Kipling and the Irish

Owen Dudley Edwards

Kipling leapt into British fame at the beginning of 1890, and it had been Ireland which had given him his chance – that and the rich harvest of short stories from his Indian years. He hit England just before the Commission on ‘Parnellism and Crime’ was about to report. That report, predictably, exonerated Parnell and his party, accused by the Times of having fomented the Phoenix Park murders of Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish and Under-Secretary Thomas Burke, who had in reality been killed (on 6 May 1882) by Parnell’s bitter enemies the Invincibles. The Times in 1887 had made many other charges under the heady influence of a group of clever and unscrupulous young Irish Unionists who had captured the paper, then under the nominal direction of a senile manager and an infant editor. Parnell, Michael Davitt and the Land League were accused of having inspired agrarian outrages including murder, arson, horse-gelding and cattle-houghing. Certainly they had developed ostracism as a weapon, causing it to be christened the ‘Boycott’ after the landlord who was one of its first victims: but they insisted that they had opposed violence, and had advocated only non-violent pressures against evicting landlords and blackleg tenants. The Special Commission judges, however, refused to distinguish between violent and non-violent intimidation, and declared that the land agitation had been a cause of crime. The judges noted that the Parnellites had benefited financially and morally from association with Irish-Americans pledged to the separation of Ireland from Britain.

The Tory Government of Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, and its Irish administration under his nephew Chief Secretary A.J. Balfour – whose preferment had given rise to the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ – had thrown everything, including its Law Officers, and the resources of the Secret Service division of the Home Office, into stiffening the nerve of the Times, and they shared in the obloquy that fell on the Times when the main sensation of the newspaper’s case crashed with the revelation that letters supposedly showing Parnell’s complicity in the Phoenix Park murders had been forged by Richard Pigott. The Commission Report did seem to support the Tory case that Irish agrarian violence had been in part because of, and not in spite of, the Land League’s advocacy of non-violent action. But after the Pigott debacle who was ready to make capital of this?

Kipling was. He wrote the furious poem ‘Cleared’ and offered it to the Times. That demoralised newspaper, desperately hoping the whole business would be quickly forgotten, rejected the poem. But when Robert Fitzroy Bell, owner of the Scots Observer then edited by W.E. Henley, called on Kipling to enquire as to possible further ‘Barrack-Room Ballads’, the first of which Henley had just published, Kipling retrieved ‘Cleared’ from the waste-paper basket. Fitzroy Bell was a very ‘stalky’ figure, unscrupulous and resourceful in his Toryism. To dish the Liberals in the Edinburgh University Rectorial Elections he had invented the institution of Students’ Representative Councils: he thereby became known as the father of student democracy and the Liberals did not win another Edinburgh Rectorial for twenty years. He knew enough of agriculture to grasp how the Liberals would be humiliated by a poem representing them as sheep, given bloodstains as a shepherd’s mark by their alleged Irish Nationalist masters. He was happy to accept ‘Cleared’ on behalf of Henley, with whom Kipling thus forged an invaluable link. The poem appeared on 8 March 1890.

Kipling was a late-comer, and had come in fresh, to the battle. He was also a dirty fighter, which delighted Henley and Fitzroy Bell. Far from admitting that the Parnellites’ opponents had gone into the Special Commission behind evidence which largely proved to be forgery and perjury, the poem even made an emotive reference to the Phoenix Park murders implying that Parnell’s exoneration proved his guilt. Cases of intimidation where the Land Leaguers were clearly on record denouncing the perpetrators were twisted into an insistence that they had inspired them. Some Parnellites had indeed committed perjury in their evidence, among them Parnell himself: the poem chose to assume they all did. It was hardly blameworthy for the Parnellites to receive donations, even if called ‘Judas-Gold’, from ‘Fenians out of jail’, some of whom, like the Irish-American poet John Boyle O’Reilly, were now eminently respectable figures: but ‘They only fawned for dollars on the blood-dyed Clan-na-Gael’ was a just, if unkind comment on the Parnellite use of Irish-American revolutionary organisations for fund-raising. It might be asked where the Parnellites’ unscrupulous use of the Clan-na-Gael for purely constitutional political purposes differed from Kipling’s Irish soldier heroes in ‘The Mutiny of the Mavericks’, who concealed their unbreakable loyalty to the Crown and pretended a mutiny to get booze from funds sent by American conspirators: but Kipling embattled in furious verse was far from Kipling ironising in indulgent prose. When in India, he had visualised Parnellites such as William O’Brien and T.P. O’Connor as figures of fun: not now.

The real force of the poem lay in a quality alien to the interests of Henley and Fitzroy Bell. When Fitzroy Bell saw it, ‘Cleared’ was in the Irish dialect Kipling used for his Irish soldiers in his short stories, and he apparently intended to put it in the mouth of his favourite, Terence Mulvaney. The poem was altered in proof, perhaps at Henley’s instance, and was probably improved by being put into something resembling standard English. A number of Irishisms still survive in it, including ‘clane’ for ‘clean’ to rhyme with ‘again’, and, strangely, most of these harmonise much better with Irish intonation than do Kipling’s laboured attempts in prose to reproduce Irish dialect.

So ‘Cleared’ was conceived as the statement of an Irishman. In that sense it is not ‘anti-Irish’ at all, though it would have been condemned as such up and down the ranks of the Parnell movement and the Liberal Party. It is simply speaking for another Ireland. It shows a genuine passion at the misfortunes of the ordinary people caught up in agrarian outrage. Unlike the Times’s case, it is not landlord propaganda disguised as patriotism. Kipling wrote out of a fear that the Empire might be undermined by conspiracy, and, believing in an Irish loyalty that came naturally when not suborned by conspiratorial and ignorant politicians, he evidently sees the final words of his indictment as decisive in Irish – or at least in Mulvaney’s – eyes:

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