The Irish Character

By Thomas Cahill, Contributor
June / July 2004

A year before the American Revolution, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to the bishop of Killaloe in which he remarked, “The Irish are a fair people; They never speak well of one another.” This clever characterization — or caricature, if you like — may rub you the wrong way, but you will recognize in it a small germ of truth, namely, the social habit the Irish themselves call “begrudgery.” You may even mourn the passing of such bold forthrightness as Dr. Johnson could display so blithely, so long ago. For under the powerful influence of political correctness, it has become unthinkable in respectable circles to engage in any form of group characterization — that patently unfair verbal net by which all members of a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group are made to wear the same costume of loud, unsubtle colors, by which all Poles are made to appear stupid, all Jews grasping, all African Americans hapless. Truth to tell, such characterization, however clever, tends to limit and confine at best; and at its worst, it is a principal tool of unreflective bigotry.

Nonetheless, let us examine that elusive phenomenon called “the Irish character.” Surely, there is no one for whom that phrase does not summon up a rush of spontaneous images — of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, even tales of distant forebears. So the phrase must mean something specific, or suggest a cluster of specific qualities, even if these are awfully hard to articulate. Though I shall be engaging in characterization, I hope to avoid caricature — nor do I bank on your speaking well of me when I’m done.

I’d like to concentrate on the observations of two men, one a sixteenth-century Englishman, the other a twentieth-century American, neither of them Irish in even the most diluted sense. But each, for me at least, was able to describe what I would dare call the essence of Irishness.

The first man is Edmund Campion, born in 1540, the son of a London bookseller. At fifteen, he went to Oxford University on scholarship and was made a fellow of St. John’s College two years later, when he was but seventeen. His brilliance attracted the attention of many of the leading figures of his day, including Queen Elizabeth.

At twenty-four, he was ordained deacon in the Anglican Church; but a sojourn in Ireland, where he had the leisure to study theological issues, convinced him to return to the Catholicism of his boyhood. He fled to the continent, joined the Jesuits, and was ordained a priest at Prague, where he taught.

In 1580, he became one of the first two Jesuits chosen to return to England to minister in secret to Catholics in a country where Catholicism was now illegal, thanks in part to a bullheaded pope who had taken the unnecessary step of formally excommunicating the Queen and absolving her subjects from all allegiance, a papal action directly responsible for the subsequent state persecution of Catholics throughout Britain and Ireland. A year after arriving in England, Campion was captured, tortured horribly, hanged, drawn and quartered. Three hundred and eighty-nine years later, he was declared a saint.

But it is Campion’s sojourn in Ireland that interests us here. He was much taken with the Irish, whom he found to be markedly different in temperament from the English. Campion wrote a prose of such delighted expansiveness that he can be compared favorably with his younger contemporary, William Shakespeare (and, like Shakespeare and every Englishman of his day, he spoke his native tongue with what would sound to us to be an Irish accent). As you hear Campion describe the Irish of more than four centuries ago, I ask you to compare what he says to what you know of Irish friends and relatives long gone and even to living Irish people of our own moment.

“The people are thus inclined,” wrote Edmund Campion: “Religious, franke, amorous, irefull, sufferable of paines infinite, very glorious, many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with warres, great almsgivers, passing in hospitalitie…They are sharpe-witted, lovers of learning, capable of any studie whereunto they bend themselves, constant in travaile, adventurous, intractable, kind-hearted, secret in displeasure.”

Well…is it any exaggeration to say that, whatever may be the case with other ethnic groups, the Irish will never change?

The second observer I would bring to your attention is the great American defense attorney of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Clarence Darrow. Darrow’s adult life was spent defending the defenseless, people such as the labor leader Eugene Debs, who had dared organize a strike against the all-powerful railroad barons; the McNamara brothers, who were accused of dynamiting the Los Angeles Times; and J.T. Scopes, a Tennessee teacher who had dared instruct his students about evolution. Darrow called himself “attorney for the damned.” In 1936, two years before his death, he wrote an article for Esquire magazine, entitled “How to Pick a Jury.” Darrow was, by anyone’s standards, an outspoken man; but as a lawyer his lack of equivocation seems almost unparalleled. Of course, he cannot resist telling us who he would not pick to be on the jury:

“If a Presbyterian enters the jury box and carefully rolls up his umbrella, and calmly and critically sits down, let him go. He is cold as the grave; he knows right from wrong, although he seldom finds anything right. He believes in John Calvin and eternal punishment. Get rid of him with the fewest possible words before he contaminates the others; unless you and your clients are Presbyterians you probably are a bad lot, and even though you may be a Presbyterian, your client most likely is guilty.

“If possible the Baptists are more hopeless than the Presbyterians. They, too, are apt to think that the real home of all outsiders is Sheol [the Hebrew hell], and you do not want them on the jury, and the sooner they leave the better….

“Beware of the Lutherans, especially the Scandinavians; they are almost always sure to convict. Either a Lutheran or a Scandinavian is unsafe, but if both in one, plead your client guilty and go down the docket.”

I humbly beg the pardon of my friends who are Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and/or Scandinavian and rush to remind them that it is not I who am talking but Clarence Darrow, the great American defense attorney. But now we come to the passage I have promised:

“An Irishman is called into the box for examination. There is no reason for asking about his religion; he is Irish; that is enough. We may not agree with his religion, but it matters not, his feelings go deeper than any religion. You should be aware that he is emotional, kindly, and sympathetic. If he is chosen as a juror, his imagination will place him in the dock; really, he is trying himself. You would be guilty of malpractice if you got rid of him…”

Nearly four centuries separate Clarence Darrow’s observations from those of Edmund Campion. The Irish of Edmund Campion’s day were living in difficult times, to be sure; but his observations were made before the seventeenth century, which became the century of persecutions; long before the eighteenth century, which became the century of the exclusion of the Irish from all forms of economic life; long, long before the nineteenth century, which became the century of death, the century of the Great Famine and the death ships. There is a buoyancy in Campion’s description that is absent from (or at least muted in) Darrow’s description. The Irish of Darrow’s day were no longer the “excellent horsemen, delighted with warres” that they’d been in the sixteenth century. They had been prohibited by the anti-Catholic Penal Laws of the eighteenth century from owning a horse worth more than five pounds. Then in the nineteenth century, they had lost everything — including their amorousness, which was beaten away by priests who had to be educated abroad, where they became infected with the joyless spirit of Jansenism, the Catholic form of Calvinism. Even Campion had guessed that the Irish were capable of suffering “paines infinite.”

But to my eye and ear, at least, this is not simply a story of loss. It is also a story of growth. Yes, the Irish had lost everything, everything countable in the material world. But their imaginations, always spectacular, had grown only larger, so that now they could feel the pain of others and put themselves — imaginatively — into others’ shoes. The “kindhearted” generosity that Campion admired had also grown larger — into a singular sympathy for those in need, for those in the dock, for all those whom polite society has damned.

In our time, nearly seventy years after Clarence Darrow wrote his article, many things have continued to change — not least the economic position of Ireland. Though no one should wish to turn back the clock, it remains to be seen whether young Irish people can continue to cherish the old sensibility in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Certainly, some of their prosperous Irish-American cousins seem to have misplaced the singular sympathy, the kindhearted generosity, that makes an Irishman an Irishman. Some have even joined the Republican Party. Whereas Irish imagination was never limited to the here and now, to stocks and bonds and profit and loss, there are Irish-Americans who recently imagined they had beheld something called a “compassionate conservative,” a creature of rhetoric more rare than a unicom.

But setting controversy aside, I would prefer to leave you with an image: the ancient image of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the beautiful woman who for the dispossessed poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represented Ireland. Few can see her beauty because she is penniless, beaten down, and dressed in rags. But true Irishmen recognize her for who she is. They can discern the delicacy of her face, smiling through tears. They can spot the harp in her hands, primeval symbol of sympathy and feeling. And on her head, they see the crown, the golden crown that tells the world that, despite her tribulations and her centuries of pain, her soul is still her own. ♦

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