Robert Lynd: essayist and Irishman

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), News, Volume 11

Robert Lynd, son of a moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, was born in North Belfast on 20 April 1879. When he died in October 1949 and was buried in Belfast City Cemetery, Seán McBride, Minister for External Affairs, attended the funeral as the representative of the government of the Republic of Ireland. Conor Cruise O’Brien, at that time an official in the Department of External Affairs, was also there.
But although Robert Lynd had an international reputation as an essayist, and was indeed considered in literary circles to be the best since Charles Lamb, the Northern Ireland government was not officially represented at the funeral. William Lowry, the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs, was no doubt there, but as a member of the family rather than as a representative of the government. Lowry was Robert Lynd’s first cousin.
Perhaps, at least from the point of view of the Ulster unionists, official indifference to the funeral of Robert Lynd was both understandable and justified. The year 1949 was not by any means one of the best years for North–South relations in Ireland. The repeal of the External Relations Act and the creation of the Republic of Ireland brought to an end the South’s remaining links with the British Commonwealth. Westminster had responded with the Ireland Act, which guaranteed that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Northern Ireland parliament. Those two enactments were followed within Northern Ireland by a general election: yet another violent and unruly confrontation of unionists and nationalists. As the remains of Robert Lynd were being laid to rest in Belfast City Cemetery Ulster unionists were once again asserting their determination, and their right, to remain citizens of the United Kingdom and declaring that Northern Ireland would never be taken over by the Republic of Ireland. How in such circumstances could the government of Northern Ireland have been officially represented at the funeral of a man who, besides being an eminent man of letters, had from his student days never been anything but an enemy politically of Ulster unionism and a scourge of Orangeism in Ireland?
Robert Lynd’s maternal grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather had all been Presbyterian clergymen. His father, the Revd R.J. Lynd, had spoken as a fervent unionist at the Henry Cook centenary in 1888 (Cook had been the Ian Paisley of his day). When in 1912–14 Ulster unionists, determined never to accept Home Rule, raised the Ulster Volunteer Force and brought two shiploads of rifles from Germany, Robert Lynd joined Sinn Féin. He was one of the original members of Belfast’s republican Dungannon Club. He joined the Gaelic League and learned to speak Irish. He had the courage to stand by his friend Sir Roger Casement when he was tried for treason in 1916 and hanged in Pentonville Jail.
Robert Lynd remained an Irish nationalist all his life, never missing an opportunity to denounce what he believed to be the hypocrisy of British politicians in their dealings with Ireland. In one of his earlier essays he wrote:

‘Then came August 1914 and England began a war for the freedom of small nations by postponing the freedom of the only small nation in Europe which it was within her power to liberate with the stroke of a pen’.

In 1916 Lynd observed that:

‘To blame Ulster is sheer dishonesty. It is not Ulster but the British backers of Ulster who must bear the responsibility for all that has occurred within the last four or five years in Ireland’.

Despite what the literary critic Desmond McCarthy once denounced as ‘this abhorrent Irish nationalism’, Queen’s University, Belfast, awarded Lynd an honorary literary doctorate in 1947. Among his other awards were the silver medal of the Royal Society of Literature (1928) and The Sunday Times Gold Medal for Belles Lettres (1932).
It was as an essayist that Robert Lynd achieved international fame. But he also wrote about politics and put the case for Irish nationalism in Ireland a nation (1919). In the autumn of 1916 the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union asked him to write the introduction to a new edition of James Connolly’s Labour in Irish history, first published in 1910. In that introduction Lynd recalled that he had first heard of James Connolly when, as a student at Queen’s, he had joined a ‘small socialist society’ which met in a dusty upper room somewhere in the centre of Belfast. One of the other members of that socialist group would bring the latest issue of James Connolly’s newspaper, The Workers’ Republic, to sell at the meetings.
Labour historians may regret that Lynd did not name that small socialist society in Belfast and so give them the opportunity to know exactly what it was. It could have been the Belfast branch of the Independent Labour Party. It was unlikely to have been a section of Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party for Lynd observed that the members were nearly all ‘doctrinaire internationalists’ and altogether indifferent to the view that there was ‘an essential unity of nationalist and socialist ideals’ in Ireland.
Lynd’s introduction is itself an interesting approach to revolutionary politics in Ireland, though different in tone and style from the literary essays for which he became famous. Lynd was perhaps more sympathetic than objective in his analysis of Connolly’s reasons for taking part in what was, after all, a petit-bourgeois insurrection from which the Irish working class would have little, indeed nothing, to gain. Nonetheless he saw Connolly as ‘Ireland’s first socialist martyr . . . a hard-working propagandist . . . [and] . . . the most vital democratic mind in the Ireland of his day’.
Although born into an upper-middle-class Ulster Presbyterian family and sent to university, at a time when very few people could afford to give their children a university education, Lynd’s early life in London was a hard struggle. Desmond McCarthy wrote that ‘for several years Lynd knew what it was to live undernourished and on the edge of poverty’. He was glad to accept shelter in the studio of his friend Paul Henry, the Belfast-born artist and a radical like Lynd himself.
When he first arrived in London Lynd earned some money writing for the Daily Despatch, and also for Today, the weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome, author of the celebrated Three men in a boat. In 1908 he got his first permanent job, as literary editor of the Daily News, which, he must have been pleased to remember, had once been edited by Charles Dickens. The Daily News later became the News Chronicle. In those times, before there was either radio or television to provide the light entertainment that is so popular today, the literary essay was probably more appreciated by the readers of newspapers and magazines than it would be nowadays. Robert Lynd became one of the most widely read of the essayists. For more than 40 years he continued to write on almost every conceivable topic for the Daily News, the News Chronicle, the New Statesman, and John O’London’s Weekly. He became noted for his quiet, friendly and reflective style, earning his living, as one critic put it, ‘by supplying what might be called a point of rest in the newspapers to which he contributed’.
Robert Lynd’s essays have been published in many collections and appear in the reading lists for students of English in universities and colleges all over the world. Some years ago the Belfast Telegraph noted with some little pride that one collection, The Blue Lion and other essays, had been published in Japan, with an introduction in Japanese, for inclusion in the English courses of Japanese universities. If Lynd had been alive then he might have written an essay with a title such as On being published in Japan, or something like that. Like Samuel Johnson, who was his favourite writer, he had always something to say, whatever the subject.
Of all the essays written by Robert Lynd it would be difficult to choose one over another. Every reader would have his or her favourites. Mine is entitled ‘Un-English’. This is about two Dutch seamen who went ashore when their ship was berthed in Belfast and got into a fight with some of the locals in a dance hall. They were arrested and charged with disorderly behaviour. Their disorderly behaviour, wrote Lynd, took the form not only of fighting with people but also of biting them. Next morning, when the captain of the Dutch ship appeared in court to plead for his men and to translate their evidence, the magistrate, who was a most grave person, said that he would like to impress upon the captain and upon his men that it was ‘very un-English’ to go around biting people, whereupon the captain replied: ‘It is very un-Dutch too, your worship’. And that, said Robert Lynd, is ‘one of the great retorts of history’.

‘Why should everything that is unpleasant be classified as un-English? Why are some of these unpleasant things not un-Scotch or un-Irish? Could perhaps some of the activities of the palefaces on the American prairies be described as un-Indian?’

Lynd goes on to observe that apparently everything that is nasty is un-English, though when Americans describe something as ‘un-American’ they are talking politics. They are not expressing the national snobbery that is so evident in those who use the term ‘un-English’ every time something unpleasant occurs.
The literary essay is not now as popular a form of writing as it once was, but Lynd’s collections should be available in most public libraries. They are worth delving into if only in memory of the author who died 54 years ago.

Andrew Boyd is a writer and broadcaster.


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