In 1366 – three centuries to the year after the Conquest – the English passed the Statutes of Kilkenny. The English part of Ireland was called the Pale. Those outside the Pale were ‘Irish enemies’. This version of apartheid was based on the contempt felt by the English for the inferior peoples of Ireland. The problem was one of race. English settlers were to be protected from degeneracy by various prohibitions. It was only much later that differences in religion further soured relations between the English and Irish. It is therefore ironical that the original English invasion of Ireland – at least in the view of Paul Johnson – was carried out at papal request and with papal authority.
Ireland will forever stain the name of England. Six centuries after the Statutes of Kilkenny, Ireland was still convulsed by divisions wrought in and upon it by the English. For two hundred years prior to that time, enlightened English rulers – like Pitt the Younger and Gladstone – had sought to extricate England from Ireland. On each occasion they were blocked by radically conservative members of the aristocracy – and in at least one case (George III), the monarchy.
Let us take two examples of radical aristocratic opposition to Irish Reform. Lord Curzon’s family went back to the Normans. He went to Eton, of course, and had more indicia of nobility than you could point a stick at. On Ireland, he was fanatically opposed to Home Rule. During the Irish War of Independence, but before the introduction of martial law in December 1920, Curzon suggested the ‘Indian’ solution of blockading villages and imposing collective fines for attacks on the police and arm. He was the apogee of the aristocracy.
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week
Lord Halsbury was another aristocrat who was manic about Ireland – possibly because of Irish blood on his mother’s side. He was not, poor fellow, educated at Eton – his Daddy looked after him at home before packing him off to Merton College, Oxford. In speaking against a Home Rule Bill, Halsbury said that some races were unfit to govern – ‘like the Hindoos and Hottentots’ – and the Irish.
In 1972, Paul Johnson said that Halsbury was a ‘white supremacist.’ In the name of heaven, which builder of the British Empire was not a white supremacist? Did they go into Asia or Africa believing that the natives were their equals, or that the meek would inherit the earth? And when their sons and daughters spread out over America and Australia, did they believe that the indigenous people they were killing were their equals? You might recall that that paradigm of the Tory aristocracy, the Duke of Wellington, remarked that the Irish could put a reasonable army in the field – provided they had white officers.
Is it not therefore an exquisite irony that Ireland may finally become unified because of the radical opposition of the boys from Eton to the dilution by Europe of the purity of the English nation?
And they may even lose Scotland and Wales as well. It is impossible to resist quoting the well-known lines of Gibbon.
But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.