English and the Past (O’Leary, 1896)

1.649. John O’Leary, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism, 2 vols. (London: Downey & Co., 1896), vol. 1, pp. 77-78. BL 9508.c.1

Extract from John O’Leary, Recollections on Fenians and Fenianism (1896), on the new English attitude towards Irish history.

In this passage, the opening of his chapter on the ‘Origin of Fenianism’, O’Leary steers a course between sarcasm and astonishment in noting the tendency among “Our new English friends” to blame their own ancestors for all Irish ‘sins’. The distinction between the (old) habit of blaming racial characteristics and the (new) one of blaming history is particularly significant:

It is easy to seek the origin of nearly all things, and especially of all things Irish, in remote causes and in distant times; certainly most events of the present day have their ultimate roots in a  far-away past; most Irish ones being more or less easily traced to the Norman Conquest of Ireland, and by a little ingenuity led back to St. Patrick, or even to the Flood. But if it is easy to seek, it is generally very hard to find, and the road is always a long and rugged one to travel. Our new English friends seem kindly inclined, while laying most of our sins, past and present, on the shoulders of their own ancestors, to attribute the particular sin of rebellion — for a sort of sin they still think it — to direct provocation by the powers that be, or at least were, at any given time. This is rather a new view of things to us, at least as coming from our English neighbours, but is it quite true? Nearly all our misdoings — i.e., doings the English disliked — used to be set down to some sort of innate wickedness of our nature, variously traceable to race, religion, climate, or the Lord knows what. It is certainly agreeable to regard the new aspect of things, especially if we could have the proper amount of confidence in its permanence. Anyway it is consoling to pose in the meantime as, in great measure, when looked at from the right standpoint, mere martyrs of circumstance.