Conversations With Carlyle


Charles Gavan Duffy

From Introduction, Stray Thoughts On Young Ireland by Brendan Clifford

The world we live in was brought about by a combination of conquest, plunder, slavery, famine, genocide, worldly greed and heavenly fanaticism, callousness, sentimentality, virtuous hypocrisy, and even an even more virtuous frankness, and by industry, all of which were brought into combination by the statecraft of a Power which dominated the world by ruling its oceans and seas. That is what is summed up in the word: Progress.

The two writers whose conversations are recorded here were eminent contributors to Progress in the mid-19th century. They acted, therefore, in the world which I have summarised above during a period when it was particularly brutal.

Thomas Carlyle, a Scots-born writer, was a force in the social and political life of England such as few literary men have ever been anywhere. He was, of course, a racist and an imperialist. If he had not been both, he could not have counted for anything in public life: he would have been a mere eccentric. Racism and imperialism were normal in England then. I am not suggesting that they are not normal in England now. But the mode of expression has changed. And Carlyle, who preferred not to engage in the hypocrisy of his time, is found to be objectionable today because of his frankness. He preferred to discard the hypocrisy within which brutality functioned and to describe the reality of things as he saw it. He was not willing to deceive or to be deceived. He set out to describe the world as it was in the hope that, if realities were grasped, they might be altered. He did not believe that an alternative world could be set up as an ideal which negated the existing world and the people of the existing world transferred to it. Other worlds than the world of Manchester capitalism had had their day. They could not be restored. He detested Manchester capitalism, but he insisted that it had become the reality of things and that only by facing up to this reality could improvements be made.

Carlyle is very much in disfavour today because of his refusal to use euphemistic language. He referred, for example, to the "human swinery" of the Irish, and he published a notorious article on The Nigger Question, deliberately changing the title from "Negro" to "Nigger" to give offence to the euphemistic mentality.

Charles Gavan Duffy was a founder of The Nation, along with Thomas Davis. He was a nationalist and a social reformer. He sought to develop a coherent purposefulness in the sprawling national movement engendered by O'Connell. And naturally enough the English persecuted him. But he, and other Young Irelanders, struck up a particularly close acquaintance with the racist, imperialist ideologue who could describe the Irish in terms of human swines.

Professor Roy Foster, who runs Irish history from Oxford, writes of "the wall of anti-Irish prejudice conveniently articulated by Carlyle" (Modern Ireland p363). But, fifty pages earlier, he remarked that the Young Irelanders "cherished a certain cult of Carlyle, reading Sartor Resartus while undertaking rapt tours of the landscape" (p313). And he sees no need to relate these two comments to each other.

How could it be that the foremost propagator of anti-Irish prejudice in England was also the English writer who was most appreciated by the foremost propagators of Irish nationalism? Professor Foster does not address the paradox. Indeed, even though paradoxes are much in fashion, and are in his style, he does not even present these two facts as a paradox. He does not present them in combination, but tosses them off separately, fifty pages apart from each other. He merely makes two statements which are incompatible with each other, and leaves each to be understood on its own without relation to the other.

The logical, or epistemological, merit of a paradoxical statement is that it stimulates thought by indicating the site of a misconception—because paradoxes, leaving aside Kant's antinomies of pure reason, arise from misconceptions. In this instance there are misconceptions on both sides: about Carlyle as well as about Young Ireland.

Young Ireland culture survived vigorously in the peasant backwardness of Slieve Luacra—I think that is the approved way of putting it—down to the 1950s. I am therefore familiar with it from life. It was there in Gavan Duffy's books, in Carlyle's books, in Canon Sheehan's books, and in a general spirit appropriate to these books.

I do not know how it fared in the educational system of the state. Education is outside my experience. I can only say that, if it was there in the 1950s, it must have been removed in the course of the 1970s. Otherwise Professor Foster could not write as he does and get away with it—indeed, not only get away with it but have his book made the standard history of the educational system.

Carlyle was the editor of Oliver Cromwell's Letters And Speeches. Carlyle's Cromwell approached the status of a third Bible for three or four generations of right-thinking Britishers—the second, of course, being The Pilgrim's Progress. I have a copy that I found in a junk-shop in Wales. It looks like a Bible of the kind that used to be a standard item in hotel rooms: flexible leather cover, indestructible binding, fine legible print on flimsy paper, full without being bulky, with the whole three volumes being somehow contained in one volume that slips easily into the pocket: not intended for display on a bookshelf. It was published in 1888 and was awarded to Miss Mary Ross in 1896 as 1st Prize in the German Class at the Ministers' Daughters' College in Edinburgh.

The Young Ireland movement expressed the political, social and cultural ideals of the middle class of nationalist Ireland as it emerged from under O'Connell's wing. Cromwell was to them as Hitler was to the Jews. Carlyle was working on his Cromwell when Duffy and his colleagues first made contact with him, and the book was published at an early stage in their acquaintance.

Carlyle's Cromwell made the ogre respectable and admirable for the British middle classes that were rising to power within the structures of the 1832 Reform. It eked out the active life of the Puritan ideology during a couple of generations when English Christianity was undermining itself. Carlyle did not know whether he himself was a Calvinist or not. He wasn't. But then again he was. And so it was with the Puritan middle classes as they ventured out from their factories into the corridors of political power. During their long exclusion from power (1660- 1832) it was unproblematical for them to remain Christian. Calvinism was good for business. But Calvinism had not proved suitable for statecraft. A book was needed that would enable them to avail themselves of their new opportunities without obliging them to disown all that they had been. And Carlyle's Cromwell was just the thing. It became the Bible of secularising Puritanism. Its language was tortuous and obscure—utterly different from the language of The Pilgrim's Progress. But it was entirely suitable to its purpose. And, provided that you could read it, it was exciting. And an ancillary Bible must be exciting.

A couple of generations later, a sedate bourgeois preoccupation with Cromwell set in—Charles Firth and S.R. Gardener. But when Carlyle did it first it was daring.

To the Irish, of course, it was perverse. Cromwell was Ireland's Hitler. His rehabilitation was as if Mein Kampf was republished by a reputable publisher in Germany today with editorial comment in praise of Hitler. Yet the Young Irelanders got along famously with Carlyle. And Duffy gave some assistance with the book.

The review of it in The Nation begins:

"A book to be opened with reverence—to be read with earnest, deep attention— to be dissented from on no light grounds—and then only with reluctance and pain. The greatest writer, the profoundest philosopher, now living upon English soil… deals in this book with the most glorious and terrible epoch of his country's history, and the divine (or diabolic) man, who is at last recognised, and will through all time be acknowledged, as the type of that heroic (or fanatic, or fanatico-heroic) age of England.

"To English historic literature this is a precious accession ; and the inhabitants of that country will do well to study it with what earnestness yet remains amongst them, in hopes of curing to some extent that loathsome disease, half mealy-mouthed cant, and half sneering facetiousness, which is fast eating away the old heart of England…

"…these two volumes may be regarded as an elaborate answer to the important query—should Cromwell have a statue!—a statue, namely, amongst the kings of England, in their new Houses of Parliament. And viewing them thus, they do distinctly prove… that this questio vexata must be answered most emphatically in the negative. No: Cromwell ought not to have a statue—on the simple grounds that the juxta-position would introduce the kings of England to much higher society than they have any kind of title to aspire to ; for, independent of his enmity to kings and kingships, …Oliver Cromwell belongs to that higher rank of mankind… more august than any royal dynasty… Those men, namely, who have arisen from time to time to prove to all the earth that Manhood is greater than heraldry.

"A precious accession, we say, is this book to English history… ; and we do heartily wish that Thomas Carlyle had not undertaken to “elucidate” that portion of Cromwell's letters which relates to Ireland and his wars here…"

Most of the rest of this long review has to do with Cromwell's campaign in Ireland, and Carlyle's failure to handle it factually: leading to this conclusion:

"Thus far we, being Irish and not English, have deemed it right to indicate our view of Cromwell's relation to Ireland. Yet we hardly blame our vehement hero- worshipping friend for misunderstanding our history. To an English mind this seems inevitable… The English Cromwell he knows, and can interpret, with seeing eye and understanding heart ; Cromwell in Ireland, and the matters he had to deal with here, are a mystery to the historian, as they were to the hero. Ireland was to Cromwell a blind promiscuous shambles and a place of skulls ; to his enthusiastic editor it is merely a blackness and a blot.

"…No book we remember to have read has pained us so much ; for, indeed, Thomas Carlyle has long been our venerated and beloved preceptor—at whose feet we have long studied and learned there several things that our “guide, philosopher, and friend” never thought to teach us. Perhaps, the most remarkable thing about Carlyle's writings is their power of suggesting thoughts that the writer never contemplated… ; so that amongst his most ardent admirers… there are, probably, few who agree in his peculiar views.

"The seed he has sown sometimes grows up a very strange plant in his eyes. For instance the most zealous Catholic layman of our acquaintance dates his conversion from Protestantism from the time that he earnestly studied Carlyle. Yet is Carlyle strongly anti-Catholic. The writer of these lines believes that he never would have been, as he is, a determined Repealer and Irish Nationalist, but for his reverent study of the same great writer. Yet Carlyle considers Repeal an insane dream, and Ireland (God forgive him ! ) a nation of very poor creatures" (The Nation, 10 January 1846; the review is unsigned. It was written by John Mitchel, who at this time was the chief writer for The Nation).

My own view of Cromwell is that he was English in Ireland, doing what came naturally, and that he was bogus in England. He led the Puritan revolution of the 1640s to supreme power, executed the King, established the Republic, made himself Protector of the Republic, used his power as dictator to prevent the Puritan Parliament from enacting the fundamental Biblical reform of the law and society that was its purpose, and then did not know what to do next. By doing nothing constitutionally, and by insisting that nothing should be done, he disabled the Republic during the five or six years when it should have consolidated itself. In supreme power, he dithered, coming to appreciate the value of the system which his associates were intent on destroying. He prevented them from destroying it, and toyed with the idea of restoring the monarchy with himself as King. He backed away from this project when his associates indicated that they would do to King Oliver what Oliver had led them to do with King Charles. For five years he prevented anything from being done one way or the other, and then left his state adrift without compass or rudder, waiting for the exiled Monarch to come back and take it in hand and punish it for its misdemeanours.

The English socialist preoccupation with the Puritan Revolution in the 1970s made it necessary for me to find out what happened in the 1650s, and that is what I found. I concluded that Cromwell was rightly placed in the succession of monarchs because he was the preserver of the possibility of monarchy amidst the revolution which might have destroyed it.

Nevertheless, the way the Young Irelanders coped with Carlyle's Cromwell is impressive. The tendency of Irish history-writing in recent decades has been to disparage nationalist Ireland, and deplore the political movement that arose in Ireland shortly after the Ascendancy regime was curbed by the Act of Union. That movement was forged into a stable, purposeful force by The Nation, and wrested most of the country out of the British state eighty years after The Nation was founded. There are, no doubt, academic historians here and there who do not do this. But academic history has been dominated by Professor Roy Foster, an endowed Professor at Oxford. His Modern Ireland was adopted as a basic teaching text, and his latest book, The Irish Story, which suggests that the Irish invent a false history in the service of fantasy and that the best thing to do with Irish history would be to erase it, has been rapturously reviewed. Most historians may be of the private opinion that Foster is not a historian at all. But private opinion counts for nothing in this matter. In public affairs—in history as a function of the Irish state—Foster is the historian. And the job which Foster sought to do on Irish history begins in earnest with The Nation—because the publication of The Nation marks the point at which Irish affairs started to go badly wrong from the viewpoint of the English state.

That Foster's purpose in writing a history of Ireland was to wipe out Irish history as a comprehensible subject was demonstrated for me by his frivolous, sneering treatment of the Young Irelanders' relationship with Carlyle. The programme to which he was writing over-rode his intellectual curiosity about that unique and incomparably influential relationship between a major English writer (whose writings became part of English social life) and a group of Irish nationalists—an English writer who was the first hagiographer of Cromwell since the 17th century, and a group of Irish nationalist intellectuals—an English ideologue who articulated a "wall of anti-Irish prejudice" and the founders of "romantic nationalism" in Ireland (Foster's phrase). (I assume that he did feel some intellectual curiosity about this but suppressed it out of a sense of duty. Perhaps this is a groundless assumption.)

Foster was a minor English historian (a historian working at an English University), and was not a bit revisionist in his view of English affairs, when he was chosen to be the director of the revisionist project in Ireland. The first Irish revisionist I encountered—the first who was part of the Irish scene when he took up the project—was Conor Cruise O'Brien. O'Brien, who was an active nationalist propagandist for many years, saw himself as being very much on the liberal side of the national movement. When he flipped over in the mid-1970s, began to see the national development of Ireland as a mistake, and became an Ulster Unionist, it was natural that he should direct his venom particularly on the liberal strain of nationalism that began with Young Ireland. He cut himself adrift from his source in a Foreword to a book about Daniel O'Connell written by O'Connell's great-great-great grandson, Professor M.R. O'Connell.

It is a tricky business for an Irish intellectual, who had functioned as a nationalist propagandist, to reject the most liberal force in Irish nationalism and to find liberal grounds for doing so. O'Brien found those grounds in the fact that O'Connell rejected donations to the Repeal Fund from people who lived in the parts of the United States where the slave system was still in operation, while the Young Irelanders were of the opinion that Ireland, the bulk of whose people were free within a travesty of the contract system but were living on the verge of starvation, could not afford to be finicky about accepting aid. The Irish were in an abstract sense free in that they were not bound to their masters but engaged in contractual relations with them, but were oppressed in the sense that they could barely feed themselves when times were good, and many could not feed themselves at all when times were not so good: and the disagreement between O'Connell and the Young Irelanders occurred at the moment when times were about to become bad, even by the reckoning of those who had least patience with Irish complaints. The American slaves, on the other hand, were not free, but they were fed. The masters had to look after them because they were property. But the Irish landlords had no such material incentive to look after their tenants, because the tenants were free and it was their own business whether they lived or died.

The Great Famine set in during the year following O'Connell's dispute with the Young Irelanders. I don't know if he softened his attitude to American aid when it came to Famine relief. I have never seen the matter discussed.

Here is Dr. O'Brien's declaration that he had rejected the Young Ireland tradition and become an O'Connellite.

"In the Republican tradition with which I was familiar in my youth—though I subsequently managed to shake it off pretty well—the Young Irelanders were ardent idealists filled with burning zeal for liberty. O'Connell, on the other hand, was a clerical reactionary, or opportunist. If that was so, you would expect, would you not, that the Young Irelanders would have been passionately opposed to slavery, while O'Connell would have advised caution, and practised circumlocution?

"Yet, as Maurice O'Connell shows, the reality was precisely the reverse. Daniel O'Connell would accept no money, for his Repeal fund from the United States if it came from a slave State, or from any source connected with slavery. The Young Irelanders repeatedly rebuked him for this excess of zeal. In the Repeal Association in March 1845, O'Connell declared: “I want no American aid if it comes across the Atlantic stained with Negro blood.” Thomas Davis, who was present, respectfully recorded his dissent: “…I condemn slavery as much as it is possible to condemn it… but I am not prepared to condemn the Americans to the extent to which my illustrious friend goes, or silently to hear the amount of censure which he so conscientiously and so consistently with his opinions casts upon them.”

"Even apart from the substance, the style of Davis's dissent on this occasion is unattractive. But O'Connell had the effect on the Young Irelanders of making them mealy-mouthed" (Foreword to M.R. O'Connell, Daniel O' Connell: The Man And His Times,1990).

If it is really the case that O'Brien was disillusioned when he found that the Young Irelanders were not starry-eyed idealists, that can only be because his idea of them was an illusion in the first place. And he can only have held that illusion because he did not live up to his intellectual pretensions and inform himself about them. It requires very little investigation to discover that they had a hard-headed middle class view of the world which they sought to communicate to the society at large. That was what made them so different from O'Connell. His extravagant flattery of the populace finds little echo in The Nation.

He was the great demagogue, assembling the people by the hundred thousand and flattering them outrageously with the purpose of using them as a kind of battering ram to break down the resistance to Catholic Emancipation in the first instance, and then to intimidate Parliament into repealing the Act of Union—or tolerating the de facto establishment of an Irish Government. In economic theory he was a liberal free-trader (having come to Ireland from the English utilitarian movement of the 1790s), but his speeches to the Monster Meetings are populist nationalist harangues. He was a demagogue.

I do not say this in disparagement. I do not think there is any definite human nature, let alone one that is inherently middle class. And Pearse's description of Ireland in the 19th century appears to me to be reasonably accurate:

"The history of the last hundred years in Ireland might be described as the hopeless attempt of a mob to realise itself as a nation" (Speech at founding of Irish Volunteers, 1913, as reported in Freeman's Journal 26.11.1913).

Taking that to be the case, I would say that O'Connell assembled the mob and gave it great expectations, but left it essentially formless (outside the form of the Monster Meeting), and that the forging of a coherent bourgeois national entity, capable of directing the whole and giving it a capacity for purposeful endurance, occurred in conjunction with the Young Ireland movement. And that is why I see the counter-posing of O'Connell and Young Ireland, as if they were alternatives, as being historically groundless. O'Connell did not leave behind him a viable national movement, distinct from Young Ireland, which the Young Ireland movement destroyed in order to replace it with something else. There is a continuum between the two. Young Ireland was a development within the Repeal movement, made possible by it: and the Repeal Association suffered a drastic loss of purpose and vigour after O'Connell drove the Young Irelanders out of it.

It might be that O'Brien now considers the whole national development in Ireland to have been a mistake. I have not seen him say so, but that is the way he has been heading for many years. But writing up O'Connell in order to write down Young Ireland does not achieve that purpose, because it was O'Connell who established nationalism as a mass movement.

Ireland might possibly have settled down as a functional part of the United Kingdom after 1800 if Catholic Emancipation had been brought in along with the Union. The next opportunity for such a development came in 1829. If O'Connell had declared that the admission of Catholics to Parliament opened the way to Irish participation in the politics of the state, and had set about developing the Catholic Emancipation movement into an Irish section of the Whig Party, Irish affairs would probably have taken a fundamentally different course. But, instead of doing that, he developed the Catholic Emancipation movement into the Repeal movement, and berated all who refused to make that transition—chiefly the Protestant reformers in Ulster.

O'Connell was part Whig and part nationalist. The Young Irelanders charged him with subordinating Irish national interests to Whig interests, but from the Whig point of view it appeared the other way about. He tried to be both together, which was impossible. He might support a Whig Government with Irish nationalist votes, but the net outcome was that he prevented the Whig/ Liberal Party from getting a grip on Irish affairs, and aborted the party system of the British state in the greater part of Ireland. And the rest followed.

In the matter of American slavery he was an English liberal

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