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Against Pure Wool

Maurice Earls

Poland In the Irish Nationalist Imagination 1772-1922, Anti-Colonialism Within Europe, by Róisín Healy, Palgrave Macmillan, 321 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-3319434308

It’s always interesting when a historian looks at a familiar phenomenon from an unfamiliar angle. It can turn out that there’s more to the subject than was suspected. In this case, the subject is the political culture of Irish nationalism, the phenomenon which, in one form or another, commanded wide support in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.

In this book Róisín Healy looks behind the well-known political set pieces of the era to consider a fascinating and little studied phenomenon, Irish endorsement of the Polish political struggle for autonomy which, it transpires, was a recurring motif in Irish political discourse throughout the long nineteenth century. There are always intellectual benefits to veering off the main path and from this focused and impressive study we gain significantly in our understanding of the wider political identification of nationalist Ireland, how it understood the world and how it saw itself in that world.

Nationalism is sometimes caricatured as remorselessly inward-looking, xenophobic and self-obsessed. The truth, of course, is much more complex. Actually, the central strands of nineteenth century Irish nationalism were ideologically rooted in Enlightenment thought and were ultimately outward-looking, a legacy which is still felt today. The idea of a common humanity was at its core, and this remained predominantly the case, even through the heyday of European ethno-nationalism.

One relatively early expression of this international self-understanding- almost certainly from the pen of James Clarence Mangan- was published in 1832:

We speak merely as Irishmen who regret and who would bury in oblivion the defeat of our ancestors by Englishmen, Scotchmen and Dutchmen as much as we [would] regret and would wish to bury in oblivion their overthrow by the natives of France, Spain or any other country ...

The most commonly referenced country in the matter of empathy for other victims of political oppression was undoubtedly Poland, a country whose struggle for national self-government stimulated a longstanding sympathy and identification in Ireland. The focus of Healy’s inquiry is this enduring political sympathy for the Poles in their struggle for autonomy against imperial Prussia, Russia and Austria, a struggle which culminated in independence for that country following the Great War, at much the same time as Irish independence was established.

One of the features which emerges strongly is the constancy of support for Poland in Irish political discourse. Healy recounts that in 1863, in the midst of the January Uprising in Poland, a Dublin grocer, Patrick McCabe Fay, donated money to a fund in support of the Polish rebels, explaining that it was only right that the “Poland of the West” come to the aid of “her sister of the East”.

Mc Cabe, a Dublin shopkeeper, could harbour such sentiments because the cause of Poland had been a point of reference in nationalist discourse for decades. Healy traces the affinity with Poland from the late eighteenth century, an affinity which, she says, was based on a sense that both countries had suffered at hands of neighbouring great powers. Indeed, sympathy for Poland pre-dates the modern national sensibility. Edmund Burke, as Healy tells us, was a strong defender of Poland’s rights and situated his critique in the context of a wider “global critique of colonial relations, which included attacks on British colonial practice in India”. Burke was not, of course, opposed to Empire as such but rather to misgovernment, a theme which was to form a central plank in the national argument emerging in eighteenth century Ireland.

The idea of a political fellowship and affinity between Ireland and Poland was common amongst the United Irishmen and found regular expression in the pages of its main journal, the Northern Star. Tone’s speech from the dock referenced George Washington and the Polish leader Tadeusz Kościuszko. Again, nationalist Ireland firmly supported the Polish rebellion of 1830. O’Connell himself endorsed the rising and, significantly, did not suggest any qualifications relating to violence. Healy tells us that Irish Repeal MPs were prominent among those who spoke up for the Poles at Westminster. The Young Irelanders and the Fenians were also ardent in their commitment to the cause. But it was not only political leaders who supported the Poles. Poland was also a recurring point of reference in the nationalist newspaper and periodical press. Small wonder then that a Dublin shopkeeper should wish to contribute money.

Healy suggests that in the decades before the Great War, while Parnell and other leaders were anti-colonial, there was less interest in Poland, which at that period was focusing on cultural development (“organic work”) rather than outright rebellion. The Polish interest persisted, however, and the pro-Polish tradition undoubtedly helped shape the positive perceptions of Bessie O’Brien who took a post as governess to a Polish family around 1880. Her letters home to County Limerick were included in The Farm by Lough Gur.  

Even if Irish Parliamentary Party politicians were less fixated on Poland than their predecessors, the theme of the Polish struggle continued to feature in Irish literature, journals, pamphlets and drama throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Its influence can be discerned in the writings of the 1916 leadership and is prominent in the “advanced” nationalist press in the period before the rising.

Healy suggests that while the political parallel was compelling to an Irish audience there is little evidence of a deep knowledge of Poland in Ireland. This is no doubt true in large measure, and it is telling that when, in the early 1920s, certain detailed information became available, some criticism was expressed. Thus when, following the Versailles settlement, the independent Polish state was established and reports of brutal treatment of its Jewish minority began to be heard, the response was sometimes negative, as in the case of comments published in the Irish Independent on August 16th, 1920 under the heading of “Polish Jingoism, Freemen Keep Jews Slaves” which argued that the Poles were treating the Jews very badly and reported that the Polish press was calling for a “pure wool” policy and that the Poles, whom the Irish had always supported in their pursuit of freedom, were not living up to the principles of their martyred dead.

Today there is a large Polish population living in Ireland, whose participation in Irish society would appear to be a relatively smooth affair. This welcome population is, presumably, generally inclusive in orientation and political outlook. But it could be that their influence is missed at home, where there has been a resurgence of the politics of “pure wool”, with people marching under banners advocating “Poland for the Poles” and calling for a “White Europe”. Healy points out that Irish sympathy continued after the Second World War, fuelled in no small measure by a shared Catholicism and anti-communism. If, however, Poland’s current government persists in its exclusivist politics, it is certain that Ireland’s Enlightenment legacy, augmented undoubtedly by self interest, will see it in alliance with the former imperial powers of France and Germany and in opposition to the Poles, that  historically beleaguered people whom Thomas Moore, William Smith O’Brien, Padraic Pearse and many others defended in verse, speech and prose throughout the long nineteenth century ‑ “ Poland … the bravest nation that ever made glorious the name of deserved freedom”.

1/2/2018

Maurice Earls is a bookseller and Joint Editor of the drb

DRB postscript: we are pleased to note that Róisín Healy, in her stimulating and important book, acknowledged “By Reason of Past History”, the late Brian Earls’s essay on Irish perceptions of Poland published in the drb in 2008 http://www.drb.ie/essays/by-reason-of-past-history

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