All historical parallels are to some degree inaccurate. But they are none the less necessary for every cultivated intelligence



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Irish Reflections in Poland
“All historical parallels are to some degree inaccurate. But they are none the less necessary for every cultivated intelligence.”

- Josef Pilsudski Year 1920



Neither Irish people nor Poles are short of opinions, with the result that it sometimes seems there are as many perspectives on parallels between the two countries as there are observers. It goes without saying that the reflections which follow, by an Irish citizen who has lived in Poland for the past five years, are purely personal, and are intended as a contribution to the debate rather than the last word.
Among Irish readers, since its publication in 1936, The Farm by Lough Gur has obtained the status of minor classic. This work of reminiscences provides a richly detailed portrait of the life of a prosperous farmer’s family by the shores of Lough Gur in late nineteenth century Limerick. A feature of this now vanished world was the determination of post-famine farmers not to divide their farms and that only one son should inherit the land. One result of this sociological shift, when compared with behaviour earlier in the century, was that younger members of farmers’ families, both young men and young women, were expected to make their own way in the world. For many well-to-do farmers daughters the second half of the nineteenth century was a period of increased educational opportunity as new orders of nuns, frequently with French links, established their presence in many parts of provincial Ireland. The education provided undoubtly had its quaint aspects, as country girls were introduced to French manners and the French language (its mockers described the genteel style fostered by such an education resulted as “convent parlour”). One result was to equip young Irishwomen with the skills necessary to become governesses in continental Europe.
Poland was among the countries in which early twentieth century Irish girls sought employment. As the travellers J.M. Hone and Page Dickinson noted in 1910, “Warsaw is one of the few European capitals that the tourist has not yet wooed. A few governesses in high Polish families are practically the only resident British subjects, and these ladies are mostly Irish, because they must be Catholics. The Polish aristocracy cultivate the English language, like their fellow-subjects, the Georgian princes in Transcaucasia, though not perhaps to the same extent…. In both towns quite a number of Irish governesses will be found.”
Among those who found work in early twentieth century Poland was Bessie O’Brien from County Limerick. The chapter in The Farm by Lough Gur entitled “Bessie Goes to Poland” tells of the astonishment of the O’Brien family when a letter arrives from “reverend Mother in France” to announce that “Bessie has the chance of a good position as a governess with a Madame Swinarski in Poland”. This news immediately provokes the question, “ ‘Where exactly is Poland?’ We all spoke at once. Michael went for the Atlas and mother found the place with trembling hands. In the hubbub no one heard me say that Poland is on the way to the isles of Greece!” The uncertainty of the O’Brien’s family as to the location of Bessie’s new home serves as a reminder of how far, before the age of mass travel, Ireland and Poland were from each other. Such indeed was the distance that Irish and Polish people almost certainly met in significant numbers for the first time not in Europe but as emigrants in the great cities of North America.
Although, in as far we can judge, contacts on this side of the Atlantic over the centuries between Ireland and Poland have been miscellaneous and accidental, the two countries are linked by parallel histories in which themes and motifs repeat. As a result, for Irish people the experience of living in Poland can at times be slightly uncanny, as aspects Ireland’s past seem to find Polish echoes at every turns. These echoes can be quite recent. For anyone who grew up in Ireland of the 1960s, many aspects of contemporary Poland, from the everyday (the succession of seasonal fruits and vegetables in the market sellers’ stalls) to the typical (the warmth of Polish hospitality), and from the ceremonial (the Polish commemorative urge and determination that the past’s lessons will not be forgotten) to the profound (the devout crowds of all age groups at mass), recall Ireland as it was before the great transformation of the last quarter century. The faults which accompany these virtues also repeat, with elements of contemporary Polish discourse recalling the introspective Ireland of earlier decades.
These parallels become even more striking when one turns to the history of the two countries. Ireland and Poland lost their independence to predatory neighbours, who had better organised and more centralised states machines. Following the late eighteenth century partitions and the abolition of the Irish parliament in 1801, leaders in both countries were faced with the struggle to maintain the existence of the nation in circumstances when the range of institutions which go with statehood no longer existed. Eventually both availed of the opening caused by the First World War to advance the national agenda. Polish leaders exploited the need of the rival partioning powers to obtain the support of their Polish subjects, while in Ireland radical nationalists attempted to secure independence by forming an alliance with the Central Powers (“our gallant allies in Europe” in the 1916 proclamation of the Irish republic). Both re-gained sovereignty only with considerable difficulty, in the confused period which followed the ending of the great war. As a result, for an Irish person the experience of reading a history of Poland can be unsettling, as one encounters a history that is at once exotic and yet strangely familiar; at times it almost seems that if only dates and names were changed the history of Poland could be that of Ireland.
These similarities were noted by Bessie O’Brien, when she took up duty in the Swinarski household in the German partition. Her first letter home, which was included as an appendix in The Farm by Lough Gur provides a high-spirited, amusing and informative description of her new family. Her account, which takes up eight pages of text, is insightful and nuanced in its depiction of the family members, their relatives and retainers, and amounts to a miniature portrait of the culture, prejudices and idiosyncrasies of an early twentieth century szlachta family. In Bessie’s letter pride of place is given to the real head of the household (“Number two who is really number one”) Madame Swinarski. She writes of her, “I seldom felt so attracted towards anyone; she is intelligent, well-informed and noble-hearted, above all so patriotic; you cannot imagine the extent to which she carries the love of her country, and so we are well met. She cries sometimes in speaking of the wrongs they all suffer: we compare our stories and what a resemblance we find between the two nations!”

A few “homely examples” of similarities between Poland and Ireland concludes, “I could go on for hours proving to you that oppression is the cause of their and our faults, otherwise how could there be such a striking resemblance between the two nations, so far apart, having no communication and of different race?


One topic, which is at once fascinating and little explored, is the role of mothers, aunts and other female relatives in the transmission of religious values, including the religion of patriotism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland. Where Poland was concerned Bessie’s letter suggests that women played an important role as guardians of the national flame. In a particularly striking passage she wrote of Madame Swinarski:
You should see her when she talks of her country! She always finishes in tears. Her mother died saying, ‘My God, I never did anything wrong; I always gave to the poor; I practiced faithfully my duties as a Christian and a good Catholic. I never so much as harmed a fly, but I cannot forgive the enemies of my country! No, never! And I pray in this solemn moment when I go to appear before the great Judge, that the most terrible misfortune may fall on the head of whoever of my children forgets the misfortunes of Poland! To you, my sons, I leave it to avenge her! You, my daughters, never dare to rejoice in your family or in solitude; never be happy – I forbid it to you – till Poland is free!’ Her sons, both before and after her death, were in every insurrection of the country. Once, after a battle in the depths of winter, she went over the battlefield with a lantern in her hand looking for the corpses of her husband and two sons; she was accompanied by Madame Swinarski (then only 15 years old). Every body lying there she lifted, peering into the dead face. ‘Is it Casimir? Is it Stanislaus? Is that Thaddeus?’ What courage, and what a scene for a young girl, especially when she found her brother, 16 years old, dead not from wounds so much as from the cold which penetrated and congealed them. They carried him home between them, and had a rejoicing for the neighbourhood in his honour. ‘This is the dearest of my children’, cried his mother, ‘he has given me more happiness to-day than all the rest of you put together. I can only say that I hope to see each of you share the same glorious fate! For what is a Polish noble born if not to die when the enemies conquer?’ Madame Swinarski is the counterpart of her admirable mother, yet her brothers and sisters say, ‘Our Valerie has not a grain of patriotism!’ when I heard this I cried out, ‘Oh, then, if that is the way, may God defend us from the others!’ She assures me that with them it is shame and disgrace to a family that has not lost some member fighting against the Germans or the Russians. The contempt they have for a young man who has never been imprisoned, or lost an eye or an arm, or cannot show that he has taken an active part in the rebellions, is unbearably cutting.
Bessie O’Brien’s letter reveals her to have been an amusing and clear sighted observer. It seems clear that if she had not married a young Serb, who was serving as an officer in a Russian cavalry regiment, and departed with him for Serbia, she had the makings of a gifted journalist or novelist of manners. She might thus be seen as a precursor of better known writers such as Kate O’Brien or Maura Laverty who found in the experience of working in continental Europe (both worked as governesses in Spain) an imaginative enlargement and, at a personal level, an opportunity for self-definition and a release from the constraints of a provincial society. With its succession of character sketches, which amounts to a group portrait of a Polish household and brief outline of the essential social background, Bessie’s letter might be seen as a first chapter in a generic Irish women’s novel of exile.
Irish–Polish affinities are at their most marked during the nineteenth century. The Polish dialectic of insurrection and organic work has its Irish equivalent in the alternation between the rival strategies of armed separatism and constitutional nationalism. Defeat had a comparable impact within both body politics, with the Polish retreat from revolutionary romanticism to a more sober approach to the national question following the crushing of the January rising echoed in Ireland during the same period as, following a comparable defeat, domination of the political scene by the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood gave way to the more pragmatic activity of the Land League. This shift towards a more realistic assessment of what was achievable did not take place without strain, as the more sober-minded among the Polish and Irish elite grew increasingly exasperated with the verbal maximalism, and attendant lack of realism, of their revolutionary brethren. It was in this spirit that, following the failure of the uprising of 1863, Julian Lukaszewski admonished his countrymen, “The latest uprising has taught us a great lesson; we have had a difficult education. The noose, conflagration, Siberia, the general repression at home and exile abroad ought to sober us completely and bring it home to us that it is not in poetry and clairvoyance or in higher missions that political calculation lies, but in the awareness of the actual conditions of our country, in its wealth and resources, which await future great deeds”.
Lukaszewski’s comments could be compared to the advice to caution, and a prudent awareness of the sheer weight of British power, which A.M. Sullivan of The Nation tendered to the young Fenians in the 1850s, or the even more astringent verbal medicine administered some years later by Thomas D’Arcy McGee to his (as he believed) deluded fellow countrymen. McGee, who himself had taken part in the failed insurrection of 1848, following which he departed for exile in north America, had come to despise the combination of ineffectualness and high rhetoric which characterised “these Punch-and Judy Jacobins”. McGee’s views were deeply resented. His portrait of what he took to be a typical Irish nationalist demagogue among the exiled Irish in the United States may suggest why he was so disliked: “He is not seldom a dealer, by wholesale or retail, in spirituous liquors; sometimes a lawyer sometimes an editor... He is always ready with his money subscription to the church, but seldom goes to church. He lies up on Sunday, after the toils of the week, reading a sporting journal or a police gazette. He has a ready rowdy sort of rhetoric, and is never at a loss, when called on, to propose or second a resolution. He is particularly savage on England, and grows quite pathetic, unprepared as he is, at the mere mention of ‘the old land’. A fair share of mother wit - a sufficient stock of spending-money, and a vast deal of brass- complete the equipment of this very active, very important, and much courted individual”.
One of the most striking features of early twentieth century Europe was the retreat from the broadly democratic nationalism which swept the continent in 1848 to a narrower and less tolerant conception of the nation. This shift from the language of Lamertaine and Mazzini to that of Maurice Barres and D’Ununzio can be observed in both the case of Ireland and Poland. Thomas D’Arcy McGee belonged to the Young Ireland group of the 1840s which, under the leadership of Thomas Davis and through the medium of The Nation newspaper, promoted a generous definition of Irish nationality. Davis included in his vision all the population groups living on the island, both the descendents of the indigenous Gaels and those who had arrived over recent centuries. His approach to religion was equally ecumenical, being based on respect for both the majority Catholic faith and the reformed churches, including his own Church of Ireland. He was explicit, and at times pugnacious, in his defence of minority rights. By the end of the century, decades after Davis’ death, although he remained a revered figure in the nationalist pantheon, his vision of an Ireland made up of various strands was coming under challenge from the tougher, more narrowly focused nationalism which went by the name “Irish Ireland”. The most influential and verbally adroit ideologist of this mutation within Irish nationalism was D.P. Moran whose newspaper The Leader, launched in September 1900, provided a widely read vehicle for his ideas. It is an indicator of Moran’s combination of intellectual rigour and alarming honesty that, instead of treating Davis as a respected but ignorable ancestor, he should have overtly rejected his heritage arguing, in a sinister mantra, “The Gael must be the element that absorbs”.
In many of his key ideas Moran resembled such contemporaries as Charles Mauras in France and Roman Dmowski in Poland. The resemblance with Dmowski is particularly striking, as Poland also possessed an alternative concept of the nation embodied in the memory of the multi-ethnic rzeczpospolita and the civic liberalism of the constitution of 1791. Although Moran could be acute he had little of Dmowski’s analytic powers, resembling the Pole chiefly in his aggression, intolerance and ethnic narrowness. Significantly both men were influenced by the social Darwinism which was such a widespread current in the Europe of their youth and it may be that, like others during the same period, the peculiar timbre of their thought had its origin in a neo-scientific misapprehension of what it means to be human.
Writing in The Worker’s Republic of December 1899, the Irish socialist leader James Connolly commented on “the close analogy existing in many respects between the positions of Poland and Ireland”. Connolly’s subsequent career, which was politically and intellectually adventurous and culminated in his execution, following his participation in the insurrection of Easter 1916, was marked by a continued interest in developments in Poland. In a study published in 1985, arguing against prevailing attempts on the Irish left to accommodate Connolly within a Leninist mould, Brendan Clifford argued that the Polish dimension to his thought provided an important clue to the nature of his politics. Clifford’s understanding of Connolly is best suggested by the unabridged title of his work. This is Connolly: The Polish Aspect. A Review of James Connolly’s Political and Spiritual Affinity with Joseph Pilsudski, Leader of the Polish Socialist Party, Organiser of the Polish Legions and Founder of the Polish State. In Clifford’s view, “Connolly’s interest in the Polish Socialist Party was not an eccentricity. The Polish Socialist Party pioneered the combination of socialism and nationalism which Connolly attempted to develop in Ireland. The PSP was founded in 1892. Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1898. Connolly’s vision of Socialism being established as the vital principle in the revival of an ancient nation was also Pilsudski’s vision. Connolly and Pilsudski were both of an adventurous and romantic revolutionary disposition which was underpinned by a firm grasp on material realities. Both were Marxists up to a point, but subordinated Marxism to romantic ideals…. Though revolutionaries by inclination, Connolly and Pilsudski were not Leninists by inclination. They were revolutionaries in national affairs. Lenin knew nothing of Connolly. But he knew Pilsudski only too well and detested his politics”.
Brendan Clifford’s exploration of Connolly’s Polish aspect provided the starting point for an extended meditation on the differing courses of Irish and Polish history. His most striking claim, amounting to a leitmotif in his work, is that the apparent similarities between the two countries are merely apparent and mask a more profound difference. Clifford argues that this difference had its origins in the process whereby the Gaelic Irish began the transition to modernity by becoming English speakers and embracing ultramontane Catholicism. As no comparable rupture marked Polish history, and as Ireland had remade itself, the paths of the two nations diverged sharply. In Clifford’s formulation, “Polish Catholicism was Polish, but Irish Catholicism was Roman.”
Similarities at the level of political history can be paralleled in the religious experience of the two peoples. The nineteenth century Irish, like the Poles, gathered around their church and, in the absence of alternative institutions, made it an instrument of national self-assertion. As a result the bishops in both countries had to manoeuvre between the demands of their flocks and the need to deal with the occupying power. The Vatican’s well documented inclination to side with Vienna and St. Petersburg rather than with the oppressed Polish faithful had its echo in Papal willingness to exert a calming influence in Ireland in the hope of securing diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Holy See in return. (Both initiatives came to nothing, as neither St Petersburg nor London was willing to deal). Rome’s perceived indifference to the suffering of Polish and Irish Catholics inevitably aroused resentment. Although it is difficult to think of an Irish writer who might have expressed himself in such extravagantly subversive terms, many Irish readers would have seen the point of Slowacki’s famous satire involving the Polish patriot Kordian, the Pope and a demented parrot.
In a striking formulation a former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) once expressed the view that “analogies are disgusting”. One does not have to endorse this in its entirety to realize the limitations of comparison; one thing is not another and, similarities notwithstanding, the history of Ireland is not that of Poland. Nowhere are differences more striking than in relation to the core elements of identity, particularly language. In his essay of 1982 “Conversations in the Citadel” Adam Michnik commented on the challenge faced by his nineteenth century fellow-countrymen, “National resistance meant defence of the faith, the language and customs of fathers and grandfathers; it meant blocking through passive resistance, the persistent attacks on the national identity”. It is at this point that Ireland and Poland part company, as the nineteenth century Irish decoupled defence of the faith from that of the language and customs of fathers and grandfathers. Ireland entered its fatal union with Great Britain in 1801, six years after the final partition of Poland. Throughout the long nineteenth century, in spite of their many disputes regarding political tactics, there was a consensus among Polish intellectuals that language and traditions must be maintained. This remained the case even in the most depressing of circumstances when, faced with the overwhelming power of the occupiers, re-establishment of statehood appeared remote and illusory. There was no equivalent to this obstinate Polish point of honour on the Irish side. It was thus that Ireland, which entered the union as an Irish speaking nation with an English speaking minority, recovered its independence one hundred and twenty years later as an English speaking nation with an Irish speaking minority. Although at the time of the Act of Union a majority of Ireland’s inhabitants spoke Irish, it was already a language under threat and in terms of power structures of no consequence. The intensified pressure made possible by the Union, the Great Famine of the 1840s in which the Irish speaking poor were overwhelmingly the victims, and the accompanying changes in Irish mentalities, sealed the fate of the language.
In the view of later cultural nationalists the nineteenth century, which witnessed the great retreat of the Irish language, constituted an unparalleled disaster As Austin Clarke wrote, contemplating the great change which came over the Irish countryside:
Famine has made great clearances

And our language comes to an end.

Beggars wheedle in English at our fairs.

How much coffinship will bring



Emigrants to God’s own country?
In contrast with the high spirited Polish defence of the national substance there was on the Irish side, throughout most of the nineteenth century, effectively nothing. Instead, as politics displaced culture, those intent on protecting what they saw as the essence of the nation were isolated voices who never acquired sufficient weight to matter. The difference between Polish and Irish attitudes was noted by the perceptive Betty O’Brien who commented, “Polish is the language of the people and all speak it, but French is used in good society. It is a good thing that the Poles keep alive their old tongue…. After all what were they to do? – speak the conqueror’s tongue as we unfortunate Irish have done? Perish the thought! Neither German nor Russian will ever be the tongue of Poland”. It was only towards the end of the century, with the emergence of Gaelic revivalism, that voices equivalent to those which were so widespread in Poland began to make them heard. By this point, as is clear in retrospect, it was too late.
Both Poland and Ireland shared the common situation of what Adam Michnik has described as “a menaced national existence”. Each reacted differently. In reflecting on why matters which were so diligently attended to in another, a number of reflections come to mind. The most obvious of these is that, in comparison with Ireland, Poland had much greater resources. In addition to the peasant masses, it possessed a land owning gentry, an emerging middle-class, an intelligentsia, an elite diaspora and a national church. Ireland had nothing equivalent to the social thickness of nineteenth century Poland, just poor peasants, farmers and a small and scattered middle-class. Although Ireland had a church, its leadership tended towards pragmatism and had its own agenda (mostly relating to control of education). Moreover in the second half of the century the Irish church increasingly emerged as the mother church of the Irish diaspora throughout the English speaking world. In these circumstances it was, to say the least, unlikely to share the linguistic concerns of the Poles and indeed the practice of preaching in English to Irish speaking congregations features among the reasons advanced by contemporary observers for the decline of Irish.
As Oliver Mc Donagh has argued, as a result of the union with Great Britain, Ireland found itself linked in an unequal partnership with what was then the most advanced state in the world. One result was that Britain had the means to penetrate Ireland, through public administration, law and education, with thoroughness, indeed intimacy that in the Polish case was quite beyond the powers of the ramshackle Czarist state. Even in the most difficult of times Poland always had at its disposal an institute of higher education, either in Vilno, Lwow or Krakow. Once again Ireland had nothing equivalent. Lacking thus Poland’s resources, and under pressure of a state intent on language change through the means of mass education in English, for many of the Irish rural poor English represented the only available bridge to modernity and economic advance. The failure of Irish to embrace modernity could be seen as implicit in W.B.Yeats’ claim that Gaelic was incapable of abstraction; this was a dimension which Polish intellectuals ensured that their language retained.
Both countries were deeply influenced by the impact of literary romanticism. The result in both cases was an exalted insurrectionary language, as romanticism provided a new, and at times startlingly original, vehicle for the articulation of national passions. Yeats’s self-interrogation in old age, as he reflected on the impact of his play Kathleen Ni Houlahin on a generation of young nationalists,
Did that play of mine send out

Certain men the English shot?


would have had a resonance in Poland as in few other parts of Europe.
With the growth of literacy in nineteenth century Ireland, patriotic verse becomes one of the staples of local newspapers and magazines catering for a new readership. There was obviously an immense demand for verse of this kind, which is impressive in its sheer quantity. Over many decades patriotic verse provided an eloquent restatement of familiar themes, commented on issues of the day, and strove to keep up Irish spirits in difficult times. Such verse could range between nostalgia for past glories and rousing prophecies of better things to come, and in terms of quality between the pedestrian and the superb. Local writers were quick to recognize the affinities between Ireland’s situation and that of Poland; comment on Polish affairs in nationalist newspapers throughout the century was almost invariably sympathetic, while the great insurrections of 1830 and 1863 were followed by floods of pro-Polish verse. “A Ballad of Freedom” by Thomas Davis, a key figure in the emergence of Irish cultural nationalism, provides a representative instance of this declamatory public poetry. The first three verses, which appeared in the famous mid-century anthology The Spirit of the Nation, denounce French oppression in Algeria, English oppression in India and Russian oppression of the people in Caucasus. The poem reaches its climax in the fourth verse, with an invocation of Poland and a postulated brotherhood of the oppressed, which will extend from Sind in British India to the River Shannon in Ireland.
But Russia preys on Poland’s fields, where Sobieski reigned;

And Austria on Italy – the Roman eagle chained –

Bohemia, Servia, Hungary, within her clutches gasp;

And Ireland struggles gallantly in England’s loosening grasp.

Oh! Would all these their strength unite, or battle on alone,

Like Moor, Pushtani, and Cherkess, they soon would have their own.

Hurrah! Hurrah! It can’t be far, when from the Scindh to Sionainn

Shall gleam a line of freemen’s flags begirt with freemen’s cannon!

The coming day of Freedom – the flashing flags of Freedom”
As Davis comes close to acknowledging, in productions of this kind Poland like other victims of the nineteenth century empires acts as a surrogate for Ireland, so that denunciation of Czarist oppression is, by extension, denunciation of Ireland’s oppressors.
The tactic of indirect expression attained a rare and chilling eloquence in James Clarence Mangan’s “Siberia” which was published in The Nation of 18 April 1846. Mangan’s editors comment that he had, no doubt, “been reading in The Nation, specifically the issue of 11 April, about captured revolutionary leaders in Russian Poland. Several were executed, but some lives were spared and these men were ‘degraded from the ranks and condemned to hard labour in Siberia’ ”. In the poem, the desolate physic and human landscape of Siberia acts as an emblem both for Mangan's own hopelessness and for the misery and despair of Ireland in the years of the Great Famine:
In Siberia’s wastes

Are sands and rocks

Nothing blooms of green or soft,

But the snow-peaks rise aloft

And the gaunt ice-blocks.
And the exile there

Is one with those;

They are part, and he is part,

For the sands are in his heart,

And the killing snows.
Therefore, in those wastes

None curse the Czar.

Each man’s tongue is cloven by

The North Blast, that heweth nigh

With sharp scimitar.
And such doom each drees,

Till, hunger-gnawn,

And cold-slain, he at length sinks there,

Yet scarce more a corpse than ere



His last breath was drawn.
Although the relationship of “Siberia” to Ireland is implied rather that explicit, the emotional sources upon which Mangan drew are unmistakably suggested in the companion piece which accompanied “Siberia” in The Nation of 18 April 1846. This is entitled “To the Ingeezee Khafir calling Himself Djaun Bool Djenkinzum” or, in standard English, “To the English unbeliever calling Himself John Bull Jenkinson”.
The sacralising of the national struggle, encapsulated in the image of Poland as Christ on the cross between two thieves, which is so prominent in nineteenth century Polish writing, found eloquent echoes in the language of Irish nationalism. In the vision of the seventeenth century poets, Ireland was Israel among the nations while the, otherwise inexplicable, disasters which befell the Gaelic Irish were to be understood by analogy with the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness before their final admission to the promised land. This identification survived the transition to English, becoming one of the great eloquent commonplaces of nationalist declamation. Together with so much other Irish bric-a-brac, it found in the early twentieth century a final resting place in the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses
In Ireland, as in other parts of Europe, the years before the First World War witnessed a heightening of the political and rhetorical temperature. The resort to a messianic language of national redemption, which was such a widespread feature of discourse of the age, found a particularly eloquent practitioner in the poet, educationalist, language revivalist and president of the republic proclaimed in Dublin in Easter 1916, Patrick Pearse. Although a Catholic, Pearse’s visionary imaginings bordered on the blasphemous as he conceived of the main proponents of separatism (Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, John Mitchel and James Fintan Lawlor) in canonical terms as the four evangelists of Irish nationalism. In an extension of this vision, the degraded nation was seen as undergoing a process of death and resurrection, in which his own role would be analogous to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. It was against this background that, four years after Pearse’s execution, as the Irish struggle for independence reached its climax, Aodh de Blacam and Liam Rinn turned to Polish literature, finding in Adam Mickiewicz’s national messianism language appropriate to Ireland’s situation. In 1920, in what was clearly intended to be a strong symbolic statements, Mickiewicz’s Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego (The Books of the Polish Nation and Polish Pilgrimage) were translated into Irish as Leabhar Na Pólainne and published in Dublin. As the following brief extract may suggest, the hypnotic cadences of Mickewicz’s fifth gospel passed easily into Irish:
Agus do lean na Pólannaih ag adhrad Dé, mar bhí’s acu, an té adhran Dia, go dtugan sé omós don mhaith.
Is mar sin d’fhan an náisiún Pólannach dílis do Dhia a sinsear ó thūis deire.
Agus dubhairt a Phólann fé dheire: A mhuintir a thocfaidh chugam beidh said saor agus có-ionann, óir is mise a tSaoirse.
One of the recurrent motifs in modern Irish history has been the search for an external ally, which could balance England’s growing military and demographic preponderance. This was a search which extended over the centuries, with potential partners extending from Spain of Philip II, via ancien regime, revolutionary and Napoleonic France, to imperial Germany in the early twentieth century. Following the partitions, Polish leaders found themselves engaged in a similar quest. Although this took place over a shorter time-scale, it was equally intense, embracing the efforts of Dambrowski and Poniatowski to serve Poland by serving Napoleon, the activities of the Hotel Lambert group, Mickiewicz’s attempt to raise a Polish legion in Turkey and the early twentieth century manoeuvrings of Dmowski and Pilsudski between Berlin Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg and at one stage Tokyo. For the Poles the well known Irish slogan “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” would have been perfectly comprehensible, requiring only a change of proper nouns.
Where Ireland was concerned the eighteenth century French alliance was the most intensely felt, with the lush eloquence of countless Irish language aislingi (vision poems) prophesying the return from France of the exiled Stuarts who would once again reign as rightful kings. In the early nineteenth century the feelings which attached to the Stuarts seem to have transferred to Napoleon, with English language ballad makers replacing the visionary Gaelic poets of a few decades earlier.
Napoleon goes through the snow

And his ballad goes on and on

But the balladmaker is happy at darkfall.

The words are ready in mouth.


The detonating impact of Napoleon on the European imagination is perhaps most acutely registered in Stendhal’s Le Chartreuse de Parme and in Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. As is evident from his novels, for the French writer the Napoleonic era was experienced chiefly in terms of increased social and erotic energy, the glamour of bearing arms and the myriad opportunities which the empire’s enlarged horizons brought with them. While Mickiewicz was responsive to the energy of the Napoleonic era, for him as for his fellow countrymen, it possessed the additional dimension of national liberation. The hope that French arms would restore former liberties by driving the Muscovites from the Polish lands finds its most exultant expression in the swelling verse of book eleven of Pan Tadeusz. This bears the simple but eloquent title “Rok 1812” (Year 1812).
The cry of Mickiewicz’s Lithuanians, “Bog jest z Napoleonem, z Napoleon z nami” was echo in Ireland of the same period, where similar hopes were entertained of deliverance at French hands. As William Carleton noted in his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, “Scarcely had the public mind subsided after the rebellion of Ninety-Eight, when the success of Buonaparte directed the eyes and hopes of the Irish people him as the person designed to be their deliverer”. As a result of the intense, semi-apocalyptic hopes which both peoples reposed in Napoleon, much in Pan Tadeusz finds an unexpected gloss in the imaginings of the early nineteenth century Irish. In the Polish poem, news of Napoleon is at first a distant rumour, belonging more to the domain of legend than of history. He is first heard of in book one, when Captain Rykow tells the company a legend of the magical transformations of Bonaparte and Suwarow during the course of battle into the shapes of a fox, a hound, a cat and a pony. In Ireland comparable stories clustered around the figure of Napoleon. In his Autobiography William Carleton recalled how before mass crowds of people gathered at the cross-roads, “engaged in chat upon the usual topic of the day: the most important, and that in which they felt the deepest interest, was the progress of the Peninsular War. Bonaparte was their favourite, and their hopes were not only that he would subdue England but ultimately become monarch of Ireland….One of the most remarkable (anecdotes concerning him), and which was narrated and heard with the most sincere belief in its truth was the fact of his being invulnerable. It mattered nothing whether he went into the thickest part of battle or not, the bullets hopped harmlessly off him like hailstones from a window”.
In Ireland as in Poland, the arrival of the Napoleonic deliverer was understood as the fulfilment of prophecy. As Carleton noted, “many prophecies too were related, in which the glory of this country under his reign was touched off in the happiest colours”. For this reason the prophetic signs which precede the advent of the French armies in Lithuania – the comet of the year 1811 and the strange behaviour of cattle and birds in spring of 1812 – had their equivalents in early nineteenth century Ireland where believers in the prophecies of Colmcille and Pastorini were on the look out for portends that the millennial year of Ireland’s deliverance was at hand. Once more our best witness is William Carleton, who reported that the wandering poor, of whom Ireland had many, were one of the principle channels through which prophetic speculations were diffused. This took place at the fireside in the evening when the beggars, who were given lodgings overnight in the cottages of the settled community, entertained their hosts with legendary recital. In Carleton’s account, “‘The miller with two thumbs was then living’; said the mendicants, for they were the principal propagators of these opinions, and the great expounders of their own prophecies. Several of them had seemed him, a red haired man with broad shoulders, stout legs, exactly such as a miller ought to have and two thumbs on his right hand; all precisely as the prophecy had stated”.
One of most striking aspects of Pan Tadeusz is the mounting drumbeat of war; from rumours of distant battles in book one to the flood tide of French armies sweeping across Poland and Lithuania in book eleven. Because of Ireland’s island situation, the long dreamed for French help could only arrive by sea. In 1794 the Directory sent a substantial fleet to Bantry Bay in the south-west of Ireland, which was unable to land because of unusually severe weather conditions. In 1798, known subsequently as Blian Na bhFrancach or the Year of the French, a much smaller force landed at Killalla in the west of Ireland and, having been joined by large numbers of Irish, marched eastwards before being defeated by the English at Ballinamuck. While the French taken after the battle were treated as prisoners of war, their Irish allies were put to death.
In the popular Irish imagination the arrival of the French belonged more to the realm of prophecy fulfilled than that of sober history. In countless nineteenth century ballads the motif of “the French upon the sea” served to keep spirits up, as in the following encounter between Napoleon and the traditional female figure of a personified Ireland:
As Granu was walking along the sea shore

For seventy weary long years and more,

She saw Bonaparte coming far off at sea,

Saying rowl away my boys, we’ll clear the way

So pleasantly.
Similar imaginings were articulated in the Irish language, as in the following verse from Kerry:
Tá prionsa Ag teacht go hÉireann, Bona Parte is ainm dó,

Tá Emperor SA Spáinn Ag cur garda leis go hAlbain,

Seinnfear adharc is fliúit dó,

Beidh trumpa agus beidh gal is blast is púdar

Ag cur Na Majors dubha ar ballchrit

(A prince is coming to Ireland, Bonaparte is his name. There is an emperor in Spain sending a guard with him to Scotland. Horn and flute will be played for him. There will be a trumpet and there will be smoke and blast and gunpowder to terrify the black majors.)

Although it might appear absurd to compare this anonymous folk poem with the exquisite art of Pan Tadeusz, there are affinities between the Irish handling of the Napoleonic advent and that in “Rok 1812”. For both the essential thematic elements are: (1) The arrival of Napoleon in Lithuania/Ireland, (2) The excitement caused by this event, (3) The rout of Poland’s/Ireland’s enemies by the French armies. (In the Kerry poem Ireland’s enemies are the “Majors dubha” of the final line, dubh/black being a standard disparagement epithet).
It is reported that, in exile in St.Helena, Napoleon regretted that he had not sent his forces to Ireland rather than to Egypt. Both the Irish and the Poles were in the end disappointed in the hopes they reposed in their French saviour. Perhaps some measure of disappointment was inevitable, as Napoleon’s primary concern had to be the interests of the French state rather than the well-being of Poland or Ireland. In spite of this, in Ireland at least, the Napoleonic glamour lingered long into the century. Historical memory received powerful visual reinforcement through the mass diffusion of lithographs of nineteenth century Ireland’s favourite hero, the brave and eloquent Robert Emmet, who had been hanged in Dublin in 1803 ( “Bold Robert Emmet the darling of Erin”). In the many images of Emmet which were found on the walls of farmhouses and peasant cottages, the youthful hero was presented in period costume and in an unmistakable Napoleonic pose. The result was to provide later insurrectionaries with an iconography upon which they could draw, allowing them to frame their actions in terms of the style of a previous era. The appeal of the French mode for the romantic young of the 1860s is suggested in Padriac Fallon’s “The Young Fenians”:
They looked so good;

They were the coloured lithographs

Of Murat, Bernadotte and Ney

And the little Corsican.

Mars had raised them from our dead

And given to each his martial head.


Flags flew from our every word;

The new names sang from litanies,

Saviours each one;

They were the eagles in the morning sun;

A country rising from its knees

To upset all the histories.


It would be fascinating to know whether Poland’s rich insurrectionary tradition and associated repertoire of romantic gestures, contains any comparable echoes.
The impact of Sir Walter Scott on the nineteenth century European imagination is one of the commonplaces of literary history. From Russia and Turkey in the east to United States in the west, readers were stirred by the magnificent historical tapestry which Scott wove into the fabric of his novels. In Poland, as Donald Davie argued in The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott, Scott’s example was one of the elements which went into the making of Pan Tadeusz. Whereas in other parts of Europe the Waverly novels were experiences as energising and acted as an incitement to imitation, in Ireland, where their author was much admired, the impact was curiously sterile and self-defeating. For Scott’s many Irish readers, the example of what had been achieved in a neighbouring country prompted the desire that their own country’s dramatic history should receive a similarly impressive fictional embodiment. But, although the attempt was occasionally made, by general consent the results were unimpressive and the desired Irish historical novel never really emerged. For a people who outsiders regularly described as keenly interested in native history, and for whom their understanding of that history was arguably central to their self-definition, the absence of an Irish historical novel was felt to be a particular grievance. Although comparatively early in the century writers such as Gerald Griffin, the Banims and William Carleton produced an impressive, if uneven, body of fiction, which in terms of content, style and form was quite unlike anything being produced elsewhere in the English speaking world, as their subjects were drawn from contemporary Irish life, each in turn failed to fill the role of the Irish Scott. Arguably the desire for a fiction of this kind was misplaced; while the Scott model was crafted to portray internal conflicts, whose dramatic antagonisms and ultimate reconciliation could be seen as part of the organic growth of the nation, it was less suited to dealing with national conflicts, such as those between Ireland and England or Poland and Russia. (Mickiewicz circumvented this difficulty by basing Pan Tadeusz upon a conflict within the Polish-Lithuanian community).
In spite of the failure of Irish writers to produce the goods, the demand for a body of Irish historical fiction continued to be reiterated throughout the nineteenth century by almost everyone who addressed themselves to the subject. Perhaps inevitably, the terms in which this was articulated grew increasingly plaintive, clichéd and monotonous. For reasons that are not completely clear, but might include boredom with a thoroughly exhausted topic, the reordering of fictional priorities resulting from the advent of modernism and Joyce’s achievement, and the securing of Irish independence, the demand died out in the early twentieth century. In the mid 1980s the question of the missing novel reappeared in the writings of Brendan Clifford, in terms which were both thought provoking and more cogent than when last formulated in the nineteenth century. In his Connolly: the Polish Aspect Clifford raised the question of why there was no equivalent of Pan Tadeusz in the Irish language, in other words why late Gaelic Ireland never came to terms with modernity and made its own the emerging major form of the novel. In his view the obvious candidate to become an Irish Mickiewicz was Eoghan Ruadh Ó Suilleabháin, the most dearly loved of the poets of late eighteenth century Munster. Clifford argues that Ó Suilleabháin was particularly suited to the role, being a man of varied social experience, a master of Irish, English and Latin, and in touch with all the layers of late eighteenth century Irish society .
In a striking passage Clifford comments, “Owen Roe…lived at a moment when an Irish Pan Tadeusz might have been produced to good effect, making Cromwellian/Williamite society comprehensible to the Gael, making an end of their crippling, stylised dismissal of that society as Séan Buí, involving them in the national politics of the period (which originated from Séan Buí), representing Gaelic society to the other societies on the island (Anglo-Irish and Ulster Scots), and laying the basis for a Gaelic renaissance in the modern. And the finger of destiny points unwaveringly at Owen Roe O’Sullivan – the poet who lived in both worlds, the classical scholar, the labourer, the disputer with priests, the schoolmaster, the voyager around the world, the seducer of virgins – as the only possible Gaelic Mickiewicz. As one investigates the period one sees destiny pointing at Owen Roe …. How then could Owen Roe – the brilliant innovating traditionalist, the supreme poet of a society which lived through its poetry – have failed to be the Irish Mickiewicz? Did Gaelic Ireland, near the end of its tether, not renew itself through him to become the cultural medium of modern Irish social development?” (“Séan Buí or Yellow John was a standard disparaging epithet for the English population who were settled in Ireland after the confiscations of the seventeenth century). Having raised the question Brendan Clifford concluded, rather sadly, that the finger of destiny pointing at Eoghan Ruadh was an illusion and that temptation to write a Gaelic Pan Tadeusz was easily resisted because it was not experienced. Moreover, as Clifford acknowledges, Eoghan Ruadh was a more traditional figure than his account implies. In order to have embraced his postulated destiny he would have had to have been familiar with the novel as a genre (Mickiewicz knew Scott) and accustomed to doing his literary business though print. Until the very end the Gaelic literary tradition remained overwhelmingly manuscript based.
As nineteenth century Polish literature provided a forum in which the displaced national struggle could be conducted, its fate was to become intensely politicised. If Irish literature of the same period was marginally less so, the difference was one of degree rather than of kind, as the Irish too conducted their disputes through the medium of fiction, poetry, the writing of history and literary criticism. The equivalence of warfare and belles lettres is unmistakably signalled in Samuel Ferguson’s comment in the Dublin University Magazine of November 1833 when, having taken account of the depleted resources available to the Ascendancy, he concluded, “We must fight our battles now with a handful of types and a composing stick, pages like this our field, and the reading public our arbiter of war.” Inevitably a literature conducted in such a spirit had its limitations, most notably an over privileging of the public and the accessible at the expense of the private and the interior. Where poetry was concerned, as WB Yeats argued in his essays of the 1890s, the result was that patriotism became the criterion of excellence and that a rhetorical and declamatory use of language left little room for the more subtle music of inwardness. The dominance of popular taste by the school of verse which derived from Thomas Davis led Yeats to call, in a provocative phrase, for the de-Davisisation of Irish literature. Two decades later Stephen Dedalus commented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. In common with Yeats, Stephen’s remark might equally be seen as registering the writer’s recoil from the weight of the public and the inherited from the aesthetic duties and categories which acceptance of that heritage was presumed to impose. The present writer’s knowledge of Polish literature is sadly incomplete and I do not know whether it contains similar moments of protest, when attempts are made to reject the tribe and to vindicate the singularity of the artist’s vision. While I cannot be certain, in the nature of the case it seems inconceivable that Yeats and Joyce did not have their Polish counterparts.
Some Polish-Irish comparisons are less than flattering. It may be that both peoples, obsessed with their own suffering, were inattentive to the rights of minorities living within their borders. Thus Irish nationalists, accustomed to thinking of their country as an indivisible entity, were slow to recognize the emergence and consolidation in the north-east of the island of a population group which differed from them in its sense of its own identity, religion, political allegiance and, until the nineteenth century, language. The relationship within the old Polish commonwealth between the ruling elites and their Ruthenian subjects is a much debated theme; whatever the judgment made, one suspects that the concerns and ambitions of Mizkiewicz’s Polish speaking sczlachta would have appeared very differently if seen through the eyes of a Lithuanian or Bialorussian peasant. The fact that those who have been quickest to draw attention to this uncomfortable fact have been Poland’s Czarist and Stalinist enemies, does not diminish the validity of the point. Even the devil can occasionally tell the truth, if only for his own purposes.
This essay has suggested that, to the degree that Ireland’s situation resembled that of Poland, the two peoples shared analyses and strategies and found themselves faced with comparable choices and dilemmas. It may therefore be useful to recall that most Irish-Polish encounters, far from being linked to the deep structures of history, were casual and accidental, belonging to the domain of chance and sometimes of comedy. The best known of these, at least for Irish people, was that which took place in the Congo in June 1890 between Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad. At the time Casement was a British consular official. His task in the Congo, which was the personal property of King Leopold II, was to investigate the unbelievably inhumane conditions to which the population had been reduced by their Belgian master. In a letter of 1903 Conrad recalled the impression Casement had made upon him, when they met in Leopold’s heart of darkness. Conrad wrote, “I can assure you that he is a limpid personality. There is a touch of the conquistador in him too; for I have seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crookhandled stick for all weapon, with two bulldogs, Paddy (white) and Biddy (Brindle) at his heels and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle for all company. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, a little leaner, a little browner, with his sticks, dogs, and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in the park .... I always thought some particle of La Casas’ soul had found refuge in his indomitable body …. He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know.”
Casement, who later became an advanced nationalist and was closely involved in attempts during World War I to forge links between revolutionary forces in Ireland and Britain’s German enemies, was captured when he landed from the Irish coast from a German submarine in Holy Week 1916. Although, in trying to secure the freedom of his country with outside help Casement’s tactics were no different from those of Pilsudski or the Czech Masaryk, he was convicted of high treason and hanged in London in August 1916. As his humanitarian work in Africa and South America had gained for Casement an international reputation, in the weeks before his execution there were moves by a number of prominent figures to secure a reprieve. Conrad, whose son was serving in the British army, was not among those who petitioned for mercy. In a letter of 1916, to the Irish-American John Quinn, with the assistance of hindsight he qualified his earlier judgment; “But already in Africa I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion. By emotional force …. He made his way, and sheer emotionalism has undone him. A creature of sheer temperament – a truly tragic personality; all but the greatness of which he had not a trace. Only vanity. But in the Congo it was not visible yet.”
By any reckoning Casement was indeed a tragic figure, whose fate can only attract pity. In the same decade as he met Joseph Conrad, an encounter of a more piquant kind took place in Switzerland between an Irish–American and another Polish novelist. The Pole was the renowned Henryk Sienkiewicz while his visitor, who wished to discuss the translation of his novels into English, was the scholar, folklorist and linguist (he was reputed to have mastered seventy languages, including several north American Indian tongues) Jeremiah Curtin. Curtin, who was born of Irish emigrant parents in Detroit in 1835, was one of the pioneers of Irish folklore studies. He acquired some knowledge of Gaelic in the United States and, by reading printed Irish folktales and quizzing Irish emigrants, came to an appreciation of the wealth of oral narrative that was still to be found in the Irish speaking districts of the West of Ireland. He visited the land of his parents for the first time in 1871, and a further four times over the next twenty-two years. With the aid of interpreters, for he never acquired complete mastery of the Irish dialects, he collected the lore which was published as Myths and Folklore of Ireland, Hero Tales of Ireland, Irish Folk Tales and Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World. Curtin’s activities as a collector were undertaken a generation before the scientific collection of Irish folklore began, with the result that he provided an invaluable, and otherwise unobtainable, sampling of the late nineteenth century oral tradition. His initiative was a heroic one and he been described by an admirer as “calling on Irish speakers and writing down their long tales inside miserable huts choked by a peat fire and roosting hens.”
Given the value of his contribution, Curtin continues to be an esteemed figure in Irish studies. He is hardly likely to be regarded in a similar light by students of Polish literature. The impression he made on his Polish host, when they first met in 1897, is recorded in a letter of Sienkiewicz’s after their meeting. This is surely sufficiently amusing to deserve quoting at some length. Sienkiewicz wrote, “Jeremiah Curtin arrived, naturally. He is the most awful and colossal bore that the imagination of nine poets could conceive. He clutches at your sleeve while talking, and he repeats one and the same thing ten, twenty or twenty-five times. He talks about nothing except With Fire and Sword, the Deluge, Pan Michael, and Quo Vadis. He has no other topic. It seems as if the world were only partially created until the advent of his mission as translator and all that exists today is only two crucial subjects and two major questions: my novels and his translations. I can’t even begin to suggest to you the horror of all his compliments. He sits at my table and goes on and on without interruption from breakfast to dinner. He even talks while eating and drinking and then grabs me by the knees for forty minutes or more. And when I escape to write a letter I can still hear his voice at my back: ‘You must go to America.’ The monster doesn’t want to tell me how long he is staying. His wife is neither ugly enough not pretty enough to make up for it all, and they are driving me to utter desperation because, I’m telling you, even if I could contain one thousandth part of the incense he blows in my ear I’d burst like a bomb filled with dynamite.”
In spite of his antipathy, Sienkiewicz was prepared to co-operate with Curtin, apparently for financial reasons. As a result the Irish-American folklorist became the principle channel by which Sienkiewicz’s works became known to the English-speaking world. Polish scholars are agreed that he was a less than adequate interpreter. Curtin, who as a Russophile was out of sympathy with the Polish cause, had an imperfect knowledge of Polish and was obliged to rely on Russian translations of the novels as the basis for his own renderings into English. In the judgment of Albert Jusczak, Curtin, “being able to read and understand only the words he sees on the printed page, but linguistically quite unable to grasp the feelings behind them, he robs the reader of a powerful emotional experience and impoverishes the novel.” It was inability to tolerate the thought that English speaking readers could only come to know Sienkiewicz via “Curtin’s barely animated puppets, so stiff and wooden that they creak whenever a mouth flies open”, that prompted W.S. Kuniczak to publish his own acclaimed translation of the Trilogy in 1991-1992.
As the twentieth century advanced, possibly because both countries had secured their independence and were of less interest to each other, affinities between Ireland and Poland lessened as, to all appearances, did the level of comment. In 1917 T.W.H. Rollenson published Ireland and Poland: a Comparison, as a contribution to the debate on whether Ireland’s future was best secured by independence or some continued link with Britain. More than two decades later, writing to a correspondent in New York, the poet Joseph Campbell expressed his sense of disappointment at what independence had brought. The New Ireland, which he saw as narrow in sympathies and an economic failure, had fallen far short of the dreams of his youth. Additionally the poet, who was a Belfast man, belonged to the generation of nationalists who found the partition of the country an unbearable wrong. Accordingly Campbell wrote, “Ireland at the moment is tranced in a dead apathy … Don’t believe any reporters who tell you the country has progressed since 1921 …There are about 200,000 unemployed in Northern and Southern Ireland – it used to be Ireland, but now we are partitioned more cruelly than Poland”. In June 1946 the Catholic intellectual monthly Studies carried an article by John Murray S.J. entitled “The Tragedy of Poland”. Murray, who had no illusions about what was taking place, wrote: “We see Poland garrisoned with Russian and Russian–controlled troops and administered by a Provisional ‘Government’, consisting almost wholly of Communists with scarcely any support from the Polish people. We see a land through which walk the spectres of famine and distress; where every voice is stilled save that which blares and blusters from the East; where no man’s liberty is secure, and where the prisons and concentration camps have changed nothing but their label and are used for the same purpose of political oppression”. (Coincidentally, in the same year the young Brian Moore had taken up duty in Poland as a UN relief worker and was gathering impressions which would go into the making of his later fiction.
For foreigners faced with the complexity of Polish grammar and the unfriendliness of Polish consonant clusters, the writings of Norman Davis provide an indispensable introduction to the history of the culture of our host country. It is striking that Davies, who has interpreted Poland with such insight, should also have written of Irish history with an unusual degree of sympathy. Davies is unique among British historians in rejecting a half-perceived conceptual framework which views the histories of the other nations inhabiting the islands of Britain and Ireland as appendages to the history of England. His Heart of Europe was published in 1984 during the period of repression which followed the suppression of Solidarity and the introduction of martial law. In the concluding section, having chronicled the dismal history of the Polish People’s Republic, Davies was led to protest against the influence of a then modish revisionism regarding the nature of communist power on Western perceptions of Poland. Davies wrote, “Specialists, one often suspects, exist for the purpose of making simple things complicated, and on an issue such as the present crisis in Poland, anyone who tries to take the broader view, and reduce the multiplicity of events to simple intelligible propositions, is in danger of being charged with the mortal offences of ‘over-simplification’, ‘unwarranted generalisations’, or worst of all ‘schematisation’…Anything which smacks of a clear opinion, or which enters the uncertain world of predictions and probabilities, is generally thought in academic circles to lack the necessary degree of equivocation…The simple fact of political oppression, for example, which millions of Polish people can recognize instinctively for what it is, proves far too elusive for many academic commentators.”
Although Davies’ strictures are severe, for Polish readers they are unlikely to appear excessively so. Over recent decades the received version of Irish history, with its unilinear narrative, its binary contrasts and focus upon the experience of conquest, defeat and confiscation, has come to appear unduly simplified and has been subject to increasing academic challenge. One suspects that the impulse towards revisionism has its origin in recoil from the sheer murderousness of what took place and embarrassment with the view of history as martyrology which sometimes results. Moreover historians, like other interpreters, are attracted by complexity and may feel obscurely dissatisfied with narratives which, as is the case for extended stretches of Irish and Polish history, possess an exemplary moral clarity. In Ireland, if not yet in Poland, received popular accounts of national history have, for some, come to be seen as naïve and self-serving and as inviting deconstruction. Whatever the interpretive gains from the resultant muddying of the waters, these surely fade when contemplating events such as the massacres of Mullaghamast or Katyn. (Although separated by over three centuries, these are marked by striking similarities. Both involved deception and the killing of unarmed opponents. In each case the victims were local elites, from the Irish midlands and eastern Poland respectively, whose extirpation was part of a larger strategy of conquest). Faced with the irreducibility of what took place, the reflections of the poet-diplomat Denis Devlin in “To Me: A Greek Country Schoolteacher” come to mind:

Our enemies said so much we talked too much

That we talked no more, ashamed.

Shamefaced like the Irish about the memory of Cromwell.

But this is wrong, wrong to hide what happened.

It is true; simply true my friend was butchered.

It is true; simply true the town was razed.

In the writing of history, as in the conduct of one’s personal life, it is no doubt commendable to avoid self-pity and polemic. Moreover revisionism is arguably intrinsic to the practice of history as an intellectual discipline, as existing interpretations are refined, emphasises shifted and new hypotheses tested. To think to any purpose is inevitably to revise. When, however, all of the revisions on offer tend in a single direction, at times monotonously so, we may begin to suspect that the enterprise is being driven by an ideological imperative rather than by a disinterested search for understanding Thus for many Irish readers, faced with a questionable relativisation of our history, Davies’ insistence on the primacy of narrative, his willingness to call things by their right names, and to take account the perception of history by those who are its subject are likely to be experienced as a recall to essential criteria.


In recent years post-colonial theory has gained an impressive presence in Irish studies. Arguably the Third World focus of such writing is of limited value and closer and more fruitful similarities are to be found among the suppressed nations of east-central Europe. Irish analogies and illuminating divergences abound in the historical experiences of the people of this area, from Lonrot’s redefinition of the nation through the medium of folklore and epic song in the Kalevla, to the Slovak struggle to maintain their language in the face of Hungarian state pressure. As these pages have attempted to suggest, in both its affinities and differences, the example of Poland is particularly rich in material for reflection.


Selected Bibliography
Carbery Mary, the Farm by Lough Gur. The Story of Mary Fogerty (Sissy O’Brien), Cork and Dublin 1973, (First published 1937).
Carleton, William, the Autobiography of William Carleton, London, 1968, pp. 54-55. (First published 1895).
Carleton, William, the Works of William Carleton, (New York, 1881), Vol. 1, p. 960.
Clifford, Brendan, Connolly the Polish Aspect, Belfast 1985, pp.123-124, 57.
Devlin, Denis, “Uncollected Early Poems” in the Lace Curtin, 1971.

Fallon, Padraic, a Look in the Mirror and Other Poems, Manchester 2003, p. 51.


Krzyzanowski, Jerzy, the Trilogy Companion. A Reader’s Guide to the Trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz, New York, 1991, p. 20, 30.
Mangan, James Clarence, the Collected Works of James Clarence Mangan, Poems

1845- 1847. p.157, 449


Mickiewicz, Adam, Leabhar Na Pólainne, Dublin 1920
Murray, John, “The Tragedy of Poland”, Studies, June 1946, p.175.
Ó Ruairc, Míchéal, Dán is Cead Ón Leitriúch, p. 80.
O’Sullivan, Sean ed., Folktales of Ireland, London 1966, xi
Saunders, Norah and Kelly A. A. Joseph Campbell Poet and Nationalist, Dublin 1988, p. 137.


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