Read CHAPTER VIII of Principles of Freedom, free online book, by Terence J. MacSwiney, on ReadCentral.com.

WOMANHOOD

“And another said: I have married a wife and therefore
I cannot come.”

Yes, and we have been satisfied always to blame the wife, without noticing the man who is fond of his comfort first of all, who slips quietly away to enjoy a quiet smoke and a quiet glass in some quiet nook always securing his escape by the readiest excuse. We are coming now to consider the aspect of the question that touches our sincere manhood; but let no one think we overlook that mean type of man who evades every call to duty on the comfortable plea: “I have married a wife.”

I

When the mere man approaches the woman to study her, we can imagine the fair ones getting together and nudging one another in keen amusement as to what this seer is going to say. It is often sufficiently amusing when the clumsy male approaches her with self-satisfied air, thinking he has the secret of her mysterious being. I have no intention here of entering a rival search for the secret. But we can, perhaps, startle the gay ones from merriment to gravity by stating the simple fact that every man stands in some relationship to woman, either as son, brother, or husband; and if it be admitted that there is to be a fight to-morrow, then there are some things to be settled to-day. How is the woman training for to-morrow? How, then, will the man stand by that very binding relationship? Will clinging arms hold him back or proud ones wave him on? Will he have, in place of a comrade in the fight, a burden; or will the battle that has too often separated them but give them closer bonds of union and more intimate knowledge of the wonderful thing that is Life?

II

I wish to concentrate on one heroic example of Irish Womanhood that should serve as a model to this generation; and I do not mean to dwell on much that would require detailed examination. But some points should be indicated. For example, the awakening consciousness of our womanhood is troubling itself rightly over the woman’s place in the community, is concentrating on the type delineated in “The Doll’s House,” and is agitating for a more honourable and dignified place. We applaud the pioneers thus fighting for their honour and dignity: but let them not make the mistake of assuming the men are wholly responsible for “The Doll’s House,” and the women would come out if they could. We have noticed the man who prefers his ease to any troubling duty: he has his mate in the woman who prefers to be wooed with trinkets, chocolates, and the theatre to a more beautiful way of life, that would give her a nobler place but more strenuous conditions. Again, the man is not always the lord of the house. He is as often, if not more frequently, its slave. Then there are the conventions of life. In place of a fine sense of courtesy prevailing between man and woman, which would recognise with the woman’s finer sensibility a fine self-reliance, and with the man’s greater strength a fine gentleness, we have a false code of manners, by which the woman is to be taken about, petted and treated generally as the useless being she often is; while the man becomes an effeminate creature that but cumbers the earth. Fine courtesy and fine comradeship go together. But we have allowed a standard to gain recognition that is a danger alike to the dignity of our womanhood and the virility of our manhood. It is for us who are men to labour for a finer spirit in our manhood: we cannot throw the blame for any weakness over on external conditions. The woman is in the same position. She must understand that greater than the need of the suffrage is the more urgent need of making her fellow-woman spirited and self-reliant, ready rather to anticipate a danger than to evade it. When she is thus trained, not all the men of all the nations can deny her recognition and equality.

III

For the battle of to-morrow then there is a preliminary fight to-day. The woman must come to this point, too. In life there is frequently so much meanness, a man is often called to acknowledge some degrading standard or fight for the very recognition of manhood, and the woman must stand in with him or help to pull him down. Let her understand this and her duty is present and urgent. The man so often wavers on the verge of the right path, the woman often decides him. If she is nobler than he, as is frequently the case, she can lift him to her level; if she is meaner, as she often is, she as surely drags him down. When they are both equal in spirit and nobility of nature, how the world is filled with a glory that should assure us, if nothing else could, of the truth of the Almighty God and a beautiful Eternity to explain the origin and destiny of their wonderful existence. They are indispensable to each other: if they stand apart, neither can realise in its fulness the beauty and glory of life. Let the man and woman see this, and let them know in the day that is at hand, how the challenge may come from some petty authority of the time that rules not by its integrity but by its favourites. We are cursed with such authority, and many a one drives about in luxury because he is obsequious to it: he prefers to be a parasite and to live in splendour than be a man and live in straits. He has what Bernard Shaw so aptly calls “the soul of a servant.” If we are to prepare for a braver future, let us fight this evil thing; if we are to put by national servitude, let us begin by driving out individual obsequiousness. This is our training ground for to-morrow. Let the woman realise this, and at least as many women as men will prefer privation with self-respect to comfort with contempt. Let us, then, in the name of our common nature, ask those who have her training in hand, to teach the woman to despise the man of menial soul and to loathe the luxury that is his price.

IV

I wish to come to the heroic type of Irish Womanhood. When we need to hearten ourselves or others for a great enterprise, we instinctively turn to the examples of heroes and heroines who, in similar difficulties to ours, have entered the fight bravely, and issued heroically, leaving us a splendid heritage of fidelity and achievement. It is little to our credit that our heroes are so little known. It is less to our credit that our heroines are hardly known at all; and when we praise or sing of one our selection is not always the happiest. How often in the concert-hall or drawing-room do we get emotional when someone sings in tremulous tones, “She is far from the Land.” There is a feeling for poetry in our lives, a feeling that patriotism will not have it, a melting pity for the love that went to wreck, a sympathy for ourselves and everybody and everything a relaxing of all the nerves in a wave of sentiment. This emotion is of the enervating order. There is no sweep of strong fire through the blood, no tightening grip on life, no set resolve to stand to the flag and see the battle through. It is well, then, a generation that has heard from a thousand platforms, in plaintive notes, of Sarah Curran and her love should turn to the braver and more beautiful model of her who was the wife of Tone.

V

When we think of the qualities that are distinctive of the woman, we have in mind a finer gentleness, sensibility, sympathy and tenderness; and when we have these qualities intensified in any woman, and with them combined the endurance, courage and daring that are taken as the manly virtues, we have a woman of the heroic type. Of such a type was the wife of Tone. We can speak her praise without fear, for she was put to the test in every way, and in every way found marvellously true. For her devotion to, and encouragement of, her great husband in his great work, she would have won our high praise, even if, when he was stricken down and she was bereft of his wonderful love and buoyant spirits, she had proved forgetful of his work and the glory of his name. But she was bereft, and she was then found most marvellously true. Her devotion to Tone, while he was living and fighting, might be explained by the woman’s passionate attachment to the man she loved. It is the woman’s tenderness that is most evident in these early years, but there is shining evidence of the fortitude that showed her true nobility in the darker after-years. It was no ordinary love that bound them, and reading the record of their lives this stands out clear and beautiful. Tone, whom we know as patient organiser, tenacious fighter, far-seeing thinker, indomitable spirit a born leader of men writes to his wife with the passionate simplicity of an enraptured child: “I doat upon you and the babes.” And his letters end thus: “Kiss the babies for me ten thousand times. God Almighty for ever bless you, my dearest life and soul.” (This from the “French Atheist.” I hope his traducers are heartily ashamed of themselves.) Nor is it strange. When, in the beginning of his enterprise, he is in America, preparing to go to France on his great mission, he is troubled by the thought of his defenceless ones. In the crisis how does his wife act? Does she wind clinging arms around him, telling him with tears, of their children and his early vows, and beseeching him to think of his love and forget his country? No; let the diary speak: “My wife especially, whose courage and whose zeal for my honour and interests were not in the least abated by all her past sufferings, supplicated me to let no consideration of her or our children stand for a moment in the way of my engagements to our friends and my duty to my country, adding that she would answer for our family during my absence, and that the same Providence which had so often, as it were, miraculously preserved us, would, she was confident, not desert us now.” It is the unmistakable accent of the woman. She is quivering as she sends him forth, but the spirit in her eyes would put a trembling man to shame a spirit that her peerless husband matched but no man could surpass. Her fortitude was to be more terribly tried in the terrible after-time, when the Cause went down in disaster and Tone had to answer with his life. No tribute could be so eloquent as the letter he wrote to her when the last moment had come and his doom was pronounced: “Adieu, dearest love, I find it impossible to finish this letter. Give my love to Mary; and, above all, remember you are now the only parent of our dearest children, and that the best proof you can give of your affection for me will be to preserve yourself for their education. God Almighty bless you all.” That letter is like Stephens’ speech from the dock, eloquent for what is left unsaid. There is no wailing for her, least of all for himself, not that their devoted souls were not on the rack: “As no words can express what I feel for you and our children, I shall not attempt it; complaint of any kind would be beneath your courage and mine” but their souls, that were destined to suffer, came sublimely through the ordeal. When Tone left his children as a trust to his wife, he knew from the intimacy of their union what we learn from the after-event, how that trust might be placed and how faithfully it would be fulfilled. What a tribute from man to wife! How that trust was fulfilled is in evidence in every step of the following years. Remembering Tone’s son who survived to write the memoirs was a child at his father’s death, his simple tribute written in manhood is eloquent in the extreme: “I was brought up by my surviving parent in all the principles and in all the feelings of my father” of itself it would suffice. But we can follow the years between and find moving evidence of the fulfilment of the trust. We see her devotion to her children and her proud care to preserve their independence and her own. She puts by patronage, having a higher title as the widow of a General of France; and she wins the respect of the great ones of France under the Republic and the Empire. Lucien Buonaparte, a year after Tone’s death, pleaded before the Council of Five Hundred, in warm and eloquent praise: “If the services of Tone were not sufficient of themselves to rouse your feelings, I might mention the independent spirit and firmness of that noble woman who, on the tomb of her husband and her brother, mingles with her sighs aspirations for the deliverance of Ireland. I would attempt to give you an expression of that Irish spirit which is blended in her countenance with the expression of her grief. Such were those women of Sparta, who, on the return of their countrymen from the battle, when with anxious looks they ran over the ranks and missed amongst them their sons, their husbands, and their brothers, exclaimed, ’He died for his country; he died for the Republic.’” When the Republic fell, and in the upheaval her rights were ignored, she went to the Emperor Napoleon in person and, recalling the services of Tone, sought naturalization for her son to secure his career in the army; and to the wonder of all near by, the Emperor heard her with marked respect and immediately granted her request. She sought only this for her surviving son. She had seen two children die there was moving pathos in the daughter’s death and now she was standing by the last. Never was child guarded more faithfully or sent more proudly on his path in life. One should read the memoirs to understand, and pause frequently to consider: how she promised her husband bravely in the beginning that she would answer for their children, and how, in what she afterwards styled the hyperbole of grief, she was called to fulfil to the letter, and was found faithful, with an unexampled strength and devotion; how she saw two children struck down by a fatal disease, and how she drew the surviving son back to health by her watchful care to send him on his college and military career with loving pride; how, when a Minister of France, irritated at her putting by his patronage, roughly told her he could not “take the Emperor by the collar to place Mr. Tone” she went to the Emperor in person, with dignity but without fear, and won his respect; how the suggestion of the mean-minded that her demand was a pecuniary one, drew from her the proud boast that in all her misfortunes she had never learned to hold out her hand; how through all her misfortunes we watch her with wonderful dignity, delicacy, courage, and devotion quick to see what her trust demanded and never failing to answer the call, till her task is done, and we see her on the morning when her son sets out on the path she had prepared, the same quivering woman, who had sent her husband with words of comfort to his duty, now, after all the years of trial, sending her son as proudly on his path. It is their first parting. Let her own words speak: “Hitherto I had not allowed myself even to feel that my William was my own and my only child; I considered only that Tone’s son was confided to me; but in that moment Nature resumed her rights. I sat in a field: the road was long and white before me and no object on it but my child.... I could not think; but all I had ever suffered seemed before and around me at that moment, and I wished so intensely to close my eyes for ever, that I wondered it did not happen. The transitions of the mind are very extraordinary. As I sat in that state, unable to think of the necessity of returning home, a little lark rushed up from the grass beside me; it whirled over my head and hovered in the air singing such a beautiful, cheering, and, as it sounded to me, approving note, that it roused me. I felt in my heart as if Tone had sent it to me. I returned to my solitary home.” It is a picture to move us, to think of the devoted woman there in the sunshine, bent down in the grass, utterly alone, till the lark, sweeping heavenward in song, seems to give a message of gentle comfort from her husband’s watching spirit. Our emotion now is of no enervating order. We are proud of our land and her people; our nerves are firm and set; our hearts cry out for action; we are not weeping, but burning for the Cause. How little we know of this heroic woman. We are in some ways familiar with Tone, his high character, his genial open nature, his daring, his patience, his farsightedness, his judgment in spirit tireless and indomitable: a man peerless among his fellows. But he had yet one compeer; there was one nature that matched his to depth and height of its greatness that nature was a woman’s, and the woman was Wolfe Tone’s wife.

VI

It is well this heroic example of our womanhood should be before not only our womanhood but our manhood. It should show us all that patriotism does not destroy the finer feelings, but rather calls them forth and gives them wider play. We have been too used to thinking that the qualities of love and tenderness are no virtues for a soldier, that they will sap his resolution and destroy his work; but our movements fail always when they fail to be human. Until we mature and the poetry in life is wakening, we are ready to act by a theory; but when Nature asserts herself the hard theorist fails to hold us. Let us remember and be human. We have been saying in effect, if not in so many words: “For Ireland’s sake, don’t fall in love” we might as well say: “For Ireland’s sake, don’t let your blood circulate.” It is impossible even if it were possible it would be hateful. The man and woman have a great and beautiful destiny to fulfil together: to substitute for it an unnatural way of life that can claim neither the seclusion of the cloister nor the dominion of the world is neither beautiful nor great. We have cause for gratitude in the example before us. The woman can learn from it how she may equal the bravest man; and the man should learn to let his wife and children suffer rather than make of them willing slaves and cowards. For there are some earnest men who are ready to suffer themselves but cannot endure the suffering of those they love, and a mistaken family tenderness binds and drags them down. No one, surely, can hold it better to carefully put away every duty that may entail hardship on wife and child, for then the wife is, instead of a comrade, a burden, and the child becomes a degenerate creature, creeping between heaven and earth, afraid to hold his head erect, and unable to fulfil his duty to God or man. Let no man be afraid that those he loves may be tried in the fire; but let him, to the best of his strength, show them how to stand the ordeal, and then trust to the greatness of the Truth and the virtue of a loyal nature to bring each one forth in triumph, and he and they may have in the issue undreamed of recompense. For the battle that tries them will discover finer chords not yet touched in their intercourse; finer sympathies, susceptibilities, gentleness and strength; a deeper insight into life and a wider outlook on the world, making in fine a wonderful blend of wisdom, tenderness and courage that gives them to realise that life, with all its faults, struggles, and pain is still and for ever great and beautiful.