Irish Impressions: An Old Book Dealing with Racism, Politics, and Ireland

In 1919, G. K. Chesterton published the book Irish Impressions, a book examining the conflict between England and Ireland. That same year marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and Ireland’s rise to dominion status within the British Empire. Chesterton’s book gives keen insight into what caused bitter contention between England and Ireland.

In Irish Impressions, Chesterton lays out the cultural misunderstandings, historical abuses, and other errors that caused so much bad blood between England and Ireland. Sympathetic to Ireland’s plight, he gives a very human treatment to the problems between the two countries and systematically condemns England’s treatment of Ireland. The foremost quality of the book is the human examination of the problems at hand.

Chesterton dispenses with isms and sociological models. He examines the Irish people in the context of European peasantry and explains their anger as a response to slights against their dignity and honor, not a response to political programs and agendas. He gives the example of and English tourist bargaining with a peasant in Europe to illustrate:

When a peasant asks tenpence for something that is worth fourpence, the tourist misunderstands the whole problem. He commonly solves it by calling the man a thief and paying the tenpence. There are ten thousand errors in this, beginning with the primary error of an oligarchy, of treating a man as a servant when he feels more like a small squire. The peasant does not choose to receive insults; but he never expected to receive tenpence. A man who understood him would simply suggest twopence, in a calm and courteous manner; and the two would eventually meet in the middle at a perfectly just price. There would not be what we call a fixed price at the beginning, but there would be a firmly fixed price at the end: that is, the bargain once made would be a sacredly sealed contract. The peasant, so far from cheating, has his own horror of cheating; and certainly his own horror at being cheated.

He goes on to say that the English had cheated the Irish out of a political compromise they had negotiated, so the Irish were smarting from that reversal. In another place, he gives an example of the difference between the industrial and the peasant mindsets. He was driving down an Irish road, and to the left the harvest was not gathered because the workers were on strike; on the right, peasant farmers had brought in the harvest and their grain was not rotting in the fields. Whatever the cause of the strike, “the big machine had stopped, because it was a big machine. The men were still working, because they were not machines.”

While Chesterton exposes the plain injustices wrought against Ireland, he also tackles the delicate matter of how the Irish went wrong in their thinking. Normally someone condemning his own country’s sins would hardly dare to address the victim’s sin, but Chesterton goes for it. For one thing, he upholds nationalism as the antidote to imperialism: “Nationalism is a nobler thing even than patriotism; for nationalism appeals to a law of nations; it implies that a nation is a normal thing, and therefore one of a number of normal things.” The Irish went wrong when they tried to turn their Irish-ness into something special beyond the honorable national identity that it is. He also criticizes the notion that he would speak for Ireland because he is somehow Irish: if he had to be Irish to speak in favor of the Irish, he could offer nothing objective against England.

Chesterton is clearly an Englishman in writing this book, and he describes when he went on tour in Ireland to recruit the Irish to fight in the First World War. He appealed to the Irish to see the war as something that indeed concerned them, that fighting with England against Germany was in Ireland’s best interests as a nation among nations. Although Chesterton criticizes the folly of the 1916 Easter Rising against conscription in Ireland, he also affirms the nobility of those who revolted. He concedes that it would have been difficult for any people to join their oppressors to fight against evil, and England’s attempts to raise volunteers were damnably clumsy.

As far as Irish Impressions may serve as a lesson for modern racial reconciliation, it primarily teaches two things: we have to treat people as people, and we have to legitimately give them good things to work with. Chesterton notes that the Irish did not trust English promises, and says that whatever the English decide to give, they really have to give it. He even speculates that the Irish would be satisfied with the autonomy granted by dominion status rather than full independence, if only the English would grant that. The Irish political leaders fighting for independence ultimately accepted dominion status under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and only left the British Commonwealth in 1949, although they ceased to act like a Commonwealth member some years before. What resolved the long conflict between England and Ireland was a negotiated agreement that both sides ultimately kept. Although the full history is much more complicated and includes the Irish Civil War, a modicum of reconciliation occurred with the signing of the treaty.

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