Ireland at the Bar

During the latest of my recent (abortive) attempts to try to get involved with the works of James Joyce, I made the timely discovery of an interesting essay I’d never heard of before, “Ireland at the Bar”, written while the author was in Italy in 1907.

I say “timely” because we’re in an interesting political epoch within these islands. Many of us are carefully re-evaluating our political perspective in light of recent developments, struggling to find ways to get our heads around the ridiculousness, stupidity and plain ignorance which are compelling us to un-learn what we previously had understood as fundamental truths, and which threaten to visit serious material consequences upon both the UK and Ireland. In my own case, I find myself seeing history in a different light. Where I previously perceived merely a sequence of events, written in a book or perhaps recorded in faded black and white photographs, I now see a long, interconnected, and intertwined thread, in full colour, stretching back over the centuries, which repeats itself at regular intervals. The people, the places, and the struggles they faced within that thread now seem intimately familiar.

Joyce’s short essay is interesting on a few levels. The hapless victim of the serious miscarriage of justice Joyce wrote about, one Myles Joyce, was hanged in December 1882, almost exactly to the day when my English great grandfather married his Irish wife in Cork city, having arrived in Ireland some months prior with the 20th Regiment of Foot (later the Lancashire Fusiliers) who were sent here to try to restore order during the Land War. (continuing the theme of interconnectedness, he is buried with his wife and daughter in Milltown Cemetery, a few steps away from the County Antrim Memorial and other well-known republican memorials). I like to imagine he read about the hanging in the newspaper, and I often wonder what he, as a soldier who spent 27 years serving the empire, would have made of the Home Rule crisis and the 1916 Rising.

But what really struck me about the essay is the author’s use of the Myles Joyce’s plight as an allegory for Ireland as a whole, being faced as it was with open misrepresentation of then-current events within the London press. Reading it, I was immediately reminded of the same feeling I have when listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, or some other Tory politician blithely dismissing any talk of what impact their career-building and plotting may have on the island to their west, on the basis of assumptions which are at the best inaccurate and at worst maliciously ignorant.

I’ve reproduced the essay in full below, with a few extra paragraphs and formatting tweaks added to aid readability.

Myles Joyce was pardoned by President Higgins on the advice of the Government earlier this year.

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Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony.

The magistrate said: ‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’ The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said: ‘He says no, “your worship”.

‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’ The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly: ‘He says no, “your worship”.’

When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose.

The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money. Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.

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There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator.

In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots. In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague.

But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty- eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis,which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.

I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was ill prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.

JAMES JOYCE.

Software engineer living and working in greater Belfast. Pragmatic social democrat with the odd leaning towards capitalism. Political interests include economic policy, social and political reform.

Alliance Party member, but writing in a strictly personal capacity.