THE IRISHMAN ABROAD

The educated American seems to have a great deal of affection for
Ireland, but is not over fond of Irishmen. Our country, considered as an
Island situated on the far side of the Atlantic, makes a strong appeal
to him. It is a land of thousand wrongs, a pitiful waif on the hard
highway of the world. It smells strongly of poetry and music in a minor
key, and the American is, like all good business men, an incurable
sentimentalist.

It is always pleasant to be loved and it is nice to feel that America
has this affection for our poor, lost land. But the love would gratify
us much more than it does if there were a little less pity mixed up in
it, and if it were not taken for granted that we all write poetry. I
remember meeting an American lady who was quite lyrical in her
appreciation of Ireland. She had penetrated into the country as far as
Avoca, making the trip from Dublin in a motor car. She stayed, so she
told me, “in a dear old-fashioned inn in Dublin.” She had forgotten its
name, but described its situation to me very accurately. I could not
possibly make a mistake about it. My heart was hot within me when I
suggested that it might have been the Shelbourne Hotel at which she
stayed. Her face lit up with a gleam of recognition of the name.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s it, such a sweet old place; just Ireland all
over, and really quite comfortable when you get used to it.”

Now the Shelbourne Hotel is our idea of a thoroughly up-to-date,
cosmopolitan caravanserai.

Even after a visit to America and a considerable experience of American
hotels, I cannot think of the Shelbourne Hotel as an inn, as
old-fashioned, or as in any way Irish except through the accident of its
situation. It evidently suggests to the American mind tender thoughts of
Mr. Yeats’ “small cabin, of mud and wattles made” on Inishfree. It
suggests no such thoughts to us. Dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel costs
five shillings, nothing to an American, of course, but a heavy price to
us in Ireland. It consists of several courses and we think it quite a
grand dinner. It seems to the American that he is at last reduced to the
traditional Irish diet of potatoes and potheen whiskey. It is this way
of thinking about Ireland which takes the sweetness out of the
American’s genuine affection for our country. We do not mind admitting
that we are half a century behind America in every respect, but we like
to think that we are making some progress.

An American’s eyes soften when you talk to him about Ireland, and you
feel that at any moment he may say “dear land,” so deep is his
sentimental pity and affection for our country. But his eyes harden when
you mention Irishmen and you feel that at any moment he may say
something very nasty about them. The plain fact is that Irishmen are not
very popular in America. We have, it appears, managed the American’s
municipal politics for him in several of his principal cities and he
does not like it. But I am not sure that his resentment is quite just.
Somebody must manage municipal politics everywhere. For a good many
years the American would not manage them himself. He was too busy making
money to bother himself about municipal politics. We took over the
job—at a price. He paid the price with a shrug of the shoulders. I
cannot see that he has much to complain about. Lately he has kicked—not
against the size of the price—it is not the American way to higgle
about money—but against there being any price at all. He has got it
into his head that municipal politics ought to be run “free gratis and
for nothing” by high-souled patriotic men. I sincerely hope that he will
realize his ideal, though I doubt whether any politics anywhere can be
run in that way. It will certainly be better for my fellow countrymen to
earn their bread in any way rather than by politics. But there is, no
sense in being angry with us or abusing us. We worked the machine and
took our wages. The American watched the machine running and paid the
wages. There was not much to choose between him and us.

There is another reason why we are not as popular as we might be—as, no
doubt, we ought to be—in America. We have remained Irish. One of the
most wonderful things about America is its power of absorbing people.
Men and women flow into it from all corners of the world, and in a very
short time, in a couple of generations, become American. I have seen it
stated that the very shapes of the skulls of immigrants alter in
America; that the son of an Italian man has an American not an Italian
skull, even if his mother also came from Italy. Whether this change
really takes place in the bones of immigrants I do not know. Quite as
surprising a change certainly does take place in their nature. They
cease to be foreigners and become American. But the Irish have never
been thoroughly Americanized. Their American citizenship becomes a great
and dear thing to them, but they are still in some sense citizens of
Ireland. If a question ever arose in which American interests clashed
with Irish interests there might well be a solid Irish vote in favor of
sacrificing America to Ireland. The Irish are a partial exception to the
rule that America absorbs its immigrants. It has not thoroughly absorbed
us.

This is the shape which the Irish problem has assumed in America. Here
at home the question is, is England to govern Irishmen? It has obviously
failed to make Englishmen of us. On the other side of the Atlantic the
question is: Are Irishmen to govern America? America has not succeeded
in making Americans of all of us so far.

So far. But the position of Irishmen in America is changing. There was a
time when we took our place in the American social order as hewers of
wood and drawers of water. We were the navvies, the laborers, the men
who handled the pickaxe and spade. Now it is men of other races who do
this work—Italians and Slavs. We have risen in the scale. The Irish
emigrant who lands in New York to-day starts higher up than the Irish
emigrant of twenty-five years ago. So long as we were at the bottom of
the social scale we were bound together by a community of interest and
outlook as well as by nationality. We were easily organized as a voting
unit. But men, as they rise in the world, tend more and more to become
individuals. They have differing interests. They look at things in
different ways. They are far more difficult to organize. The sense of
original nationality will remain to us, no doubt, as it remains among
Americans of Scottish descent. But it may cease to be an effective
political force.

The Ulster Irishman went to America in large numbers before there was
any great immigration of southern and western Irishmen. He fought his
way up in the social scale very quickly and became thoroughly
Americanized. He has had a profound influence on American civilization
and character. It has been the influence of digested food, not the force
exercised by a lump of dough swallowed hastily. But in time even a lump
of dough is digested by a healthy stomach and the gradual rise of the
Irish in the social life of America looks like the beginning of the
process of digestion.

There is something else besides the change in his social position which
will in time make it easier for America to absorb thoroughly the Irish
immigrant. The Irish who went to America during the last half of the
19th century left their homes with a sense in them of burning wrong.
They were men who hated. They hated England and all in Irish life which
stood for England. This hate bound them together. Irish political
struggles, whether of the Fenian or the Parnell type, appealed to them.
Ireland was, in one way or the other, up against England. But all this
has changed. Irish politicians are no longer engaged in a struggle with
England. They are in alliance with one set of Englishmen and only
against another set of Englishmen. There is in Irish politics at home an
appeal to the man of party feeling. He is keen enough for his own party,
keen enough against the other party, but when he gets to America neither
of the parties at home can move him to any special enthusiasm. He no
longer, when at home, hates England. He hates, if hate is not too strong
a word, some Englishmen. There is a great difference between hating
England and hating some Englishmen, when you are so far away that all
Englishmen get blurred. It is easy in Ireland to feel that Codlin is the
friend, not Short. It is not so easy to distinguish Codlin from Short,
Liberal from Conservative, when they are both no more than little dots,
barely visible at a distance of three thousand miles. Codlin gets mixed
up with Short. Some of the original party hatred of Short attaches to
Codlin, no doubt. But some of the love for Codlin, love which is the
fruit of long alliance, passes to Short.

I do not mean to suggest that the sense of nationality has passed away
from Ireland. It has not. In some ways the spirit of nationality is
stronger in Ireland to-day than it was at any time during the last
century. It has certainly penetrated to classes which used to have no
consciousness of nationality at all. There are fewer Irishmen now who
are ashamed of being Irish. There are more men now than ever, in every
class, who want the good of Ireland as distinguished from that of
England or of any other country. But the sense of nationality has to a
very large extent passed out of Irish political life. The platform
appeal of the politician to the voter in Ireland now is far oftener an
appeal to Irishmen as part of the British democracy than to Irishmen as
members of a nation governed against its will by foreigners. The ideas
of John O’Leary, even the ideas of Parnell, have almost vanished from
Irish political life. Instead of them we have the idea of international
democracy.

This change of feeling in Ireland itself will make for a modification of
the position of the Irish in America. They will tend, as the older
generation passes, to become more American and less Irish. This is
already felt in Ireland itself. Of late years there has arisen a strong
feeling against emigration. It is realized, as it used not to be, that
Ireland loses those who go. The feeling is quite new. The phrase “a
greater Ireland beyond the seas” is beginning to mean a little less than
it did, and the general consciousness of patriotic Irishmen at home is
instinctively recognizing this. But it is noticeable that this dislike
of emigration has not found expression among politicians. The movement
is outside politics. The local political boss is frequently an
emigration agent and feels no inconsistency in his position.

It would be quite easy to exaggerate the present value of the change I
have tried to indicate. The old solidarity of the Irish in America
remains a fact. It is to Irish friends and relatives that our emigrants
go. It is among Irish people that they live when they settle in America.
It is Irish people whom they marry. But the tendency is toward a
breaking away from this national isolation.

The movement against emigration at home has much in it besides the
instinctive protest of a nation against the loss of its people. It is in
part religious and rests on a fear that faith is more easily lost in
America than in Ireland. It is in part no doubt the result of shrinking
of sensitive and loving souls from the horror of the great sorrow of
farewell.

All emotions lose their keenness with repetition. The fine rapture of a
joy is never quite so delightful as it was when the joy came first and
was strange. The bitterness of sorrow and disappointment gradually loses
its intensity when sorrow and disappointment become familiar things.
Even insults cease after a while to move us to fierce anger. The law is
universal; but there are some emotions which are only very slowly
dulled. The sadness which comes of watching the departure of a train
full of Irish emigrants is one of these. We are, or ought to be, well
accustomed to the sight. Those of us who have lived long in the country
parts of Ireland have seen these trains and traveled a little way in
them many times; but we are still saddened, hardly less saddened than
when we saw them first.

There is one day in the week on which emigrants go, and in the west of
Ireland one train on that day by which they travel. It goes slowly,
stopping at every station no matter how small, and at every station
there is the same scene. The platform is crowded long before the train
comes in. There are many old women weeping without restraint, mothers
these, or grandmothers of the boys and girls who are going. Their eyes
are swollen. Their cheeks are tear-stained. Every now and then one of
them wails aloud, and the others, catching at the sound, wail with her,
their voices rising and falling in a kind of weird melody like the
ancient plain song of the church. There are men, too, but they are more
silent. Very often their eyes are wet. Their lips, tightly pressed,
twitch spasmodically. Occasionally an uncontrollable sob breaks from one
of them. The boys and girls who are to go are helplessly sorrow
stricken. It is no longer possible for them to weep, for they have wept
too much already. They are drooping despairingly. At their feet are
carpet bags and little yellow tin trunks, each bearing a great flaring
steamboat label. They wear stiff new clothes, shoddy tweed suits from
the shop of the village draper, dresses and blouses long discussed with
some country dressmaker. These pitiful braveries mark them out
unmistakably from the men in muddy frieze and the women in wide crimson
petticoats, with shawls over their heads, who have come to say good-by.

The train comes in. There is a rush to the carriage doors. Soon the
windows of the carriages are filled with tear-stained faces. Hands are
stretched out, grasped, held tight. Final kisses are pressed on lips and
cheeks. The guard of the train gives his signal at last. The engine
whistles. A porter, mercifully brutal, by main force pushes the people
back. The train moves slowly, gathers speed. For a while the whole crowd
moves along the platform beside the train. Then a long sad cry rises,
swelling to a pitch of actual agony. Some brave soul somewhere chokes
down a sob, waves his hat and makes pretence to cheer. Then the scene is
over.

What happens next in the railway carriages? For a while there is sobbing
or silence. Then wonder and the excitement of change begin to take the
place of grief. Words are whispered, questions asked. Little stores of
money are taken out and counted over. Steamboat tickets are examined,
unfolded, folded, put in yet securer places. Already the present is
something more than a dull ache; and the future is looked to as well as
the past.

What happens next to the crowd which was left behind? In little groups
the men and women go slowly back along the country roads to the houses
left at dawn, go back to take up the work of every day. Poverty is a
merciful mistress to those whom she holds in bondage. There are the
fields to be dug, the cattle to be tended, the bread to be made. The
steady succession of things which must be done dulls the edge of grief.
They suffer less who are obliged to work as well as weep. But the sorrow
remains. He has but a shallow knowledge of our people who supposes that
because they go about the business of their lives afterward as they did
before there is no lasting reality in their grief. An Irish mother will
say: “I had seven childer, but there’s only two of them left to me now.
I buried two and three is in America.” She classes those who have
crossed the sea with those who are dead. Both are lost to her.

Sometimes those who have gone are indeed lost utterly. There comes a
letter once, and after a long interval another letter. Then no more
letters nor any news at all. More often there is some kind of touch kept
with the people at home. Letters come at Christmas time, often with very
welcome gifts of money in them. There are photographs. Molly, whom we
all knew when she was a bare-footed child running home from school, whom
we remember as a half-grown girl climbing into her father’s cart on
market days, appears almost a stranger in her picture. Her clothes are
grand beyond our imagining. Her face has a new look in it. There are few
Irish country houses in which such photographs are not shown with a
mixture of pride and grief. It is a fine thing that Molly is so grand.
It is a sad thing that Molly is so strange.

Sometimes, but not very often, a boy or girl comes home again, like a
frightened child to a mother. America is too hard for some of us. These
are beaten and return to the old poverty, preferring it because the ways
of Irish poverty are less strenuous than the ways of American success.
Sometimes, but this is rare too, a young man or woman returns, not
beaten but satisfied with moderate success. These bring with them money,
the girl a marriage portion for herself, the man enough to restock his
father’s farm, which he looks to inherit in the future. Sometimes older
people come back to buy land, build houses and settle down. But these
are always afterward strangers in Irish life. They never recapture the
spirit of it. They have worked in America, thought in America, breathed
in America. America has marked them as hers and they are ours no longer
though they come back to us.

Often we have passing visits from those who left us. The new easiness of
traveling and the comparative comfort of the journey make these visits
commoner than they were. Our friends come back for two months or three.
It is wonderful to see how quickly they seem to fall into the old ways.
The young man, who was perhaps an insurance agent in New York, will fold
away his city clothes and turn to with a loy at cutting turf. The girl,
who got out of the train so fine to look at that her own father hardly
dared to greet her, will be out next day in the fields making hay with
her sisters and brothers. But there is a restlessness about these
visitors of ours. They want us to do new things. They find much amiss
which we had not noticed. They are back with us and glad to be back; but
America is calling them all the time. There is very much that we cannot
give. Soon they will go again, and any tears shed at the second parting
are ours, not theirs.

There are many histories of Ireland dealing sometimes with the whole,
sometimes with this or that part of her story. They are written with the
passion of patriots, with the bitterness of enemies, with the blind fury
of partisans, with the cold justice of scientific men who stand aloof.
None of them are wholly satisfactory as histories of England are, or
histories of America. No one can write a history of Ireland which will
set forth intelligently Ireland’s place in the world. We wait for the
coming of some larger-minded man who will write the history, not of
Ireland, but of the Irish. In one respect it is not with us as it is
with other nations. Their stories center in their homes. Their
conquerors go forth, but return again. Their thinkers live amid the
scenes on which their eyes first opened. Their contributions to human
knowledge are connected in all men’s minds with their own lands. The
statesmen of other nations rule their own people, build empires on which
their own flag flies. The workmen of other nations, captains of industry
or sweating laborers, make wealth in their home lands. It has never been
so with us.

Our historian when he comes and writes of us may take as the motto of
his book Virgil’s comment on the honey-making of the bees. “Sic vos non
vobis.” Long ago we spread the gospel of the Cross over the dark places
of Europe. The monasteries of our monks, the churches of our missionary
preachers were everywhere. But our own land is still the prey of that
acrimonious theological bitterness which is of all things the most
utterly opposed to the spirit of Christ. So we, but not for ourselves,
made sweetness. Kant is a German. Bergson is a Frenchman. All the world
knows it. Who knows or cares that John Scotus Erigena or Bishop Berkeley
were Irish? The greatness of their names has shed no luster over us. Our
captains and soldiers have fought and won under every flag in Europe and
under the Stars and Stripes of America. Under our own flag they rarely
fought and never won. Statesmen of our race have been among the
governors of almost every nation under the sun. Our own land we have
never governed yet. The names of Swift, of Goldsmith, of Sheridan, of a
score of other men of letters add to the glory of the record of English
literature, not of ours. Our people by their toil of mind and muscle
have made other lands rich in manufacture and commerce. Ireland remains
poor.

That is why there is not and cannot be a history of Ireland. It is never
in Ireland that our history has been made. The threads of our story are
ours, spun at home, but they are woven into splendid fabrics elsewhere,
not in Ireland. But the history of the Irish people will be a great work
when it is written. There will be strange chapters in it, and none
stranger than those which tell of our part in the making of America. It
will be a record of mingled good and evil, but it will always have in it
the elements of high romance. From the middle of the 18th century, when
the tide of emigration set westward from Ulster, down to to-day when
with slackening force it flows from Connaught, those who went have
always been the men and women for whom life at home seemed hopeless.
There was no promise of good for them here. But in spite of the
intolerable sadness of their going, in spite of the fact that at home
they were beaten men, there was in them some capacity for doing things.
We can succeed, it seems, elsewhere but not here. This is the strange
law which has governed our history. We recognize its force everywhere
for centuries back. America gives the latest example of its working. An
Irishman returns from a visit to America wondering, despairing, hoping.
The wonder is in him because he knows those who went and has seen the
manner of their going. Success for them seemed impossible, yet very
often they have succeeded. The despair is in him because he knows that
it has always been in other lands, not in their own that our people
succeed, and because there is no power which can alter the decrees of
destiny. But hope survives in him, flickering, because what our people
can do elsewhere they can certainly do at home if only we can discover
the solution of the malignant riddle of our failure.

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