A Psychic Analysis

We have seen that the Liberal-Hibernian alliance of the Parliament of 1906 achieved nothing better for Ireland than the repeal of the great Act of 1903 and the stoppage of Land Purchase in the interest of the English Treasury. In the Parliament of 1911, we have now to examine a phenomenon more incomprehensible still—viz., the destruction of Home Rule and of the Parliamentary movement as the net result for Ireland of the same ill-fated Liberal-Hibernian combination. And the wrong to Ireland is the harder to explain, that, whereas the first government of Mr. Asquith was pledged not to introduce a Home Rule Bill, and had still the House of Lords to quote as an excuse for all its failures, Mr. Asquith's Government of 1911 was elected with the express mandate to give "full self-government to Ireland," and the House of Lords had been stripped of its Veto. Sir E. Carson's Covenanting Army of Ulster was not yet in existence, and it seemed as if no mismanagement open to human folly could well stop the course of the victorious Anglo-Irish majority. Furthermore, Irish pride has to bear the humiliation of confessing that this series of disasters was due in a lesser degree to any conscious perfidy on the part of the Liberal leaders than to the culpable complaisance of Ireland's own representatives.

It may be worth while to essay some explanation of a helplessness so deeply wounding to our reputation as a nation. To begin with, the common run of the people have to be ruled out of calculation altogether. For reasons that this book will make clear, they were deprived of all real knowledge of what was going on and were lulled into a state of enchantment in which in the very excess of their yearning for "Unity" they allowed Party Unity to be turned into an instrument of immeasurable misfortune for the nation, and went on pathetically chanting the litany of "Trust Asquith" and "Trust Redmond" until the movement of Parnell had perished. The bulk of "The Party" were little better informed, and were as honest victims of the hypnosis as they were unfitted for their high office. The mischief is to be traced to the infatuation of not more than four or five Irish politicians, and it will long remain one of the riddles of history how men who are not to be suspected of conscious personal dishonour, nor denied either capacity or patriotic records, nevertheless allowed themselves to be beguiled into a series of disservices to Ireland which could not well have brought more harm in their train if they had been the work of their nation's worst enemies. The fault of the titular leader of the Party was a passive one, but for that very reason was destructive of his usefulness as a leader. He made no disguise in private of the fact that the whole course of policy which he was supposed to direct was one of which he deeply disapproved, and that the policy which he consented to anathematise in public as factionism was one which he would gladly have made his own, could he have dared. His famous apohthegm—"Better be united on a short-sighted and foolish policy than divided on a far-seeing and wise one"—will live as the explanation of his fated failure as a leader, and of the suicide, so to say, of his fine abilities. He preserved the mechanical Party Unity which enabled the Board of Erin to dominate and ruin the "constitutional" movement, and he sacrificed the National Unity to which he knew that sectarian secret society to be the insurmountable obstacle. It is the shrewd religion of Mid-Africa (and elsewhere) to offer sacrifice to the bad gods on the calculation that the good ones will do one no harm. Mr. Redmond was a good deal addicted to that form of worship in his dealings with the powers of Hibernianism. The bad gods accepted his oblations with gracious nostrils, until their turn came to be strong enough to immolate him themselves at the Lloyd George Convention.

Even of the three men who originated the revolt against the policy of Conciliation plus Business, nobody in Ireland said a hurtful word of Mr. Davitt's scruples as a Land Nationalizer, and long before his death he was manifesting his bewitching readiness to acknowledge his mistakes of judgment, while Mr. Sexton had he stood alone was of a jealous and uncertain temper, wont to give more uneasiness to his friends than to his adversaries.[14] He was of those reasoners who baffle Reason, and of those financiers who bedevil figures by conjuring with them. He demonstrated with irrefragable logic and perfect nonsense that the Irish farmers had only to boycott the Act of 1903 to obtain the land at 13 ½ years purchase. No sooner did the country realize that all his brilliant actuarial calculations in the Freeman had resulted in the destruction of Land Purchase by means of the English Treasury Bill glorified in his leading articles and thrust upon the country by the Baton Convention than the circulation of his paper went to pieces, and he abandoned the falling concern before it had yet openly invoked the protection of the Bankruptcy Court, and Mr. Sexton was not heard of again in public affairs.

Mr. T. P. O'Connor in his fathomless ignorance of Ireland and honest faith in Mr. Dillon was another of the "determined campaigners" against the National Policy, but "T. P." was all his life an English politician with a genial Connacht accent, and in Ireland mattered not at all. Mr. Devlin, who in the early stages of the conspiracy was of little account outside the dismal theatre of Belfast riots, had by this time emerged from the shadows of the secret society he was to make the master of the country, and had gained possession of the triple power of paid Secretary of the United Irish League, National President of the Board of Erin Order of Hibernians, and Member of Parliament, and was already wielding the weapons of a pugnacious demagogue by which he compelled Mr. Redmond to repudiate the Irish Council Bill, and which long afterwards enabled him to inflict upon the same unhappy leader that defeat at the Lloyd George Irish Convention of 1917 from which Mr. Redmond tragically dragged himself away to his death-bed. But even at the time at which we have arrived, the baleful power of the Board of Erin had not yet sufficiently taken possession of the country to supply more than physical force to give practical effect to Mr. Dillon's words.

It was Mr Dillon's own personality and the respect inspired chiefly, it is curious to remember, by his austere devotion to the highly "unconstitutional" doctrines of the John Mitchel school, which he once professed and which he was afterwards to repudiate with so lofty a constitutional mien—this was the force which alone could have saved the original mutiny against the national will from flickering out in a fit of temper. He had now got hold of the Party and its leader, and with amazing audacity had made the cause of "Unity" and "Majority Rule" his own; and to his success above all other things the misfortunes of the succeeding years must be accounted. Concerning human motives, who shall make bold enough to lay down dogmas? It would be absurd to hold Mr. Dillon immune from the vanities and jealousies which are never altogether missing in the character of the best men who are politicians, or, for that matter, of most men and women who are not. The chance which excluded him from the Land Conference, and the fact that, to the amazement of all men, it succeeded without him, must unquestionably be credited with a good deal of the soreness which clouded his judgment, without at all lessening our indulgence for the human frailty which is the badge of all our tribe. But any suggestion that it was motives of this pettiness which really determined the action of an Irish leader in a crisis of the first magnitude for his country is one of the last that could occur to one like the present writer, who from the outset regarded John Dillon as, next to Parnell, the most romantic figure in contemporary affairs, who, when Parnell would gladly have retired in his own favour, insisted upon Dillon in his stead, and, when Parnell was gone, never ceased to press Mr. Dillon's claims upon his countrymen until his more substantial qualifications for leadership had been exhaustively tried out and found wanting.

Freeman had made shipwreck of our own machinery for testing the Act of 1903. To Wilfrid Blunt he avowed that he would dearly have liked to throw out the Wyndham Bill of 1903 altogether, although he made a show of speaking in its favour, giving again the same reason as in 1881: "The land trouble is a weapon in Nationalist hands and to settle it would be to risk Home Rule." On the day when the Bill passed its Third Reading he told the famous Irish-American statesman, Bourke Cockran, in the lobby of the House of Commons that "if the Bill were allowed to work there would be an end of the national cause before twelve months." The prediction was in almost exactly the same words as his prediction of twenty-three years before, and his forebodings turned out to be still more groundless; but there was the same tenacious belief from decade to decade that the passion of Irish Nationality was too feeble to survive any wholesale improvement in the material condition of the people.[15] Put thus bluntly, the doctrine that you must keep millions of men in misery if you want to make them free would seem almost too fantastic to be shocking. But that was nevertheless the underlying meaning of the determination that the Act of 1903 must not "be allowed to work," and that the co-operation of Irish classes and communions in which it originated must not be allowed to extend itself. So little was the hostility to Land Purchase motived by any genuine belief in its financial injustice that after seven years even of such "working" as the Act had received in spite of him, Mr. Dillon confided to the same Wilfrid Blunt in 1910 that "it had changed the whole character of the peasantry, and instead of being careless, idle, and improvident had made them like the French peasantry, industrious and economical, even penurious." But all that, so far from shaking his belief in his own mission of destruction, only made him frankly lament his failure to prevent the transformation and confirmed him in the stern duty not at any cost to allow an equally happy Home Rule settlement by consent or by any except "the old methods" and by "doses of the old medicine." No more cruel reproof of Mr. Dillon could well be devised than that he should be compelled to re-read his own prophecies of bankruptcy and ruin from the Act of 1903, and then read the announcement of Mr. P. J. Hogan, the Minister of Agriculture of the Irish Provisional Government (September 20, 1922), after twenty years' experience of the Land Purchase Act which was denounced as "a landlord swindle" doomed to "end in National Insolvency.":

"There was still a real land trouble and that was the problem of completing Land Purchase, which must be solved at the first opportunity."

How little the verdict of time and of judges prepossessed by every tie of affection in his favour had shaken the self-satisfaction of the hapless leader who had killed Land Purchase and Home Rule and led his Party to its grave, may be judged from his own calm retrospect of his achievements in a public letter dated so late as April 29, 1921:

"I see you fully appreciate the horrible character of the task I undertook. But looking back on the whole matter in the light of what has happened since, I see nothing to regret. If I were faced with the same circumstances, I should do again as I then did. There was just one off-chance of saving the country from all it has suffered during the last three years. The Government destroyed that chance by passing the Conscription Act and by arresting the Sinn Féin leaders during the Cavan election. And they did this in the teeth of repeated warnings from me of what the result of such action would be.

"I also foresaw and warned the Sinn Féin leaders of what the people would be up against if they persisted in their campaign to win a Republic by violence. So that I should have the melancholy satisfaction of feeling that I am free of any shred of responsibility for what is now going on in Ireland."

It would be cruel to discuss the "melancholy satisfaction" with which he looks back upon his work of "saving the country" by killing Land Purchase and Home Rule and his Party to boot.

Nevertheless, so perfectly honest was Mr. Dillon's devotion to la politique du pire—the policy that making things worse was the only way of making them better—that in the month following his above extraordinary confession of faith (that is to say, in May 1921) he followed it up, on the occasion of a friendly meeting between President De Valera and Sir James Craig in which all other men saw reason for rejoicing and for a conciliatory temper, with a public manifesto in which Mr. Dillon found nothing better to contribute to the peace of a distracted country than an announcement that he "was irreconcilably opposed to the programme and methods of the Republican Party," and that he and his Party would presently return to resume command of the situation! As wrong-headed as you please, but pathetic in its consistency to the last with the work of his life.

The lack of imagination broad enough to take in the vision of a nation reconstructed by the coming together of all her sons was Mr. Dillon's fatal drawback as a national leader. That in an all but miraculous opportunity of realizing such a unity, he should see nothing but "compromise," treachery, foul plotting, and a reason for bitterer divisions than ever among Irish classes and parties, can only be accounted for by a habit of suspiciousness which was his substitute for the higher imaginative powers. His first conception of any new idea was sure to be the wrong one. He wholly misconceived the Plan of Campaign at its first presentation. It was long before he overcame his first suspicion that the United Irish League was a conspiracy hatched by Davitt and myself for the establishment of an Irish Republic by force of arms. The success of the Land Conference was so unexpected and the prospect of still wider national harmony it opened up was so amazing, he might have been excused for his first exclamation on landing in Ireland after two months absence that he found himself in a new country. Less excusable than his slowness of apprehension was that in the revolution effected by old colleagues to whom he owed much and who had given hostages of their Nationality not less genuine than his own he should discern nothing but a national catastrophe, and one organized not by incapables merely, but by traitors.

That was, nevertheless, the line to which he ultimately drifted. The first relief to his feelings came in abuse and misrepresentation of the landlords who had led the way to the abdication of their class and of the Chief Secretary and Under-Secretary who had made the operation possible. Nobody can peruse any public speech of his in those years without coming across passages which the country had later on bitter reason to lament had ever been spoken—passages reeking with virulent racial and class prejudices which can scarcely have been quite sincerely felt, and directed of all men against those Irish Unionists who had been foremost in striving to divest their class of all the ancient causes of division. These were, unfortunately, the class of attacks not only most devastating in their effect upon the hope of winning the minority to the new policy, but the most likely to be popular in a country which was only the other year locked in mortal combat with the hated territorial class. As long as it was only a question of blocking Land Purchase, it was easy enough to find an audience for invectives the most lurid against "the wolfish greed of the landlords." The unthinking might even be gulled into listening while they were assured that what was really the highest recommendation of the Land Conference Agreement covered some black crime against Ireland; for the extraordinary grievance of the Land Purchase killers was that it contented the landlords and the tenants alike; that, not only were the tenants' prices favourable beyond belief, but "the English garrison" of old were guaranteed a comfortable livelihood in their native land and consequently placed above any temptation to act as "the English garrison" ever again. But the malcontents had to take up new ground when the expropriated landlords justified the calculations of the Land Conference by manifesting a desire to join in the movement for Home Rule. Their declaration for Home Rule, as to which Mr. Redmond joyfully cabled from America: "It is quite a wonderful thing; with these men with us, Home Rule may come at any moment," threw Mr. Dillon into a fit of indignation even fiercer than their consent to the abolition of Landlordism had done. To counteract the movement which his own leader received with transports of joy, he fell back upon new and more desperate allegations and inventions, the wickedness of which, if they were not the hallucinations of a sick brain, nothing could redeem.

The country, which was already growing cold to the daily wail of the Freeman that Land Purchase spelt National Insolvency, had now to be worked up into a genuine alarm by bloodcurdling revelations that the cause of the nation was sold, and that a deep-laid plot was on foot to betray the Party and the Freeman and the national movement into the hands of swindling ex-landlords and Dublin Castle Unionists. Worst of all, to give the new plot any verisimilitude, it had to be at first insinuated, and in the long run brutally proclaimed, that the conspiracy of the Wyndhams and Dunravens and Sir Antony MacDonnells to supplant the Irish Party, buy up the Nationalist constituencies, and capture the Freeman's Journal by a base Stock Exchange "deal," had the traitorous support of powerful Nationalist accomplices. It was especially against one of these, who, as it happened, had been for half a lifetime Mr. Dillon's most intimate friend, and to whom he was indebted for his first period of leadership, that "all the guns of Tipperary had now to be turned against O'Brien" (to use the Christian language of a Southern minister of peace of the funny name of Father Innocent Ryan) in campaign after campaign destined to make any accommodation between Mr. Redmond and myself impossible. Each and every one of these atrocious allegations, of course, turned out to be "a false, defamatory and malicious libel," and were so declared by a jury of Mr. Dillon's countrymen. For most of us onslaughts based on grounds so grotesquely untrue might only have raised a smile. There was a dinner party at Dublin Castle at which Wyndham, Lord Dunraven, Sir Antony MacDonnell, and "a powerful Nationalist" (as to whose identity there could be no doubt) plotted the destruction of the Irish Party and the substitution of a loyalist "Centre Party" to which the "powerful Nationalist" undertook to turn over 18 Nationalist constituencies. There was a still more awful tale of a villainous Stock Exchange "deal" of Wyndham and his accomplices to buy over and silence the faithful Freeman. As it happened, I was able to mention in the witness-box that I had never exchanged a word with Wyndham unless across the floor of the House of Commons, and up to that moment had never met Lord Dunraven except in Mr. Redmond's company, and that the guilty dinner was a coinage of Mr. Dillon's brain. The famous Stock Exchange deal turned out still more disastrously for the mythomaniacs. It was the case of the Hon. Charles Russell, the loyallest of Liberals, proposing to buy some Freeman shares as a business investment for a client of whom he was the trustee, and to place the shares in the name of Mr. Redmond, to which Mr. Sexton, like the faithful follower that he was of his "trusted leader" (to whom he had refused to speak since the Parnell Split), point blank demurred, unless the shares were placed in the name of that other loyal Redmondite, Mr. Dillon, instead! But even with the verdict, "false, defamatory, and malicious libellers," branded across their foreheads, the mythomaniacs went gaily on, and for long years afterwards held a credulous country in their thrall. But a danger far graver was that, in a country deprived of all means of hearing our answer, the reiteration of such charges by a responsible leader did succeed in arousing among the uninstructed a genuine National alarm, with the result that all toleration was refused to the infant Home Rule movement which was beginning to stir in the Irish Unionist body. Such were the legends —which would have been comically if they were not wickedly false—which for the next ten years were to deceive Ireland and Britain in their judgment of what was happening in Ireland, and to deepen the distrust of the Protestants and Presbyterians of Ulster into something like a loathing for their Catholic countrymen.

There is one other aid towards understanding Mr. Dillon's almost personal resentment of friendliness to Ireland so long as it came from the Unionists. He was an hereditary Liberal of the Manchester school. His father, who had survived his dreams of the Young Ireland cycle, fell under the charm of John Bright's eloquent courtship of Ireland—the first accents of affection that had fallen from English lips since the early speeches of Charles Fox—and spent his declining years under the refrigerating influence of Cardinal Cullen as his coadjutor in his wars against the Fenian men. The son was as a child fondled on the knee of the English Tribune and began life in the cotton trade in Manchester under his auspices. It is true that he got his foothold in Irish public life as a member (the only non-Fenian member) of the band of grizzled I. R. B. extremists who carried John Mitchel for Tipperary as the foe of all Parliamentary politics and the unrelenting hater of the English name. The fact seems to conflict strangely with his later boast in the House of Commons that "he never belonged to the Separatist group," and with his somewhat exaggerated claim to represent a "constitutional movement" of the most rigid moderation. But it is certain that in the wildest of the early philippics which gained him the reputation of a new John Mitchel, he never extended his denunciations of England to the Liberal Party, and always nourished the same able-bodied hate of the Tories as Dr. Johnson did of "the Whig dogs." All this spoiled nothing as long as Ireland's fortunes were bound up with those of Gladstone and his Party. Mr. Dillon's duties and tastes alike led him into the most intimate social relations with distinguished Liberals and made him the most effective Irish figure on the Liberal platforms of the "Union of Hearts" campaign.

But it was a different matter when the vicissitudes of time made it Ireland's interest no longer to regard her Cause as the party property of any particular set of English politicians—when, whatever was to be got from the Tories was, on Parnell's old principle, to be accepted with impartial good-will—when, in point of fact, it became more and more evident that a combination of both British parties was the surest, if not the only, road to a broad-based Irish settlement, in the highest interest of the Empire itself as well as of Ireland. This was a wholly new point of view which for many years simply bewildered and stupefied Mr. Dillon, and which, indeed, he never came fully to understand, much less to sympathise with. The idea of co-operating with the memorable Irish crusade of Wyndham was to him unorthodox to the verge of blasphemy. The greater its success in effacing Landlordism and leading up to Home Rule, the stronger was the patriotic duty of frustrating it. In vain he was reminded that the new programme of a Home Rule settlement by common consultation between the Liberal and Unionist front benches, and by preference under the auspices of a Unionist Government, was in reality first suggested by Gladstone, who in a letter to Mr. Balfour (December 20, 1885) wrote: "It will be a public calamity if this great subject should fall into the lines of party conflict .... and I desire specially on grounds of public policy that it should be dealt with by the present (Unionist) Government." Even this circumstance, as sometimes happens with zealots more Catholic than the Pope, scarcely reconciled the pupil who imbibed his Liberalism at the knee of John Bright, to the notion of collaboration with the Tories, even though it was for the realization of Gladstone's far-seeing programme of twenty years before. When to the suggestion of an understanding with the English Unionist Party there was added, as a still more vital element of success for Home Rule, an understanding with the Irish Unionists—"our hereditary enemies," the "Cromwellian spawn," the true-begotten heirs of Ascendancy and of Landlordism, and of every form of oppression that had harried the native race for centuries—the proposition was one still harder to digest. To cap all, when, after a few months' absence in America, he found that the success of the Land Conference had effected such a revolution in the national politics that "he scarcely knew it was the same country," it is at least comprehensible that a man of his abnormal slowness in taking in new developments should pass from a state of bewilderment to a state of sacred rage, and with the facility with which suspicion breeds credulity, should be unable to find any explanation of the transformation scene except some black betrayal of the Irish Cause by the Nationalist leaders at the helm while his back was turned.

That is, at all events, the most indulgent apology I can frame for the infatuation which in the last two Parliaments made him the prime mover in the expulsion of Wyndham from Ireland and the stoppage of Land Purchase and in the Parliament now elected was to make him the dictator of a policy ending in the annihilation of the Home Rule movement and the Partition of the country. The Unionist Party could do no right and the Liberal Party could do no wrong.

Read "The Irish Revolution" at your leisure

The Irish Revolution

Read The Irish Revolution at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».