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"Mr. Brown's masterpiece..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown

* Complete book now available on Kindle!

The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats

by Malcolm Brown

Chapter Twenty-three
Poetry Defends the Gap: Yeats and Hyde

PARNELL'S RELICTS on the parliamentary side of his political family, his faithful few, took for their new leader young John Redmond. The inheritance from the fallen Chief was not a great ballot box asset just then, and for a time it seemed that the heirs would be totally eliminated from Irish politics. The Sullivans naturally expected to inherit the mantle of party leadership as their reward for Healy's extermination of Parnell. They were challenged, though, by rivals equally willing to lead and substantially stronger, the antiParnellite agrarians Dillon, O'Brien, and Davitt. The old discipline and unity-once the envy of Westminster-broke into a loose and snarling anarchy divided behind the three feudists Redmond, Healy, and Dillon. Later on Dillon and O'Brien also fell out, and then the factions were four. Everybody has always deplored this dissension among Parnell's lieutenants, the lieutenants themselves most of all. The censure is understandable, but it is hard to discover how it made any particular difference in the parliamentary struggle, strictly regarded.

We have said a good deal about the "first," or 1886, Home Rule bill. There was a "second," or 1893, Home Rule bill too, not as well known, but in some ways more interesting. Unlike the first, it actually passed the Commons. Parnell's grave in Glasnevin was still fresh when Salisbury's second ministry ran to the end of its six-year term. In the general elections of 1892, Redmond's Parnellite party just barely survived with nine seats. By contrast, the anti-Parnellites of varied descriptions won seventy-two. The total Irish parliamentary strength was therefore eighty-one.* The real significance of these figures lay not in Redmond's poor showing, but in the size of the Irish total, approximately the same as in glorious 1886. The broken heads and the dead Chief had hardly touched the overall strength of the Irish parliamentary party.

All Irish eyes turned, then, upon England, Scotland, and Wales. In the new elections of 1892, Home Rule was again the big issue. Lord Salisbury's campaign adverted to the Irish cockpit with upturned eyeballs and despaired at the prospect that the ruffian quarrel inside the Irish party might be transferred to the floor of an infant Irish parliament. Gladstone, in turn, campaigned once again on "Justice to Ireland." In the voting Home Rule won him back 8o of the 114 seats it had cost him in 1886. With the backing of the 81 Irish members, he had a majority of 40 seats, enough to form a government. Gladstone introduced his second Home Rule bill, and the theory of Parnell's expendability was holding up well.

Gladstone had just passed his eighty-fourth birthday when the new Home Rule battle opened. His general staff was perhaps less treacherous than in 1886, but his new ministers were publicly unenthusiastic for Home Rule, and privately they would have been glad to hear the last of it. The seven years since 1886 had also multiplied Gladstone's difficulties in Ulster. At the critical instant in the Home Rule debate, Belfast Unionists staged the largest protest rally the north had ever seen. A Presbyterian preacher named Robert Lynd gave them fresh spiritual guidance to go with Lord Randolph Churchill's "Ulster will fight," the old watchword of 1886. "We say of Home Rule as Lord Macaulay said of O'Connell's demand for Repeal," Lynd said, "-- never! never! never!"

These were trying problems. Still, Gladstone had the votes. When he called the third reading, his bill passed, 301 to 267. And so the sevenhundred-year-old story of Irish troubles ended happily after all. Great Irish rejoicing. But there was one last barrier to clear: the House of Lords. The Commons had spent eighty-four days in careful debate before passage. The Lords debated the bill for less than a week, then divided -- 41 for to 419 against. Fatigued and despairing, Gladstone resigned. The queen, without consulting him about his successor, appointed Lord Rosebery prime minister. Rosebery struggled along for another year before he, too, collapsed. Parliament was mercifully dissolved and a new general election called. The Tory-Unionists came in with a majority of 152 seats, making the most one-sided House of Commons in sixty years. For the Irish moral force nationalists, it was the darkest day since 1801. Some flaw seemed to have developed in the logic by which Parnell was expended in order to clear the road for Home Rule.


The mandate that Salisbury had once asked for was now given him. He became a fixture in office, standing upon the Union at home; and, with Chamberlain now in the colonial office, upon the promise of imperial glory overseas. During the two decades following the 1886 Home Rule election, Salisbury or his nephew Arthur Balfour was to be prime minister for seventeen years. A whole historical epoch was dominated by the Tory-Unionist ascendancy, with the bedraggled Irish parliamentary party absorbed into the impotent Liberal opposition. A youth like Joyce, aged eleven at the second defeat of Home Rule, could grow up and leave the country without ever knowing any other Ireland than Salisbury's and Balfour's.

Those who read in the opening words of Joyce's Dubliners an Irish historical allegory may be somewhat simplistic, but they are probably not far off the mark. Father Flynn is dying: "There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke." This is Balfour's Ireland right enough, a perfect likeness. But it was unwise to generalize any more broadly than that. Joyce's paralyzed priest was not the ultimate Irish emblem. We know him well, for we have met him constantly in our excursion through nineteenth-century Irish history: he was Gavan Duffy's corpse on the dissecting table. Balfour's Irish government was not for perpetuity -- it only seemed so; and Duffy's corpse was never a very trustworthy corpse. It was always rising up again, like the one at the end of Synge's play who pops out of his coffin ready to fight: "You'll see the thing I'll give you will follow you on the back mountains when the wind is high..."

Table of Contents
The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown

Astonisher.com is pleased to offer these excerpts from The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown...

The Politics of
Irish Literature

From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown
Part I: The Peculiar Irish Setting
1. History and Poetry: Some Irish Paradoxes
2. Thomas Davis' Ireland
Part II: Young Ireland
3. O'Connell and Davis in Partnership
4. The Nation's First Year
5. The Retreat from Clontarf
6. Black '47
7. '48 and Insurrection
8. Beside the Sickbed: Carlyle, Duffy, Dr. Cullen
9. John Mitchel after '48
Part III: Fenianism
10. Mr. Shook
11. Fenianism Mobilizes
12. O'Leary and the Irish People
13. "The Year for Action"
14. The Agony of Fenianism
Part IV: Home Rule
15. The Ballot Box Once More: Isaac Butt
16. Parnell and Davitt
17. The Land War in Mayo
18. After Kilmainham: Bakhuninism in Phoenix Park
19. After Kilmainham: Davitt and Standish O'Grady Take Stock
20. The Irish Party in Maneuver
21. Enter: W. B. Yeats
22. Catastrophe
23. Poetry Defends the Gap: Yeats and Hyde
24. Literary Parnellism

Praise for
The Politics of Irish Literature
cover thumbnail for "The Politics of Irish Literature" by Malcolm Brown

"This brilliant study of the intersection of politics and literature in Ireland amounts to a dazzling portrait gallery. Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again."
-- Sean O'Faolain in the Manchester Guardian

"Mr. Brown's masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

"The author of the best book on George Moore now gives us what is in all likelihood the best book on the politics of modern Irish literature."
-- Virginia Quarterly Review

Professor Malcolm J. Brown with his son, Bruce Brown, Sumas, WA, July 1988

University of Washington Professor Malcolm J. Brown (1910 - 1992) with his son, Bruce Brown, in Sumas, WA, July 1988.

Additional reading -- Malcolm Brown's George Moore: A Reconsideration. Also see Bruce Brown's commentary on The History of the Corporation for Malcolm Brown's contribution to that work.

NOTE: This is an EXCERPT from The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown. The complete book is now available on Kindle!

"The Politics of Irish Literature" © Copyright 1973 Malcolm Brown. © Copyright 2000, 2015 Bruce Brown.

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The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown

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