James Joyce, “Home Rule Comes of Age” (1907)

[Source: First published as ‘Home Rule Maggiorenne [Home Rule comes of Age]’, in Il Piccolo della Serra (Trieste, 18 May 1907); in Critical Writings, 1959, pp.193-96; trans. by Stanislaus Joyce; available at John Brian Spencer in Tumblr - online; accessed 29.06.2015.]

Twenty-one years ago, on the evening of April 9, 1886, the streets that led to the office of the Nationalist newspaper in Dublin were jammed with people. From time to time, a bulletin printed in four-inch letters would appear on the wall, and in this way the crowd was able to participate in the scene unfolding at Westminster, where the galleries had been crammed full since dawn. The Prime Minister’s speech which had begun at four o'clock lasted until eight. A few minutes later the final bulletin appeared on the wall: ‘Gladstone concluded with a magnificent peroration declaring that the English Liberal party would refuse to legislate for England until she granted a measure of autonomy to Ireland.’ At this news, the crowd in the street burst into enthusiastic cries. On all sides was heard, ‘Long live Gladstone’, ‘Long live Ireland’. People who were complete strangers shook hands to ratify the new national pact, and old men wept for sheer joy.

Seven years pass, and we are at the second Home Rule Act. Gladstone, having in the meantime completed the moral assassination of Parnell with the help of the Irish bishops, reads his measure to the House for a third time. This speech is shorter than the other; it lasts hardly an hour and a half. Then the Home Rule Bill is passed. The happy news traverses the wires to the Irish capital, where it arouses a new burst of enthusiasm. In the main room of the Catholic Club, it is the subject of joyous conversations, discussions, toasts and prophecies.

Fourteen more years pass and we are at 1907. Twenty-one years have passed since 1886; therefore the Gladstonian measure has come of age, according to English custom. But in the interval Gladstone himself has died and his measure is not yet born. As he well foresaw, immediately after his third reading, the alarm sounded in the upper House, and all the Lords spiritual and temporal gathered at Westminster in a solid phalanx to give the bill the coup de grace. The English Liberals forgot their commitments. A fourth-rate politician who voted for every coercive measure against Ireland from 1881 to 1861 dons the mantle of Gladstone. The position of Chief Secretary of Ireland, a position which the English themselves have called the tomb of political reputations, is occupied by a literary jurist, who probably hardly knew the names of the Irish counties when he was presented to the electors of Bristol two years ago. Despite their pledges and promises, despite the support of the Irish vote during a quarter of a century, despite its enormous majority (which is without precedent in the parliamentary history of England), the English Liberal ministry introduces a measure of devolution which does not go beyond the proposals made by the imperialist Chamberlain in 1885, which the conservative press in London openly refused to take seriously. The bill is passed on the first reading with a majority of almost 300 votes, and while the yellow journals break out in shudders of pretended anger, the Lords consult each other to decide whether this wavering scarecrow about to enter the lists is really worthy of their sword.

Probably the Lords will kill the measure, since this is their trade, but if they are wise, they will hesitate to alienate the sympathy of the Irish for constitutional agitation; especially now that India and Egypt are in an uproar and the overseas colonies are asking for an imperial federation. From their point of view, it would not be advisable to provoke by an obstinate veto the reaction of a people who, poor in everything else and rich only in political ideas, have perfected the strategy of obstructionism and made the word ‘boycott’ an international war-cry.

On the other hand, England has little to lose. The measure (which is not the twentieth part of the Home Rule measure) gives the Executive Council at Dublin no legislative power, no power to impose or regulate taxes, no control over 39 of the 47 government offices, including the police, the supreme court, and the agrarian commission. In addition, the Unionist interests are jealously safeguarded. The Liberal minister has been careful to insert in the first line of his speech the fact that the English electorate must disburse more than a half million pounds sterling each year as the price of the measure; and, understanding their countryman’s intentions, the journalists and the Conservative speakers have made good use of this statement, appealing in their hostile comments to the most vulnerable part of the English electorate – their pocketbook. But neither the Liberal ministers nor the journalists will explain to the English voters that this expense is not a disbursement of English money, but rather a partial settlement on account of England’s debt to Ireland. Nor will they cite the report of the English Royal Commission which established the fact that Ireland was overtaxed 88 million francs in comparison with her senior partner. Nor will they recall the fact that the statesmen and scientists who inspected the vast central swamp of Ireland asserted that the two spectres that sit at every Irish fireplace, tuberculosis and insanity, deny all that the English claim; and that the moral debt of the English government to Ireland for not having reforested this pestiferous swamp during an entire century amounts to 500 million francs.

Now, even from a hasty study of the history of Home Rule, we can make two deductions, for what they are worth. The first is this: the most powerful weapons that England can use against Ireland are no longer those of Conservatism, but those of Liberalism and Vaticanism. Conservatism, though it may be tyrannical, is a frankly and openly inimical doctrine. Its position is logical; it does not want a rival island to arise near Great Britain, or Irish factories to create competition for those in England, or tobacco and wine again to be exported from Ireland, or the great ports along the Irish coast to become enemy naval bases under a native government or a foreign protectorate. Its position is logical, as is that of the Irish separatists which contradicts it point by point. It takes little intelligence to understand that Gladstone has done Ireland greater damage than Disraeli did, and that the most fervid enemy of the Irish Catholics is the head of English Vaticanism, the Duke of Norfolk.

The second deduction is even more obvious, and it is this: the Irish parliamentary party has gone bankrupt. For twenty-seven years it has talked and agitated. In that time it has collected 35 million francs from its supporters, and the fruit of its agitation is that Irish taxes have gone up 88 million francs and the Irish population has decreased a million. The representatives themselves have improved their own lot, aside from small discomforts like a few months in prison and some lengthy sittings. From the sons of ordinary citizens, pedlars, and lawyers without clients they have become well-paid syndics, directors of factories and commercial houses, newspaper owners, and large landholders. They have given proof of their altruism only in 1891, when they sold their leader, Parnell, to the pharisaical conscience of the English Dissenters without exacting the thirty pieces of silver.