Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a webzine of new and unpublished work

Honorary Irish/ Englishmen

(from The London Chronicle)

I thought of the seditious contribution to the dual cultures from Englishmen who became honorary Irishmen by dishonouring their birthright. They ranged from Jonathan Swift to Roger Casement. Swift traded in ideas, and is immortal, Casement in arms, and was put to death.

‘Treason doth never prosper, for when it prospers none dare call it treason’, said Sir John Harrington, Elizabethan inventor of the modern toilet,. who after the Flight of the Earls came to Ireland to scramble for land, like so many other literary adventurers (Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney, Edmund Campion and Spenser). He returned to England empty-handed and on his knees alienated his cousin, Queen Elizabeth, by his weakness for jokes in poor taste. And so translated Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. .

Shelley brought his father-in-law’s ideas on freedom and the common good onto the streets of Dublin ‘to promote happiness by eliminating guilt’. Whose guilt, the ‘mere Irish’ might have reasonably asked, as they rattled Britannia’s chains? But nobody paid any attention. ‘Irony is the pudeur of humanity’ (Jules Renard), and there is a sweet innocence in the ideas of William Godwin, the most egalitarian of English thinkers, being busked on Grafton Street by one of the greatest of its poets, and asked to move on.   

At the eleventh hour of British rule in Ireland, honorary Irishmen had their comic apotheosis in Hynes, the would-be Irishman in Joyce’s Ulysses. Meanwhile, there were Englishmen amongst the leaders of the 1916 insurrection that harbingered the end. Four of them were executed, if you count the Pearse brothers whose father was a stone mason from Birmingham. Of course, untold number of Irishmen died in England’s wars.

But culturally the reversal didn’t work so well with the native Irish. A handful of comic playwrights and gothic novelists crossed the Irish Sea. It wasn’t exactly encouraged back home in Ireland. It was like ‘taking the soup’. In fact the only major 19th century novelist in English to have been an Irish-speaking peasant, William Carleton, became a Protestant. But he was too racy of the ‘old sod’ to be anointed an honorary Englishman, and is only remembered and read in Ireland. 

Two honorary Englishmen of Irish extraction, Oscar Wilde and Henry James, had no time for one another. Henry James descended from an Ulster Protestant grandfather, and an ex-Catholic grandmother Mary Walsh. Henry James disliked Wilde, not for his flaunting of homosexuality, but for playing the Irish card in London drawing rooms. Joab said that this shows that Henry James was more comfortable with his latent homosexuality than his Irishness. I didn’t agree. It merely meant his alleged inversion was so latent he never thought about it.

Henry James in London had the freedom accorded to outsiders who know how to behave in English Society. This included a visit to Ireland in 1913, staying in Dublin Castle with Lady Wolseley, the Lord's Lieutenant’s wife, while Ulster Loyalists were burning out Catholics. She was finding it increasingly difficult to get society people to cross the Irish Sea, but Henry, as invitations in London were slipping (in his heyday he notoriously dined-out two hundred times a year) was pleased to come, sure that the cultivated Lady Wolseley would not be discussing Irish politics at the dinner table.   

Although, like Henry James, I laid claim to be apatride, a citizen of the world, I was less embarrassed of my fellow Irishmen than myself. My position in England couldn’t have been more different than Henry’s.  Apart from not being famous, I gloried in being asocial. My idea of eating out was a pizza sitting side-saddle on the window ledge of my flat in Maida Vale watching England being trashed by the West Indies at cricket on my little black and white portable television. The game was happening down the road in Lords. I could hear the silence.

In 1915 Henry James after forty years living in England became a British citizen. It was as a gesture of sympathy towards the war effort. It had consequences. As a literary ventriloquist who put his identity into his characters, I’m not sure that he was best pleased when awarded the Order of Merit on his deathbed. His brother William would have fallen around laughing at him.