March 28th, 2016

ireland

Easter 1916: selected archive pieces from the New Statesman

Second paragraph of third essay ("From The Later Writings of Mr Yeats", by J.M. Hone)
Eight or nine years ago Mr. Yeats published a complete edition of his work amid an impression, encouraged by the mischievous memoir-writers and gossips of Dublin that, although still nearer to forty than fifty, he had said all he had to say, and would spend the rest of his life revising old passages, lecturing in America, and conducting the business of the Abbey Theatre. 21 And truly since that time Mr. Yeats has written, or at least published, little, but has spent much time in rewriting old work, chiefly the plays that belong to the repertory of the Abbey Theatre—“ remaking himself,” as he explained in a footnote to the Collected Edition. We may, however, look elsewhere than in new versions of old plays for the remade Mr. Yeats; small though they are, the three volumes that have come within the last few years from the Cuala Press in Dublin—Synge and the Ireland of his Time, Responsibility, The Green Helmet and Other Poems—reveal him plainly enough.
The centenary of the Easter Rising has been being celebrated today. I spent the day travelling from Manchester to Antwerp, so my mind was on other things, but I did download and read the New Statesman's ebook of its own archive pieces from around that time. There are just ten of them, one of which is a classic of world literature in its own right; the others don't actually reflect all that well on the New Statesman's ability to report and analyse. The eyewitness acount provided by an anonymous correspondent reflects only the situation around St Stephen's Green; the reports on the aftermath assume (incorrectly) that the leaders would not be shot, and that Roger Casement would not be exectuted. A report on the state of the print media in Ireland in 1914 correctly spots that Sinn Fein was effectively a one-man band, but fails to track the links of ownership and loyalty between the various Dublin polemicists, and omits the rest of the country entirely. A splendid polemic by Shaw also misses the point, or rather insists on making his own points:
Do not rashly assume that every building destroyed by an enemy is a palatial masterpiece of architecture.

It is greatly to be regretted that so very little of Dublin has been demolished. The General Post Office was a monument, fortunately not imperishable, of how extremely dull eighteenth century pseudo-classic architecture can be. Its demolition does not matter. What does matter is that all the Liffey slums have not been demolished. Their death and disease rates have every year provided waste, destruction, crime, drink, and avoidable homicide on a scale which makes the fusillades of the Sinn Feiners and the looting of their camp-followers hardly worth turning the head to notice. It was from these slums that the auxiliaries poured forth for whose thefts and outrages the Volunteers will be held responsible, though their guilt lies at all our doors. Let us grieve, not over the fragment of Dublin city that is knocked down, but over at least three-quarters of what has been preserved. How I wish I had been in command of the British artillery on that fatal field! How I should have improved my native city.
The last of the prose pieces, an anonymous mid-June reflection on "The Mood of Ireland", reminds us that for a few weeks after the Rising, British government policy actually was to introduce Home Rule for Ireland as quickly as possible; an interesting historical diversion that one could consider as an AH jumping off point. In that case, the wartime Home Rule government set up under Redmond in late 1916 would have still faced the conscription crisis of 1918, and would have either collapsed or been forced into rebellion in turn.

The tenth of the ten pieces is W.B. Yeats' poem, "Easter 1916", which though dated 25 September 1916 by him in its first appearance in book form (in the 1921 collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer) was actually published first by the New Statesman in October 1920 (in an issue otherwise reporting on the Black and Tan atrocities). I had of course studied it at school more than thirty years ago, but it is very instructive to read it in historical context rather than in the context of a bunch of other Yeats poems, which is how readers normally encounter it. As a teenager the strongest impression I took from it was the thrill that all these people knew each other - Yeats had grown up close to the Gore-Booths, Pearse and MacDonagh were fellow-travellers in the cultural sphere, he was in love with MacBride's wife. Now what strikes me is that Yeats himself was just not sure what to think; these people who he knew as flawed human beings, who perhaps he did not like or respect very much as individuals, had none the less changed history; and he isn't sure if he likes what they have done, or if he should admire them any more, but the epic nature of what happened is undeniable. Anyway, every reader must make their own judgement.

Collapse )