Recently, I saw a remarkable play based on the lifelong spiritual love affair between Maud Gonne, a leader of the agrarian land protests during the Irish famine of the 1890s, and William Butler Yeats, then a young Irish poet.
Yeats' insane love for her and Maud's continual rejection of his advances set the tone of the play, but equally significant is the paradox that she was a true Irish heroine despite her British parents.
On stage, Maud (Susie Burke, the playwright), in an attempt to proselytize Yeats, speaks of the seven centuries of Ireland's British domination, the 2 million deaths from the great famine and the 2 million who fled to America only to die in its slums and prisons. Yeats balks at the invitation, preferring to wax poetic about her divine beauty.
This depiction of Yeats presents a viewpoint at odds with the usual banal sentimentality expressed in St. Patrick's Day descriptions about the courageous Irish.
Historically, the Irish, rather than a determined and unconquerable people, more often took to betraying a leader who miraculously had risen among them, thereby securing their subjugation by the British for another generation. Unquestionably, most Irish chose serfdom in the British Empire to being governed by Irishmen.
No less an authority than the Irish Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, said, "The freedom of Ireland is not worth the shedding of a drop of blood," clearly not a tribute to the "heroic" Irish.
In the 18th Century, uprisings were fomented not by the native Irish, but people of English and Scottish descent, all Protestants, mostly from the north of Ireland, who, imbued with the revolutionary spirit then sweeping over the world, did not wish to live in a country where the vast majority were serfs.
So, this March 17, a sober appraisal of the Irish is in order, one recognizing that at the beginning of the 19th Century they were a people without hope, without a leader, without the slightest political sense, slaves in their own land who rose from degradation not through their own efforts but the collective efforts of many, who, ironically, included their conquerors, the English.
The last four paragraphs paraphrase ruminations written 40 years ago by my father, who left Ireland for America in 1912 at age 28.
FRANK L. BURKE