A mystifying question through history classes at school and college days was why the Irish people were so tolerant. Centuries of English domination prompted the odd revolt, but not until 1918 was there a national mood that said, ‘Enough is enough’. It would be difficult to imagine that the English would have been so long-suffering had they been subject to such foreign occupation with its frequent misrule.
G.K. Chesterton discerned a trend amongst English working-people to become restive and uneasy when unhappy at the course of events. His poem The Secret People captures a sense of the inscrutability of an ordinary people who, if pushed too far, would speak in no uncertain terms of what they thought. The poem opens:
“Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet”.
Twice in the Twentieth Century those people went to the polling stations to elect governments that would bring radical changes in society. In 1945, the war hero Churchill was ejected by working people because there was no desire to return to the 1930s. In 1979, working people turned on the Labour Party because they wanted a lifting of the burden of taxation and bureaucracy. Attlee and Thatcher became the two revolutionary figures in modern English history.
There seems no prospect of radical change in Ireland.
An Old Testament prophet would be thundering denunciations of a society where the chairman of a bank could loan himself €87 million and conceal it from the auditors, while women are dying for want of proper medical services. A biblical response to the collapse of the economy, the failure of the health service, the lengthening of the dole queues, the cuts in education, the repossession of houses, the disintegration of family life, the burden of taxation on working people, and the culture of corruption and cronyism, would demand a John the Baptist-like figure striding across our television screens with calls for repentance.
There is no response. There is just quiet resignation and getting on with things. There is a sense that voting would make little difference for there is little more confidence in the opposition party than there is in the government.
Yet in the land of Pearse and Connolly and Larkin, there must surely be people like those Chesterton met in England. There must surely be people who believe in a righteous and just society. Perhaps it is just that they have not spoken, and, when they do speak, no-one knows what they might say.