The Spiritual Inheritance of the Celt!
I suppose you have all heard that phrase. You may not understand what it means, but that, as the vulgar phraseology hath it, "makes no matter".
Nowadays the spiritual inheritance of the Celt is in evidence at almost every public meeting in the country: every public speaker who finds himself too densely destitute of the faintest traces of originality to evoke the applause of his audience, or is too ignorant of the question under discussion to speak even tolerably upon it, falls back as a last and never failing resort upon an appeal to the spiritual inheritance of the Celt.
That is always apropos. No matter what the subject of the meeting may be - Catholic University, Financial Relations, Home Rule, or the location of the Pig Market, it can always be embellished and improved by a reference to the spiritual inheritance of the Celt.
What that spiritual inheritance is remains to me somewhat of a problem. I am a hard matter of fact individual and inclined I daresay to place too much stress occasionally upon material things as the first necessity, but I am open to conviction (no allusion Mr Mahony) and hope some of my well informed readers will please enlighten me by answering this question.
The legends, romances, fairy tales, "pisthrogs", and general folk-lore of this country deal largely in popular interpretations of the manifestation of the unknown forces of Nature; always giving, as is the wont of a half-educated people living in close contact with Nature, a personal form and intelligence to every natural phenomenon whose origin is unknown to them.
In other words, where the investigations of modern science have laid bare the working out of natural processes, our forefathers saw only the labours, or heard only the voices, of spirits - the roar of the tempest on the hilltops, the sighing of the wind through the valleys, the myriad undefinable noises of night, the phantasms across the minds of the insane, the weird phenomena of birth and death - all these were to the Celts of old the result of a perpetual war between superhuman intelligences, beneficent and diabolic.
Thus the Celt clothed the mechanism of the universe with form and colour; thus sprang into existence in his brain all the spirits of good and bad, with which his fancy has invested every hill and dale, river, loch, and island in Ireland: thus originated the spiritual inheritance of the Celt - in an unprogressive desire to escape the responsibility of investigating phenomena by placing their source beyond the reach of human activity.
But, I may be told, is not the fact that the Celt did show himself prone to place a spiritual interpretation upon the material manifestations of natural phenomena, proof in itself of the spirituality of his mental bias, or inheritance?
It may be, but if it is, then the same proof holds good of the Teuton, of the Russian, of the Indian; all of whom have under the same conditions cherished similar beliefs, and all of whom have in proportion as their material conditions were modified and altered by the development of industry, and the growth of towns and cities, abandoned such ideas in favour of the scientific explanations.
The characteristic marks of Celtic spirituality are all to be found parallelled in the Hindu and the Brahmin; the legends of the Brocken and the Black Forest show the German mind as fertile in weird conceptions as ever was Irish Seanchaí; the Russian moujik and baba still tell each other of the spirits of forests and mountain steppes; and the peasantry of Somersetshire and other English rural counties credit such details of occult happenings as sufficiently demonstrate the affinity of their intellectual state to that of the spiritual Celt.
I do not war upon this quaint conceit of ours; I am only tired of hearing it belauded and praised so much by superficial thinkers and spouters.
You will hear a man or woman denouncing "the gross materialism" of England as contrasted with Celtic spirituality one day, and the next you will find the same person showing a most laudable (?) but "grossly material" desire to establish Irish manufactories where Irish wage slaves can be robbed by Irish capitalists; or joining with rackrenting landlords and scheming company promoters to demand an abatement of taxation on their own precious incomes.
Now, I believe that the mental traits upon which our Celtic enthusiasts base their claims, or should I say our claims, to spirituality, are but the result of the impression left upon the Celtic mind by the operations of the natural phenomena of his material surroundings; that most, if not all, races have had similar experience at similar periods of their history; and that there was therefore nothing unique in the intellectual equipment of the Celt, and nothing that he needs must cherish lest he lose his individuality.
The influences which go to the destruction and debasement of the Irish Celtic character are not racial in their character, they are social and industrial; it is not Anglo-Saxonism but Capitalism which pours its cheap filth into our news-agencies, and deluges our homes with its gutter literature.
This fact is obvious to all who choose to open their eyes and note that Paris, Berlin, and Vienna have each their gutter literature, corresponding in all its vulgarity and inanity to the Cheap Jack rubbish and filth which some people would have us believe is Anglo-Saxon.
The debasing literature is common to all these cities because its source is common to all; that source being, of course, not the language but the capitalist system.
It is only a trifling degree worse in England because the capitalist system is more developed in England than in the countries named. As the people become brutalised by overwork under capitalism they are incapable of appreciating healthy literature, and require the strong meat of sensationalism and suggestiveness - the stronger and more pungent the flavour the easier it can be assimilated by the degraded wage slaves.
If you desire to pursue this line of thought further you can do it by tracing the appetite for unhealthy literature in capitalist countries, such as England, America, and France; and the corresponding absence of such literature in countries such as Spain, Portugal, or Norway, where capitalism is in its undeveloped, infant, state.
As long as it was a question of Celt versus Saxon in Ireland the Celt (considering the enormous odds against him) held his own fairly well for six hundred years, without much deterioration in his national character - held his own so well that one hundred years ago many districts were as un-English as at the Norman Invasion.
But with the advent of capitalism all that was changed; the cheapness of its wares opened a way for English capitalism into districts where the political power of England had only excited aversion; the use of the English product paved the way for the use of the English speech, which in its turn made possible the debasing floods of cheap literary garbage.
Thus capitalism has done more in one hundred years to corrupt the Celt, and destroy his spirituality, than the previous six hundred were able to accomplish.
Yet the "Spiritual Inheritance" orators and writers are all in favour of capitalism, and opposed to Socialism.
Why? Because their belief in a spiritual inheritance does not weaken their determination to hold firmly on to the incomes derivable from their material inheritance of land and capital, - and the legal title it confers to a share in the plunder of the Irish worker.
I could mention one poet in this city who writes some most weirdly spiritual poems in the intervals of drawing rack rents from one of the most filthy slums of Dublin.
He is a patriot, a town councillor, a slum landlord, a publican, a poet, an heir to our spiritual inheritance - and other things.
A beautiful blending of the material and the spiritual - of both kinds.
Well, well! I have rambled a bit from my text, or rather the incident that suggested the text. That incident was a complimentary dinner given D.J. Cogan, MP for East Wicklow. Mr Cogan in thanking the friends who had feasted him gave this gem to the world. I quote from the Evening Telegraph:-
The sentimental was the spiritual side of man - it proceeded from the soul, and the man who was without sentiment would be without a soul (hear, hear). He therefore had no hesitation in admitting that the Irish character was highly sentimental, and he was proud of it. But why was it so? Because it is highly spiritual, and he thought it would be a sad day, indeed, for our country when the sentimental or spiritual side of it would become paralysed or lose any of its attributes (applause). In conclusion he would do what one individual could to further the interest of that branch of trade to which he had the honour to belong (hear, hear).Now that is what I call "lovely". Mr Cogan is a provision dealer, and the beautiful and entirely ingenuous manner in which he promises to combine in his own person a solicitude for the spiritual side of the Irish character, and the interests of the provision trade is worthy of all praise.
But if an Irish workingman were to rhapsodise about our spiritual inheritance at the beginning of his speech, and at the end of it to denounce the tyranny of capital his audience would be shocked.
Perhaps that is the reason why the Socialist Republicans are not counted in, in the functions organised by the new cult. Perhaps! Yet I think we are favourable as need be, but we cannot work up any enthusiasm for things spiritual while lacking things material, and we cannot forget that there are thousands of our brother and sister Celts so poor to-day that if they could barter their spiritual inheritance for a loaf of bread and a "rasher" it would be a profitable exchange.
But, gentlemen, before we part allow me to give you a toast. You will drink it, please, in water - the purest Vartry blend, with microbes of Irish manufacture only - and pledge me accordingly: "Here's to the union of two mighty, epoch-making forces, The Spiritual Inheritance of the Celt', and The Interests of the Provision Trade'; these two, linked in indissoluble union, to go marching down the ages to immortality together."
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.