Sunday, April 08, 2007

Cathleen ni Houlihan
and other reflections on Revolutionary Ireland

"It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer
the most who will conquer"
—Terence MacSwiney

Oh, father why are you so sad
On this bright Easter morn’
When Irish men are proud and glad
Of the land where they were born?

Son, I see in mem’ry's view
A far off distant day
When being just a lad like you
I joined the IRA.

Where are the lads that stood with me
When history was made?
A Ghra Mo Chroi, I long to see
The boys of the old brigade.

From hills and farms the call to arms
Was heard by one and all.
And from the glen came brave young men
To answer Ireland’s call.

‘T' was long ago we faced the foe,
The old brigade and me,
When by my side they fought and died
That Ireland might be free.

And now, my boy, I’ve told you why
On Easter morn’ I sigh,
When I recall my comrades all
From the dark old days gone by.

I think of men who fought in glen
With rifle and grenade.
May heaven keep the men who sleep
From the ranks of the old brigade.

Where are the lads that stood with me
When history was made?
A Ghra Mo Chroi, I long to see
The boys of the old brigade.

My friend Sherwood has compiled -- he doesn't just write, but researches and illustrates -- a wonderful blog reflecting on the Easter Rebellion, in light of the astonishing rapprochement in Ireland today. The very notion that Ian Paisley, for decades the face of violent, racist Unionism in Ulster, would sit down peacefully with Sinn Fein leader (and thus, ex officio, a member of the board of the IRA) Gerry Adams was absurd. To see it happen was stunning.

I was going to post a comment for him, but the number of associations it touched off was too much to confine to a "me too" and so here we are.

As Sherwood notes, I had said to him that, for Irish nationalists, the urge, the instinct, to bury guns against a future need must be overwhelming, it is such a part of the political memory. In fact, the Howth guns he writes of were memorialized in a ballad about a fellow burying his "old Howth gun" after the truce, knowing "a day will come again, O my old Howth gun, when I'll join the fighting men, O my old Howth gun. With some brave determined band, proudly there we'll take our stand, for the freedom of our land, O my old Howth gun!"

The song I posted at the top is a Republican ballad that emerged during the recent Troubles and which neatly encapsulates the sense of historic memory that has been part and parcel of Irish nationalism for at least the past 175 years or so.

As is the case with much of political art, it is sentimental and ahistorical, because there really wasn't that large a turnout for the Easter rising, which gained 90 percent of its impact not from the stirring declaration read by Padraic Pearse but from the brutal overreaction of the British government in executing the leaders of the rebellion.

And yet, as is the case with much of political art, that hardly matters. Unlike those Vietnam revisionists who continue to insist that the Tet Offensive was a stunning defeat for the communists, historians on both sides of the Irish question accept that, military significance aside, the Easter Rebellion was a landmark event that helped make Irish independence inevitable.

One of the advantages the Irish revolutionaries had was a wealth of artists capable of transforming relatively minor events into popular ballads, combined with a British opponent that insisted on executing people it didn't need to, thus turning minor figures like Kevin Barry into major heroes, and upon enforcing blindly foolish policies like the one that allowed Terence MacSwiney, the mayor of Cork, die on hunger strike.

They wrote a song about MacSwiney's death -- "Shall my soul pass through old Ireland" -- set to the same traditional tune as was used in "Kevin Barry," but I can't find the lyrics on line and barely remember them. His words at the top of this page, however, sum up not just Ireland but Algeria and Vietnam and, now, Iraq.

Part of that suffering, that enduring, lies in remembering, which is best done not through dry history but through living art. The fact that so many world leaders have studied history and learned nothing from it is proof enough of that.

As for the beautiful woman at the top of this post, she is Maud Gonne MacBride, one of a number of English citizens who fell in love with Ireland and its revolutionary cause. She was married briefly to John MacBride, who was later executed for his role in the Easter Rising, and their son, Sean MacBride, won the Nobel Peace Prize and founded Amnesty International.

Sean MacBride also instituted the MacBride Principles which helped, through fair employment and investment practices for US firms doing business in Northern Ireland, to pave the way for peace there. It should be noted that Ireland's hearty economy is very much responsible for the current peace: People find other ways of dealing with political issues when they have meaningful employment and decent day-to-day lives.

Who Maud Gonne never married was William Butler Yeats, who, though they were great friends and he proposed to her several times, was too much of an artist and idealist to ever appeal to such a committed revolutionary. He immortalized Maud Gonne in his idealized symbol of Ireland, "Cathleen ni Houlihan," but the two never connected on the level he wished they would.

Hardly surprising. There have been a few revolutionary artists -- Pearse, for one, and Jose Marti and others -- but for the most part there is a gulf between them, so that the artist ends up memorializing rather than joining them. And, of course, Yeats typified this with his own reflection on this day, an admission that he never quite understood those who were so "full of passionate intensity." (The woman is not Gonne, who was in France at the time, but Constance Gore-Booth, Countess Markiewicz. The lout, however, is MacBride, an abusive alcoholic Gonne had left some 12 years earlier. But even he is, if not forgiven, reassessed.)

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Mike, if all my little blog entry accomplished was to help trigger you to write this one, then it was well worth the effort.

Speaking of burying guns, you might find this slide and its caption to be of interest. It and the next few (click the right-hand arrow above each slide to advance) concern the Aillwee Cave in County Clare.

Anonymous said...

Always enjoy Sherwood's pictures and these were especially special since they showed an area I saw on my last trip there (for an Elderhostel in Limerick on the Irish short story than which there is no other). We had lunch at Sherwood's hotel and I got a quick glimpse of my gggrandfather's village of Ennistymon. That would be Mike's ggggrandfather.
the other Ronnie

Brian Fies said...

Terrific stuff by you and Sherwood. Although I, like every other pasty-skinned American mutt, have a fair drop of Irish in me, I don't know enough about the history of the troubles. So, thanks.

I was struck by your comment that "there have been a few revolutionary artists--Pearse, for one, and Jose Marti and others--but for the most part there is a gulf between them, so that the artist ends up memorializing rather than joining them." That surprised me and I tried to think of others and failed, except as peripheral figures. (It occurred to me that Hitler was a decent watercolorist, however.) I wonder if a characteristic of the artistic temperament is being an analyst and observer rather than a participant. An independent spirit, not much of a joiner. Kind of like those journalist guys--although I can immediately think of many journalist-revolutionaries, including Franklin and Paine.

I haven't thought it through at all. But you hit an interesting point that got me thinking this morning, which is quite an accomplishment for a Monday.

Sherwood Harrington said...

So, Brian, I presume that you and the Deacon don't consider con artists to be true artists, eh? Otherwise the lists would be of nearly identical length.

Hi, "other Ronnie"! Elderhostel is a wonderful institution, isn't it? During their long, active retirement, my parents took advantage of it frequently all over the US and Canada -- but never across the pond.

I've taken the liberty of putting together a little supplemental slide show for you of Diane's and my wanderings through County Clare; click here and enjoy! (I hope!)