Friday 22 February 2019

From O'Connell to Pearse and beyond, our Anglophile instincts remain intact

All of our past political titans have been indelibly marked by our nearest neighbour, says John Paul McCarthy

'The world is large," President Kennedy told Dail Eireann in 1963, "when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide, but the world is small when your enemy is loose on the other side."

He was, of course, referring to the tensions that were an inseparable part of that far off world of Checkpoint Charlie, DefCon 1 and Uncle Ho, but he might also have been referring to the Anglo-Irish relationship.

Paddy Harte's recent eloquent letter in this newspaper looked forward with confidence to the imminent arrival of Queen Elizabeth, and he reminded us that though we lurched out of the Commonwealth in 1949, we never quite extinguished our Anglophile instincts.

Justice Holmes cautioned severe-minded young men to remember that a page of history is more valuable than a whole volume of logic, and this insight resonates still when we try to assess our complex attitude towards monarchy and British culture generally.

All of our past political titans have been indelibly marked by our nearest neighbour, a fact that makes the Queen's visit all the more appropriate and necessary.

Daniel O'Connell may have been derided by blow-hard Tories as the "king of the beggars" and a masquerading mob-orator who had violence in his heart, but his greatest biographer, Oliver MacDonagh, showed that Irish-speaking Dan was very British in style and temperament.

Dan's populist style was moulded and polished by exposure to early 19th century British Radical politics, as practised by the Chartists and the wily Benthamites who dreamed of perfect prisons and the creation of a new Adam through the utilitarian principle.

Dan used to say in old age -- with Catholic Emancipation safely in his box -- that his mature political ideas were the product of the shambolic Hardy treason trial in London in the 1790s. (Hardy got off and was carried through the streets in exultation)

The roar and dazzle of Victorian dissent also thrilled Dan, especially when they trained their guns on the slave trade in the 1820s.

In his final, fateful confrontation with Young Ireland over secularism and violence, Dan also took a very British line on cultural politics in general. The Young Irelanders wanted to privatise culture, but Daniel O'Connell insisted on applying British parliamentary rules to cultural conundrums.

And for him, a Catholic majority should be able to have its way on education issues especially.

Parnell had a disastrous time at Cambridge, but his extraordinary career was also nourished by the cultural and intellectual riches of Victorian Britain.

Bishops often grumbled in the 1870s about Parnell's addiction to John Stuart Mill quotations.

And in a series of important speeches in the early 1880s, as he tightened the Home Rule noose around Gladstone's elderly neck, Parnell became very insistent on talking about the Isle of Man as a precedent for a self-governing island.

The invertebrate Manx assembly was a long way from the austere Republic of the Fenian imagination, but it seemed to interest Parnell even more than the Canadian dominion precedents that dominated much of the discussion in the 1880s.

Though born in Manhattan during President Arthur's tattered reign, de Valera was not very different to O'Connell and Parnell in his Anglophile instincts.

He would, of course, fight a civil war over the difference between dominion status and his more ethereal doctrine of "external association", but that said, it is also important to appreciate his indebtedness to basically British constitutional models.

"External association" assumed practical form in his famous Document No 2, and here we see an attempt to put manners on monarchy that echoed the earlier logic of the great common lawyers Edward Coke and Thomas Hale. He promised to recognise the crown as head of a new association between Ireland and the British empire.

Cathal Brugha and the she-bees around Mary McSwiney shouted betrayal and cried "God for Ireland and a thousand years of history".

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru knew better though, and recycled External Association in 1949 when he needed a way to synthesise democratic federalism with his belief that some institutional link should be maintained with India's British heritage.

Not even Patrick Pease could escape the lure of Victorian Britain, much though he tried in print!

For all the Anglophobia in his prose, Patrick Pearse unwittingly wrote in the style of Thomas Carlyle, the great Scottish historian of the French Revolution.

And when discussing education reform, Pearse sounded very similar to Matthew Arnold across the channel.

Pearse's radical analysis of Belgian bilingualism and his child-centred pedagogic style were in many ways Irish versions of Arnold's resonant belief that boys should be exposed to "the best that is known and thought in the world".

His comrade-in-arms in the GPO in 1916, Joseph Mary Plunkett, also died wishing destruction on Asquith and the Somme campaign, while dreaming of a Hohenzollern prince in Dublin Castle.

But he too shared Pearse's Anglophilia.

TG4 reminded us recently that Plunkett adored HG Wells -- as did other Fenians like PS O'Hegarty -- and that he liked to boast about winning a roller skating competition in British South Africa.

In greeting the Queen as Paddy Harte suggested, we do more than trudge together along the great highway of exchange.

We reach for the old connection that "proves our almost instinct almost true; What will survive of us is love".

JP McCarthy holds a PhD in history from Oxford.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss