Why an Irish Chesterton Society?
Because right now, Ireland desperately needs GK Chesterton, that's why.
So who was Gilbert Keith Chesterton?
He was an Englishman. He was a devout Christian, and in the later years of his life, a devout Roman Catholic. He was born in 1874, he died in 1936, and he wrote a whole lot of words in between.
He was a literary genius who produced essays, articles, poems, novels, short stories and biographies that continue to be read and to influence our world.
He was a champion of life, of joy in life, of bottomless gratitude for the gift of life. He was a champion of the ordinary man, of the public house and of the private house. He never tired of attending public meetings, or of defending the sanctity of the home.
He was a fierce debater and controversialist, who took on the brightest intellects of his era-- George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, HG Wells, and many others.
He argued against socialists, communists, atheists, modernists, prohibitionists, cubists, futurists, fatalists, nihilists and faddists of every stripe-- while never losing his temper or his good humour.
He loved England passionately, and he berated her when she was in the wrong against other nations-- Ireland especially.
Indeed, he had a soft spot of Ireland, writing two whole books about her (Irish Impressions and Christendom in Dublin) and frequently discussing her in his other works.
Just over a hundred years ago, he wrote these words in a book about his friend and sparring partner, George Bernard Shaw:
The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth.
How things have changed in a hundred years--or in even fewer, considering those words might still have applied fifty years ago!
In the Ireland of 2010, patriotism seems to have little meaning beyond cheering on the national sports teams. The great Gaelic revival of previous generations is mocked, with sniggering references to "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads".
As in the rest of the Western world, domesticity is increasingly under attack by radical individualism and hostility to traditional ideas of family life.
"Doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual" are held in such little esteem that even RTE's twice-daily broadcasting of the Angelus-- a grand total of two minutes air time-- is an outrage to secularists and pluralists. The media's coverage of the Catholic Church goes far beyond legitimate criticism, into the realms of a kulturkampf.
But the malady goes deeper even than that. Our writers and artists increasingly paint a bleak and hopeless view of life. (Take recent Irish films such as Garage and Adam and Paul.) Rates of violent crime and suicide soar. Real people are ritually humiliated on TV for our viewing pleasure.
This is how Chesterton described the atmosphere of his own youth, in a poem dedicated to his best friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley:
A cloud was on the mind of men
And wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul
When we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity
And art admired decay;
The world was old and ended:
But you and I were gay;
Round us in antic order
Their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter,
Fear that had lost its shame...
Life was a fly that faded,
And death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed
When you and I were young.
Who could doubt that these words apply a fortiori to Ireland today?
But GK Chesterton faced the same decadence, the same nihilism, the same corrosive cynicism in his own day. He wrote and spoke against it week after week, year after year, decade after decade. And his example, his books, and his arguments remain.
He understood that the evils he was fighting were as self-destructive as they were destructive. In his great work, the Ballad of the White Horse, a disguised King Alfred tells his Viking enemies why their philosophy contains the seeds of its own doom:
...Though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.
...Though all lances split on you
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.
...Our monks go robed in rain and snow
But the heart of flame therein
But you go clothed in feasts and flames
When all is ice within;
Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.
...Therefore your end is on you
Is on you and your kings
Not for a fire in Ely fen
Not that your gods are nine or ten
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
We need an Irish Chesterton Society because post-Catholic, post-religious, post-nationalist, post-agrarian, post-everything Ireland is already weary of its own victory over the past; it seems weary, indeed, of its own existence. The time is propitious for "some cry of cleaner things", and who knows but that a GK Chesterton Society of Ireland might assist, in its humble way, in a national rebirth?
In the meantime, it's fun for Irish Chesterton fans to keep in touch and to share their enthusiasm for this champion of enthusiasm.
This is your Society, and your blog. Both can be whatever you want them to be. Welcome to the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland!
posted by Maolsheachlann (Maolsheachlann@gmail.com)