The Irish case does not figure in Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism, except in one undeclared respect.footnote1 Below the book’s titleface there stands a passage from Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’:
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
The epigraph is interesting on two counts: firstly, for the way it has been selectively torn out of context. The powerful preceding lines of the stanza run:
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ was written, as its name suggests, in the midst of the Irish war of independence. The ‘drunken soldiery’ were Lloyd George’s imperial forces, then brutally holding much, though not all, of Ireland against its will. The poem contrasts Ireland’s sunny confidence before the Great War, when ‘we dreamed to mend/ Whatever mischief seemed/ To afflict mankind’, with what unfolded after: ‘We, who seven years ago/ Talked of honour and of truth/ Shriek with pleasure if we show/ The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth’.footnote2
Who is the ‘we’ in this passage? I submit that it is the Irish and British Unionists who supported the maintenance of the Crown’s authority in Ireland. ‘Seven years ago’, in 1912, another Home Rule bill had started its passage through the Westminster Parliament, once more opposed by the Conservative and Unionist Party. With no textual violence, then, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’could be read as expressing the revulsion of a leading member of the Anglo-Irish cultural minority; his protest at the failure of the peaceful quest for home rule, for which he held the Unionists culpable. It is remarkable that Kedourie’s Nationalism nowhere observes that Yeats, whom he was fond of quoting, was a cultural Irish nationalist outraged at the British Empire’s failure to grant the Irish people their self-determination, and devastated by the repercussions of its refusal, despite a ‘public opinion ripening for so long’. His choice of this passage might have been intended to demonstrate that a famous cultural nationalist repudiated nationalism, but Kedourie did not say so, and the poem does no such thing. Instead, I shall take this selective quotation as emblematic, evidence of some disrespect for authors and works that mars Kedourie’s text—still one of the most influential Anglophone accounts of the origins of nationalism in Europe.footnote3
Secondly: the selected lines could serve as Kedourie’s endorsement of the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, scourge of ‘rationalism’—probably the reason why they were chosen.footnote4 Rationalists, in Oakeshott’s writings, are would-be philosopher-kings, Platonist legislators who imagine that they can bring the world of politics under the rule of coherent, foundational and transparent principles, when the most that is possible is the governance of humanity through prudent and customary wisdom, and the accommodation of necessarily conflicting interests. One can fairly surmise that Kedourie read Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ as capturing his and Oakeshott’s contempt for, and fear of, intellectuals and intellectuality in politics, especially those who imagine that they can govern the world through reason, when they—and we?—are ‘but weasels’ fighting in a hole.