For the last few weeks I’ve been doing some research on the complex origins of socialism as a political and cultural force in late 19th and early 20th century Ireland, which of course includes the significant influence of British thinkers and campaigners on developments here. Which led me to this observation on the Irish people by the acclaimed Christian-socialist author and reformer Charles Kingsley upon a visit to County Sligo from his home in England, writing to his wife from the Ascendancy opulence of Markree Castle in Collooney in 1860.
“I have done the deed at last – killed a salmon, over five pounds weight, and lost a whopper from light hooking. Here they are by hundreds, and just as easy to catch as trout… I could catch fifty pounds of them in a day. This place is full of glory –
But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
Shortly later he made this judgement on the “year zero” ushered in by the Great Famine and its effect on the British-controlled population and economy in a letter from Westport in County Mayo:
“But the country which I came through yesterday moves me even to tears. It is a land of ruins and of the dead. You cannot conceive to English eyes the first shock of ruined cottages; and when it goes on to whole hamlets, the effect is most depressing. I suppose it had to be done. …what an amount of human misery each of those unroofed hamlets stands for! Still it had to be done. There are magnificent farms growing up now, with roots and grasses, instead of the horrid potato in the black bog.”
On a related theme here is a letter from 1892, written by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the celebrated married couple who were founding members of the London School of Economics, the left-wing Fabian Society and the New Statesman Magazine.
116 Lower Baggot St, Dublin.
We both thank you for your very nice letter, which we are quite in capable of answering as it deserves.
All we feel capable of doing is to ask you kindly to ascertain since when the British Museum possesses a Sheffield daily newspaper — that is if you can before the Library closes and you go away. Our emissary in Sheffield wants to know how much he must read there. Send your answer in the enclosed envelope.
We hope you will have the holiday you deserve. B. takes a keen interest in the bicycle.
We will tell about Ireland when we come back. The people are charming but we detest them, as we should the Hottentots — for their very virtue. Home Rule is an absolute necessity — in order to depopulate the country of this detestable race!
The term “Hottentot” in Victorian Britain was a common slur for peoples or nations judged to be racially inferior to the British or white Europeans in general.