Extracts from a 1917 text by Sinn Féin activist and subsequent Treatyite TD Darrell Figgis on the genesis and function of the pre-conquest Gaelic state.
A Nation is crowned when it exists in the world not only by virtue of a continuing national life, sustained by history and limited by natural frontiers, but also by reason of a State in which its intuitions and desires are expressed in a form as flexible as its containing life.
The stubbornest national sense—and nowhere in the world has that sense proved more stubborn than in Ireland—can only be said to exist as a protest, rather than as a power, until it can take to itself that eventful crown.
No other nation, or combination of nations, or empires or dominions, can give it that crown. It must beat it out of its own sense of wisdom and equity and beauty. It can only be responsible to its own soul and intellectual life for the manner of that crown, not only because in no other sense can the word responsibility be said to apply, but also because of a certain inevitable result.
For when a Nation does so crown itself the whole body of the Nation takes on a new dignity and grace. It is inevitable the wearing of the crown compels a new comportment. But if a crown wrought in some other workshop and made according to some other nation’s desires be pressed upon its brow the whole result must necessarily be ungainly and disfiguring.
If there is no responsibility in the making there can be no responsibility in the wearing, and there is no morality at the beginning or in the end. Yet if a Nation can clothe itself in its own responsibility,and wear a crown of its own devising, that Nation is no more only a Nation; it is a Sovereign State.
Ireland is not a Sovereign State, but only a nation. Once she was a Sovereign State, and the
result was so comely and soifull of responsibility that when her sister states were ravaged by barbarian inroads from the north and east she went out among them and rebuilt their faith and culture.
Nearly all modern European culture and learning rest on what Ireland wrought during the sixth
seventh and eighth centuries, not on the earlier Roman and Greek cultures, for the link with these things was only maintained through Ireland.
It was so maintained because Ireland was a Sovereign State, secure in its sovereignty. That sovereignty was suppressed, that statehood was broken, because of the lust of imperial conquest fashioned out of military strength and resting always on that strength.
Piece by piece that state was taken and hammered into dust, with a malignancy and hatred very hard to understand, until the people, driven forth into the mountains and waste places of their own land, had no longer any part of their State in which to house themselves, had to rely on a continuing national sense, fed partly by faith, enriched by old memories, burnt by a suffering hardly to be paralleled in history, but in itself something quite peculiar and indefinable.
The result was inevitable. Housed, on their own historic land, in a State which was no State at all because it was not of their own devising, the Irish people have repudiated all responsibility for it, have misused and abused it, and have arisen in a continual series of revolts against it.
They were morally bound to do so, or become no more a nation but a slave race. Continuing a Nation they were bound to assert their protest; and they have habitually done so very remarkably by the assertion of the laws, meanings and implications of their old State, destroyed centuries ago, as against the forms, meanings and implications of a system of government utterly alien to them.
There are few things in history more remarkable or arresting than this challenge of an alien government with the laws and procedures of a State that centuries before had been hewn asunder, had been trampled under foot, but had continued in the instincts and intuitions of the Nation—the instincts and intuitions that in the first instance, at the dawn of history, had built that State.
Such a state of affairs, continued long enough, was bound to claim the attention of the world. It has succeeded in doing so ; and the immediate result has been that all has become bustle and hurry to mend the calamitous condition of Ireland. with anxious brows and careworn faces have begun to emit constitutions for Ireland at the pace of about one a week—with a facility hardly to be rivalled by the Abbe Sieyes of old in his most fecund hour.
Dusty- tomes are turned down from the top shelf, and every form of constitution and government is studied in order that it may contribute some new beauty to the destined scheme. Canada, Australia and South Africa have been laid under special contribution, because these are held to be adornments of the English Empire.
The words Home Rule, Colonial Home Rule and Dominion Rule buzz about the air like flies of a summer’s day, and nobody seems to be very clear as to what they exactly mean, except that there is a deep-seated suspicion that they are not being used very honestly. The air is racked with precedents from China to Peru ; and amid it all, with a patience born of centuries, stands the Nation for whom all this pother is supposed to be raised.
The strange thing about it is that all this bustle and stir should so persistently neglect what is just the cause of the whole trouble. That cause is not economic ; it is not, in the modern abuse of the word, political ; it is historic.
The economic and political troubles are incidental to the historical. The constitutions of English colonies such as Canada, Australia and South Africa may be good, bad or indifferent, wise or unwise, discreet or indiscreet; but they are as little applicable to the case of Ireland, and would eventually cause as much irritation, as Dublin Castle.
They were created (generally as the result of menace) by Englishmen who went abroad as colonists, singing sweet hymns about the White Man’s Burden and the Lord’s Anointed. Earlier colonists in those lands, however, such as the French in Canada and the Dutch in South Africa, give these constitutions no fealty because they do not answer their instincts.
For the same reason Irishmen in these places, though less solid and unified from the nature of their case, generally become subversive and revolutionary units, introducing and desiring changes such as the constitutions never contemplated. When these changes are examined they are generally found to hark back to the laws and meanings of the old State of Ireland.
But in Ireland itself the Nation, reduced though it be in population, and by oppression made unsure of itself, is entire and compact; racially more compact than any nation in Europe, with little of the colonial element remaining in it ; and it draws almost wholly on its historic past. And from that past the answer must be found for its future, for the past has stored up instincts and intuitions, old memories of the blood and desires of the national mind, that are waiting to burst into the future.
The answer therefore is not to be found in a study of the constitutions of other peoples, but in a wise study of Irish history. There is, outside of books, no such thing as Utopia. There is no such thing as a State abstractly good or bad in itself.
A State is only good or bad in the degree in which it answers, or fails to answer, the needs of the Nation for which iis devised. All the rest is words. Similarly there is no such thing as ancient history—except in the case of nations, such as Assyria, that have ceased to exist.
All history is new and living, because in it are to be discovered the urge and impulse of national minds. Particularly is this so with Ireland, where the right national development was suppressed by an alien military conquest.
The nineteenth century, for instance, was full of unrest, of demands, of swift instinctive actions, that can only be understood by turning back three hundred years of history. It is true that these national intuitions have been frustrated so long that they are no longer sure of themselves. It is true that, the development having been hindered for so long, it is difficult to gauge what these intuitions would mean in the light of wholly changed conditions.
Yet, in spite of all this, the principle remains sound, that it is only by searching into a nation’s mind that its desires and impulses can be discovered, and it is only by watching those desires and impulses when they were free to exercise themselves creatively that a State can be guessed-at that shall be that Nation’s crown.
It is this search that I purpose in this little essay-. I am aware of the adventurous nature of the task — an adventure rendered doubly difficult by the confined space of the Essay and by the fact that it breaks new ground—but it is necessary that some- one should undertake it, however ill-equipped he may be for the task.
It has necessarily to be com- pounded of research, criticism and speculation, each being based upon the other in the order stated. It is always desirable that history (especially Irish history, where the lying and depreciative tongue is not unknown) should be fully documented; but the slender limits of this Essay prohibit this.
I make no statement, however, for which I have not chapter and verse before me. I have tried to make the criticism as direct and obvious as possible ; but it is of course unavoidable, even if it be desirable, that a man’s predilections should influence the nature of his criticism.
And as the speculation is based upon the criticism it is equally unavoidable that the speculation should also express the personal desire—though it does so happen that this is not always the case.
All constitution-building is speculation ; but if that speculation is based on history and a just and critical search into that history with a view to discovering what are its permanent and what its impermanent, what its fundamental and what its incidental, elements, then it will be a national uplifting and not an irritation, a national hope and not an embarrassment and frustration.
It is the hope of this book to promote thought along these lines; and if it achieves this it will have succeeded, even if it be finally cast aside by both writer and reader. For certainly time so spent will be more profitably spent than in the study of constitutions of alien peoples across the seas, or by any sort of constitution-mongering that gives no heed to the impulses of an old and historic Nation