Monday, March 17, 2008

A Review of Irish Impressions

by Dr. Dermot Quinn

In early 1918 a strange couple came to Ireland on a mission as strange as themselves. One was a bachelor of ascetic temper, a bit prickly, finicky to a fault, an Old Etonian graduate of Oxford, included in whose otherwise conventional upper-class upbringing was time spent in a ranch in Wyoming. Without family but with sufficient private income to do much as he pleased, he had dedicated his life to the promotion of rural co-operatives in Ireland, preaching the cause with visionary zeal. An Isaiah of the country creamery, a John the Baptist of the combine harvester, he foresaw a country made beautiful by small farmers working together to transform their shared landscape. Independent but honorably reliant on the efforts of others, proud of their plots but not jealous of the plots of their neighbors, they would renew the face of the earth, becoming (as the second member of the party would later describe them) a multitude of men standing on their own feet because they were standing on their own land. This prophet of rural regeneration was Sir Horace Plunkett and his name is still held in affection in Ireland today. Plunkett's companion, while endorsing this dream, could not have been more different in appearance or personality. Large, affable, disorganized, fond of beer, he came to Ireland by way of Saint Paul's school, the Slade, and several pubs in between. A journalist of genius (indeed a genius pure and simple) he was an English patriot who saw no contradiction — indeed the opposite — in arguing the cause of Ireland. In column after column he urged his countrymen to be decent in their dealings with the island to the west. He offered no defense of a history written, for the most part, in sorrow and blood. He was, of course, G.K. Chesterton: a man, as Plunkett quirkily put it, of great personal magnitude. Out of his visit emerged Irish Impressions, one of the sharpest books ever written by an Englishman about Ireland and easily the most significant result of an eccentric and endearing trip.

Irish Impressions may be read and enjoyed as a free-standing volume. Its meaning reveals itself without much need for explanation or historical context. Certainly it is one of Chesterton's most relaxed and engaging books, full of good jokes and insights, affectionate towards Ireland and the Irish but not adulatory, playful and paradoxical but not predictably so. It was not a literary exercise, a case of Ireland, as it were, being given the Chestertonian treatment. Yet context is important. To read the book without it is to miss much of its subtlety. Irish Impressions will only make an impression — will only seem truly impressive — if we know its time and place, the world in which the word was made. As with many of Chesterton's books, it was an occasional piece that far surpassed the occasion that prompted it.

...The charm of Irish Impressions thus derives in part from Chesterton's discovery that Irish in Ireland were no different from the Irish he first encountered in England: talkative, humorous, familial, frequently absurd. They could also be cruel. There was romance in Chesterton's portrayal but also realism, an awareness of national vices (long memory, begrudgery, occasional unkindness) as well as virtues (charm, thoughtfulness, imagination). This recognition of Irish flaws seems to lend verisimilitude to the book, a sense of balance.

...Even when the book seems to offer harsh judgments, geniality keeps breaking through. Why? Is it because of Chesterton's irrepressible good humor, his splendid optimism? Perhaps. Yet there was a reason more immediate than that. Chesterton and Plunkett may have made improbable recruiting sergeants; Ireland may have been too far gone in republicanism to rediscover Home Rule as a political crusade; the Orange card may have been thrown once too often. Those difficulties notwithstanding, Chesterton's vision of Ireland was vindicated by the central fact he reported in the book — a fact so great he thought it little short of a miracle, another resurrection. The land of Ireland, he was able to report in triumph, was once again owned by the people of Ireland. Two parliamentary measures had turned the Irish tenant into a landowner: Ashbourne's Land Act of 1885 and Wyndham's Land Act of 1903. Between 1906 and 1908 alone, more than 100,000 renters had been able to buy their own farms. By 1914 nearly three-quarters of Ireland's farmers owned the land they farmed. No wonder Chesterton considered George Wyndham, author of the 1903 Act, the finest statesman he had ever known. At the price of nobody knows what pain and patience, amidst the ruins of a decadent parliamentary system, he alone established a free peasantry in Ireland. It was because of his efforts that Home Rule had become a social and economic reality. All that awaited was that it should become a political reality as well. If ever the case for distributism needed to be made, Ireland, and Wyndham, made it. What Chesterton called the poetry of private property had come alive in a land that almost died for lack of it. That was the real Easter Rising, the true greatness of Ireland. The meaning of these green and solid things before me is that it is not a ghost that has risen from the grave? It is a miracle more marvelous than the resurrection of the dead. It is the resurrection of the body. The wearing of the greens, he joked, was better than the wearing of the green. Or, to put the matter slightly differently, in Ireland (and in all sane places) cabbages are kings.

And there was a second way in which the people of Ireland had been made holy by the return of their land. The recovery of property was a sign and symbol, Chesterton thought, of the survival of Christianity itself. Throughout their history the Irish never wavered in fidelity to the gospel, clinging to it the more firmly as the darkness deepened and the tides threatened to carry them away. That faithfulness was a kind of sermon, a lesson to others. If Christianity was not meant to survive, if the cross was not meant to triumph, Chesterton was at a loss to know why it had survived in Ireland.

This is why Irish Impressions is significant beyond the occasion that prompted it. That is why it also should be read along with Chesterton's other great Irish work, Christendom in Dublin, published in 1932 after the Eucharistic Congress of that year. The first book is a spirited account of a spirited journey, a record of a good-hearted jaunt with talk and laughter and fellowship along the way. The second book is mellow, reflective, somehow autumnal in its sense that Ireland's journey to nationhood had been completed as his own life was nearing its end. But whatever their surface differences both books are essentially soul odysseys, indeed the odysseys of two souls — Chesterton's and Ireland's. Author and country were well matched. He never ceased to delight that in an age of rationalism, Ireland remained religious. In an era of eugenics, it favored family life. In a time of trusts, it trusted the farm. In a world that worshipped wealth, it preferred frugality. When greatness and grandiosity were all the rage, it preferred a beautiful smallness — the life of the field, the village, the story by the fire. Those truths are not less true for having been expressed, with wit and grace, almost a century ago.

Dermot Quinn
Department of History
Seton Hall University

Buy the book at IHS Press

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