The Man Who Would Be Blended
Brother Edmund Rice lived in an age of war and revolution. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the attempts at an Irish revolution, and the wars that preceded and emanated from these revolutions, were a backdrop to Brother Edmund’s own quiet revolution. A survey of some of these wars and revolutions might be useful in contrasting Edmund Rice’s quieter path to nation-building.
The French are Bankrupted by War
The French Revolution, beginning in 1789, followed the American Revolution, declared in 1776. The French were inspired by the Americans´ Declaration of Independence and by the cogent example that it was indeed possible to renew society, to begin anew with “liberty and justice for all.” The French had helped the Americans establish their independence by recognizing the colonies as an independent nation, but they were bankrupted by helping the Americans fight their revolution, sending troops, their navy, war material and loans.
The French were bankrupted not only by helping the Americans, but also by their participation in the Seven Years War (1754-1763), which engulfed Russia, Prussia, Sweden, England, Canada, the American colonies, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Austria and France, with theaters of war in South America, West Africa, India and the Philippines, in what some have called the first truly global war. The French and their Native American allies fought the English in Canada and the American colonies in what became known, in this theater of the Seven Years War, as the French and Indian War.
Ironically it was the British victory in this war that led to the American Revolution. The colonies, freed from fear of the French hovering over them in Canada, were emboldened to refuse English demands that they pay for the war by taxes enacted by the British Parliament. “No taxation without representation” coupled with the Enlightenment´s teaching of the rights of man led the Americans to rebel in a nine year Revolutionary War. France´s aid in this Revolutionary War was vital to the new American republic.
The French Revolution
Back in France, King Louis XVI, after several abortive attempts to raise new funds to fight off bankruptcy, was forced in 1789 to call the Estates General, the historical, representative body composed of the three traditional orders, clergy, nobles, and everyone else, the third estate. Kings did not like to share their power with anyone: the last meeting of the Estates General had been in 1614.
The main grinding issue of this Estates General was that of representation. In previous Estates, each of the three orders was required to vote as a block, with one vote per order. In this scheme the clergy and the nobles, with their privileges and riches, could always outvote the third estate, which represented 90 percent of the nation. This time around, the third estate objected to this traditional voting arrangement and demanded that each representative vote as an individual, with one vote for each man present.
The great dispute about this proposed change in voting and the clergy and nobles’ intransigence in giving up their privileges led to the third estate’s monumental declaration that they alone, and any clergy or nobles who were willing to join them, were the sole representative body of the nation. They named themselves the National Assembly and had the backing of the rough and ready Paris street crowds, the “sans-culottes,” who broke into the national prison, the Bastille, to arm themselves. Rather than precipitate a slaughter, and because he could no longer count on the loyalty of his army, Louis XVI gave in to the National Assembly.
The National Assembly began well enough, developing a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and in one exhilarating, chaotic all night session did away with all feudal privileges and taxes and exemptions, the traditions of hundreds of years. The Assembly then reorganized the traditional court system and restructured the Catholic Church, setting a fixed number of parishes and a set number of priests and bishops, stripping the clergy´s earnings from tithes paid by the people and monies earned from church lands. The clergy would now be uniformly paid by the state and voted into service by the people.
The Church of France certainly was in need of reform and renewal, but the National Assembly went further. Still pressed as a nation by deep indebtedness, the deputies later ruled that all church lands were forfeit to the nation, and their sale would help liquidate the national debt. Beginning with this confiscation and also with a law that each priest and bishop would have to swear an oath to the new regime, a pushback began by the clergy and by many of the outlying provinces who did not share the radicalism of the Paris sans-culottes. This was counterrevolution taking hold, complete with battles and massacres across France as citizens clashed over radical changes and religion and age old resentments. When the Pope broke his silence to condemn the revolution and its anticlericalism, positions hardened between the two main camps, the radicals, led by the Jacobins and the conservatives, led by the Girondins.
Over the next months and years, the blood began to flow in France. In September 1792 sans-culottes engineered the slaughter of between 1,100 and 1,400 Parisians, including 200 priests, considered enemies of the revolution. In the Terror of 1793- 1794, the Jacobins and their leader Robespierre, in a nine month period, sent 16,000 throughout France to their deaths (though, considering all who died, like those killed by disease in suddenly overwhelmed prisons, the number was closer to 30,000). In Lyons, the guillotine was not efficient enough, so the condemned were blown apart by canons or manacled inside a barge that then was sunk. Later, increasing his power and charging many of those around him with treachery, Robespierre himself was accused with dictatorial designs, arrested, and, with eighty of his associates, marched to the guillotine.
Paris was awash in blood, matched by bloody reprisals in the provinces. King Louis XVI attempted to flee, was captured and eventually executed as an obstacle to the emerging Republic. Queen Marie-Antoinette soon followed him in death.
Only a dictator could finally gain control of the country, and so, after conquering provinces in Italy and turning them into French client states, General Napoleon worked his way into command of the country.
Before Napoleon, the armies of France had been active in almost all the previous revolutionary years, declaring war on Austria to try to unify France´s fractured people against a common enemy and also to prevent Austria´s intervention to restore Louis XVI to the throne. During the revolution, France also declared war on Prussia, Spain and England. The revolutionary army likewise fought to export the revolution abroad, to “free” subjugated peoples whether they liked it or not, and so conquered Holland, Belgium and, later, Switzerland, to turn them, like the Italian conquests of Napoleon, into client states of the revolution. Each of these client states grew to hate France as they were required to provision the French army and suffer the depredations of an occupying power. They were not “freed,” they felt, but subjugated.
The victories or defeats of the French armies, and the invasions by Austria and Prussia and England on the periphery of the French nation, greatly swung the temperaments of Paris as it hurled along its revolutionary path. Hunger, too, added to the wildly varying moods of the people as poor harvests, harsh winters, and abrupt changes in the policies of the sale of bread, the main staple, swayed the zigzag turnings of the revolution.
Napoleon, now in control of France, set out to conquer the rest of Europe in a series of wars lasting from 1803-1815. His invasion of Spain weakened that country´s grip on its South American colonies, unleashing a series of revolutions there, too. Napoleon, world conqueror, began his invasions just as Edmund Rice was beginning his life of service in Waterford.
The Irish Rebellions
As France lurched through a series of governing arrangements during its revolutionary journey in the 1790´s, Dublin lawyer Wolfe Tone presented himself before the Directory to plead in the name of the United Irishmen for military help to overthrow English rule in Ireland. Tone had already been exiled to the United States for revolutionary activities, and he impressed the French government with his energy, vision and persistence. In 1796, 43 French ships set forth with 14,500 soldiers and war material for Irish rebels, but terrible storms off the Cork coast prevented a landing and the war expedition returned to France. In 1798, Tone arranged a landing in the western county of Mayo of a force of 1,000 French soldiers. A second wave of 5,000 soldiers was to follow, but came to grief on the coastal waters off Donegal. A third wave of soldiers was intercepted by the English at sea, and Wolf was captured as a rebel and sentenced to die, though he committed suicide before his execution.
The Mayo rebellion had some early success, supported by 5,000 rural workers armed with pikes and scythes and a scattering of antiquated guns. After several weeks this attempt at an Irish revolution, on the march to Dublin, looking to link up with other rebels in the Midlands, was slaughtered by General Cornwallis and English regulars. Two months before this, sizeable rural insurrections in Counties Wicklow, Antrim and Wexford, unable to wait for the long-promised French soldiers, likewise gave battle before being smashed by the English army. The French soldiers surrendered and were shipped home honorably as a defeated army, but any Irishman not killed in the rebellion was hanged as a rebel against the King, and later operations by local Irish ascendancy police ferreted out and hanged collaborators of the rebellion.
Some 30,000 Irish died in these rebellions, numbers similar to the Terror in France, but in only 3.5 months, and in an Irish population 16% the size of France.
Surrounded by wars and revolution, stretching from the Philippines to France, and from Sweden to South America, in a 60 year time period when much of Europe was continually at war, even his native Ireland in 1798, Edmund Rice began his quiet revolution in 1802 teaching street youth in a stable. With reluctant helpers, little money, an indifferent or hostile public and several opposing bishops, Edmund and the early Brothers began with patience and perseverance a system of faith-based study and brotherly concern that slowly transformed the face of Ireland. Brother Hubert Wall mentioned to me anecdotally that before Edmund Rice the jails of Ireland were full, but as his quiet revolution unfolded the jails of Ireland emptied out.
The violence of the Fenians, the Easter Rising, and the Civil War were steps along the way to establish the Republic of Ireland, but is it not the hope of any nation for the support of an educated citizenry not mired in poverty and ignorance, but proud of its national heritage and ready to build the Republic?
The Man Who Would Be Blended
In Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Idiom of the Hero,” two workers say to one another, “This chaos will soon be ended.” What chaos? Because the two are workers, the chaos could be industrial strife, though I would like to imagine that it is strife of any kind, perhaps the wars and revolutions of Edmund Rice´s day. The poem continues with the poet´s melancholy retort that, no, “This chaos will not be ended…Not ended, never and never ended.” It will never be the case, teaches Stevens, that “The man who is poor at night (will be) attended like the man that is rich and right.” Why is this? Why this unbreachable, unreachable, unhealable chasm between rich and poor, the source of all chaos? The poet answers it is because, “The great men will not be blended.” The great men, the presidents, the owners, the judges, the industrialists, the generals, the famous, the wealthy: they all keep their distance from the common folk, hovering far above them like the nobility of France hovered above the 80% of the population who were peasants. The chasm, the chaos, teaches the poet, is beyond remedy.
But Edmund Rice and his Brothers would be blended, they would offer their lives and fortunes for the quiet revolution of loving and teaching the poor. Wallace Stevens finishes his poem resigned that there is no healing for him: God cannot help, for the heavens are, after all, just “clouds,” just “pomp of the air.” But not so with Edmund Rice and his Brothers: all is offered, all is sacrificed in a bloodless revolution, that Jesus might live in our hearts forever.
Brother Chuck Fitzsimmons, Latin American Region
Author’s note: I am not an historian, but rather a reader of history. Any corrections or amplifications by Brothers or friends would be welcome. email@example.com
Idiom of the Hero
by Wallace Stevens
I heard two workers say, “This chaos
Will soon be ended.”
This chaos will not be ended,
The red and the blue house blended,
Not ended, never and never ended,
The weak man mended,
The man that is poor at night
Like the man that is rich and right.
The great men will not be blended…
I am the poorest of all.
I know that I can not be mended,
Out of the clouds, pomp of the air,
By which at least I am befriended.