Yeats, O’Leary and ‘Romantic Ireland’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), News, Volume 15

John O’Leary by John Butler Yeats. (National Gallery of Ireland)

John O’Leary by John Butler Yeats. (National Gallery of Ireland)

March 2007 marks the centenary of the death of John O’Leary, immortalised in the refrain of W. B. Yeats’s ballad ‘September 1913’. Owen McGee poses the question: can this ‘Romantic Ireland’ that Yeats spoke of be historically defined, and why did he associate it particularly with O’Leary?

Yeats evidently equated the death of ‘Romantic Ireland’ with the rise of an Irish generation that believed that ‘men were born to pray and save [souls]’ alone. That he was inspired to write such a ballad while witnessing the creation of the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers indicates that he saw religion as the primary factor in creating the two rival nationalisms that were defining twentieth-century Ireland. Yeats deemed this situation ‘childish’ and a negation of the Irish nationalist tradition that John O’Leary had represented, but O’Leary’s Ireland, according to Yeats, was already ‘dead and gone’.
John O’Leary was influenced greatly by the writings of Thomas Davis, was drawn into rebellion in 1848 and served as a deputy leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) for three years before being convicted of treason and sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment in February 1866. Amnestied in December 1870 on condition that he not reside in Ireland before his ticket-of-leave expired, O’Leary lived in Paris until January 1885, when he resettled in Dublin. Shortly before his return, however, the IRB was undermined by political developments. Parnell had established a pact with the Irish Catholic hierarchy as part of a diplomatic initiative between Whitehall, Dublin and Rome that led to the Home Rule negotiations of 1885–6, designed to create a Catholic governing class for the Union in Ireland. As a result, on returning home O’Leary was virtually presented with a political fait accompli, making the idea of an Irish nationalist rebellion redundant. His reaction was to devote himself almost entirely to combating the growing north–south, politico-religious polarisation created by the rise of rival ‘Irish’ and ‘Ulster’ parties after 1884 (perhaps the true historical birth date of the ‘two Irelands’). O’Leary maintained a lifelong conviction that a non-confessional Irish nationalist political élite could emerge, even when this possibility had seemingly evaporated after 1886. His tenacious hold on this belief, which Yeats found inspiring and essentially inherited, virtually defined ‘Romantic Ireland’ to the young poet, for whom O’Leary acted as a patron.
Born into a propertied Catholic and, broadly speaking, Tory family in Tipperary town, O’Leary was educated in a private Protestant school but eventually grew up as an agnostic. As a writer and public speaker he was inclined to pedantry: by his own admission, his personality made him more temperamentally akin to a literary critic than a revolutionary! Indeed, in the inherently polemical world of political debate, O’Leary often made himself ineffective by imposing censorious critiques upon his own thought as much as on that of his opponents, an intellectual trait that is evident in all his writings.
During the 1890s O’Leary took a lead in mobilising resistance to the Irish Parliamentary Party, particularly after Parnell’s fall, and established a non-sectarian basis for the 1798 Centenary Committee. Nevertheless the primary role he played in Irish political and literary life in his later years was essentially that of a patron, to rebels and writers alike. Contemporaries invariably associated this role with his relatively advanced age. Being the only member of the original IRB leadership to remain politically active after 1885 (he was its recognised spokesman), to young nationalist rebels O’Leary was essentially a father figure, authoritarian yet not unfamiliar. Meanwhile, he was naturally a source of much fascination to young Irish writers, as he was (along with Sir Charles Gavan Duffy) the most tangible living link between the writers of the original Nation of the 1840s and the new Anglo-Irish literary movement.
A close friend of the editors of the Dublin University Review (1885–7), O’Leary acted as literary editor of the Irish People (1863–5) and the Gael (1887–8), a short-lived GAA journal. He helped to arrange the re-publication of writings by Thomas Davis, James Fintan Lalor, John Mitchel and Wolfe Tone, and also served as president of an affiliated group of Irish literary and debating societies, known first as the Young Ireland Society (1885–8) and later as the Young Ireland League (1891–7). He encouraged other IRB leaders to support these journals and organisations, all of which championed non-denominational education and sought to create an Irish public opinion that was ‘kindly Irish of the Irish, neither Saxon nor Italian’—or, in other words, nationalist but entirely opposed to the existence of religious biases in Irish public life. This made him very unpopular with the Catholic Church.
O’Leary continued to be a well-known figure in Dublin literary circles and the nominal head of the IRB until his death in 1907. By that time, however, it was clear that his work had come to nothing. Certainly, after 1884 the IRB never again became a powerful or large organisation, even though it was revived, briefly, after Tom Clarke (who returned to Ireland in October 1907 following the death of P. N. Fitzgerald, O’Leary’s successor as IRB figurehead) attempted to vindicate the ‘Fenian dead’ posthumously in 1916, a development that allowed Yeats to glimpse, at least momentarily, ‘a terrible beauty’.
The course of O’Leary’s political life might be said to reflect the extent to which the secular and Irish nationalist tradition of Young Ireland and the IRB failed to match the influence of the older O’Connellite tradition sparked off by Whitehall’s attempt to regulate the appointment of Irish Catholic bishops in 1822. Thereafter the Catholic clergy and populace acted together in Irish politics to deny the state any right to interfere with their religious liberties, and the moral force of this tradition of passive but non-seditious resistance to the British state continued to grow, even after the UK-wide restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850. Most Irish Catholics refused to tolerate any effort, whatever its source, to relegate the church to a comparatively marginal position in Irish public life, similar to that which it held in England. By contrast, the secular nationalist tradition was continually condemned in Catholic social teaching as a form of terror, owing to the past example of the French Revolution as well as nationalists’, and particularly republicans’, ongoing curtailment of the church’s educational influence throughout Europe.
Shortly before O’Leary’s death in March 1907, the chief spokesman of the new ‘Irish-Ireland’ generation, D. P. Moran, when considering the only two apparent solutions of the national question—a united, independent Ireland with a necessarily ‘godless’ (non-denominational) state education system, or a partitioned Ireland in which Catholic ideals of education and religious liberty would face no obstacles—unequivocally expressed support for the latter. The moral force of Catholic thought was clearly a much more important factor than a political or civic nationalism in shaping Irish educationalists’—and indeed most Irish people’s—conception of human liberty, from the proverbial ‘ivory towers’ of the universities to the common man on the streets. The final stanza of Yeats’s ‘September 1913’ suggests that this was why the romantic and nationalist Ireland of John O’Leary was truly dead and gone, for better or for worse—a belief that he seems to have maintained right up until his own death in 1939.

Owen McGee is the author of The IRB (Four Courts Press, 2005).


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