Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wanderings and resentments, kneelings and knockings, coercion and conciliation

Yesterday, we met Alfred Aylward, the Fenian whose global military career included a spell fighting with Garibaldi during his 1860 Sicilian campaign. Today, we have Thomas O'Malley Baines, a Fenian who fought against Garibaldi and his Sardinian allies in defense of the papal states. He believed that the upsurge of nationalism in Europe at this time had been orchestrated by the old Fenian enemy, the British (whose navy did, admittedly, help Garibaldi across the Straits of Messina after he conquered Sicily). Back in Ireland and Britain, he was arrested, imprisoned and transported to Australia, whence he departed for San Francisco, where he was active in working class and Fenian movements. Aylward had a taste for insurgency, Baines for nativism. These two elements have lived side by side in the Irish "physical force" tradition to this day, and are not easily reconciled. The DIB generally avoids editorializing, but the author of Baines' entry, Patrick Maume, is right to emphasize that "his career reflects the worldwide wanderings and resentments of many post-famine emigrants, the ambivalent relationship between nineteenth-century Irish nationalism and catholicism, and the fact that oppression does not automatically produce sympathy for other marginalized groups."

As a student, I read John Bale's King Johan (King John), considered to be important as the first English history play, albeit with an improbable premise: that Bad King John was a proto-protestant and hero of the struggle against the Whore of Babylon. Bale, a Carmelite friar turned married protestant priest had all of the classic zeal of the convert, which he exercised energetically when translated by King Edward VI to the see of Ossory, based at Kilkenny. The DIB doesn't mention King Johan (which it should) but it does touch on his autobiographical The vocacyon of Iohan Bale to the bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande his persecucions in ye same, &; finall delyueraunce (1553), which is unsparing of the local religious scene when he reached Kilkenny:
In beholding the face and order of that city, I saw many abominable idolatries maintained by the priests for their worldly interests. The communion of the supper of the Lord was there altogether used like a popish mass with the old apish toys of antichrist, in bowings and beckonings, kneelings and knockings ...
Unsurprisingly, Bale didn't have a great time in Ireland, although it provoked much lively writing of this sort. When the news came that Edward VI has died, to be replaced by the Catholic Queen Mary, Bale describes how the priests of Kilkenny went on a pub crawl round the town, drinking "Rob Davie and Aqua Vitae" (I don't know what Rob Davie is) and toasting Bale's imminent departure.

My mother loved opera and thanks to her I love it too. At home, we had an edition of Kobbé's Complete Opera Book edited by the impresario the Earl of Harewood, apparently a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. It really annoyed me that the section on 19th-century "English" opera included the Dubliner Michael William Balfe and the Wexford man William Vincent Wallace. (We'll give them Arthur "Gilbert and" Sullivan, since he was only the son of an Irishman. Julius Benedict, composer of the hit opera Lily of Killarney, based on Dion Boucicault's play The Colleen Bawn, was from Stuttgart but also co-opted by Kobbé/Harewood into the "English" section.) Balfe was a huge figure in his day, a very successful violinist and singer who went on to compose a string of big operas. The biggest of them all was The Bohemian Girl, from which the came the hit  I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls. He also set the Tennyson lines Come Into the Garden, Maud for voice and piano - another key Victorian musical work. I've been nitpicking about odd omissions in DIB lives, but it's really inexplicable that the long Balfe life mentions neither song, although The Bohemian Girl is given its due.

Another heavyweight. Arthur James Balfour, the chief secretary of Ireland from 1887-91, a major step in his political ascension to the prime ministership. Balfour's Conservatives had taken over after Gladstone's liberals faltered and attempted a new Irish policy that still has considerable resonance. Balfour proposed a combination of "coercion" - cracking down hard on extra-parliamentary agitation, particularly over land issues - and "conciliation" - addressing the core concerns of Irish dissatisfaction - including land (again) and rural poverty. In Irish lore, he became "Bloody Balfour", after the deaths of three demonstrators at the hands of the police at Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1887. Balfour like other imperialists, believed that even limited home rule for Ireland would in time evolve into full separation from Britain, and that this would be but the first step in the disintegration of the British empire. In this, of course, he was quite correct. The "conciliation" aspect of the policy sought, by removing the fundamental grievances of the mass of Irish people, to neutralize devolutionary aspirations. The coercion/conciliation approach had considerable resonance a century later, during the more recent Troubles in Northern Ireland, where both approaches were attempted, often, as with Balfour, in tandem. Received wisdom, in Britain particularly, argues that the "peace process" triumphed in Ireland because "coercion" - particularly the penetration of the IRA by the British security services - convinced nationalism that a "military solution" could not be achieved, while "conciliation" drew the two communities into a shared political process that they could both embrace while defusing nationalism. The judgment of history on Balfour is accordingly, in a sense, a reflection of views on more recent events. The DIB's long Balfour entry has been written by the executive editor, James Quinn, which suggests that it had some importance for the enterprise. Quinn judges that the "coercion" part of Balfour's policy was quite effective in reducing agitation, which the "conciliation" strand was highly successful in some respects, less so in others. He concludes that "Balfour's record establishes him as one of the most effective chief secretaries during the union" It's certainly true that Ireland was not the graveyard of his career, as it was for so many politicians sent from London before and since. And in making his case, there's nothing aberrational about Quinn's position: nearly 40 years ago, the great F.S.L. Lyons described "Balfour's achievement" as "enough to rank him among the most successful Chief Secretaries", albeit not a "record of unmixed success". Interestingly, Balfour is not much discussed by those who might be exepected to echo this view - by R. F. Foster (Lyons' intellectual heir in some sense) in his Modern Ireland 1600-1972, or Paul Bew (these days identified with unionism) in Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, although Bew agrees that coercion was effective. The tide of opinion has not always run in this direction. In 1940, the Irish historian Nicholas Mansergh - who favored Ireland's remaining a self-governing dominion within the Commonwealth - described Balfour's policy as one of "miscalculation" and "failure". The major history of the conciliation/coercion period, by L. P. Curtis, Jr., points out that Balfour, in common with his fellow-Tories, completely failed to understand - or even acknowledge - the existence of genuine Irish nationalism that shaped the political process (a point echoed by Quinn in his entry). And yet another major Irish historian, J.J. Lee (in The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1948) is contemptuous of Balfour's coercion policy and his claim that he would introduce "repression as stern as Cromwell's." For Lee, coercion amounted to "little more than William O'Brien losing his pants in jail and three people losing their lives in Mitchelstown ... a derisory haul which must have left Cromwell turning in his desecrated grave." My point is not that the DIB entry is wrong; it's that some of the judgments, while of the mainstream, may nonetheless be contestable. You want an entry to take a view, not to be blandly factual; at the same time, you also want the richness of the historical debate to be reflected. The Balfour entry's very good, in fact: I'm saying this now in part to put down a marker for future discussion.

A couple of smaller entries: Edward Ball, the murderer, is given a nice piece. (He killed his rich mother when she refused to give him £60 to go on holiday.) It's an interesting story, but if there hadn't been a good book written about him (by the historian Richard Cobb) it hardly seems likely that he'd rate a place in the DIB. And my fondness of naturalists continues to grow: Mary Ball, a Cork woman, was the first to describe "stridulation" (making a sound by rubbing together legs or wings) in corixidae (water bugs); she had a mollusc and a seaweed named after her. An admirable life.

No comments:

Post a Comment