Nationalists As Real Men

Why feminism and socialism have been systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement.

 

– This article originally appeared in The Village, April 2016

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In 1909 Patrick Pearse wrote a short six verse Irish-language poem, A Mhic Bhig na gCleas, translated into English as Little Lad of the Tricks. A relatively disposable piece, it has since gone on to have an infamous status; proof for many that Pearse had dark sexual proclivities:

…Raise your comely head

Till I kiss your mouth:

If either of us is the better of that

I am the better of it

There is a fragrance in your kiss

That I have not found yet

In the kisses of women

Or in the honey of their bodies.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ 1979 revisionist biography, The Triumph of Failure makes much of this poem, presenting it as evidence of Pearse’s supressed tendencies.   And later works have echoed her, to the point that the trope of Pearse-as-Paedophile is now standard fare among Irish historians. Similar speculations have also been made about Eoin O’Duffy’s sexuality and even about Michael Collins.

Such tabloid innuendos, though, ignore a central truth about Irish nationalists in the early years of the twentieth century: masculinity mattered for them. Not in the sense of private peccadilloes, but as a key part of their public ideology. The trope of masculinity did much work for organisations like Sinn Féin or the Irish Volunteers, allowing them, as it did, to imagine what national sovereignty and the end of British colonial rule would look like. It allowed them to critique that British rule as an effeminizing influence on Irish men. And it allowed them to attack opponents, such as the Irish Parliamentary Party, as unmanly traitors. The heavy emphasis on masculinity also does much to explain how and why women and leftists were systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement; imagining the nation as a male fraternity was a convenient way to dismiss feminism or socialism as divisive ideologies that pitted brother against brother.

In another of Pearse’s most famous texts, The Murder Machine, the educator-nationalist railed against the British state schools in Ireland (the eponymous “machine”). And in a telling passage, Pearse denounced contemporary school system as being worse than “an edict for the general castration of Irish males.” Anglicized Irishmen, he said, are “not slaves merely, but very eunuchs.” For Pearse, Irish men had been emasculated by British colonialism and by the slow parallel process of Anglicisation.

These were common anxieties among almost all Irish nationalists.

A recurring theme in Gaelic League publications was that the Irish, by longer speaking their native language, had become deficient and deformed and no longer real men. As one turn-of-the-century Gaelic Leaguer said, if the Irish continued to speak only English, then “we can never be perfect men, full and strong men, able to do a true man’s part for God and Fatherland.” The movement to revive the Irish language was thus imagined as a process of reasserting a purified male power and was often associated with a recovery of sovereignty and strength.

When the Irish Volunteers were established in 1912, many of their founding members had already imbibed this thinking that saw national revival and masculine revival as two parts of a broader whole. Writing in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Irish Freedom newspaper in July 1912, Ernest Blythe, later to be a government minister in the 1920s, discussed the contribution that the Volunteers would make to healthy Irish masculinity.   While he criticised the weak “flabby men” that predominated in Ireland, he also spoke of a subterranean manliness still surviving, he said, thanks to both militant nationalists “but also those whose thoughts have gone no further than the running and leaping and hurling which they delighted in”. The future Irishmen, which physical-culture and physical-force enthusiasts such as these would birth, would be noticeable by their “mighty lungs and muscled frames”. The Volunteers were “the rebirth of manhood unto this Nation”. Their muscular masculinity would replace the flabby weakness of Ireland under British rule. Talk of masculine power continued to circulate in the years after the Rising. Indeed, Ernie O’Malley, a medical student turned IRA soldier, later remembered that one positive effect of the war was that the “familiar stage Irishman had disappeared”, replaced by the confident, armed men of the IRA.

The rhetoric of heroic men standing together for the national interest, also lent itself to suppressing the “wrong” kind of politics. A 1921 pamphlet on The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail presented socialism as an intrusion into the national fraternity of men: “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system… whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”. Feminism was denounced in almost the exact same terms.

The tourism-friendly version of Irish nationalism that has featured in the Decade of Commemorations has received a large dose of justified criticism. With the government promoting an image of romantic, if depoliticised Irish rebels, it is worth remembering, first, how much Irish nationalism was a product of the encounter with British colonialism. Second, the state that emerged from this national struggle was noticeably coercive, particularly when it came to female citizens or left-wing politics. Masculinity, and the nationalist desire to create a harmonious nation of muscular men, was central to all of that. Masculinity matters.

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“Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy”: Friedrich Engels and the Conditions of the Irish Working Class

[Cross-posted from The Irish Story]

In May 1856, an unassuming German industrialist and his common-law Irish wife arrived in Ireland for a tour of the country. Writing to an old friend in London, another ex-patriot German, the wealthy tourist described his trip, from Dublin to Galway and down along the west coast, the landscape, and the people he met along the way. Post-Famine Ireland was an island of ruins, some dating back to the early middle-ages, some more recent: “The land is an utter desert which nobody wants.” The level of policing was intrusive and shocking in “England’s first colony” and “I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country… armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.” Additionally, the locals, “for all their Irish fanaticism”, were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome: “By consistent oppression they have been artificially converted into an utterly impoverished nation and now, as everyone knows, fulfil the function of supplying England, America, Australia, etc., with prostitutes, casual labourers, pimps, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other rabble.” The German industrialist traveller was Friedrich Engels. His common law wife was Mary Burns (older sister of Lizzy Burns, who would later be Engels’ second wife). And his German correspondent in London was, of course, Karl Marx. Indeed, Engels ended his letter with a desire to write a History of Ireland and an admonitory request that his old comrade should visit Ireland: “Concerning the ways and means by which England rules this country – repression and corruption – long before Bonaparte attempted this, I shall write shortly if you won’t come over soon. How about it?”[1]

Lizzy Burns        Young Engels Lizzy Burns (1827-1878) and a young Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

In fact, Engels had long had a fascination with the Irish (not least with regards to his two Irish wives). Echoing his observations about Irish migrant labour in his 1856 letter to Marx, his famous 1844 work on The Condition of the Working Class in England features a detailed excursus on the Irish population in Manchester’s “Little Ireland” slum district. Engels described how Irish immigrants, with “nothing to lose at home”, were flocking to cities like Manchester in search of “good pay for strong arms”. At his time of writing, there were 40,000 Irish in Manchester, with similar numbers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Liverpool. London had 120,000. Yet Engels looked askance at a people who had “grown up almost without civilization” and were now importing their “rough, intemperate, and improvident” ways and “all their brutal habits” into Britain’s already overcrowded cities. The Irish arrived “like cattle” and “insinuate themselves everywhere.” In quasi-ethnographic terms, Engels claimed that “Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises as different from the Saxon physiognomy.” Focusing on “filth and drunkenness” and a “lack of cleanliness… which is the Irishman’s second nature”, Engels moved into a more racialised key, perhaps revealing his own biases along the way.

Little Ireland 1849

Little Ireland Plaque

“Little Ireland”, Manchester, 1849 and today

“The Irishman”, Engels wrote in the singular, “loves his pig as the Arab his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill.” Bearing in mind that “Arab” in the nineteenth century referred to Bedouins, rather than any Arabic-speaking person, it is clear where Engels was placing the Irish in a broader racial hierarchy. They were a people with “a southern facile character” and “For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane.” They were too different, and too backward, to ever be properly assimilated into British life: “even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilized, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.”[2] In many ways, he presented Irish immigrants to industrial Britain as exhibiting what he and Marx would later call “the idiocy of rural life”, a backward people who would soon be submerged by the dynamics of industrial capitalism.[3]

Yet his moralizing tone and his racial determinism could also accommodate a certain envy about Irish political power. Writing in June 1843 for Der Schweizerische Republikaner [The Swiss Republican], Engels eyed up Daniel O’Connell’s famous monster meetings with leftist jealousy:

“The wily old fox gets around from town to town always surrounded by two hundred thousand men, a bodyguard such as no king can boast of. How much could be achieved if a sensible man possessed O’Connell’s popularity, or if O’Connell had a little more sense and a little less egoism and vanity! Two thousand men, and what kind of men! Men who have nothing to lose, two-thirds of them not having a shirt to their backs, they are real proletarians and sansculottes, and moreover Irishmen – wild, headstrong, fanatical Gaels. If one has not seen the Irish, one does not know them. Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy.”[4]

As Engels gained in philosophical sophistication, his use of such overtly racialized language tailed off. His earliest writings on Ireland date from only a few months after his first meeting with Marx; they had met at the offices of the Rheinische Zeitung [Rhinelander Newspaper] in November 1842, shortly after which Engels’ stern father dispatched his troublesome twenty-two year-old son to the family’s cotton mills in Manchester.[5] First by correspondence, later in person, Marx and Engels developed their materialist understanding of history and social change. Increasingly, Engels explained people’s behaviours not in terms of inborn racial tendencies but in terms of material conditions under industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, the Irish continued to occupy a curious status for Engels. They were now the living exemplars of a pre-capitalist social formation, and visiting contemporary Ireland provided a front-row seat to the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism.

Ermen and Engels Mill, adjacent to the  Manchester-Liverpool Railway Line

The Ermen and Engels Mills, adjacent to the Liverpool-Manchester trainline

In the notes for his sadly unfinished History of Ireland – begun around 1870 – Engels traced Irish economic development back to their “ancient origins”. Engels even flirted with self-taught Irish language classes for his study of Irish history, only to admit his frustration with this “philological nonsense” to Marx.[6] It was Ireland’s “obvious… misfortune”, Engels said, to be so geographically close to England, which retarded the country’s trajectory out of feudalism and into capitalism: “the English assisted nature by crushing every seed of Irish industry as soon as it appeared.”[7] Whilst preparing for this work, Engels had come to feel that “communal ownership of land was Anno 1600 still in full force in Ireland.”[8] Pre-capitalist forms of social organisation and property-ownership lingered on in Ireland long after they had disappeared in Britain. In a letter to Marx in early 1870, Engels confessed that “The more I study the subject, the clearer it is to me that Ireland has been stunted in her development by the English invasion and thrown centuries back”.[9]

Marx had similar views. Writing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, he placed the restructuring of land-ownership in post-Famine Ireland in a longer history of land enclosures in early modern England and the Highland Clearances in post-1745 Scotland. In his florid journalistic prose, Marx spoke of how “the pauperised inhabitants of Green Erin” were being “swept away by agricultural improvements” and by the “breaking down of the antiquated system of society.”[10]

For Marx, as for Engels, Ireland still displayed traits of feudal property-ownership but was now being violently dragged into capitalist modernity.   Yet, this traumatic transformation also held out a revolutionary possibility. In contrast to the “solid, but slow” conservatism of “the Anglo-Saxon Worker”, Irish immigrant labourers had a “revolutionary fire”.[11] Not fully schooled in the rules of private-property, they carried their essentially non-capitalist consciousness to the very heart of capitalist Britain. This was a contradiction that needed to be exploited politically. Just as he had written in Der Schweizerische Republikaner in 1843, Engels continued to feel that the Irish could be the ones to bring down the British state. Marx similarly saw Ireland as the “weakest point”[12] in the British Empire, and looked forward to a social revolution that would be “Ireland’s Revenge” upon England.[13]

Indeed, Engels and Marx were of one mind in their view that Fenianism, a product of this contradiction, could be a revolutionary force on both sides of the Irish Sea:

“What the English do not yet know is that since 1846 the economic content and therefore also the political aim of English domination in Ireland have entered into an entirely new phase, and that precisely because of this, Fenianism is characterised by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement.”[14]

Which is to say, by Marx and Engels’ lights, Fenians were unconscious socialists. Giving voice to the resentments of dispossessed Irish peasants, they stood in unwitting opposition to the transformation of rural Ireland into a capitalist economy. Not that this detracted from Engels’ perception (at the time of the 1867 trial of the “Manchester Martyrs”) that the leaders of Fenianism were “mostly asses”.[15]

Engels’ later writings, though, were less hopeful for the revolutionary future of Ireland. Visiting Ireland again in September 1869, with Lizzy Burns and Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, he saw some important changes. Dublin was now “unrecognisable”. Trade was at a high level at the port and the city had acquired a newly cosmopolitan air: “On Queenstown Quay I heard a lot of Italian, also Serbian, French and Danish or Norwegian spoken.” All of this portended a regrettable conclusion: “The worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, that is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad.” [16] It would appear that Ireland had made the leap from feudalism to capitalism before Engels or Marx could finish theorizing the transformation.

Old EngelsEngels, 1891

Indeed, in an 1888 interview with the New Yorker Volkszeitung [New Yorker People’s Newspaper], Engels confessed that “A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time. People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be ruined once more.”[17] Looking to a bleak future, Engels made the intriguing prophesy that for socialist revolution to take root, Ireland would have to wait for a mortgage-backed financial crisis to ruin the country!

[1] Letter from Engels to Marx, 23 May, 1856. Reprinted in full in L.I. Golman, V.E. Kunina, eds. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971) 83-85

[2] All quotes are taken from the chapter on “Irish Immigration”, in The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press/Oxford World Classics, 1999) 101-105

[3] The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) 84

[4] ‘Letters from London’ (1843). In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 33-36

[5] Tristram Hunt. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (New York: Henry Holt, 2009) 63-64

[6] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[7] Friedrich Engels, ‘History of Ireland’. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 171-209

[8] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 279-280

[9] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[10]New York Daily Tribune, 9 February 1853, 22 March, 1853. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 53-58

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Confidential Communications’. Die Neue Zeit, 28 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 160-163

[12] Letter from Karl Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 290

[13] Karl Marx. ‘Ireland’s Revenge’. Neue Oder-Zeitung, 16 March, 1855. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 74-76

[14] Letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 30 November ,1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 147

[15] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 145

[16] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 27 September, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 273-274

[17] 20 September, 1888. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 343