Thursday 27 October 2016

Rudyard Kipling's heartfelt tribute to the Irish Guards

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

And the Irish move to the sound of the guns, Like salmon to the sea. - Rudyard Kipling, 'The Irish Guards', 1918

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The Christmas truce of 1914 did not find the Irish Guards fraternising with their foes; they were too busy digging in.

Their regimental historian records their banter after relieving the Ghurkas.

"The long Irish had to dig their trenches about two feet deeper and they wondered loudly what sort of persons 'these little dark fellas' could be."

Rudyard Kipling, who was their regimental historian, is reviled by most Irish nationalists and many liberals.

They charge him with being a second-rate writer, a jingoistic imperialist and an enemy of Ireland.

Certainly Kipling, like Dickens, sometimes writes substandard stuff; sometimes comes across as a crude imperialist; sometimes says bigoted things about Irish nationalists.

But the bigger picture shows Kipling was more complex than his critics admit. And I believe the three charges can be disproved by paying attention to what he actually wrote.

First, Kipling was a great writer. Three classics, The Jungle Book, Plain Tales from the Hills, and Kim are proof of that.

Second, Kimball O'Hara, Kipling's half-Irish, half-Indian hero, disproves the charge that his creator dispensed colonial stereotypes.

So does Kipling's poem, Recessional, which ignorant critics condemn as colonial triumphalism, usually by quoting this verse:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe

Such boasting as the Gentiles use

Or lesser breeds without the law.

But that final line about "lesser breeds" refers not to colonised peoples but to the German Kaiser's militaristic ambitions.

The rest of Recessional is a sombre warning against the British Empire becoming drunk on power and a reminder that the imperial project must be a service to the people it rules.

Hence, Kipling's heroes are the district colonial officers, often young Irishmen, who, on their own, represented law and order in areas much larger than some European countries.

Dispensing justice dispassionately was what Kipling meant by "taking up the white man's burden".

Neither then nor now does the notion of noble interventions in feudal or oppressive societies strike me as an ignoble aspiration.

Finally, there is the foolish charge that Kipling was anti-Irish. In fact, Irish soldiers and adventurers are his favourite heroes.

The two most important are Private Terence Mulvaney in Soldiers Three and Kimball O'Hara the charismatic hero of Kim.

Alas, many academic critics in thrall to "Theory" persist in seeing imperial stereotypes lurking behind Kipling's attempts to show affection for Irish soldiers.

Recently, I came across a review of two books on Kipling for The Irish Times, which struck me as too protective of trendy theorising, as well as too protective of Irish nationalist prejudices.

The author, Professor Nicholas Grene of TCD, doesn't strike me as either a trendy academic or a naff nationalist, but he is too indulgent of both camps.

Taking pot shots at both Kipling's rendering of Terence Mulvaney's Irish accent and Irish psychology, Grene has this to say: "It is hard to know which is more likely to make Irish readers gnash their molars, Mulvaney's appalling travesty of an Irish accent or Kipling's summation of his countrymen."

I believe Professor Grene's criticisms are wrong on both counts. Let me take them in turn, starting with Irish accents.

My mother was from rural Roscommon and many of my brothers specialise in expert mimicry of West Cork and Kerry accents.

Furthermore, as an Irish speaker, I have a good ear for the accents of those whose recent ancestors were Irish speakers.

Accordingly, I believe that Kipling's attempt to phonetically render the speech of Terence Mulvaney - whose parents were most likely Irish speakers - strikes me as authentic.

Indeed, Mulvaney's dialogue, when read aloud by someone like me - but not, perhaps, by Professor Grene - is a realistic approximation of some rural Irish accents, both then and now.

Above all, how could Kipling's grasp of Irish accents be anything but precise, given his long years of listening to them in India?

For years, the young Kipling lived cheek by jowl with Irish soldiers from the Connaught Rangers and Munster Fusiliers.

As he had a famously fine ear for dialogue and was also musical, it's likely he got the rhythms right too.

Let me now turn to Professor Grene's problem with Kipling's stab at summing up the psychology of the Irish soldiers he met as follows:

"That quaint, crooked, sweet, profoundly irresponsible and profoundly loveable race that fight like fiends, argue like children, reason like women, obey like men and jest like their own goblins of the rath through rebellion, loyalty, want, woe or war."

After quoting the above, Professor Grene asks an imaginary audience of Irish nationalists: "How's your blood pressure doing after reading that?"

Well mine is fine because I am from a Roman Catholic and republican background and I am not a naff Irish nationalist.

Accordingly, I find Kipling's sketch of Irish psychology not so much patronising as affectionate and accurate - if you annotate with a sense of humour.

Kipling says we are a "profoundly loveable race that fight like fiends" (surely high praise?); that we "argue like children" (tune into the Dail); "reason like women" (ie have emotional intelligence); "obey like men" (i.e. without whinging); and "jest like their own goblins etc" (yes, we do make black jokes when things are tough).

Professor Grene means well but he is too protective of Irish nationalist nonsense about "stage Irish" accents, which goes back to the bigoted DP Moran of the Leader.

Time was I indulged that irrational antipathy as well. But I was cured one night at the bar of the Abbey Theatre. Brian Mac Lochlainn of RTE and myself were wondering what was really wrong with "stage Irish" speech as a comic vehicle when the barmaid broke cheerfully into our conversation: "Do you know something? I like stage Irish for a laugh."

But the greatest proof of Kipling's respect for Irish soldiers is his moving regimental history, The Irish Guards in the Great War, which is also a restrained elegy for his son John, who was lost at the Battle of Loos.

By general consent not just a regimental history but a great work of literature, it reveals his profound regard for the stoic bravery of the Roman Catholic troops who formed the rank and file of the Irish Guards and for the courage of their chaplains.

At the risk of rousing Professor Grene's sensitivities, let me quote Kipling's heartfelt homage to the Irish Guards:

"They had all their race's delight in the drama of things; and, whatever the pinch - whether ambushed warfare or hand-to-hand shock or an insolently perfect parade after long divorce from the decent seas - could be depended upon to advance the regimental honour."

That phrase about Irish soldiers fresh from the mud of the trenches turning out "an insolently perfect parade" catches both the courage and composure of the Irish Guards and the genius of their peerless regimental historian, Rudyard Kipling.

Sunday Independent

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