Rapscallions? What Churchill Actually Said and Thought about the Irish

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.

“Human leopards”

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.”

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