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Arthur Conan Doyle, The Author Of Sherlock Holmes, On Conscription In Ireland

I must admit to being a fan of the fictional “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes. Or rather, a fan of the various modern cinematic and television adaptations of the original late 19th and early 20th century short stories and novels featuring the character. Invariably these dramatisations have portrayed the Edwardian central figure – and his colleague, Doctor Watson – in a guise more suited to contemporary tastes. One only has to think of Robert Downey Jr in the steampunkian 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes, or Benedict Cumberbatch in the very modern BBC TV series, Sherlock. However, enjoyable as those dramatisations are, I have a particular fondness for the British television series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, first broadcast in 1984. The slowly paced and impeccably mannered episodes stayed close to the published “canon” of Baker Street tales, with a charismatic lead actor, Jeremy Brett, well-crafted scripts and handsome production values giving the series lasting acclaim.

The perennial cultural value of the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes is an interesting phenomenon in an age of censorious political and social judgements on existing or past artists. The Scottish-born creator of Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, was an ardent unionist and imperialist who very much supported the global ascendancy of the Anglo-British race. Given his close Irish ancestry on both sides, he expressed a keen interest in the affairs of Ireland, albeit from a staunchly pro-union viewpoint. He stood unsuccessfully for the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party in two general elections, a group formed largely out of hibernophobic sentiment in the 1880s. Its leader was Spencer Cavendish, the older brother of Frederick, one of two British colonial officials assassinated by the Irish National Invincibles in 1882; a headline-making event dubbed the “Phoenix Park Murders” by the outraged newspapers in London.

Not unsurprisingly then, the tales of Sherlock Holmes are filled with barely concealed Irish “villains” inspired by and resonating with British popular culture. Most obviously, of course, there was the character of Professor James Moriarty, a figure partly based upon the former revolutionary turned nationalist politician, John O’Connor Power, a Mayo MP who was both admired and loathed in conservative Britain; and a certain Captain Moriarty, a partly fictitious Fenian leader frequently referenced in the Victorian press. Indeed, it has long been recognised that Doyle viewed the mortal struggle between the law-abiding Englishman, Holmes, and his implacable underworld foe, Moriarty, as a metaphorical echo of the political struggle between the ruling British Empire and the underground Irish Republic.

For much of his life the Edinburgh-born writer was hostile to any notion of “home rule” – let alone independence – for Ireland before taking a slightly more pragmatic approach to the seemingly existential subject in the tumultuous years leading up to the First World War. By 1918 he had become a strong advocate of a partitioned island within the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with regional self-government for the “south” and the “north”. Though he remained implacably opposed to any further diminution of British control over the country (unsurprisingly, he was among a chorus of English intellectuals and artists who defended the military executions and reprisals which followed the Easter Rising of 1916). However this letter sent by Arthur Conan Doyle to the liberal and occasionally Irish-sympathising Daily Chronicle in April 1918 is fascinating, given that its political realism about enforced conscription in Ireland ran quite contrary to then mainstream public opinion in Britain, both on the left and the right.

Ireland & Conscription

Sir, — I am in hearty sympathy with your views upon this question. I do not suppose that anyone has written more strongly than I have done in the Irish Press upon the sad failure of so many Irishmen to rise to this European crisis, but none the less my heart sank, for the first time in this war when I saw what the Government proposed to do. They have acted so wisely up to now that it seems the more terrible that they should make so fatal a mistake at this all-important moment.

Consider the series of impossibilities. Suppose that in face of every sort of riot and uproar they obtained the men, how could they make them take the oath of allegiance? And if they took the oath how could they make them train? And if they trained how could they make them fight? What would be the feelings of a British division which had such troops upon its flanks? What would be our own feelings if half a dozen divisions, rotten with Sinn Fein, were now in our battle line? Is it not clear that it might lead to serious military disaster, as it has so often done with the disaffected troops of Austria? Would not the sane General say that he would rather have half the troops, but know that he can rely upon them? And yet it is to attain such an end as this that we are venturing upon this desperate path.

Surely there is an honourable alternative for the Government. Let them frankly say that after the eloquent speech of Mr. Devlin, and the way in which it was received by the party, and also in deference to the expressed desire of the Irish officers who have donned the King’s uniform, the Home Rule Bill will be passed at once without conditions, and the rest left to the sense of chivalry of the Irish people. The rights of Ulster should be conserved to the point of making the Irish Constitution such as will readily fit hereafter into a federal system.

If this or some other similar solution is not found we shall find ourselves landed in a sordid guerilla war in the West, as well as the vital contest in Flanders.

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex, April 16, 1918.

While other artists have seen their works cast into an indefinite or permanent cultural Purgatory I doubt we will see any such action with the more important stories or characters crafted by Arthur Conan Doyle. Simply put, their hold and their value, artistic or financial (or jingoistic), are too great to be done away with for those invested in their continued success.

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18 comments on “Arthur Conan Doyle, The Author Of Sherlock Holmes, On Conscription In Ireland

  1. Sharon Douglas

    Yep. Conan Doyle, right up there with Kipling as it regards the Irish….that being said…Basil Rathbone shall forever and always be my Holmes.

  2. This was great! Just last year, I subjected my poor husband to a monologue about the obvious Fenian metaphor that Doyle created with Moriarty. (we were on a road trip & listening to an abridged Sherlock Holmes story). I was making educated guesses, though…had not really looked into it.
    Also, the Moriarty that Andrew Scott plays in the update really brings this out…I think Moffat must understand that Moriarty is a stand in for the supposed irrationality of Fenianism.

    • Maybe. Though casting Andrew Scott in the role of Moriarty is more likely just a reflection of the British TV habit of casting Irish people in villainous roles of one type or another. Something which has become increasingly common in the US TV and movie industry, though usually with British and American actors faking awful or sub-racist Dublin accents, playing characters imbued with vulgarity and violence. I can’t even think of the last time I saw an Irish actor in an Irish role in a positive way in a mainstream US show or film, mixing with American characters in contemporary setting. British characters? All the time.

  3. The Derby scheme could never be implemented in Ireland as large areas of population were in favour of independence. Good point made about Austria, whose troops could never fully be relied upon. Lord Wolesley was far more anti Irosh than Doyle.

  4. Breandán

    Funny how we say ‘the West of Ireland’.

  5. Yes, during those missing years after he fell into the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes was apparently dealing with the Republican threat in Ireland, amongst other things. However, like you, I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. It’s very enjoyable hokum, but it’s still hokum. There’s no reason to take any of it very seriously, including the hibernophobia.

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