Shapland Hugh Swinny
Nationalism and anti-theology in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century
Shapland Hugh Swinny was born in Dublin, in 1857 and educated at St John's College, Cambridge, taking an MA degree in 1884. In the next year he made a decision on the future course of his life—a decision which made him practically unique among young Irishmen growing up in the 1880s. For he then joined the small Comtean Positivist community based in Newton Hall, Fetter Lane, London—a community of which he was to be a leader for over twenty years. Although resident in England for most of his life, Swinny visited Ireland regularly, and took a keen interest in nationalists' struggle for self-government.
Swinny's life is thus a forgotten chapter in a forgotten history—the role of avowed secularists, atheists and agnostics in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish nationalism.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) had attempted to delineate a law of intellectual and social development, to advocate a new political system, and to initiate the religion of the future. According to Comte, monotheistic religion was merely a phase through which mankind was rapidly passing. Future transitions would produce a world with small states whose temporal government would be controlled in an authoritarian fashion by technocrats. Global unity and peace would be assured by the worldwide worship of the religion of Humanity, and intellectual liberty would be safeguarded by the entire independence of this spiritual organisation from the temporal state. Late in his life Comte endeavoured to project the substance of the Positivist worship of the future in some detail [For more information about Positivism, see Auguste Comte, 1798-1857, et le positivisme/ Auguste Comte, 1798-1857, and Positivism, the website of the International Positivist Society, http://www.multimania.com/clotilde/ hosted by multimania, last accessed, 27 Feb. 2000].
Comtean Positivism was much discussed in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. A few aspects of Comte's historical and philosophical ideas were endorsed by many of the mid-Victorian intelligentsia, especially those who shared Comte's doubts about the veracity of Christianity (if not his confidence in its imminent demise). Positivism also gained a small number of full British adherents, the most prominent of whom were Richard Congreve, Edward Beesly and Frederic Harrison. But by the time Swinny came of age, Comtean Positivism was already on the wane, and the trickle of new adherents was abating. Two of the most important blows against the new religion were struck from two unlikely sources.
First, John Stuart Mill, the most important British populariser and sympathiser of Comte, propagated a theory which did much to discourage complete adherence to Comte's system. Mill argued that Comte had undergone a personality change in the course of his life which had rendered his later writings unbalanced. This argument was used by Mill to justify his eclectic attitude to Comte's work—Mill endorsed aspects of Comte's epistemology and methodology in his earlier writings, but voiced a damning indictment of Comte's vision of the Positivist future. This theory of Comte's second "carrire" is not endorsed by recent work on Comte [see M. Pickering, Auguste Comte: an intellectual biography, Vol.1 (Cambridge, 1993)], but it was widely accepted by contemporaries once articulated by Mill and others, and heavily affected the subsequent reception of Positivism in Britain. Mill had made it much easier for the many who were impressed by elements of Comte's work (from John Morley onwards) to resist the pleas of avowed Positivists for full support.
Second, there was the debate arising from the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Ostensibly, it might be thought that such an apparent attack from another angle on the Mosaic cosmology accepted by many contemporary Christian believers would have assisted the spread of Comte's system. However, Positivism actually suffered from the momentum which gathered behind the idea of natural selection, partly because Positivism's status as the most novel synthetic system had been usurped, partly because Comte's imaginative and sweeping predictions suffered in comparison to Darwin detailed and moderately stated hypothesis, and partly because of the attitudes of the evolutionists themselves. Few natural scientists before Darwin had given Comte much credence, and fewer still did so afterwards. Most notably, T.H. Huxley handed critics of Comte a memorable weapon in 1869 when he coined the description of Comte's system as 'Catholicism minus Christianity' [Huxley, 'On the physical basis of life', Fortnightly Review, xi (1869), p.141].
In retrospect Swinny's decision to give himself entirely to a system which seemed in many ways passé by the time he reached maturity is surprising. Of course, it can legitimately be suggested that Swinny's adherence to Positivism was not disinterested: relative to not a few late Victorian intellectuals, Swinny was a small fish—if an industrious fish—who would never obtain great prominence, and Positivism was a congenial small pond. However, other reasons for Swinny's acceptance of the declining Positivist creed may be intimated from the nature of his later activities as a Positivist.
For Swinny was one of the most politicised of Positivists. He was never happier than when commenting on public affairs in the columns of the Positivist Review (which he edited from 1901 to 1923). He was also active in a number of radical political societies in the Edwardian period, particularly as a critic of imperialism, and acted as secretary of the "pro-Boer" South Africa Conciliation Committee during the Boer war. Above all Swinny was a defender of the interests and reputations of subject peoples (including his own people, the Irish).
In this aspect, Positivism's appeal to Swinny is obvious, since anti-imperialism was one of the leading public characteristics of Positivism in Britain. Comte had predicted not only the dismemberment of the British empire, but the fragmentation of the United Kingdom and the independence of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. His British adherents followed this lead from the moment Richard Congreve stridently advocated the British evacuation of Gibraltar and India in 1857. According to Christopher Kent, British Positivists' absorption in denunciations of the British empire was symptomatic of a defect of Comte's system. Comte had outlined a detailed creed, and cautioned his followers against the tarnishing influence of the present political order, but had not given them a methodology with which to hasten the final transition. Positivists were thus forced to occupy a world so obviously distant from the Positivist future, and yet were deprived of almost any form of action to take in the meantime without seeming to forsake the advice of their late leader. Criticisms of the dubious methods used to expand the margins of the British empire was one of the activities in which Positivists could most effectively use 'moral fervour [to] obscure the gap between the real and the ideal' [C. Kent, Brains and numbers: elitism, Comtism and democracy in mid-Victorian England (Toronto, 1978), pp.156, 66-8, 90].
But although anti-imperialism was in this way the result of weakness in the Positivist system, it did give Positivists a weapon with which to attack orthodox Christianity. Positivists tried to place Anglicanism under suspicion of imperialism through its established status in an imperialist state, and through the ambiguous attitudes of its professors to colonial conflicts and British/English nationalism. Since imperialism was often justified as a form of muscular missionary work, a method of civilising savages by spreading Christianity, even the dissenting churches were not entirely immune from its appeal. It was a relatively small step for critics of Christianity like the Positivists to argue that the religion exhibited decadence by its failure to prevent the outbreak of wars such as the Boer war, or by the failure of its leaders whole-heartedly to condemn outrages committed by defenders and expanders of the British empire. This meant that the Positivists could realistically claim that their religion alone was comparatively free from the corrupting influence of the Imperial Heart of darkness.
It might therefore seem paradoxical that several Positivists spent time in the service of the British empire. But these too were attracted in part by Comte's anti-imperialism. Like other nineteenth-century evolutionists, Comte had argued that every stage through which humanity had progressed had been important to its ultimate development. But unlike many contemporaries, Comte overtly rejected the Eurocentric assumption that the West's current development embodied a close approximation to the ultimate stage. As Swinny wrote, 'the West, in the midst of its revolutionary transition, affords no model for the re-organisation of the East' [Swinny, 'Time and tide in India', Positivist Review, xi (1903), p.80]. Sympathetic colonial administrators thus found in Positivism an impressively broad framework for their relativistic interest in other cultures. J. Carey Hall, a Positivist from an Ulster Presbyterian background, studied Confucius while at work in the British legations in China, and criticised Western governments for assisting Christian missionaries in the country. Another Positivist, Sir Henry Cotton, shortly after his retirement after thirty-five years in the Indian Civil Service, became president of the Indian National Congress, and thereafter Liberal MP for East Nottingham. Cotton used the latter position to become the spokesman of radical critics of the policy of the then Chief Secretary for India, Frederic Harrison's good friend John Morley.
Hostility to the growth of the British empire was relatively common in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s when Comte was first widely read there, and his British followers developed a rapport with leading anti-imperialists such as John Bright. However, when Swinny would have first encountered Comte (in the 1870s and 1880s), Comte's view that the demise of the British empire was imminent and desirable was increasingly unpopular, and probably contributed to the prevalent impression that the British Positivists were a tiny minority of cranks. For Swinny, however, because of his Irish nationalist sympathies, hostility to British imperial rule was always relevant. Irish nationalism alone however was too narrow a creed for Swinny as an educated Irishman living in England. Positivism legitimised and ennobled Swinny's nationalist affinities by placing them in the wider context of a belief in universal human brotherhood: 'Humanity has grown strong, not by the cultivation of one dominant type, but by all the nations of the earth bringing their various contributions to the common heritage of mankind; and those are well worthy of remembrance who have kept alive the courage and endurance of the struggling and the oppressed' [Swinny, 'Ossian', pp.18-9 especially p.19, in F. Harrison, S.H. Swinny and F.S. Marvin, (eds.), The new calendar of great men: biographies of the 559 worthies of all ages & nations in the Positivist calendar of Auguste Comte (London, 1920, new ed., revised and enlarged, first published 1892)]. Comte's utopia appealed to Swinny not only by promising the end of all empires, but in offering a prominent status for intellectuals like Swinny, since they would exercise an immense influence over public opinion unmolested by the state through the universal Positivist church.
Swinny's acceptance of Positivism in fact gave him an anti-imperialist life-mission. It was the combination of Swinny's Irish nationalism, his English university education, his doubts about the Christian religion and his rigorous quest for an intellectual system that led him to Positivism. Swinny was an appropriate leader for early twentieth-century Positivism, and Positivism was a highly appropriate creed for him. He thus acted as President of the London Positivist Society from 1901, and President of the English Positivist Committee, until his death in August 1923, and was also one of the joint-editors of (and a contributor to) the 1920 edition of The new calendar of great men, a collection of biographies of the individuals Comte had earlier selected as having made significant contributions to human civilisation. Swinny's direction did not stay the decline of British Positivism, and he failed to attract many new converts. His energy as a writer and activist however did as much as anything to create the impression that Comtean Positivism still had any political or cultural relevance in his day: it was only after his death that the depth to which Positivism had declined was truly apparent.
Swinny's sympathy for subject peoples' nationalisms led him to join other radicals in a series of conferences and pressure groups seeking to raise awareness of the plight of subject peoples of empires all over the world. Like his Positivist colleagues, he was energetic in exposing the hypocrisy of British commentators who were keen to condemn foreign imperial powers such as the Ottoman empire without criticising Britain's own imperial policy. India was a special interest: As he proudly stated in one speech, India 'next to my own country has the first place in my affections'. [Swinny's speech to the International Subject Races Conference at the Hague in 1907, quoted in Positivist Review, xv (1907), p.211].
India's poverty, like that of Ireland, was a discredit to "England" since it was directly attributable to the drain on India's resources, the heavy taxation, and the inefficient system of government which resulted from the imperial connection [Swinny, 'India, Russia, Ireland: an economic comparison', Indian Review, vi (1905), pp.7-8]. The possession of India and the rest of the empire was a dangerous influence on British domestic politics, as it gave greater apparent credibility to anti-democratic theories of government and measures such as conscription and protection. International morality and the freedom of subject peoples was symbiotically related to domestic freedom and the progress of the working classes. Possession of the empire weakened the United Kingdom by threatening to lead her into entanglements with foreign powers, while repressive government antagonised subject peoples, making them less likely to assist in the event of such a conflict.
Swinny was a member of the British branch of the Indian National Congress, and a friend of several Indian nationalists (such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak), as well as of other western sympathisers with Indian nationalism such as the Protestant Irish Nationalist MP Alfred Webb (another President of the Indian National Congress). Even when his friend Morley was Chief Secretary for India, Swinny too found it impossible to keep silent on this subject. When the Indian Dababhai Naoroji, MP for Central Finsbury in 1892-5, stood for parliamentary election at North Lambeth in 1906, Swinny seconded his nomination. Swinny was to call for the granting of dominion status to India after the first world war.
Positivists were not intrinsically democrats—in fact in the long term they favoured the phasing out of parliamentary and representative forms of government. But in the short term, some Positivists such as Beesly and Swinny looked with favour on democratisation and growth in the political power of the working classes. Swinny was relieved by the replacement of the Unionists by the Liberal government of 1905-15. He aligned with radical Liberals on the majority of imperial and domestic questions, advocating old age pensions and supporting the Liberal ministry's trade union law reforms. He was however suspicious of the influence of Liberal imperialists over the government's Irish and imperial policies, and distrusted what he perceived to be the overbearing sectarian influence of Nonconformists and middle-class philanthropists over the Liberal government, particular in the fields of education and social reform.
Swinny nonetheless praised aspects of the Liberal government's imperial and Irish policies. The establishment of political autonomy in the Boer provinces of South Africa conquered during the recent Boer war impressed Swinny, and augmented his hopes for the implementation of home rule in Ireland: 'the self-government granted to the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, so lately our opponents in arms, and the success attending that just and courageous measure, has been a practical demonstration of the advantages of home rule, which has not failed of its effect. How in the face of this is it possible to talk about the dismemberment of the Empire if a statutory Parliament sits in Dublin?' ['The annual address', Positivist Review, xviii (1910), p.32.]
The Irish question indeed remained Swinny's predominant interest. Swinny attempted to use the intellectual system bequeathed by Comte to articulate a distinct theory of Irish nationality. One of the most important aspects of Comte's system, especially for Swinny's contemporaries, was his attempt to establish a science of individuals' and groups' behaviour in society, or a science of sociology (it was Comte who coined this word). The development and organisation of this science in Britain and Ireland in the early twentieth century had not proceeded as far as it had in neighbouring European countries. Positivists were thus disproportionately represented among its avowed British and Irish practitioners. Swinny was particularly active in this field, and acted as Chairman of the Council of the Sociological Society in 1907-9. Swinny was keen to channel contemporaries' increasing interest in sociology into a greater respect and acceptance of Comte's system
Swinny thus self-consciously tried to apply sociological principles to the study of Irish history. According to this interpretation, geographical barriers, such as the sea between Britain and Ireland, were particularly powerful in giving rise to separate national identities. Ireland's past, present and future were deeply affected by the Ireland's relative isolation from the rest of Western Europe. Freedom from the pressure of foreign invaders during Roman times had resulted in the development of a homogeneous and distinctive civilisation in Ireland, but had delayed the evolution of political unity. The homogeneity and distinctness of Irish identity were thus subsequently preserved, in spite of the hostile advances of Ireland's larger neighbour: 'Therefore we have a primitive civilization, homogenous and strongly conservative. England, on the other hand, with immensely greater power and resources, had a civilization much less homogeneous and more flexible. The attempt of the stronger nation to impose its social, political and in the end its religious system on the weaker nation, is the great tragedy of Irish history. Ireland for many centuries hardly felt the impact of the general progress of the West save as it reached her through the oppressor, or save as she retained her place as a member of the Universal [Roman Catholic] Church. Her relation to England is, therefore, the paramount consideration whether we are investigating the causes of the arrest of her natural evolution or the long contest between the opposing types of civilization.' ['A socialist view of Irish history', Positivist Review, xviii (1910), p.275.]
Swinny swelled with pride when describing how Irishmen and women had, in the face of great temptation and misfortune, kept faith in the reality of Ireland's distinct national existence: 'That the Irish people retained through all this the love of country, and the love of knowledge, that they remained brave, pure and self-sacrificing, is one of the strongest proofs that free Ireland is destined to play a worthy part in the evolution of Humanity' [Swinny, The history of Ireland: three lectures, given in Newton Hall (London, 1890), p.19]. The attempted suppression of the resulting movements in Ireland for political autonomy had produced unnecessary friction and wasted the energy both of the subject people and of the ruling imperial nation, to the detriment of government and society in both. As Swinny explained, in detailing his disagreements with the Irish socialist leader James Connolly, 'to me Ireland is a nation and the first and most urgent step is to recover for her some control of her own affairs. To Mr. Connolly the first step is to join in the general revolutionary movement. To me in that movement as in all other world movements, each nation should take its part, not as a collection of individuals, but as an organic whole. Humanity is made up of nations, and will grow stronger and more united as each is the better able to foster its own special sources of strength and bring its own special contribution to the common fund of our general civilization.' ['Socialist view of Irish history', p.277]
Swinny also disagreed with Irish nationalists who proposed the complete political separation of Ireland from Britain. As he wrote when defending Parnell's acceptance of the policy of home rule (as opposed to the larger measure of autonomy that would have been embodied in the repeal of the Act of Union): 'To surrender the power of the Parliament on some questions in return for the concession of a national executive in harmony with the people is not to abandon the position of Grattan and O'Connell, but to carry out their ideas of a free and a self-governing Ireland with far greater fullness and far greater hope of permanence' [Swinny, History of Ireland, p.44]. Swinny's political sympathies thus lay with the Irish Parliamentary Party throughout his life.
Swinny's Positivism did occasionally however give his nationalism a heterodox tinge. His attitude to Cromwell forms one of the most striking examples of this. Cromwell was much admired by Positivists as providing a model of the type of dictator who would emerge and take control when the effete parliamentary system of government had served its purpose. The demon usually described by Irish nationalists is thus unidentifiable in Swinny's depiction of Cromwell. Cromwell was at least more honest than Lord Salisbury, 'too honest to palter with half measures, to try ineffective irritation, to usher in twenty years of firm government with an extension of the franchise, and to constitute himself and his soldiers bailiffs for the occasional and precarious collection of rent'. Curiously, Swinny urged his countrymen and women to 'look on Cromwell rather as one of those who, however, unwillingly, has had a part in the building up of the Irish nation. All the great nations of Europe ... have sprung from the union of many races, each supplying some element of strength to the whole. By the settlement of the Cromwellians new elements were added to the Irish nation, elements it may be of turbulence, but certainly of power. Tipperary, the chief seat of settlement has been foremost in the national cause. In our own day [1890s], while almost purely Celtic counties like Kerry have been still sending Unionist landlords to the House of Commons, counties of mixed race like Wexford and Tipperary have been Nationalist to the core. The descendants of the Cromwellians have been gathered into the Irish nation, and have proved themselves not the least faithful of her sons.' [Swinny, History of Ireland, pp.13, 12].
Implicit in this theory was the notion that Ireland was a political and cultural unity. This was not in 'any way diminished by the existence in a part of Ulster of an industrial and Protestant population who profess some political hostility to their fellow-countrymen ... the distinction of religions as a consequence of the general course of the evolution of human thought in the intellectual sphere, and the growth of religious equality and tolerance in the political and moral, is becoming of less and less importance. Ulster cannot claim - nor even the North-East portion of Ulster - to be considered a separate nation. Protestant Ulster has no separate territory, no distinctive national consciousness of long duration ... It remains a province of Ireland with some distinctive industrial conditions' [Swinny, 'Sociological view of the history of Ireland', Soc.Rev., i (1908), no.3, pp.280-90, especially pp.289-90.].
Swinny thus found it difficult to understand the lack of support for home rule in Presbyterian Ulster. As an Anglicised Irish nationalist from a Protestant background, he did not accept Irish Protestants' fears of oppression by a Catholic majority in a home rule Ireland. As a Comtean Positivist, Swinny believed that Protestant Ulster's application of the divisions of a dying religious creed (Christianity) to politics represented a perverse interruption of Comte's scheme of progress, wherein all communities would ultimately adopt one religion, that of humanity. He could only assume that the Unionist movement in Ulster, with its demand for separate political treatment, would fracture and dissolve, and was a fact of small long-term political significance. 'There is a curious likeness', he contended, 'between the claims of the Southern States in the American Union and the claims of Ulster in Ireland. Both claims depend on retrograde ideas - in the Southern States on the belief in slavery, in Ulster on religious bigotry and intolerance. In both, the inevitable course of human progress eats away the very foundation of the fancied nationality.' [Swinny, 'Nationality', Positivist Review, xxvii (1919), pp.225-30, especially p.227]
When the partition of Ireland was mooted in 1913, Swinny wrote; 'To all Irishmen who love their country and are proud to call themselves Irish, whether or not they are politically connected with the Nationalist party, it would appear a hideous parricide, a cruel vivisection of a nation one and indivisible' [Positivist Review, xxi (1913), p.263]. (Swinny similarly believed the combination of Muslims and Hindus within the Indian National Congress represented the most hopeful line of advance for British India, and would almost certainly have opposed the eventual creation of Pakistan). Taking his line from Redmond again, he offered the hand of conciliation to Unionist Irishmen, so long as they accepted the principle of separate self-government for Ireland. He called however for a stringent enforcement of the law against Unionist leaders such as Sir Edward Carson, who threatened to resist home rule in Ireland with force unless exemption were granted to Ulster.
Swinny's committed support of Irish home rule led him into more cordial disagreement with the tiny group of Irish Positivists resident in Ireland. All three of these Positivists were of Anglican background, and were employed in Anglican universities and colleges. Swinny shared a most interesting correspondence with the most eminent of these Positivists, John Kells Ingram, best known to posterity as an economist and as the youthful author of the rousing patriotic anthem popularly known by its first line, 'Who fears to speak of '98?' Unfortunately it is largely only Swinny's side of the correspondence which survives (in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland), and even more unfortunately, it only commenced in 1900, seven years before Ingram's death. Contact between the two factions of Positivists in the Atlantic archipelago created by a split in 1877-8 had been kept to a minimum during the lifetime of Richard Congreve, the leader of one such group. (Swinny eventually played an important role in the reunification of the British Positivist movement in 1916).
According to Ingram, the contemporary division of Ireland into Catholics and Protestants would make any too hastily adopted system of self-government unstable. Ingram distrusted the current religious and political leaders of the Irish majority—self-government would however be possible if Ireland were Positivist. He favoured the rejection of home rule and the delay of the grant of self-government until a Positivist reformation had been effected in Ireland along with other parts of Europe. [On Ingram see the writer's 'Who fears to speak of politics? John Kells Ingram and hypothetical nationalism', Ir.Hist.Stud., xxxi (1998-9), no.122, 202-21.]
Swinny agreed with Ingram on broad principles: the growth of a third religion, neither Catholic nor Protestant, would promote political union in Ireland. But they did disagree on immediate measures: Ingram's proposal to postpone the cherished pursuit of Ireland's nationhood until the increasingly remote event of the Positivist millennium was too much for Swinny to bear. Swinny thus supplemented his private protests with a respectful public note of disagreement in his otherwise admiring review of Ingram's The final transition (1905): 'Dr. Ingram does [not] doubt that his own country must one day have an independent existence; but he is willing to wait for this till the spread of human religion has softened the prevailing animosities. Younger patriots must be careful how, on such a subject, they dispute with the author of "Who fears to speak of '98?"; but some among them, myself included, still hope that, long before the happy days of universal brotherhood, Ireland will have obtained—if not complete independence—at least a substantial control of her own government and destinies.' (Positivist Review, xiii (1905), p.141)
There was little interest in Comte in Ireland outside of this tiny circle: the number of rationalists in Ireland was small enough, and Swinny could only interest a few of these (such as Frederic Ryan) in Comte. Swinny's encounters with the thought of the most eminent historian of rationalism in nineteenth-century Ireland (perhaps in nineteenth-century Europe) mirrored his difficulties with Ingram. The historian and Unionist MP William Edward Hartpole Lecky was influenced by Thomas Buckle's philosophy of history, a philosophy in some ways similar to Comte's. Nonetheless, Lecky's view of Comte was distinctly unflattering. Lecky therefore would have been rather dismayed by the fact that his writings, through both attraction and repulsion, appear to have pushed Swinny in the direction of Comte. For in a review of Lecky's History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, Swinny recalled his youthful reading of that book: 'When I first read it, its influence on me was enormous, and I still have a large notebook in which, like a good boy, I filled many pages with improving extracts' [Swinny, Positivist Review, xix (1911), pp.114-6, especially pp.115-6]. Lecky would have been equally disappointed but less surprised by the extent to which Swinny regarded the patriotic tone of Lecky's Leaders of public opinion in Ireland as an affirmation of Swinny's own nationalist instincts: Swinny was by no means alone in regarding this book as furnishing strong evidence in favour of the nationalist cause. Swinny described Leaders of public opinion feelingly as 'one of the best books to put into the hands of a young Irish Protestant to remind him of the great things his fathers did for his country's freedom and to rouse him to take his part in the ranks of his nation' [Positivist Review, iv (1896), p.163].
It would be an unkind interpretation of the views of Lecky and of the Irish Positivists resident in Ireland towards the Irish national question to suggest that they were aware that their relatively comfortable lifestyles depended upon the privileged status of Anglican society in Ireland, privileges which were unlikely to survive self-government. It would equally be unkind to Swinny to contend that as he was not resident in Ireland (although a regular visitor), he lacked Lecky and Ingram's awareness of the deep divisions within Irish society, divisions which would make the career of the self-governing Irish nation so hard. It would be nearer the truth however to say that although Irish Positivists were aware of and proud of a distinct Irish identity, it was a necessary corollary only in Swinny's more heavily politicised view of the world that that identity required immediate and distinct political representation. The majority of Swinny's fellow countrymen and women agreed with him on this point.
Swinny also followed Redmond in co-operating with British policy during the first world war. He was a friend of Redmondites such as Tom Kettle, who eventually enlisted and was killed fighting for the Allies in the war. In Swinny's rather simplistic interpretation of past and contemporary European events, Irishmen in the British armed forces during the Great war were contemporary equivalents of Wellington, fighting in alliance with England as 'the vindicator of the liberties of Europe' [Swinny, Positivist Review, xii (1904), p.19], and thus squarely in the most glorious traditions of England and Ireland. The fact that the war was fought in alliance with France and joined ostensibly in defence of a small Catholic nation (Belgium) was also significant: Like Comte, Swinny saw some virtues in Catholicism and was certainly not influenced by the prevalent anti-Catholicism in contemporary Britain. Swinny had also long campaigned for Anglo-French amity. In spite of Swinny's repeated recent attacks on British militarism as falling behind the moral standards of Positivism, he thus chose in 1914 to argue that sometimes 'it may be necessary to defend the new world with the weapons of the old'. [Swinny, 'The duty of Positivists in the present crisis', Positivist Review, xxii (1914), pp.231-4, p.231]
Recent liberalisation of British imperial policy, and of British policy in Ireland in the war's early months, clinched Swinny's sympathy for the Allied cause. He argued at the outset of war that 'Ireland's full support' for British policy had been attained because 'at this very moment a great act of statesmanship and international justice has placed the Home Rule Bill on the Statute Book. England and Ireland, now at last reconciled, will find a new bond in their common efforts and sacrifices in defence of the liberties of Europe and of mankind' [Swinny, 'Paragraphs', Positivist Review, xxii (1914), pp.236-9, especially p.238]. Swinny hoped to attach the aims of global spiritual and political unity as closely as possible to the Allied cause, and endorsed the eventual Versailles settlement to a far greater degree than many of his pre-war radical associates.
At times Swinny's endorsement of Allied war policy seems in retrospect bloodthirsty, as when he praised the British government for allowing Indian troops to serve in the trenches, and thus access to the 'equality of a glorious death' [Swinny, 'War and peace', Positivist Review, xiii (1915), p.29]. Swinny's fellow Positivists were equally (if not more) vociferous in this cause. Another Positivist leader, Philip Thomas (1854-1921), was father of the poet Edward Thomas, whose work has previously been discussed in this journal. Philip Thomas's unquestioning support of British policy during the first world war probably contributed not a little to the confused state of mind of his son, which is evident in some of his poetry [B. Clifford, 'Oh what a lovely warrior!', Heresiarch, (Summer 1997), no.8, pp.10-5].
Swinny however did not utterly condone the worst excesses of war-time sentiment in Britain. He was critical of Allied propaganda, and spoke out against attacks on civilians of German descent who happened to have been in Britain at the outbreak of the war. This last was a particular concern for Positivists since individuals of German descent imprisoned by the authorities during the war included Otto Baier, later leader of the Positivists in Liverpool. Nor was Swinny's support of the Allied war-effort sufficiently energetic to assuage the suspicions of some Britons, such as his fellow Positivist Frederic Harrison, who saw a hint of treachery in Swinny's opposition to the implementation of conscription in Ireland and repeated defences of the rate of enlistment in the country.
But Swinny's efforts to depict the Irish and British peoples as displaying that union of hearts such liberal-minded men on both sides of the Irish sea had so long sought came increasingly into conflict with reality during and after the Great war. British governments' repeated failures, for all their professions, to activate home rule in Ireland left him nonplussed. He felt that such delays, caused by too much attention being paid to the claims of Unionist opponents of home rule (particularly those in Ulster), contributed to the rise of separatist Sinn Fein, which usurped the standing in Ireland of the Nationalist party with which Swinny had worked cordially for so long. Swinny could not easily reconcile himself to the Sinn Feiners, and certainly not to their separatism - his own habits of regular travel between Britain and Ireland, continued into old age, showed him how closely the futures of the two islands were bound together. British military repression in southern Ireland in the years 1920-1 was another in a long list of British blunders in Ireland: travelling in Ireland in the summer of 1920 was a shocking experience for one with Swinny's confident late nineteenth-century faith in progress. Swinny did at least live just long enough to see this policy reversed and the self-government of nationalist Ireland put into effect via the treaty of December 1921. However, he was also alive to witness a partition of Ireland which he had long insisted no-one in the country wanted.
Swinny had always maintained that the idea that the island of Ireland contained two nations, the north and the south, or the Protestant and the Catholic, or the Anglicised and the Celtic, was, sociologically speaking, a myth. He could hardly have felt otherwise—of Protestant descent, living and working in England, yet an orthodox Nationalist, Swinny embodied many of these supposedly polarised elements himself. When it was suggested that Protestant Ireland constituted a separate nation, Swinny noted on the contrary that leaders and spokespersons of nationalist Ireland had frequently been Protestant: 'the Ireland of Flood and Grattan, of Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, of Thomas Davis and the author of 'Who Fears to Speak of '98?', of Butt and Parnell, ... is most vehemently of all opposed to any partition of the country' [Swinny, 'Nationality', Positivist Review, xxvii (1919), p.228]. Ingram and Swinny, for all their disagreements about political machinery, ultimately agreed that there was room for more than one culture in an independent Ireland. As Swinny had written: 'All the great nations of Europe ... have sprung from the union of many races, each supplying some element of the whole' [Swinny, History of Ireland, p.13].
The tenor of much British and Ulster Protestant criticism of Irish home rule, of course, had exaggerated the divisions in Ireland by stereotyping the Celtic Catholic Irish as a race of economic failures with an irrational religion. Supporting evidence could of course be found for such claims; within Ireland, for instance, the leading scientists and rationalists tended to come from Unionist backgrounds. But ultimately it is to be greatly regretted that the early political and intellectual leaders of the Irish Free State/Eire took too much of this criticism too seriously. Rather than employ the slow strategy (largely Swinny's strategy) of exposing the crudities of Unionist myths by the painstaking enunciation of counter-instance, Irish opinion formers fell into the error of trying to construct an equally inflexible, monolithic version of Irishness. A protectionist culture was thus deemed necessary in Fianna Fail Ireland to try to ring-fence a supposedly quintessential Catholic Celtic core against the rampant advance of irreligion, materialism and other dangers from Britain. Swinny had rightly predicted that this would erect further barriers in the way of the unification of the country [Positivist Review, iv (1896), p.135.]
Few people would have been as dismayed as Swinny, Ingram and Lecky, though proud Irishmen each, by this consummation, particularly by the ascendancy of the Catholic Church within nationalist Ireland. Swinny's story, and his version of Irishness, is worth relating because, as Fernand Braudel has suggested, history is the sum of all possible histories, and many histories within the pursuit of political autonomy for nationalist Ireland are often concealed beneath the familiar official version. Contributions were made from disparate quarters towards the construction of an independent nationalist Ireland. A pluralist state, rather than one which any creed had a privileged position, not only would have more accurately reflected this reality, but would have been less of an insult to the memory of many of its builders.
G. K. Peatling's completed doctoral thesis on British political thought in relation to Irish politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is due for publication later this year. His more recent research has focussed on the relationship between religion and national identity in the Atlantic archipelago. He has recently begun a post at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, on a research project concerned with the foundation phase of public libraries in Britain.