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Northman: John Hewitt (1907-87)An Irish writer, his world, and his times$

W. J. McCormack

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780198739821

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198739821.001.0001

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(p.268) (p.269) Append C Alex Irvine, Luther, and Rebellion

(p.268) (p.269) Append C Alex Irvine, Luther, and Rebellion

Northman: John Hewitt (1907-87)

W. J. McCormack

Oxford University Press

The issue of John Harold Hewitt’s likely authorship of Africa Calling should be held open partly because, on a positivist vetting, no conclusive evidence has been cited, but partly also in a less narrowly defined argument, discussion of his attitude to the intertwined issues of politics and religion has never escaped from the local sectarian framework. These problems have not been exclusively Hewitt’s. In ‘The Man Who Invented Sin’, Sean O’Faolain had explored the cruel intensity of the Catholic Church’s fear of sex, but conducted his enquiry against the background of an Ireland gripped no less fiercely by the passions of nationalist rebellion and imperial repression. The Man Who Invented Sin and Other Stories was published in 1948.

In the same year, John Hewitt published ‘The Laying on of Hands’ in The Bell, of which O’Faolain had been the founding editor. He was on good terms with O’Faolain, whose 1937 story ‘A Broken World’ (like Hewitt’s also of 1948) is set in a railway carriage. Both stories deal with frustrated spiritual undertakings linked to social reform or better. In the southern story, it emerges that a Catholic priest has been silenced as punishment by the official church for his involvement in agrarian politics, while he has been simultaneously demoralized by the apathy of peasants he had hoped to revolutionize. Hewitt’s story is less polished, but also less dependent on a lineage including James Joyce’s ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and George Moore’s ‘The Wild Goose’. One could trace the theme of these stories—the tortured interaction of political radicalism and religious adherence—to the campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s, or further back to the 1790s and the United Irishmen’s efforts to substitute the common name of Irishman, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter.

Hewitt was apt to invoke the earlier movement, usually through Ulster participants, Jemmy Hope and others. A play, now known as ‘The McCrackens’ (also written c.1948), features Hope, Thomas Russell, and the McCracken family in a drama closing in the winter of 1845.1 This is classic Irish rebellion in its most resonant but tragic instance, the event which gave priority to the term ‘rebel’ in Irish contexts and which, consequently, provided the ideological framework (ironically or otherwise) for Hewitt’s twice proposed ‘no rebel word’ banner phrase. Bearing this in mind, we might return to Alexander Irvine’s The Carpenter and His Kingdom, while also bearing in mind a need to remain in earshot of Africa Calling.

A few pages after Irvine’s anti-Calvinist account of sin, pinpointed by Hewitt, we find a passage rich in sympathy for the poor, ancient and modern, learned in the Protestant tradition, and keen to perpetuate an imperial view of the Great War:

The early church tried communism. Mammon pointed out the foolishness of the venture, and introduced the competitive system—which is war in industry. There the battle is to the strong and the race to the swift, and the weak and slow are gathered together and cast into the Gehenna of modern industrial methods. … In the peasants’ revolt [Germany, 1524], (p.270) when the overlords slaughtered a hundred thousand labourers, Luther was Mammon’s chief defender. He said that a prince could get to heaven as easily by slaughtering peasants as by prayer. His chief literary contribution to this bacchanalia of the god Success was a pamphlet entitled, Against the murderous thieving hordes of Peasants. ‘A rebel’, said the great theologian and son of a miner, ‘is outlawed of God and Kaiser. Therefore who can and will first slaughter such a man, does right well, since upon such a common rebel every man is alike judge and executioner. Therefore who can, shall here openly or secretly smite, slaughter, and stab; and hold that there is nothing more poisonous, more harmful, more devilish, than a rebellious man!’ His advice was taken and religiously followed even to peasants of Belgium in 1914.2

As Hewitt was familiar with the Irvine of page 206, in a book presented to him by the author, it is reasonable to assume that he read pages 220 to 221. Irvine does not misrepresent Luther, though perhaps he over-lards the 1914 German invasion of Belgium. A former miner who served very effectively (if briefly) as a British super-padre during the Great War, he was entitled to have a last swipe at the Boche in the January 1922 publication.3 What The Carpenter does not report is the author’s ministry in Ireland to the brutal Auxiliaries of 1921, and his (possible) meeting with Michael Collins, details he only published in 1930.4 In this context, he might be described as a compassionate imperialist, hardly meat for Hewitt’s pantheon.

A wider context is available. Luther’s view of the Peasants’ Revolt had not been the only Protestant response. The Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525) adopted quite the opposite position, supporting the peasants in their claims, and suffering condemnation by Luther, torture, and execution for his pains. Irvine makes no reference to Müntzer, though the German Social Democratic opposition in exile at the end of the Great War found solace in his courage and, to that extent, his example. Particularly attentive were a group of Marxists and others, including the Dadaist poet Hugo Ball (1886–1927) and the philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885–1977). Bloch’s Thomas Müntzer als Theologe der Revolution appeared in 1921, but remains untranslated into English.5 The mix of messianic thinking, utopianism, revolutionary Marxism, and Dadaism which swirled round these figures in the immediate post-war years had no equivalent on the British (or Irish) Left. But if Hewitt had never heard of Müntzer, he did in time come to revere the fourteenth-century English rebel John Ball (1338–81), principally by reading William Morris’s ‘A Dream of John Ball’ (1888). For his part in Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, the Lollard priest was hanged, drawn, and quartered in the presence of the king. Rebellion, the action of individual rebels, was a crime infinitely fouler than treason (as we have come to formulate it; it was an offence against God and the cosmological order established at the Creation). Both Ball and Müntzer were priests who judged that the social order of their day travestied the original Christian message.

(p.271) In safer times and places Alexander Irvine said much the same thing. Hewitt could record with pride that his hero ‘had exposed the outrages of the chain gangs in the southern states’ of the US.6 Nevertheless he regarded the juncture between Irvine’s socialism and his religious teaching as a geological fault or—far more concessively—as an ambiguity. His account of The Carpenter and His Kingdom disingenuously presents it as not dealing with politics. With Luther’s condemnation of the Peasants’ Revolt echoing across all its pages, one could rapidly twist the argument tighter to suggest that Irvine, while condemning Luther’s harshness towards the poor and the iniquities of industrial capitalism, used no rebel word. Though Britain experienced nothing like Germany’s Spartacus Rising of January 1919, nor produced anything to match the Freikorps veterans who suppressed it, in the other part of the United Kingdom the Irish war of independence was triggered by the Solaheadbeg incident, also of January 1919. The threat of rebellion had been heard loud in Ulster in 1912 (with Robert Shepherd Black’s wobbly approval) and in Dublin in April 1916 with massive amplification.

Irvine was a self-educated man, with a broad range of interests and sympathies. Touring the Irish midlands in an armoured car, he visited localities and buildings associated with Oliver Goldsmith. He met Yeats, whom he found inattentive. He admired Mark Twain and could quote Nietzsche on the loneliness of those who quit the conventional paths of thought. When Twain, under populist pressure, resigned from a welcoming party due to meet Maxim Gorki, for Irvine ‘it was as if a fine piece of statuary had fallen to fragments’.7 Irvine was John Hewitt’s Twain, and Hewitt’s writings on the great orator are attempts to reassemble the fragments, one or two in sonnet form dropping totally out of sight. In ‘The Return’, he had listed significant components of which he could say, ‘these are Man’. Together with the chiselled face and the temple, he named the sonnet.

A couple of unpublished sonnets is no adequate salute to Irvine. In ‘Alex of the Chimney Corner’ Hewitt provided an account of the York’s Street’s Labour Hall occasion:

After an embarrassingly adulatory though mercifully short introduction from [Harry] Midgley, Irvine rose. He spoke of social justice and the historical role of the Christian church in relation to it, of the message of the agitator Christ and the communism of the early disciples … And the crowd took to it with clenched attention: the catholic shoemaker, the arid atheist, the militant freethinker, the saintly old Quaker, the fat union official, the rest of us.8

The passage is not without its challenges. ‘Clenched attention’ is too close to the clenched fist of 1930s’ European communist display to be more than an overworked metaphor. The communism of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John etc. offered only a sentimental pedigree for the beliefs and practices of Lenin or even Harry Pollitt. Yet Hewitt’s own desire for social justice rings through, with his qualified admiration of Alex Irvine.


(1) See John Hewitt, Two Plays: The McCrackens; The Angry Dove, edited by Damian Smyth (Belfast: Lagan Press, 1999).

(2) Alexander Irvine, The Carpenter and His Kingdom (New York: Scribner’s, 1922), p. 221. Irvine appears to have taken this translated passage from Karl Pearson, The Ethic of Free Thought (London: A and C Clark, 1901) directly or indirectly. Dublin-born J. B. Bury referred to Luther’s reformation as rebellion, not as an outraged Catholic but as an atheist of Irish Protestant background; see his History of Freedom of Thought (London: Williams and Norgate, 1913).

(3) According to Linda Linney, author of Irvine’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, the book was written (perhaps drafted) during the Somme retreat of 1918.

(4) Alexander Irvine, A Fighting Parson (London: Williams and Norgate, 1930), pp. 197–8.

(5) The most relevant of Bloch’s works in English is The Spirit of Utopia, trans. Anthony A. Nassar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 235–6. On Müntzer, see Hans-Jurgen Goertz, Thomas Müntzer: Apocalyptic Mystic and Revolutionary, trans. Jocelyn Jacquiery (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1992).

(6) Ancestral, p. 41.

(7) Irvine, Fighting Parson, p. 288.

(8) Ancestral, p. 41.