises which are a very delirium of intolerance. “Sever yourselves,” it says in effect to us, “from all allegiance to that Italian Cardinal. Consign him, as Portadown does, to hell. Bait your bishops. Deride the spiritual authority of your priests. Then shall we know that you are men and masters of your own consciences. Elect a Unionist Council in every county, a Unionist Corporation in Dublin, then shall we know that you are brothers. Disown your dead leaders. Spit on the grave of Emmet. Teach your children that every Fenian was a murderer. Erase from your chronicles the name of Parnell. Then shall we know that you are loyal.”

It has been occasionally urged by writers who prefer phrases to actualities that Home Rule must wait on the conversion of “Ulster.” Therein the patient must minister to himself. Miracles of that order cannot be accomplished from without. Great is Diana of the Ephesians, and the servitude of tradition is at an end only when the hands that fashioned the idols shatter them on the altars of a new nobleness. Let us distinguish. The Orangeism which is merely an instrument of exploitation and domination will not yield to reason. The Orangeism which is an inherited hysteria will not yield to reason. It Bourbonises too much. It lives in the past, learning nothing and forgetting nothing. Argument runs off it like rain off a duck’s back. These two types of thought we must leave to the grace of God, and the education of the accomplished fact. They represent a declining cause, and a decaying party. The Lodges once mustered more than 200,000 members; they have now less than 10,000. There is another kind of Orangeism, that which has begun to think, and the Orangeism that has begun to think is already converted. I said that Protestant “Ulster” had never given to its own democracy a leader, but to say that is to forget John Mitchel. Master in prose of a passion as intense as Carlyle’s and far less cloudy, of an irony not excelled by Swift, Mitchel flung into the tabernacles of his own people during the Great Famine a sentence that meant not peace but a sword. He taught them, as no one since, that Orangeism was merely a weapon of exploitation. While the band played “The Boyne Water” and the people cheered it, the landlords were picking the pockets of the ecstatic crowd.

“The Pope, we know, is the ‘man of sin,'” wrote Mitchel, “and the ‘Antichrist,’ and also, if you like, the ‘mystery of iniquity,’ and all that, but he brings no ejectments in Ireland.”

Mitchel travelled too fast for co-religionists whose shoulders had not yet slipped the burden of old superstitions. The élan of genius and the call of freedom drew him out of the home of his fathers to consort with Papists, rebels, and transported convicts. But his failure was the seed of later success. In a few years the League of North and South was able to unite Protestant and Catholic on the plain economic issue that landlordism must go. That too failed, but the stream of democratic thought had been merely driven underground to reappear further on in the century. In the elections that shook the fortress of Toryism in Ulster in the seventies Catholic priests marched at the head of processions side by side with Grand Masters of Orange Lodges. 

In the first years of the Land League, Michael Davitt was able to secure the enthusiastic support of purely Orange meetings in Armagh. Still later, Mr T. W. Russell, at the head of a democratic coalition, smashed the old Ascendancy on the question of compulsory purchase, and Mr Lindsay Crawford founded his Independent Order, a portent if not yet a power. So much has been done in the country. But it is in the cities, those workshops of the society of the future, that the change is most marked. The new movement finds an apt epitome in the political career of Mr Joseph Devlin. The workers of Belfast had been accustomed to see labour problems treated by the old type of Unionist member of parliament either with cowardice or with contempt. Enfin Malesherbes vint. At last a man rose up out of their own class, although a Catholic and a Nationalist. He spoke with an awakening eloquence, and he made good his words. In every industrial struggle in that sweated city he interposed his strong word to demand justice for the wage-earner. This was a new sort of politics. It bore fruit where Ulster Unionism had been but a barren fig-tree. The democracy of Belfast accepted their leader. They gave him a majority of 16 in West Belfast in 1906 and in four years they had multiplied it by forty. 

The Boyne was bridged, and everything that has since happened has but added a new stay or girder to the strength of the bridge. And not only labour but capital has passed across that estranging river to firm ground of patriotism and national unity. Lord Pirrie, the head of the greatest manufacturing enterprise in Belfast, is an ardent Home Ruler. Business men, ministers of religion, even lawyers, are thinking out things quietly beneath the surface. The new “Ulster” is breaking its shell. Parties are forming on the basis of economic realities, not on that of “religious” phantasms.

As for the old “Ulster,” it remains a problem not for the War Office, but for the Department of Education.

Cover photo by Louise Price

Posted by The Burkean

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