Rapscallions? What Churchill Actually Said and Thought about the Irish
“Rapscallions”: Excerpted from an article for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original text including endnotes, please click here. Subscriptions to this site are free. You will receive regular notices of new posts as published. Just fill out SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW (at right). Your email address will remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
On cancelling Winston
Mary Ellen Synon is a feisty Irish journalist who doesn’t mind taking a contrarian’s position on popular orthodoxies. Writing to oppose the latest uproar over Winston Churchill, she first explains that she’s entitled to be offended by him: “If you think Churchill was heavy on Indians, Muslims and Africans, brace yourself for what he said about the Irish.” In a scrappy polemic, she alleges that he called them “savages, rascals and rapscallions.” But then she writes all that off as irrelevant:
I am an Irish patriot. Yet if you want to know what I think about all that, I think: “So what?”….I know what Churchill did besides being insulting about Muslims and the rest of us. If I put him in the scales of virtue against the German and Japanese war machines, Churchill wins, always, and in such an overwhelming way that I must forgive his earlier sins. I say that because the Irish still have a lot of sins that need forgiveness, so I am in no position to say Churchill must be cancelled.
Those “Irish” Rapscallions
What interests us here is not the cancel-Churchill movement. What matters is that some Churchill defenders still manage to get so much about him wrong.
When Churchill spoke about rascals and rapscallions (“savages” isn’t there but he might have used it elsewhere), he was not talking about the Irish people. He was citing the Bolsheviks and the movements they were supporting, including the Sinn Fein campaign of murder and destruction.
As so often happens, context is lacking. I respectfully supply the complete passage, from 24 November 1921 when Churchill was asking why Lenin in Russia was bankrolling rebellions in Egypt, India and Ireland:
We will not allow ourselves to be pulled down and have our Empire disrupted by a malevolent and subversive force, the rascals and rapscallions of mankind who are now on the move against us. [Britain] was strong enough to break the Hindenburg Line, it will be strong enough to defend the main interests of the British people, to carry us through these stormy times into calmer and brighter days.
Synon continues: “As Ireland struggled for its independence 100 years ago, Churchill told the Commons that allowing a nation across the Irish Sea to become a republic was akin to offering a country up to a miserable gang of human leopards in West Africa.”
No. Actually Churchill (1920) was opposing making all of Ireland a republic under Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army:
Because a murder campaign has been started we cannot allow a starting point for attacking our safety on this island to be created on the other side of the St. George’s Channel, desert hopelessly to their fate the Protestants of Ulster, and withdraw in shame and failure from all responsibility for Ireland. We cannot adopt a policy of scuttling in regard to Ireland. It is absurd to suppose that we will escape from the Irish problem and Irish difficulties by mere flight. Those difficulties would pursue us in an aggravated form…. Surrender to a miserable gang of cowardly assassins like the human leopards of West Africa would undoubtedly be followed by a passionate repentance and a fearful atonement.
Judge for yourself: whom did he mean by “human leopards”?
“Quit murdering and start talking”
All his life in civil disturbances, Churchill consistently favored negotiations over violence. Two weeks before his speech above, he made this clear in a letter to his pro-Irish cousin, Shane Leslie:
You asked me what advice I would give to the Sinn Feiners, and I replied, “Quit murdering and start arguing.” This is in no sense an offer of negotiation and could not be represented as such; but I am quite sure that the moment the murders cease the Irish question will enter upon a new phase, and I shall not be behindhand in doing my utmost to secure a good settlement. (Emphasis this writer’s.)
Could there be clearer evidence of prudent statesmanship?
It is true that Churchill too long supported the Black and Tans constabulary, as Synon writes: “They butchered at will, committing atrocities.” Here he was definitely wrong. He didn’t create the Black and Tans, but he stubbornly defended them.6Perhaps the cancel movement should turn to Prime Minister Lloyd George, much more censorious about the Irish than Churchill: “This time it is the Sinn Feiners. Last week it was the Ulsterites. They are both the sons of Belial!”
Not a daughter but a parent
Synon says Churchill called Ireland “a small poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power.” That is true. But he said this in support of the Irish Free State Constitution Act—a document he had helped to draft. Taken in context, his words form a powerful plea to end centuries of violence through magnanimity and reconciliation:
Whence does this mysterious power of Ireland come? It is a small, poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power… How is it that she sways our councils, shakes our parties, and infects us with her bitterness, convulses our passions, and deranges our action? How is it she has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire, in order to debate her domestic affairs? Ireland is not a daughter State. She is a parent nation….
How much have we suffered in all these generations from this continued hostility? If we can free ourselves from it, if we can to some extent reconcile the spirit of the Irish nation to the British Empire in the same way as Scotland and Wales have been reconciled, then indeed we shall have secured advantages which may well repay the trouble and the uncertainties of the present time.9
Today in this enterprise, which also is full of uncertainty, but full of hope, we can undoubtedly count upon the active and energetic support of all the three great parties in the State, who are resolved to take what steps are necessary to bring, if possible, this Irish peace to its consummation, to carry it out in the spirit and in the letter, and to stand firmly against all efforts to overthrow it. whether they be in Parliament or out of doors.
“An adult who has read history”
A sidelight of interest: In her youth, Mary Ellen Synon applied for a Churchill Fellowship. This was reviewed by a panel including Sir Winston’s daughter. In full disclosure, she felt obliged to admit she was Irish, not British, thus possibly ineligible:
Lady Soames smiled sweetly. “We count them as British,” she said. I paused. I could have stood up and walked out, saying I was insulted by such a neo-colonialist outlook…. We did not remain some branch of Britain. That is what race-hunters, searching across history for reasons to be “offended,” would have done. But I didn’t. I just smiled back at Lady Soames. I won my fellowship. Because I am an adult who has read history.
That revives many splendid memories of Mary Soames. One hopes that Ms. Synon, Irish patriot, runs across Mary’s father’s words in their full context. She will then feel less burdened in her defense of him. For on the larger matters, she is exactly right: “The woke-warriors need to park their adolescent outrage and understand that. Otherwise, in 100 years’ time, they themselves will be considered nothing better than a 21st century version of the witch-hunters of Salem.”