This is a talk I gave at a weekend seminar in Nenagh to commemorate the Great Lockout of 1913. The seminar was titled and themed, ‘From Lockout to Bailout’. My brief was to read Yeats’s poem, ‘September 1913’, and to elaborate on the cultural, social, and political context of the poem.
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.
William Butler Yeats
It is clear from this poem that, at the time it was written, Yeats was very unhappy with the state of Ireland. Not just unhappy, severely depressed, and disillusioned.
Well, it was a nasty time. The awful impact of the Lockout was manifesting itself. Let us recall briefly what was happening. Larkin had been activating the workers of Ireland, getting them to join the union, agitating for better pay and conditions. Let us remember that at the time the pay and conditions of Irish workers were amongst the very worst in Europe. And the slums of Dublin were amongst the very worst in the world.
Larkin was enjoying some success, enough to alarm the employers, who saw a threat to their wealth and privilege. So they in turn joined forces under the leadership of William Martin Murphy.
Murphy drew up a document which the employers presented to their staff for signing. The workers of Dublin refused to sign. So the employers closed the doors and gates of their businesses and locked out their staff. And so began the Great Lockout, which is one of the most important events in Irish history. And it was at its most intense exactly one hundred years ago, in September, 1913.
Yeats’s poem was written on the 7th September, and published in the Irish Times the following day, at the very height of the traumatic events that were convulsing the country. So, was it the awful conditions of the workers and their families that was depressing Yeats? Or the intransigence of the wealthy employers? Not quite. Yeats didn’t care a fig for the ‘nameless multitude’ as he called them. And he had similar contempt for the business class.
No, it was a different issue entirely that was depressing Yeats. His friend, Sir Hugh Lane, was a gifted art collector, and had amassed a wonderful collection of Impressionist paintings. He wanted to donate them to the city of Dublin. The one proviso was that the City Council would build a new gallery to house the collection.
A splendid design for a building that would span the river Liffey was drawn up. Yeats threw himself wholeheartedly into the campaign to have this gallery built, and expected public funds to be used, as well as donations from wealthy individuals. The response to this campaign was negative. The rich were not parting with their money for the sake of art. And the City Council, under the leadership of none other than William Martin Murphy, were totally opposed. This statement from Murphy clarifies his position:
‘I would rather see in the city of Dublin one block of sanitary houses at low rents, replacing a reeking slum, than all the pictures Corot and Degas ever painted.’
(His heart was obviously bleeding for the poor of Dublin!)
So, in September 1913, the workers are watching their families starve while they struggle for better conditions. The employers are clinging to their wealth and privilege. While Yeats is depressed that they all cannot make the building of the art gallery their chief concern.
Yeats was extremely hurt and disappointed by the failure of his campaign to have the gallery built for Lane’s paintings. Yet he continued to engage with the political process and was striving to develop a vision for the artist’s engagement with public affairs, and the responsibility of the body politic to art. His vision evolved quite dramatically over his lifetime. You will recall that he flirted with Fenian republicanism in his early days and with Fascism in the 1930’s. What seems to have continually caught Yeats’s fancy was vision. Almost as if ‘any dream will do’. He revised his estimate of ‘romantic Ireland’ after the 1916 Rising, and decided that
‘All’s changed, changed utterly,
A terrible beauty is born.’
He was most taken by the fact that the rebel leaders were acting on vision:
‘We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.’
He was to wonder, much later in his life, whether it was his own vision that inspired the 1916 Rising.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
His poem, ‘September 1913’ was published in a collection called ‘Responsibilities’, and the epigraph on the title page of that volume read:
‘In vision begins responsibility.’
But what kind of republic would we have got if Yeats had been given sole responsibility for creating it? Well, in 1913 he would have modeled it on the microcosm of CoolePark, the country estate of his friend, Lady Gregory, with the benevolent aristocratic ruler overseeing an obedient, acquiescent population. Yeats, although penniless, thought of himself as an aristocrat too. The Butler part of his name testified to a thread of a link to the Butlers of Ormond. Perhaps a distant ancestor hailed from Nenagh, the original seat of the Butlers. Anyway, of one thing we can be sure, culture would have assumed priority in Yeats’s republic.
When Yeats died, WH Auden wrote an elegy, ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, of which this is the second stanza:
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ Is that true? And, if it is true, are we perhaps the luckier for that?
So a hundred years after the Lockout, we are in the era of the Bailout. Do we now have a vision moulding our country, our society. If so who’s vision? There are some interesting parallels with the era of the Lockout. Yeats was hawking his begging bowl around the wealthy individuals who had the resources to save art at the time. Recently our arts establishment decided that the salvation of the arts lay in ‘philanthropy’, and encouraged arts organizations to go hawking their begging bowls around wealthy people, now re-named ‘high-net-worth individuals’. So the aristocrats have been replaced by plutocrats. That’s a change, of sorts. And when the McCarthy think-tank pronounced on the parlous state of the nation, they raised the question as to whether culture was a luxury we could afford. An interesting reflection of the issue between Yeats and William Martin Murphy. So perhaps we are living in the same country, but one that has been re-moulded in the vision of the economist. Listening to the news might certainly suggest so. For example, we seem to live in an economy rather than a society. People have become tax-payers or consumers instead of citizens.
No doubt we have been lured into a witch’s cauldron by the economists, the financiers, the developers, the bankers. And for five years now we have been trying to plot an escape from the cauldron. Our people have been hoping for the messiah, the cavalry to come riding over the hill, perhaps even Fionn and the Fianna to rise from their slumber in the caves of Keash and ride out to rescue Erin.
So who or what is going to save Ireland? At the nadir of our fortunes, certain politicians were quoted as saying that the arts would save Ireland. I’m not sure what they meant. Perhaps at the time they thought that our culture was the only bankable resource left. A good job it wasn’t bankable or it too might have been handed over to the troika.
Perhaps what was meant was that the country was looking to the artists for a new vision, that the artist had some special responsibility to be the savior, a new Yeats, who would be listened to for a change. If so, can I suggest that the artist has no such responsibility. Any more than the electrician, the doctor, or the road-sweeper. The artist, as artist, has one responsibility, and that is to create art, and to create it to the highest level of his or her ability. It is a totally individual pursuit and should not be confused with the communal pursuit of the artist, as citizen, coming together with the electrician, the doctor, the road-sweeper, as fellow citizens, to plot an escape from the witch’s cauldron.
A satisfactory future for Ireland requires far more than Ireland solving its own individual economic problems. We are part of the world community and so we must look at the rest of the world too, at the problems they are wrestling with. They are not so different from ours either, and our solutions might be their solutions.
And if we go back to Yeats, we might do worse than scrutinize the relationship between two words, two concepts, and the competing demands of either. The two words are ‘Culture’, and ‘Civilization’.
Have you ever looked at those colourful glossy tomes with titles such as ‘Greek Civilization’, ‘Egyptian Civilization’, ‘Irish Civilization of the Monastic Period’. When you look inside you see photographs of architecture, sculpture, painting. Possibly there is also a chapter on literature. Have you ever asked yourself: but is this civilization? What was it like for ordinary people to live in these countries at the peak of their so-called civilizations? How were the very poorest people treated? Of course a moment’s reflection will elicit the answer: not very well. The wonderful architecture and sculpture and painting were almost universally funded by slavery or similar exploitation of people.
How were the slaves treated? What was it like, for example, to be a woman in those countries at the time? If such people were given our modern marketing questionnaire, and asked: on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your experience? The respondents might have found it necessary to extend the scale back to minus ten to record their satisfaction accurately. For example, during our own amazing Monastic ‘Civilisation’, that produced to Book of Kells, the Ardagh Chalice, and the High Crosses, a list of taxes or tributes that a minor king would pay a major king would include typically – so many horses, so many cattle, so many swords and shields, so many slaves, and so many women.
So, should we go back to these glossy tomes, and question whether the word ‘civilization’ should be replaced with the word ‘culture’ in order to accurately celebrate the achievement of these countries? Then we can separate the two concepts and prevent their nebulous confusion from concealing or endorsing barbarous behaviour.
A few months ago I was in Istanbul, and stood in Taksim Square with tens of thousands of protestors. It was not the trees they were trying to save, it was their secular republic. They saw it being threatened and eroded by the steady imposition of an Islamic fundamentalist vision on their society. The same dispute has torn Egypt apart. I had come from Ireland where a young woman had died because the doctors could not terminate her pregnancy, because of our Constitution which was moulded by the values of the Roman Catholic Church.
Religion is a cultural artifice, a distinctive and distinguishing part of the cultural infrastructure of every society. Those who are devoted to a particular religion have a vision, and feel entitled, indeed feel obliged, to impose the values of their religion on the society in which they live.
In Ireland we had decades of bloodshed because of cultural differences between our people. The problem with British Rule would have been solved instantaneously, were it not for the bitter hatred between the Protestants and Catholics. Now we have the Peace Process that for twenty years has been trying to keep the violence at bay. But the violence continues to simmer under the surface, because basic issues have not been resolved.
We all aspire to peace in the world. But as long as we define peace as simply the absence of violence, we are doomed to failure. To give a clearer definition of what we should be aspiring to, what we should be trying to forge, we should replace the word ‘peace’ again with the word ‘civilization’.
And civilization should be judged on how political and social affairs are organized for the benefit and for the betterment of every single individual in society. It should be judged on the living conditions of the citizens, their access to healthcare, access to education, access to the arts, etc. Above all civilization should be enabling, should enable teachers to teach better, doctors and nurses to provide better care for the sick. And it should enable artists, writers, musicians, to develop their arts to the full extent of their talent.
Civilization should be judged by two marking lines. One would be an indicator of how well it is delivering for the very poorest members of society. The other would be an indicator of the achievement of its citizens in education, medicine, the sciences, the arts, etc. So civilization would not be satisfied with the invention of the cuckoo clock.
Provided we keep our aims clear, we can create and promulgate Civilization. And Civilization should, among other things, enable our artists and writers to create a thriving culture. Our model of cultural achievement should be William Butler Yeats, whose relentless creativity not only produced a body of work that is rightly admired by the whole world, but also enhanced the spiritual and intellectual life of the country that was so fortunate to have him.
However, in forging Civilization, we should take a different exemplar. We should look instead to the example of Ciaran Jones. He was a young man, 24 years old, a member of the Garda Siochana, but off-duty when he was caught in the storm that ravaged Co Wicklow in October, 2011. When he saw that a bridge was about to collapse, he got out of his car and ran back to warn approaching motorists, his neighbours, his fellow-citizens. And when the bridge collapsed, it took the life of this young man.
Yes, with generosity of spirit and generosity of action, Civilization is possible in the future, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world. There is an absolute and gaping need in the nature of human beings for peace. Civilization is the only guarantee of long-term peace. And Civilization would be worth working for and striving for. It will have to be constructed from first principles though, not cobbled together as a set of compromises between conflicting cultures, as is being attempted in Northern Ireland at this moment. No, in all the assemblies where civilization will be forged, there might need be a large sign at the entrance: ‘Please leave your culture at the door, and collect it on your way home.’