On being English
In 1918, Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote the poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. In the poem, Yeats captured a sense of the divided loyalties faced by many Irishmen serving in the British forces after the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. The poem includes the lines,
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
It is a strong affirmation that people do not identify with abstractions such as “king” or “country,” but with their own place and their own people, the more precisely their place is defined, the stronger is their loyalty.
A British army officer I knew would have concurred with Yeats. Standing at a memorial on the Western Front, he said, “Do you know, men do not die for things like queen and country. They certainly do not die for any politician or any idea. They die for their mates.”
Loyalty cannot not be more localized than when it focused on the group of men around you. The strength of the “pals” battalions in the Great War, and their willingness to sustain devastating losses, is testimony to how strong is the bond between those from a particular neighbourhood.
So what does it mean to be “English?” Can someone be loyal to such an abstract concept.
My England is Saxon. I have forebears lying in the churchyard at Aller, where, inside the church, there are two fonts. One dates from the Seventeenth Century, the other is primitive. It is in the primitive font that the Danish king Guthrun was said to have been baptized after being defeated by Alfred in 878. In the neighbouring parish of Huish Episcopi, my family line is documented back to the 1620s. Were there earlier records, the family tree would probably extend even further.
The England that is home to me is very different from the England that is home to a Liverpudlian or a Yorkshireman or a Londoner. In such a diverse context, is it possible to define “English?” Perhaps the Yorkshireman would identify with England of the shires, but would the city dwellers?
Following the argument of Yeats, I would have to say that my country is the land of the West Saxons and my people are those of the shire.
In primary school, we were told that we were the true English and that Alfred the Great was the first king of England, so perhaps being English means coming from Wessex. There are those who may disagree.
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