Living and Dying in Ireland

Sean O’Faolain

One of the more surprising things about the life-ways of primitive societies is their persistence: so much so that one of them can frighten us by suddenly resurfacing a thousand years after it seemed to be stone dead. Up to that disconcerting moment the most we are inclined to allow the remote past is that it may linger on as a sanctified revival or a quaint reconstruction. It does not trouble us if we find that some of our dearest religious rites are as old as Babylon – Baptism, for instance. We could easily accept that the Druidic costumes we see at the modern Welsh cultural assemblies called Eisteddfoddu refer back to ceremonies initiated long before Christ. It would amuse us to be told that every time we spit out a ‘Pooh!’ or a ‘Pfoo!’ in the heat of argument we are echoing the habit of those fourth-century heretics known as Messalians, who cultivated spitting as a religious practice in the belief that the air is filled with legions of miniature demons. So at any rate W.E.H. Lecky suggests in his The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, quoting the learned 19th-century French scholar Alfred Maury, author of such abstruse books as Fées dans le Moyen Age and Histoire de la Magie. There is, however, one serious caveat attaching to every archaism. However slight such perdurables may be, however sweetened by the passage of time, it is wise to presume the co-existence of others not at all tempered by age. The Hunger Strike is one such.

Linguistic scholars have proved that this practice flourished more than two thousand years ago all over the Indo-European world: that is to say, throughout Europe, the vast expanses of Asia and scattered places elsewhere – almost a third of the globe. A small modern reflection of this ancient diffusion was noted during May of this year by such press agencies as AP, AFP, UPI who reported that two hundred young people were starving themselves, some unto death, in hospitals, prisons, churches, labour camps, public places in France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, the USSR, West Germany, Corsica and Ireland, in protest against various forms of, as they saw it, oppression. They mostly concentrated on prison conditions, although six Basques were also demanding an amnesty for all Basque prisoners, 21 Tunisians in Paris were protesting against their expulsion, and others like the Irish were demanding to be treated as prisoners of war. Before the month was out one German was dead, and four Irishmen. A death-way then? Or a life-way? In the imagery of the Sermon on the Mount, the broad way that leadeth to destruction? Or the narrow way that leadeth unto life? Or since living and dying imply one another, a way of asserting values, personal, racial, national, even philosophical, common to both living and dying. Those reports from press agencies mentioned above were, one notes, entitled ‘Hunger strikers’ aims vary.’

Consider my own country. The main proof that this lethal practice flourished here in pre-Christian times derives from the ancient Irish Laws which recognised and strove to regulate the rite of ‘fasting against a person of exalted state in order to enforce a claim against him’. This elegantly succinct definition I take from the long essay entitled ‘Irish History and Irish Law’ by Dr Daniel Binchy, doyen of the Celtic School in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, who after fifty years of what he modestly describes as ‘long-term drudgery’ – that is, single-minded scholarly toil – presented to the world in 1980 a meticulous transcription of the extant legal sources of the oldest law tracts known to the West.[1] His six volumes are, alas, as yet untranslated and unannotated: not that those words ‘as yet’ should evoke any larger hopes. It is doubtful if there are as many as six Celtic scholars left to the world who can read Binchy’s text with complete assurance. Anything I may say here about these laws, or any customs with which they deal, derives from Binchy’s long essay and the other labourers in his field to whom he refers, as far back as that almost legendary figure Johann Kaspar Zeuss, who in virtual solitude composed or induced in 1853, unaided, out of his vast erudition, the first-ever grammar of a tongue one word of which he had never heard spoken and which was even then beginning to disappear. Among others of our time who, against every obstacle, kept a firm grip on the linguistic key to those primitive laws were Rudolph Thurneysen, Whitley Stokes, who drew attention to the fact that ‘fasting against’ still prevailed in some areas of India, Osborn Bergin, Myles Dillon, whose knowledge of Sanskrit drew attention to the French Sanskritist Louis Renou’s very early dating of the Hindu practice of aggressive fasting – namely, between 600 and 300 BC – and that erudite linguist and fervent nationalist, titular head of the infant IRA at the time of the 1916 Rising, Eoin MacNeill, who engagingly began to write his Prolegomena to the Study of ‘The Ancient Laws of Ireland’ in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, in 1921, and, ‘time’ being a colloquialism to professors as well as prisoners, as engagingly chose not to publish it until 46 years later.

Professor Binchy’s article on ‘Irish History and Irish Law’ is entirely factual and particular about the practice of ‘fasting against’: but in introducing it he does make one particularly striking general observation which, I believe, casts a revealing light on the Irish way of living and dying, whether around 500 BC or at the start of this century, allowing, of course, for those changing fashions in dying and those varying attitudes to living which historians like Philippe Ariès have been exploring so imaginatively and suggestively in recent years.[2] Speaking of the old Irish jurists, Binchy says: ‘Naturally they were unaware that what they were describing was the vestigial remnant of an extremely ancient usage rooted in primitive magic ...’ Which means that while they thought they were merely describing established rules governing certain dangerous contests between protest and power, we cannot fail to hear, even if we are armed only with a smattering of anthropology, an underground or background whisper of a very different order. For example, the old jurists at one point give a useful list of three alternatives open to any powerful man who awakens to find a protesting man starving himself at the entrance to his home. Let us call them Mr Power and Mr Protest. Power’s first alternative is simple and substantial: it is to give Protest whatever he claims. The second alternative darkens the air like a flock of carrion crows, makes us glance superstitiously over our left shoulder, smell the presence of occult forces, supernatural powers, even that necromancy which betokens communication with the dead. For Power’s second alternative is to start a counter-fast – that is, in Daniel Binchy’s words, resist by ‘counter-magic’ and let the final victory go to whichever of the two men is the more favoured by ... well, you-know-who. Power’s third alternative is supernal: to let the man on his doorstep starve himself to death. But Power can only do this at the risk of finding his home, and presumably himself, ‘polluted’ for ever after by the ghost of the unhappy Protest’s cadaver. In which event which of the two has won? Ariès’s word for ‘pollution’ is ‘profanation’. This thanatologist also reminds us that funeral rites and their allied vocabulary interweave the idea of profanation (pro-fanum, outside the temple or fane) and de-profanation, since funus can mean either a body or a funeral, funestus means profanation, and in modern French funeste conveys the idea of sinister, illomened, fatal. Such a Hunger Strike could be fatal to both parties.

However, one may, thank goodness, always say of civilisation: E pur si muove. After the passage of many centuries, things began to change so much for the better that by the early Middle Ages the duel had been reduced, probably under the influence of Christianity, to a symbolic sunrise-to-sunset fast by both parties, who thereafter proceeded to operate another already ripened custom, though already, no doubt, as much honoured in the breach as in the observance: the Law. Not, as we know, that the coercive fast, with all its trail of dark associations, died suddenly or completely. This may be how things happen in hagiographies. In real life what happened was that those primitive Irish wrestling matches between Living and Dying, after first assuming, and long retaining, the form of black magic, met another and more powerful magician in Christ and proceeded to direct their attentions towards God. There are, in fact, several legends about Irish saints fasting against God, including one about the chief of them all, St Patrick, which presents him as refusing to descend from his now-famous mountain, Croagh Patrick, until God had agreed to all his admirable demands on behalf of his beloved Irish converts. After that, one fasted for God, and perhaps prayed against one’s neighbour. But if the Hunger Strike appears to have vanished finally and completely by about the year 1000, our first 20th-century re-encounter with it – Gandhi in India, suffragettes in England – must make us feel that it disappears only as a stream that vanishes underground to resurface elsewhere.

Why did not all or any of this happen to the English, Welsh or Scottish ways of life next door? The answer is that the Irish are a very, very old people, and their life-way remained that way because they, like the people of India, are at one of the two peripheries of the Indo-European world. Linguists will corroborate that in this western island and that eastern peninsular subcontinent words are found, in Irish and in Sanskrit, with no equivalent elsewhere. We were for centuries secluded by what is now called the Irish Sea; they by the Himalayas. So true is this in Ireland’s case that when, at this point, we look back at ‘fasting’ to see how it may have fared overground or underground during the late Middle Ages, or the period of the Renaissance, we find that we are looking at a country that had no Middle Ages at all in the European sense. Thus there are only two medieval cathedrals in Ireland, both in Dublin, 12th and 13th-century, the one founded by Christianised Danes, the other by Norman-Irish. Ruins abound, mostly of Norman castles, shelters now for wandering cattle and what we used to call wandering tinkers but must now politely call itinerants; though here and there we come on small, endearing remnants of earlier Romanesque, maybe crumbled away to a single arch of carved heads. What can any Irishman conclude, thinking of the medieval wealth of Europe, but that the old, native cultural well must have run dry some time after the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century? Time was not to fulfil the promise of a life-exploring, all-embracing, ever-developing culture held out by earlier achievements: by the old Celtic sagas, shot through by lightning and purple flame, filled with supernatural powers, gods and goddesses who replace only to glorify actual fighting men, and fighting women, or by the monks’ lovely, intricate illuminated manuscripts, or by the old high crosses with their often abstract, hieratic Byzantine designs. All these proved to be the first promising rays of a sunrise upthrown from below its horizon but halted there.

One reason at least for what Arnold Toynbee called this aborted Celtic civilisation must have been social. All our life-ways remained for far too long based on social structures dependent on the primitive idea of the local Ruler, while Europe was developing the more powerful concept of the centralised State.[3] Those structures lasted stubbornly to the brink of the 17th century. They finally collapsed before the death-ways of the Elizabethan armies. Their last bastion was Ulster, which in 1610 was parcelled out, six counties of it, to Scottish and English adventurers some, or perhaps many, or even most, of whose descendants hold it to this day. Between 1610 and 1921 (the date of the founding of the Irish Free State, later called the Irish Republic), we Irish lived as a conquered race, down-beaten, for long virtually outlawed, never quite defeated.

One would expect a conquered people to change. We did. Very slowly. As one might guess, we laughed more. The last weapon of slaves. The blacks did it, to please, to deceive, to get by, to forget actuality. Still, one might also hazard a greater sense of reality in general, a coming to terms with life sternly, pushing all idle fancies aside. There one would be wrong. The Irish of those three centuries went on telling fanciful fireside stories of legendary heroes like Fionn and Usheen (Oisin, Ossian), tales of magic, of giants, ghosts, wizards, fairies. I open a collection of folk-tales that my wife made years ago and the very illustrations evoke a world of the weirdest imagination. From such folklore and folktales one hears true laughter. In the 18th century, the remnants of the old, pampered and feared poetic caste, now reduced mostly to near-beggary, invented a visionary myth of a Second Coming by some secular saviour (by then he would be a Stuart) who would come from over the sea to release their shackled queen. This Vision Poetry was written in various forms over and over again. But the two main changes of mentality in this later Ireland were its attitudes to Dying and to Thinking.

Death they always treated decorously, with dignity, with full feeling, as various 18th and 19th-century poems show, but they did not let it defeat their spirits. The Irish wake or late-night vigil in the home of a corpse is famous as a celebration both of death and of life made to seem all the richer by its loss. Death and Life waltz in one another’s arms at a wake. In some remote mountainy country we approach a lighted cottage, with no other habitation, seemingly, within a mile. It consists of two storeys: downstairs, the kitchen and ‘the’ room, always so called; upstairs, two rooms for sleeping. Up there on the big white bed peacefully smoothed out lies the corpse arranged with crossed hands between four calm candles – the light we saw from across the heather-covered valley. Downstairs, the kitchen is full of his happy friends, chatting cheerfully, smoking, drinking, snuff-taking, reminiscing tirelessly. As each new visitor enters the kitchen and is led upstairs by the welcoming widow, the chatter falls for a moment, rises when he is out of sight, falls at his return until he has been plied with tobacco or drink, merges into the wake and everybody is in high spirits again, including, to some degree, or so it is hoped, the widow: for why are we all there but to cheer him on his voyage into the night-sky and her on hers through life again? If the priest comes, they will all sink on a knee, with others outside in the darkness, and pray in a solemn murmur, after which good cheer will return once more. The ‘Hades’ episode in Ulysses – Paddy Dignam’s funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin – is an urban version of this blend of Living and Dying. It also underlines that Irish post-conquest humour will, even in that cottage in the mountainy west, carry many an undertone of satire, can be sharp, double-meaning, mocking, outrageously blend warm feeling and cold eye.

The intellectual change took longest to come. ‘Cast a cold eye on life, on death’ were Yeats’s last words to us, carved by his command on his gravestone in Drumcliff churchyard. Time was when we had not the cold thinking to match the cold looking. The simplest illustration of the more modern Irish mind is the new school of Irish historians, cool, judicious and discerning. Inside the last thirty years or so, a generation of scholarly young men and women have moved a thousand and more years away from that great scholar Rudolph Thurneysen’s observation when examining some early law tracts that they revealed the total inability of the Irish mind to form a concept. ‘What,’ the tract would ask, ‘is Justice?’, and unable to universalise, would enumerate: ‘There are 13 different kinds of Justice.’ ‘What is Indiscipline?’ Answer: ‘There are 15 kinds of Indiscipline.’ This was not a comprehensive intellect at work – rather, a divisive one. For so long as it persisted the political-social mind would be in accord. One of our most revered nationalist rebels, John Mitchel, may illustrate. Born about a hundred years ago, a freedom-fighter, transported to Van Diemen’s Land, escaped to America, he was honoured there until he was found to be in favour of black slavery. So, from the paper called the Citizen (New York): ‘We deny that it is a crime ... to keep slaves to do their work by flogging or other needful coercion ... We, for our part, wish we had a plantation well stocked with healthy Negroes in Alabama.’[4] One cannot think that the man who wrote like this was a political thinker. Perhaps our first real political thinker was Edmund Burke. His earliest book, written when in his twenties, was a world away from the personal, the particular, the segregating. It was A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He was to become one of the most large-minded political thinkers these islands have known. It is true that no Irish nationalist would consider him a patriot.

Yes ... Well ... We seem to have come to it. Nationalism. Not, observe, patriotism, which is a natural instinct. The word itself derives from a familial source, pater, parent, father, grandparents, back, I would hazard, to some Aryan (Sanskrit) root such as PA ‘whose wish and care a few paternal acres bound’. Inside any inherited space, a few hectares in Calabria, a Dublin street, an English village, a youth will grow to knowledge of self, kin, country, finally enlarge to the extent of the world whose distant occupants may well seem to his patriotic mind a congeries of eccentrics who have yet to learn the full sweetness of his native air. By contrast, nationalism is not private, personal or natural. It is collective, impersonal and organised. It encloses vast masses of people who are not real persons because nationalism bewilders them all by reducing each to a numbered unit who will still be confusingly termed an individual – ‘confusingly’ because he will have lost all his individuality in the process. We who have experienced Hitler’s Nazism, Mussolini’s Fascism, Stalin’s Communism know only too well how myths and mystiques can mesmerise, and make no wonder of Arnold Toynbee’s declaration that nationalism ‘has been ... embraced by more people more intensely than any other modern religion’ since the birth of Christianity, in whose name every known atrocity has been justified. Naturally our imaginary Irish nationalist would think Burke no patriot: thereby revealing his own incapacity to distinguish between a concept and a word; revealing also a sad lack of humour. Burke was a political philosopher.

We should not blame the nationalist for his rushes of blood to the head. It could happen to a bishop. It happens from time to time to the most intelligent amongst us, or so some at least of my countrymen believe, if we may trust a typically mordant Dublin anecdote about that great Celtic scholar Eoin MacNeill whom I have already mentioned. When the Irish Free State was founded in 1921, the precise limits of the deplorable boundary between North and South not being yet precisely defined, a small Boundary Commission consisting of three people was set up. They were a Britisher, an Ulster Unionist and Eoin MacNeill, all three of whom would travel North and, so to speak, fight the matter out peacefully along the Border. Since the North was supposed to contain the undiscovered tomb of the amazon-queen Medb (Maeve) who is the central figure of the oldest Celtic saga, the gleefully malicious Dublin prophecy at once began to circulate that MacNeill would, on entering the North, at once get a nationalist rush of blood to the head, find the tomb of Queen Medb and lose the Boundary. What the Dublin wits were onto, of course, was that old curse and bore of modernising Ireland, our revered, unforgettable, indestructible, irretrievable Past. Frank O’Connor held that all Gaelic poetry was infected by the Backward look. I have here called it the Underground Stream that keeps on vanishing and reappearing. I do not believe that it will ever dry up. Only this morning the newspaper informs me that one of our highly respected citizens, a lawyer by profession, a shrewd businessman by avocation, has sworn to ‘fast against’ the Minister responsible for Broadcasting to force him to establish a separate daily TV programme in Irish for that part of the west of Ireland where, some 1500 years ago, St Patrick fasted against Almighty God to extract from Him such other special benefits as that on the Day of General Judgment nobody but St Patrick himself would judge the people of Ireland.

How beautiful, as Chekhov said of his Russia, life in Ireland will be two hundred years from now! It all takes time and thinking and in the end the result is, of the nature of things, patchy. After all, 18th-century England was beautiful and noble in many ways, but it saw the ruthless Enclosures, and more than half the slaves taken across the Atlantic were transported in the holds of English ships.

[1] Corpus luris Hibernici by D.A. Binchy. Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 6 vols, £50 each.

[2] The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Ariès, translated by Helen Weaver, has just been published by Allen Lane and will be reviewed in this journal soon by Frank Kermode. Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present by Philippe Ariès, translated by Patricia Ranum (Calder, 1976). Mourir Autrefois: Attitudes Collectives devant la Mort aux XVIIe et XVIIIe Siécles presented by Michel Vovelle (Gallimard. 1974).

[3] See The Celtic Peoples and Renaissance Europe by David Mathew, or my own The Great O’Neill, now published in paperback by Mercier Press, Dublin and Cork O’Neill was the last native ‘tribal ruler’ and an Ulsterman.

[4] On asking a younger Irish historian whether this is a fact, I have been told that the charge has been made against Mitchel more than once. The defence is that his mind was, sadly, affected by his prison experiences. Very well. The equally sad fact is that during the American Civil War Irish soldiers fought on both sides of the divide.