In 1969 it was decided to change the Leaving Certificate English syllabus. One change involved introducing a sprinkling of non-female twentieth century Irish authors who wrote in English. It also involved shedding the somewhat stuffy English Victorian and Edwardian tone of the course by introducing writers such as Emily Dickinson and TS Eliot, authors whose work was calculated to leave a lifelong impression on students. That regime lasted until 2000, when the curriculum was changed again and this time more Irish writers were brought in, including some women writers. The position of female poets is now firmly established. Indeed it is axiomatic among those who spend long hours poring over past papers in an effort to divine what is likely to “come up” that there will always be a woman poet and that the most likely is the new addition or the one who didn’t “come up” the last time.
Back in the sixties, post-independence twentieth century Irish writers did not much feature in our education. Writers in that category had a slight aura of the forbidden about them, which meant of course that we went to some trouble to read what we might otherwise not have bothered with. Those authors who were invariably no longer above ground and who found favour among the educational authorities were interesting in their way but often completely foreign to us culturally and for many of us more than a little stuffy. Charles Lamb’s “Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” was one of the exceptions. It is great fun and the adventures of the Chinese Bo Bo remain with me to this day.
English Catholic writers such as GK Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc were favoured in independent Ireland. Chesterton had written a book predicting the extinction of Protestantism which went down particularly well. In 1915 thousands turned up to hear him speak in the Mansion House on Dawson Street. In the 1960s we were still reading him and indeed Belloc at the school I attended.
There was another aspect to these writers which did not feature in the texts our teachers encouraged us to study. Chesterton, like Belloc, was antisemitic. But if so, he was antisemitic in a very calm English sort of way. There was none of the French Third Republic anti- Jewish hysteria about him. Mind you, he was an anti-Dreyfusard and in 1911 referred to the Jew “who is a traitor in France and a tyrant in England”. In slight mitigation it should be noted that he was not a Nazi sympathiser. When, late in his life (he died in 1936), he became aware of the violent anti-Jewish Nazi movement in Germany he strongly opposed it, as did Belloc. who was nevertheless convinced of the evils of “International Jewry”.
Like many other English and European intellectuals Chesterton was at times preoccupied by what was called “The Jewish Question”. He believed there was something irrevocably negative from the European point of view in the Jewish spirit and he thought it would be better if Jews left Europe for a land of their own. In 1922 Belloc published The Jews, in which he made a long, rambling and utterly unsubstantiated case against the Jewish character. This idea of something inherently negative in “the Jew” is as close as you can get to a core definition of antisemitism, whether its proponents are calm or hysterical.
An interesting point in all of this is that there was no comparable strand in Irish intellectual life at the time. In the early 1920s both Irish and English Jews believed that Ireland was effectively free of antisemitism. The evidence which I have looked at from the time broadly supports this view. How then were Irish commentators in the early 1920s to respond to the antisemitism of approved authors such as Chesterton and Belloc?
Writing in the Sunday Independent on January 19th, 1922, the Irish journalist Aodh de Blacam (born Hugh Blackham in London in 1890) attacked Chesterton’s antisemitism and ridiculed the suggestion that Britain’s ill deeds in Ireland were owing to Jewish influence. The title of the piece was “The Jews Scapegoats Now”
“GKC tells us that Hamar Greenwood is a Jew and hence everything that happened before the truce is not to be laid at England’s door.” (Greenwood was chief secretary for Ireland during the Tan War and approved the military policy of reprisals. It seems he was believed by many to have been Jewish but as far as I can tell this was not the case.) De Blacam points out that anti-civilian violence occurred in 1798 and in the Williamite and Elizabethan periods. “Was Oliver Cromwell a Jew?” he asks. “Did jewmen pay him to slay women in churches or was it Jewmen bought the slaves he sent from Ireland? Was Queen Elizabeth a Jewess? Was gentle Spenser who called for and planned out ‘the harrying of all who followed flocks upon the hills’ a Jew? But with all the world loud with misery and smoking with desolation the Chesterbellocites (whom usually I so much admire) have nothing to offer today as a remedy save the pillorying of an unfortunate exile race who exert no consistent influence on the politics of England.”
Antisemitism is unknown in the Irish folk record, which is one of the most comprehensive in Europe. Occasionally individuals within the Irish intellectual class were affected by antisemitic ideas, which typically came on winds which blew across from the Third Republic but which never took root. In the early twentieth century the Irish intelligentsia were up to their necks in romantic nationalism. But it seems it was not generally of the xenophobic /racial purity variety that thrived on the European continent but rather of the Enlightenment tradition of human rights. It is a political seam still very much in evidence in Ireland and it seems to me to owe a great deal to the values represented by those figures whose images now decorate the portico of the Bank of Ireland in College Green and towards which some unfortunate and shallow criticism has been recently directed.