Playing Up To English Visitors (Birmingham, 1911)

1.506. George A. Birmingham, The Lighter Side of Irish Life, with Sixteen Illustrations in Colour by Henry W. Kerr, R.S.A., (London and Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911), pp. 56-57. BL

An extract from George A. Birmingham, The Lighter Side of Irish Life (1911), on the temptation to play up to the expectations of English visitors.

The third chapter of Birmingham’s book, ‘As We See Ourselves: The New Irishman’, opens with George Bernard Shaw’s description of what Birmingham takes to be the ‘new Irishman’ from the preface to John Bull’s Other Island, characterising him by his “freedom from illusion, the power of facing facts, the nervous industry, the sharpened wits, the sensitive pride of an imaginative man who has fought his way up through social persecution and poverty.” Birmingham goes on to discuss this new ‘type’, while admitting the temptation, when faced with an English visitor, to play up to the old stereotypes instead, a temptation which Mulligan, of course, is not remotely attempting to resist in ‘Telemachus’:

¶¶I dwell upon this fact-seeing illusion-proof characteristic of the modern Irishman, emphasised by Mr. Shaw, because most of our cleverer writers, though they have not expressed themselves so epigrammatically as he has, have been conscious of just these qualities in their countrymen. The delight which we are supposed to take — which in fact we actually do take — in playing up to the Englishmen who visit us, is in reality a kind of very natural inversion of our contempt for illusion. We know quite well that the Englishman is our superior in many matters. He succeeds where we fail, grows rich while we remain poor, and although he is, as a rule, much stupider than we are, he continues to govern us in spite of our efforts to prevent him; although we ought by rights to be governing him. But the Englishman cherishes his illusions, and especially his illusions about Ireland. When he lands on our shores he puts a temptation in our way which we should be more than human if we resisted. Our novelists delight in stories of our sympathetic treatment of Englishmen’s ideas about Ireland. In Lever’s time we were looked upon as a nation of barbarians who valued human life as little as the sportsman does the life of his grouse. Englishmen in those days went to and fro among us nervously. A certain timid traveller confessed to one of Lever’s Irish country gentlemen that he had never seen a wake — the festivities connected with an Irish funeral. The Irishman, with the air of one anxious to gratify an honoured guest, ordered his butler to go out and shoot one of his tenants, naming a man who had always been behindhand with his rent.
¶¶That story was told a long time ago. It could scarcely be told with any kind of verisimilitude now, for Englishmen no longer believe that we shoot each other with quite the old light-heartedness. But illusions die hard.