The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.
Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’
The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’
Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.
In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.
He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’
The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’
The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.
Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.
Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.
Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’
Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.
This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.
In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’
Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.