Priest or Hero?
George William Russell - A.E.

"I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
No one kneels to another, nor to one of his kind that lived thousands of years ago."

Walt Whitman

I have prefixed some ideas about spiritual freedom addressed to the people of Ireland with these lines from the poet of another land, because national sentiment seems out of date here, the old heroism slumbers, alien thought and an exotic religion have supplanted our true ideals and our natural spirituality. I hope that the scornful words of one who breathed a freer air might sting to shame those who have not lost altogether the sentiment of human dignity, who have still some intuitions as to how far and how wisely a man may abase himself before another, whether that other claim divine authority or not. For this is the true problem which confronts us as a nation, and all else is insignificant beside. We have found out who are the real rulers here, who dictate politics and public action with no less authority than they speak upon religion and morals. It was only the other day that a priest, one of our rulers, declared that he would not permit a political meeting to be held in his diocese and this fiat was received with a submission which showed how accurately the politician gauged the strength opposed to him. And this has not been the only occasion when this power has been exerted:  we all know how many national movements have been interfered with or thwarted; we know the shameful revelations connected with the elections a few years back; we know how a great leader fell; and those who are idealists, God's warriors battling for freedom of thought, whose hope for the world is that the intuitions of the true and good divinely implanted in each man's breast shall supersede tradition and old authority, cannot but feel that their opinions, so much more dangerous to that authority than any political ideal, must, if advocated, bring them at last to clash with the priestly power. It is not a war with religion we would fain enter upon; but when those who claim that heaven and hell shut and open at their bidding for the spirit of man, use the influence which belief in that claim confers, as it has been here, to fetter free-will in action, it is time that the manhood of the nation awoke to sternly question that authority, to assert its immemorial right to freedom.

There live of old in Eri a heroic race whom the bards sang as fearless. There was then no craven dread of the hereafter, for the land of the immortals glimmered about them in dream and vision, and already before the decaying of the form the spirit of the hero had crossed the threshold and clasped hands with the gods. No demon nature affrighted them: from them wielding the flaming sword of will the demons fled away as before Cuculain vanished in terror shadowy embattled hosts.  What, I wonder, would these antique heroes say coming back to a land which preserves indeed their memory but emulates their spirit no more? We know what the bards thought when heroic Ireland became only a tradition; when to darkened eyes the elf-lights ceased to gleam, luring no more to the rich radiant world within, the Druidic mysteries, and the secret of the ages. In the bardic tales their comrade Ossian voices to Patrick their scorn of the new. Ah, from the light and joy of the faery region, from that great companionship with a race half divine, come back to find that but one divine man had walked the earth, and as for the rest it was at prayer and fasting they ought to be! And why?  Because, as Patrick explained to Ossian, if they did not they would go to hell. And this is the very thing the Patricks ever since have been persuading the Irish people to believe, adding an alien grief unto their many sorrows, foisting upon them a vulgar interpretation of the noble idea of divine justice to cow them to submission with the threat of flame. Ossian, chafing and fuming under the priestly restriction, declared his preference for hell with the Finians to paradise with Patrick. His simple heroic mind found it impossible to believe that the pure, gentle but indomitable spirits of his comrades could be anywhere quenched or quelled, but they must at last arise exultant even from torment. When Ossian rejects the bribe of paradise to share the darker world and the fate of his companions, there spake the true spirit of man; spark of illimitable deity; shrouded in form, yet radiating ceaselessly heroic thoughts, aspirations, deathless love; not to be daunted, rising again and again from sorrow with indestructible hope; emerging ever from defeat, its glooms smitten through and through with the light of visions vast and splendid as the heavens. Old bard, old bard, from Tir-na-noge where thou, perchance wrapt by that beauty which called thee from earth, singest immortal songs, would that one lightning of they spirit could pierce the hearts now thronged with dread, might issue from lips which dare not speak.

I do not question but that the heroic age had its imperfections, or that it was not well that its too warlike ardour was tempered by the beautiful, pathetic and ennobling teaching of Christ.  The seed of new doctrines bore indeed many lovely but exotic blossoms in the saintly times, and also many a noxious weed. For religion must always be an exotic which makes a far-off land sacred rather than the earth underfoot: where the Great Spirit whose home is the vast seems no more a moving glamour in the heavens, a dropping tenderness at twilight, a visionary light on the hills, a voice in man's heart; when the way of life is sought in scrolls or is heard from another's lips. The noxious weed, the unendurable bitter which mingled with the sweet and true in this exotic religion was the terrible power it put into the hands of men somewhat more learned in their ignorance of God than those whom they taught: the power to inflict a deadly wrong upon the soul, to coerce the will by terror from the course conscience had marked out as true and good. That power has been used unsparingly and at times with unspeakable cruelty whenever those who had it thought their influence was being assailed, for power is sweet and its use is not lightly laid aside.

As we read our island history there seems a ruddy emblazonry on every page, a hue shed from behind the visible, the soul dropping its red tears of fire over hopes for ever dissolving, noble ambitions for ever foiled. Always on the eve of success starts up some fatal figure weaponed with the keys of the hereafter, brandishing more especially the key of the place of torment, warning most particularly those who regard that that key shall not get rusty from want of turning if they disobey. It has been so from the beginning, from the time of the cursing of Tara, where the growing unity of the nations was split into fractions, down to the present time.  I often doubt if the barbarities in eastern lands which we shudder at are in reality half so cruel, if they mean so much anguish as this threat of after-torture does to those who believe in the power of another to inflict it. It wounds the spirit to the heart: its consciousness of its own immortality becomes entwined with the terror of as long enduring pain. It is a lie which the all- compassionate Father-Spirit never breathed into the ears of his children, a lie which has been told here century after century with such insistence that half the nation has the manhood cowed out of it. The offence of the dead chief whose followers were recently assailed weighed light as a feather in the balance when compared with the sin of these men and their shameful misuse of religious authority in Meath a little while ago. The scenes which took place there, testified and sworn to by witness in the after trials, were only a copy of what generally took place.  They will take place again if the necessity arises. That is a bitter fact.

A dim consciousness that their servitude is not to God's law but to man's ambition is creeping over the people here. That is a very hopeful sign. When a man first feels he is a slave he begins to grow grey inside, to get moody and irritable. The sore spot becomes more sensitive the more he broods. At last to touch it become dangerous. For, from such pent-up musing and wrath have sprung rebellions, revolutions, the overthrow of dynasties and the fall of religions, aye, thrice as mighty as this. That Thought of freedom lets loose the flood-gates of an illimitable fire into the soul; it emerges from its narrow prison-cell of thought and fear as the sky-reaching genie from the little copper vessel in the tale of Arabian enchantment; it lays hand on the powers of storm and commotion like a god. It would be politic not to press the despotism more; but it would be a pity perhaps if some further act did not take place, just to see a nation flinging aside the shackles of superstition; disdainful of threats, determined to seek its own good, resolutely to put aside all external tradition and rule; adhering to its own judgment, though priests falsely say the hosts of the everlasting are arrayed in battle against it, though they threaten the spirit with obscure torment for ever and ever: still to persist, still to defy, still to obey the orders of another captain, that Unknown Deity within whose trumpet-call sounds louder than all the cries of men. There is great comfort, my fellows, in flinging fear aside; an exultation and delight spring up welling from inexhaustible deeps, and a tranquil sweetness also ensues which shows that the powers ever watchful of human progress approve and applaud the act.

In all this I do not aim at individuals. It is not with them I would war but with tyranny. They who enslave are as much or more to be pitied than those whom they enslave. They too are wronged by being placed and accepted in a position of false authority. They too enshrine a ray of the divine spirit, which to liberate and express is the purpose of life. Whatever movement ignores the needs of a single unity, or breeds hate against it rather than compassion, is so far imperfect. But if we give these men, as we must, the credit of sincerity, still opposition is none the less a duty. The spirit of man must work out its own destiny, learning truth out of error and pain. It cannot be moral by proxy. A virtuous course into which it is whipt by fear will avail it nothing, and in that dread hour when it comes before the Mighty who sent it forth, neither will the plea avail it that its conscience was in another's keeping.

The choice here lies between Priest and Hero as ideal, and I say that whatever is not heroic is not Irish, has not been nourished at the true fountain wherefrom our race and isle derive their mystic fame. There is a life behind the veil, another Eri which the bards knew, singing it as the Land of Immortal Youth. It is not hidden from us, though we have hidden ourselves from it, so that it has become only a fading memory in our hearts and a faery fable upon our lips. Yet there are still places in this isle, remote from the crowded cities where men and women eat and drink and wear out their lives and are lost in the lust for gold, where the shy peasant sees the enchanted lights in mountain and woody dell, and hears the faery bells pealing away, away, into that wondrous underland whither, as legends relate, the Danann gods withdrew.  These things are not to be heard for the asking; but some, more reverent than the rest, more intuitive, who understand that the pure eyes of a peasant may see the things kings and princes, aye, and priests, have desired to see and have not seen; that for him may have been somewhat lifted the veil which hides from men the starry spheres where the Eternal Beauty abides in the shining - these have heard and have been filled with the hope that, if ever the mystic truths of life could be spoken here, there would be enough of the old Celtic fire remaining to bring back the magic into the isle. That direct relation, that vision, comes fully with spiritual freedom, when men no longer peer through another's eyes into the mysteries, when they will not endure that the light shall be darkened by transmission, but spirit speaks with spirit, drawing light from the boundless Light alone.

Leaving aside the question of interference with national movements, another charge, one of the weightiest which can be brought against the priestly influence in this island, is that it has hampered the expression of native genius in literature and thought. Now the country is alive with genius, flashing out everywhere, in the conversation even of the lowest; but we cannot point to imaginative work of any importance produced in Ireland which has owed its inspiration to the priestly teaching. The genius of the Gael could not find itself in their doctrines; though above all things mystical it could not pierce its way into the departments of super-nature where their theology pigeon-holes the souls of the damned and the blessed. It knew of the Eri behind the veil which I spoke of, the Tir-na-noge which as a lamp lights up our grassy plains, our haunted hills and valleys. The faery tales have ever lain nearer to the hearts of the people, and whatever there is of worth in song or story has woven into it the imagery handed down from the dim druidic ages. This is more especially true today, when our literature is beginning to manifest preeminent qualities of imagination, not the grey pieties of the cloister, but natural magic, beauty, and heroism. Our poets sing Ossian wandering the land of the immortals; or we read in vivid romance of the giant chivalry of the Ultonians, their untamable manhood, the exploits of Cuculain and the children of Rury, more admirable as types, more noble and inspiring than the hierarchy of little saints who came later on and cursed their memories.

The genius of the Gael is awakening after a night of troubled dreams. I returns instinctively to the beliefs of its former day and finds again the old inspiration. It seeks the gods on the mountains, still enfolded by their mantle of multitudinous traditions, or sees them flash by in the sunlit diamond airs. How strange, but how natural is all this! It seems as if Ossian's was a premature return. Today he might find comrades come back from Tir-na-noge for the uplifting of their race. Perhaps to many a young spirit starting up among us Caolte might speak as to Mongan, saying: "I was with thee, with Finn." Hence, it may be, the delight with which we hear Standish O'Grady declaring that the bardic divinities will remain: "Nor, after centuries of obscuration, is their power to quicken, purify, and exalt, yet dead. Still they live and reign, and shall reign." After long centuries - the voice of a spirit ever youthful, yet older than all the gods, who with its breath of sunrise-coloured flame jewels with richest lights the visions of earth's dreamy-hearted children. Once more out of the Heart of the Mystery is heard the call of "Come away," and after that no other voice has power to lure: there remain only the long heroic labours which end in companionship with the gods.

These voices do not stand for themselves alone. They are heralds before a host. No man has ever spoken with potent utterance who did not feel the secret urging of dumb, longing multitudes, whose aspirations and wishes converge on and pour themselves into fearless heart. The thunder of the waves is deeper because the tide is rising. Those who are behind do not come only with song and tale, but with stern hearts bent on great issues, among which, not least, is the intellectual liberation of Ireland. That is an aim at which some of our rulers may well grow uneasy. Soon shall young men, fiery-hearted, children of Eri, a new race, roll our their thoughts on the hillsides, before your very doors, O priests, calling your flocks from your dark chapels and twilight sanctuaries to a temple not built with hands, sunlit, starlit, sweet with the odour and incense of earth, from your altars call them to the altars of the hills, soon to be lit up as of old, soon to be the blazing torches of God over the land. These heroes I see emerging. Have they not come forth in every land and race when there was need? Here, too, they will arise.  Ah, may darlings, you will have to fight and suffer: you must endure loneliness, the coldness of friends, the alienation of love; warmed only by the bright interior hope of a future you must toil for but may never see, letting the deed be its own reward; laying in dark places the foundations of that high and holy Eri of prophecy, the isle of enchantment, burning with druidic splendours, bright with immortal presences, with the face of the everlasting Beauty looking in upon all its ways, divine with terrestrial mingling till God and the world are one.

There waits brooding in this isle a great destiny, and to accomplish it we must have freedom of thought. That is the greatest of our needs, for thought is the lightning-conductor between the heaven-world and earth. We want fearless advocates who will not be turned aside from their course by laughter or by threats. Why is it that the spirit of daring, imaginative enquiry is so dead here? An incubus of spiritual fear seems to beset men women so that they think, if they turn from the beaten track seeking the true, they shall meet, not the divine with outstretched hands, but a demon; that the reward for their search will not be joy or power but enduring pain. How the old bard swept away such fears! "If thy God were good," said Ossian, "he would call Finn into his dun." Yes, the heroic heart is dear to the heroic heart. I would back the intuition of an honest soul for truth against piled-up centuries of theology. But this high spirit is stifled everywhere by a dull infallibility which is yet unsuccessful, on its own part, in awakening inspiration; and, in the absence of original though, we pick over the bones of dead movements, we discuss the personalities of the past, but no one asks the secrets of life or of death. There are despotic hands in politics, in religion, in education, strangling any attempt at freedom. Of the one institution which might naturally be supposed to be the home of great ideas we can only say, reversing the famous eulogy on Oxford, it has never given itself to any national hero or cause, but always to the Philistine.

With the young men who throng the literary societies the intellectual future of Ireland rests.  In them are our future leaders. Out of these as from a fountain will spring - what? Will we have another generation of Irishmen at the same level as today, with everything in a state of childhood, boyish patriotism, boyish ideals, boyish humour? Or will they assimilate the aged thought of the world and apply it to the needs of their own land? I remember reading somewhere a description by Turgenieff of his contemporaries as a young man; how they sat in garrets, drinking execrably bad coffee or tea. But what thoughts! They talked of God, of humanity, of Holy Russia; and out of such groups of young men, out of their discussions, emanated that vast unrest which has troubled Europe and will trouble it still more. Here no questions are asked and no answers are received. There is a pitiful, blind struggle for a nationality whose ideas are not definitely conceived. What is the ideal of Ireland as a nation?  It drifts from mind to mind, a phantom thought lacking a spirit, but a spirit which will surely incarnate. Perhaps some of our old heroes may return. Already it seems as if one had been here; a sombre Titan earlier awakened than the rest who passed before us, and sounded the rallying note of our race before he staggered to his tragic close. Others of brighter thought will follow to awaken the fires which Brigid in her vision saw gleaming beyond dark centuries of night, and confessed between hope and tears to Patrick. Meanwhile we must fight for intellectual freedom; we must strive to formulate to ourselves what it is we really wish for here, until at last the ideal becomes no more phantasmal but living; until our voices in aspiration are heard in every land, and the nations become aware of a new presence amid their councils, a last and most beautiful figure, as one after the cross of pain, after the shadowy terrors, with thorn-marks on the brow from a crown flung aside, but now radiant, ennobled after suffering, Eri, the love of so many dreamers, priestess of the mysteries, with the chant of beauty on her lips and the heart of nature beating in her heart.

Irish Theosophist, April 15 - May 15, 1897

Present article was scanned and proofread and made available for publication by Mr. Jake Jaqua.

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