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Ghost Frequencies

Bryan Fanning

Robert Lynd’s 1919 book Ireland: A Nation included an insightful assessment of Patrick Pearse’s legacy, as it was shaping up to be, that anticipated and articulated most of the anxious critiques that emerged in and around the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising in 1966 and still, apparently, hold sway. Not that Lynd was anxious. Lynd was emphatically a nationalist. As an accomplished essayist who wrote for English newspapers and journals including the New Statesman, he was well-placed to explain Irish nationalism to the wider world. Lynd was the son of a Belfast Presbyterian minister. He founded a socialist society when he was a student at Queen’s College. In 1901, while working as a freelance journalist in Manchester, he shared a studio with the artist Paul Henry, whom he first met at Queen’s. He supposedly embraced nationalism after seeing a performance of JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea. He became a member, for a time, of Sinn Féin. As well as his essay on Pearse he wrote ones on Francis Sheehy Skeffington and on Tom Kettle who, of the three, held views that were closest to his own. During the Great War Lynd became a champion of English nationalism, distinguishing valid expressions of this from British imperialism.

Lynd’s essay on The Collected Works of PH Pearse argued that, given the manner of Pearse’s death, it was no longer possible to read these straightforwardly as literature: “Immediately a man dies for what he believes, everything he has said or written assumes a new value”; “one reads them [his words] in the light of his death, and they seem mysteriously laden with meaning, confessions from out of the depths, a part of the poetry of fate”; “They are a ghostly bequest in regard to which we do not feel quite free to play the critic. That, at least, is the world’s attitude. It is fascinated and unquestioning as in the presence of a spirit.” Pearse, according to Lynd, had become sanctified and his Collected Works had become a kind of scripture: “a book which a considerable number of human beings already regard as a holy book because a man died for what is written in it”. In such cases literary criticism was a pointless endeavour: “It is enough for most of us that the author, as it were, agreed with himself – that he harmonized his life with his principles to the last logic of dying for them.”

Pearse’s artistic reputation was, in Lynd’s view, almost entirely posthumous. Before his death he was not highly rated as a writer. Had he lived, his place in Irish literature would by no means be assured. His prose and poetry, according to Lynd, who had been a member of the Gaelic League and taught Irish language classes in London, were the work of a propagandist primarily motivated by a desire to the help the Gaelic revival. They were not the work of a genuine artist. Yet Pearse’s Collected Works had become posthumously more than just the writings of an earnest schoolmaster. His writings now seemed prophetic. Before his death he had begun “to believe in the necessity of bloodshed no less than in the necessity of the Irish language”. Lynd quoted The Singer, which closed with the hero declaring as he goes out against the Gall (the foreigners): “One man can free a people as one Man redeemed the world. I will take no pike. I will go into battle with bare hands. I will stand up before the Gall as Christ hung naked before men on the tree!”

Pearse’s writings exemplified the classic features of European romantic nationalisms. These included the development of a powerful mystique of the nation, whereby nationalism became a kind of substitute religion in which the very soil of the motherland or fatherland was depicted as sacred. These included cults of mythical and real national heroes, claims about the chivalry of idealised patriots, and the exaltation of heroic failures and sacrifice. In “Ghosts”, an essay from late 1915, Pearse described nationality as a spiritual thing and as an ancient spiritual tradition. He called the Irish Party leaders blasphemers because the nation to them was not holy. He defined freedom as a spiritual necessity that transcended all corporeal necessities. He appeared to exult in the possibility of dying for Ireland and in mass slaughter more generally. In an earlier 1915 essay, “Peace and the Gael”, he wrote:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to Earth … The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

James Connolly responded that anyone who believed such nonsense was a blithering idiot. Lynd, in his essay on Pearse, also objected (“I confess I see more error than truth in redemption by bloodshed”). Yet Pearse’s various exhortations to blood sacrifice appeared at a time when millions of Europeans were dying in the trenches for their nations. In “Horrors of War”, an essay published during the Great War, Lynd criticised the cult of war and contemporary romantic depictions of battlefield heroics. He argued that civilians and politicians needed to have their noses constantly rubbed in war’s squalid blood-and-gore: “No man should send other men to death and suffering for his ideals without knowing what war involved.”

Nationalist writers from the Young Irelander movement onwards had been unashamedly polemical and partisan in their presentation of Irish history. They were not disinterested antiquarians or anxious to present themselves as even-handed. As James Quinn put it: “They believed that history should provide a clear and compelling narrative that explained the sufferings of the past, justified the struggles of the present, and held out hope of deliverance in the future.” Against this, the late 1930s witnessed the emergence among historians of a wave of empirical and supposedly value-free scholarship which sought to detach understandings of the Irish past from such heated narratives. From the 1960s a second wave of historical revisionism emerged that became a prominent ideological tool used to challenge the legitimacy of radical militant nationalism in Northern Ireland.

In Brendan Bradshaw’swords, “a corrosive cynicism was brought to bear in order to trivialise the significance of transcendent aspirations”. Revisionist historians engaged in what Bradshaw called an “iconoclastic assault on the so-called apostolic succession of national heroes”. These were placed in the dock and prosecuted “in the name, of course, of professional objectivity”. The aim, as Bradsaw saw it, was to discredit the torch-bearers of the national cause across the centuries, and to misrepresent these instead “as a motley collection of local warlords, defenders of narrow class interests or, where, at last, the play of national sentiment must be acknowledged in such people as Tone, Davis, Pearse and Connolly – as politically inept and intellectually confused ideologues”.

The main figure placed in the dock was Pearse. Rather than subject him to dispassionate critique, he came to be presented as a dangerously compelling voice from beyond the grave. A series of attempted exorcisms were published in and around the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The most prominent of these appeared in the Jesuit journal Studies in 1966. To some extent their intent exemplified Bradshaw’s taxonomy of second-wave revisionism.

In one essay Augustine Martin, a literary critic, argued that Pearse’s doctrine of blood sacrifice was a recurrent symbol in all the patriotic verse of the decade and that this emphasis had been amplified for posterity by WB Yeats, the greatest poet of the era. Alongside examples of such symbolism Martin quoted from Pearse’s 1913 essay “The Coming Revolution”:

We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.

In Britain Enoch Powell’s political career imploded in 1968 because of a speech about immigration that referred to “rivers of blood”. Somewhat similarly, Pearse’s rhetoric left many posthumous hostages to fortune that could be cited to pull him down without too much intellectual effort.

A seventeen-thousand-word essay on Pearse by Francis Shaw SJ published in Studies in  1972 came to be celebrated as a historiographical milestone, though it was intellectually consistent with a long line of Irish Jesuit critiques of European nationalism. Unsurprisingly, Fr Shaw took umbrage at Pearse’s appropriation of the passion of Christ. Again, this had long been a bone of contention for the church. European romantic nationalisms, as one study of the influence of these in Ireland put it, had endeavoured since the nineteenth century to supersede Christianity “as a dynamic public faith”.

Half a century later the audience who might get upset at Pearse’s so-called blasphemy appears to have greatly shrunk. Metaphors invoking Christ appear to have lost much of their inspirational value and also the power to shock, in Ireland at least. What gets taken seriously as sacred or profane can change over time. Whatever influence Catholic intellectuals like Shaw had half a century ago also appears to have evaporated. Intellectual understandings of nationalism have shifted. Spirit and Geist have come to be replaced by more prosaic concepts like shared identities and imagined communities. These, sociologists explain, were made possible by the emergence of mass education systems and mass literacy. Nineteenth century cultural nationalists understood the possibilities of fostering new shared communal identities very well. The Gaelic revival and other manifestations of cultural nationalism were concerned with creating such identities.

Lynd inferred that nationalism hardly needed the kinds of metaphysics promulgated by Pearse. In If the Germans Conquered England and Other Essays, published in 1917, he compared the Irish case to a hypothetical one in which Yorkshire also sought independence from Great Britain:

Yorkshire will be a nation on the same day on which she feels that she is one, and on which her consciousness becomes so separate from the national consciousness of England that she will desire to express it in a distinct literature, language, social and political life, and all the rest of it. Ireland simply has a different national consciousness from England.

In his title essay he outlined how, even under a benign occupation, English people would come to resent foreign rule in ways that were similar to nationalist independence movements in countries that were part of the British and Russian empires.

Lynd posited a future in which a prosperous Britain was governed by Germany. The railways, industry, town-planning and street-sweeping might be efficient. Fine technical schools, art schools and opera houses might be built but there would be other unwelcome changes too. England would be exhorted to imitate the genius of her conquerors. History would be taught differently in schools and universities. The German language would become institutionalised. English culture would be denigrated as inferior and treated as second class. No amount of prosperity could make up for the degradation of living perpetually under the heel of the Prussian policeman and under the eye of the Prussian professor: “Even the man who kept a small sweet-shop would feel queer stirrings of rage within him, however prosperous he was, however clean the streets were swept, as he saw his policeman-conqueror tramping majestically past his door. He would feel as if he was in the grip of some monstrous machine. He would tell himself that law and order was a good thing but not at this price.”

What Lynd didn’t explain was how shopkeepers, trade unionists, journalists, barristers and schoolteachers – occupations held by the executed leaders of the Rising and the last three of these by Pearse – might be willing to die to change such a status quo. By 1916 the middle class Irish were arguably no more oppressed by Britain than the British were a century later by the European Union. Lynd’s essay “If the Germans Conquered England” might be reimagined as an exemplary pro-Brexit pamphlet in some alternative universe 2016 where anti-immigrant politics did not prevail. Pearse’s political writings included calls to martyrdom. For all that these have been subsequently sidestepped it is not possible to explain the Irish revolution he helped trigger without reckoning with the unpalatable will-to-violence these articulated.

While he lived, as Roisin Higgins has put it, “Pearse did his own packaging. He placed himself in the company of Irish political martyrs and outlined how his sacrifice should be understood.” In the wake of the post-War-of-Independence Civil War the twenty-six county Free State found little use for the kinds of romantic nationalism he professed. Yet its myths, mystique and pantheon of heroes that now included Pearse appealed to those who cleaved to the ideal of an all-island Republic as Éamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil did in power after 1932. De Valera included Pearse’s mother, Margaret Pearse, in the founding executive of Fianna Fáil.

Pearse became, according to Higgins “the other-worldly icon of revolution: revered but not read”. His photograph became one of the iconic representations of the revolutionary period. It was mass-reproduced on coins and stamps not unlike, again according to Higgins, the artworks of Andy Warhol which mass-produced images of famous people. Streets, parks, housing estates and tower blocks that had to be later torn down were named after him. His name and image became a kind of brand or trademark – something like the logo on a Coke bottle – that was hardly in the business of communicating his particular values and beliefs. Rather, such iconography became part of the panoply of what Robert Bilig calls banal nationalism. In this Pearse is hardly alone. The climate of anxious critiques that prevailed in 1966 pushed James Connolly centre stage during the jubilee commemorations of the Rising. If Pearse was viewed by some as too hot to handle at that time be became more so later during the Northern Ireland conflict. During the centenary commemorations of the Rising he was reduced to a mere bit player, just as his character in the 2016 RTÉ drama Rebellion was a minor one.


This essay is a very slightly edited version of a keynote address at the “Before 1916: Robert Lynd and Visions of Ireland to Come” conference at NUIG held in November 2016. Bryan Fanning is a professor in the School of Social Policy, Social Justice, and Social Work at UCD. His most recent book, Irish Adventures in Nation-Building, is published by Manchester University Press.



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