People Unite & Landlords Subdue: Lessons in Failed Dissent

The spear is an ancient and terrible weapon. The front line of the heroic armies who died before the walls of Ilion, the trophy the Persians bought at high price from the Spartans at Thermopylae, and later still would spears be tree-trunks in the gory forest of Turks and traitors around the Castle Dracula. The spear is the war-tool of myth and legend.

How telling, then, that British laws and historical poverty should have restricted generations of Gaelic rebels to the use of the Pikeman as their front-line. The last heroic stand of a spear-bearing army finding glory upon a hopeless field of battle is not recorded in Latin annal or Greek verse, but in song and story of a young minstrel boy who dying shattered his beloved harp, of a golden-haired son of a miller who mounted the scaffold with Christlike calm, of a vengeful young lover who sought death at Oulart Hill, or other countless men who rallied by the River Bann at the rising of the moon. How truly out of place and savage must those motley Gaels of Ulster have looked with their shining pikes bedecked in green and gold to the modern, musket-bearing troop of Redcoats sent to supress this latest rebellion when they crushed the United Irishmen and at last destroyed Old Ulster, forever thereafter so thoroughly planted by Scotch and upland English as to become the Crown’s own fortress in Ireland.

The balladeer Peadar Kearney wrote sardonically of an England who “came as a mother to her child, who gently raised us from the slime and kept our hands from hellish crime… and sent us to heaven in her own good time“. His own “Amhrán na bhFiann” (UH-rawn na VEYN, in case you were curious) replaced “God Save Ireland” and “A Nation Once Again” as the anthem of the Irish Republican forces, the latter of which captures in many regards the same sentiment as the aforementioned ditty, singing of a time “when Ireland, long a province, be a nation once again!” Irish identity, even at its most triumphalist, never forgets (or forgives) the colonization of Ireland – a colonization so thorough that it did not cease its operation even with the achievement of independence from Britain, and as a result today less than 1 per cent of the entire population speaks their own native language both fluently and regularly, and upwards of 53 per cent of what was once a beacon of religious devotion of both Roman Catholic and Protestant species now claim that religion plays no role at all in their lives.

The Angelus bell o’er the Liffey swell no longer rings out in the foggy dew, neither does the Banshee croon and squall through mountain, wood, and glen. Having gained their long-desired freedom, the Irish, like so many emancipated slave-races, found themselves in a deeper oppression and poverty than their most horrible nightmares in the colony days could have prepared them for. They are today, to coin Fitzhugh, slaves without the rights of slaves, serving European masters without the obligations of masters – and they are a warning to dissidents and radicals of all European peoples, especially the colonials in the European diaspora. Our spears and pikes are blunted or cast aside, and those who seek to pick them up do not know how to wield them.

The Irish are very like and yet unlike the other colonized people conquered by Britain. Rarely has the Irishman been popularly romanticized outside of his homeland and diaspora. There are noble savages in the heart of Africa and in that sprawling desert between the palaces of the decrepit princelings of the Raj, but there is no Paddy Geronimo, no “Last of the Uí Néills”.

They are recorded in favorable light by their own alone, and then it is an ambiguous admiration. Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote of his people that they dwelt in “a land of happy wars and sad love songs”. The poet’s name is perhaps not as well known as it ought to be. He was the talk of London for mocking his co-ethnic Edmund Burke in Parliament a week after the latter had seconded Pitt the Younger declaring Sheridan the greatest speaker in the history of the House of Commons. He had delivered an eloquent censure of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India and a dear friend of the Austen family before Jane had resigned herself to spinsterhood and began creating the rom-com tropes that would enshrine her forever as the Ghost of Beckys Past. His lasting, albeit silent, impact on British literature can be seen in the singular work of poetical genius from that great English Catholic traditionalist who for some reason never met a Whig he didn’t like. G.K. Chesterton declares in the “Ballad of the White Horse”:

The great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad

Happy Wars and Sad Songs

A land of merry wars and sad songs is a profound appellation for Ireland, and one which its unique class of troubadours and yarn-spinners like the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, the Dubliners, and others, along with their Yank fandom, have been all too happy to blithely adopt. Perhaps they miss the profundity; perhaps they don’t care, content in their victimhood. At any rate, it is telling that they consider it a proud condition to be members of a people renowned for lacking forethought but being eloquent in the aftermath of defeat.

It certainly is something of a theme, and is as much true in their music today as it was of their music in Sheridan’s time, and with good reason. They are, and have been, a nation of perpetual losers; the last national fragment of a race that once dominated the whole of Western Europe. They have been conquered and colonized in wave upon wave, each stripping, to coin Duffy, the altars of their ancestral culture just a bit more. Their unique left-leaning but nevertheless sectarian nationalism permitted them, among other things, to maintain neutrality in the defining conflict of the 20th century (something that certain rootless cosmopolitans have not forgiven). The only democratic nation in contemporary times to enshrine Roman Catholicism in their governing documents, their social fabric has been rent like the Temple veil by the abuses, heresies, and general corruption flowing out of the Vatican in the last five decades. Hardly any of them speak their own language, and only a small segment of their copy-cat Anglo-bureaucracy and insulated intelligentsia, for whom the Gaeltachtaí are a quaint curiosity, seems to care.

The American dissident right ̶ or perhaps more properly American Dissent, for the gathering is too ideologically diverse to congeal on one or another side of the revolutionary Assemblée nationale  ̶  has much to learn from the Anglo-Irish conflict and the way the Irish both at home and in the colonies have experienced that conflict and reflected upon it. America is more Gaelic than it would ever wish to admit ̶ doubly true of American political dissent. Perhaps no greater illustration of this reality, and the accompanying desire to deny it, than in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Gerald O’Hara and his daughter Scarlett can never fit into Roman Dixie because they cannot free themselves of their barbarian nature. Gerald is an impulsive murderer who fled Ireland after killing an Orangeman for whistling a Protestant song and Scarlett can only find success and social place among the Yankee conquerors in occupied Reconstruction Atlanta.

Mitchell, of course, was Irish herself and based the character of Scarlett, tragic as she was despicable, on her own great-grandmother, whose maiden name was Fitzgerald. They are fitting characters to place at the center of a story that unfolds when the South was first being colonized, for under the guidance of an Irish newspaperman Southrons would adopt very Irish tactics in battling the Yankee colonizers. An essay remains to be written on the historical roots of the first Ku Klux Klan in Irish anti-landlord societies and peasant terrorist groups like the Ribbonmen, White Boys, and Molly Maguires.

Irish-Americans have also demonstrated a surprising resilience (compared with the White demographic broadly) to the prevailing tide of cultural admixture; Southie was alone in its success fighting desegregation and forced busing, as noted by Devin Helton. Uniquely Irish traits – clannishness, stubbornness, and refusal to abandon national and ethnic identity – have made the Irish in tight concentrations a tremendous stumbling block to certain of globohomo’s goals well into the middle of the 20th century. It is fading now, and nowhere with as much speed as in Ireland itself, where they won the freedom to be whatever nation they chose to be. They have chosen to be the land of Phil Lynott and Sinead O’Connor rather than William Butler Yeats and Jonathan Swift. Never has so hard-won an emancipation given rise to so thorough an enslavement.

It was, appropriately, Pat Buchanan who observed a similar trajectory on the American Right with his Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories. Like America, American Dissent, especially right-leaning dissent, reflects many of the characteristics of the Gaelic soul – especially the faults. Sam Dickson, that grand old man of the South, has a poignant anecdote from the days when he was not just permitted but indeed invited to address schoolchildren. He asked them if any of them could sing a single folk song of their people or dance a single folk dance, and none of them could do so. The Irish in America, though, along with a precious few other old ethnic communities in America’s gutted, oxidized industrial heartland, can claim to have held on to some of their Spenglerian race. True, the Skeffingtons and their ilk have faded away for the pasty, deracinated McCluskeys have assumed leadership, but the old ways are hard to stamp out in their entirety. Dickson has a very important point in asking the question he asks – for music, poetry, and dance have a quotidian nature that dips into the sublime and eternal soul of the culture that produces them. They are signs of life – the pulse of a folk culture. The Irish, albeit less at home than in the colonies, are still alive, and have lessons to teach (some of which they refuse to learn themselves) from their happy wars and sad songs.

Lamentation as Inspiration

Originally, your author had intended on using only traditional Irish songs of some age and historical significance, but thorough study revealed that in fact songs written as late as the 1960s and ’70s like “Four Green Fields” and “The Patriot Game” were as traditional and authentic as antecedents from the mid 16th century like “Éamonn an Chnoic” (AY-muhn ah kuh-NIHKH). The reflections of later generations of Irish nationalists, especially musicians most popular among the diaspora, are as relevant to the maintenance of their thoroughly colonized culture as they are to us, the onlookers.

Be there any doubt, it is beyond question that Ireland remains a colony of Britain – even as the entity that paraded around as “Britain” has shed that skin and dipped itself in the blood of European manhood to emerge with the more youthful look of Neoliberal Globalism. It is a painful irony that Irish independence seems only to have sped this perverse transformation along, providing in its wake propaganda coups against the preservation of White Britain like Bloody Sunday in 1972. Arguments for nuance in that case have to deal with 11 dead teenagers, most of whom were shot multiple times in the back; it has made recovery from the incident difficult for the Royal Army. It even produced an early chart-topper for U2, much to the chagrin of Tan and Chucky alike.

There is a unique form of song and poem prevalent among the Celts which speaks to their unspoken self-awareness as a felaheen people who once, long ago, were the creators of a greater Civilization. The Lament has many forms, and while not all the sad songs of the Irish are strictly speaking Gaelic Laments, the mark left by this art-form is indelible. True, lamentation is not uniquely Celtic – libations are poured in Homeric epic to the sound of poetic laments, and in addition to the Book of Lamentations itself, there are a number of Psalms that are certainly laments (“By the Waters of Babylon” springs to mind).

Rarely, however, does a form dominate so thoroughly as to become defining, as the lament in many ways defines the Gaelic aesthetic. The Irish and Scots alike have laments that are purely instrumental, usually played on instruments unique to their race -like the pipes. Furthermore, the Gaelic lament is marked with a grim, forward-looking quality by no means universal to the genre in other cultures. Consider, for instance, Robert Dwyer Joyce’s (the more talented Joyce) “Wind that Shakes the Barley” (Roud 2994):

I sat within a valley green
I sat there with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between
The old love and the new love –
The old for her, the new that made
Me think of Ireland dearly,
While soft the wind blew down the glade
And shook the golden barley

…While sad I kissed away her tears
My fond arms round her flinging
The foeman’s shot burst on our ears
From out the wildwood ringing, –
A bullet pierced my true love’s side
In life’s young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died
While soft winds shook the barley

…But blood for blood without remorse
I’ve ta’en at Oulart Hollow
And placed my true love’s clay-cold corpse
Where I soon full will follow…

Or another of the genre of Rebel Songs, now often heard with marching beat but originally crooned as good Gaelic music ought to be:

See the fleet-foot hosts of men who speed with faces wan
From farmstead and from thresher’s cot along the banks of Bann
They come with vengeance in their eyes; too late, too late are they
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today

Ireland, Mother Ireland, ye love them still the best
The fearless brave who fighting fall upon your hapless breast
But never a one of all your dead more bravely fell in fray
Than he who marches to his fate on the Bridge of Toome today

Up the narrow street he stepped, smiling, proud, and young
About the hemp rope on his neck, his golden ringlets clung
There is ne’er a tear in his blue eyes, but glad and bright are they
Of young Roddy McCorley who goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today

Titled “The Ballad of Roddy McCorley”, the song has very little story to it; nor, indeed, did the authoress (Ethna Carbery) probably intend it to tell much of a story – rather, it follows the same formula of inspiration through eulogy that is very much alive in contemporary Irish rebel music and laments, like the Irish-American commemoration of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of labor dissidents in the Irish-dominated coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania. (The original Molly Maguires were an organisation adjacent to the Ribbonmen and White Boy anti-landlord movements in Ireland, whose campaigns consisted of masked men or men in black and white face in garish costumes terrorizing and assassinating political or social enemies and agents of the government in the night). The song commemorates three Mollys in particular, and after each verse the chorus follows

But I will die with my head held high
For I fought for the men below
The men who sweat and slave and die
Down in that black hell-hole

By 1968, when the song was written, most of the mines in Pennsylvania had ceased operation, but the conditions were very much a living memory, particularly in the Irish community, as a shared experience with their ancestors and cousins across the pond. Contrast these songs with another song commemorating a people victimized by the might of the British Empire, but this time a Germanic people, the Boers. In 2006, Bok van Blerk drew heavy criticism from agents of globohomo in South Africa for “De la Rey”, a definitively nationalist song about the great general of the Boer Wars, Koos de la Rey:

Op ‘n berg in die nag (On a mountain in the night)
lê ons in donker en wag (we lie in the darkness and wait)
in die modder en bloed lê ek koud, (In the mud and blood, I lie cold,)
streepsak en reën kleef teen my (grain bag and rain cling to me)

en my huis en my plaas tot kole verbrand (And my house and my farm burned to ashes)
sodat hulle ons kan vang, (so that they could catch us)
maar daai vlamme en vuur (But those flames and that fire)
brand nou diep, diep binne my. (burn now deep, deep within me.)

De La Rey, De La Rey
sal jy die Boere kom lei? (will you come to lead the Boers?)
De La Rey, De La Rey
Generaal, generaal
soos een man, sal ons om jou val. (united we’ll fall in around you)
Generaal De La Rey.

Oor die Kakies wat lag, (Over the Khakis  that laugh)
‘n handjie van ons teen ‘n hele groot mag (a handful of us against their great forces)
en die kranse lê hier teen ons rug, (With the cliffs to our backs,)
hulle dink dis verby. (they think it’s all over.)

Maar die hart van ‘n Boer lê dieper en wyer, (But the heart of the Boer lies deeper and wider,)
hulle gaan dit nog sien. (they’ll still find out)
Op ‘n perd kom hy aan, (On a horse he comes,)
die Leeu van die Wes Transvaal. (the Lion of the West Transvaal)

The difference in sentiment could not be starker – yet the Boers were historically no more victorious than the Irish against the otherworldly might of the British Empire. The Gaels are not a people awaiting Arthur or Friedrich Barbarossa to awaken from his slumber and deliver them in their time of need – they do not await a Return of the King – a thoroughly Germanic trope present in the Messianic language of “De la Rey”. Their heroes are all dead – and celebrated explicitly for their deaths, not in battle, but on the scaffold. Even when they do die in battle, as is the case with Feargal Ó hAnnluain in Dominic Behan’s “Patriot Game”, they depart with regret and wrath, not with hope, on their lips:

I don’t mind a bit if I shoot down police
They are lackeys for war never guardians of peace
And yet at deserters I’m never let aim
The rebels who sold out the patriot game

And now as I lie here, my body all holes
I think of those traitors who bargained in souls
And I wish that my rifle had given the same
To those Quislings who sold out the patriot game.

Irish in-fighting is a widely-cited reason for their ultimate subjugation by foreign powers throughout their history, from the Saxons to the Vikings to the Normans to the Tudors to the Black-and-Tans, the Irish seem to truly believe that only when they fight one another are they facing a worthy opponent. This sort of in-fighting and accompanying lament at collective defeat has not taught the Irish any lessons they have been willing to put into action if recent history is any indication. Rather, the nationalists have been either purchased (cf. Tiocfaidh Armani) or marginalized by the broader Irish people, who are largely defined by the aspirant middle class sensibilities of Dublin society (the same cultural core who prevented Parnell from victory in the 1880s and made the Easter Rising an historical inevitability). These sort love the sound of the sad songs, but they are ambivalent about the merry wars carried on for their supposed improvement and emancipation.

By now the parallels with American Dissent, especially the latter-day dissident right, should be obvious enough. Let us depart with an admonition for further study of the Irish case for concrete lessons, and a citation from Fitzhugh on the danger of utopian and idealist projects like that which the Irish Republicans in Sinn Féin have refused to abandon:

What is falsely called Free Society, is a very recent invention. It proposes to make the weak, ignorant and poor, free, by turning them loose in a world owned exclusively by the few (whom nature and education have made strong, and whom property has made stronger,) to get a living. In the fanciful state of nature, where property is unappropriated, the strong have no weapons but superior physical and mental power with which to oppress the weak. Their power of oppression is increased a thousand fold, when they become the exclusive owners of the earth and all the things thereon. They are masters without the obligations of masters, and the poor are slaves without the rights of slaves.

Beware those whose clarion call is freedom; beware more those whose strength is retrospect, and learn the lesson the Irish refuse to learn, from the secret password of the Molly Maguires themselves:

Will tenant right in Ireland flourish?

If the people unite, and the landlords subdue.

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