There is almost nothing about Chesterton that is not paradoxical. In 1918, when he traveled to Ireland for the first time, he was supposedly on a mission to recruit Irish men to fight alongside the English in World War I. While he certainly believed in defending Europe against the “barbaric imperialism” of Germany, the paradox is that he also believed in defending the Irish against English imperialism.
During his time in Ireland, he wrote a series of articles for the New Witness that became the book, Irish Impressions, a book which testifies that the Irish could never have asked for a better friend and defender than G.K. Chesterton. He understood and admired their inventive culture and strong families, their history as an oppressed people, their consistent and persistent faith, their charming wit. Even when he criticized their poor decisions, it was to make them stronger.
Chesterton argued that the Irish were a distinct people from the English and deserved their autonomy, to be able to rule their own country in their own way, to protect their traditions and their religion. For that he has always been recognized as a defender of human rights and freedom in general and a champion of the Irish in particular. However, when he made the exact same arguments on behalf of the Jews, he was called anti-Semitic. Another paradox.
Chesterton was always a defender of nations and never a defender of Empires, which is why he was such loyal critic of his own country, as every patriot is. In this book he says that the thing that prevents imperialism is nationalism. Patriotism is not only a natural virtue, it is the most practical part of practical politics. “To neglect it, and ask only for grievances, is like counting the clouds and forgetting the climate. To neglect it, and think only of laws, is like seeing the landmarks and never seeing the landscape… altering the flag on the roof is like altering the sun in the sky.” There is no way to know precisely the extent of the influence of Chesterton’s arguments on behalf of Ireland, but the fact is, his arguments did prevail: Ireland gained its independence from England.
Except, unfortunately, one part of Ireland did not gain its independence: Belfast and Northern Ireland. Here again, Chesterton’s analysis of the problem is still as pertinent as the problem there is still pertinent. There remains a bitter animosity between the Protestants and the Catholics of Belfast. Chesterton points out that the solutions to the problems in Northern Ireland have failed because they have been approached exactly backwards: religious equality is assumed, and political equality is debated. Instead, political equality should be assumed (which means enacted), so that the religious question can be dealt with. Ultimately it is a religious question. And Chesterton says that a religious question will not have an irreligious answer. All the attempts to solve the problems in Northern Ireland have been irreligious, from the vapid diplomacy to the deplorable violence. But, argues Chesterton, “Wherever men are still theological there is still some chance of their being logical.”
Chesterton wrote this book four years before his conversion, and while his sympathy is clearly with the Catholics, he comments, “A religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in.” Thus, his contrast between the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland is not a contrast between one dogma and another but between one cosmos and another. It can be seen in his observation that in Belfast the Protestant generally says, “I am a good Protestant,” while the Catholic always says, “I am a bad Catholic.” The same contrast is apparent in his remark that the essence of Calvinism is “certainty about salvation; the essence of Catholicism is uncertainty about salvation.”
Besides being a defense of Ireland, this book is also a defense of the family and a defense of the land. It is not surprising that IHS books has recently reprinted Irish Impressions in an ongoing project to publish the best works of Catholic Social Teaching. Chesterton already sees that the family is not only fading into the background but even fading from the background. That is because the thing that supports the family is literally the earth beneath it, and that is what has been pulled out from under it like a rug. When Chesterton praises the small family farm, that beacon of self-sufficiency and freedom, we see poignantly how far we have fallen from this ideal. We are now almost completely dependent on a huge complex machine powered by the bureaucracies of the State and the Mega-Corporations. When Chesterton defends the home, we hardly recognize what he is talking about. “All the most dramatic things happen at home,” he writes, “from being born to being dead.” But we are no longer born at home, nor do we die at home. And most of the life we live between birth and death is spent toiling somewhere else for someone else. The only time we spend at home is that sacred time in front of the television. Perhaps an uprising is in order. Even an Easter uprising.