A Novelist, George A. Birmingham
The Life and works of a Novelist, George A. Birmingham (1865—1950)
Controversies caused by The Seething Pot (1905) and Hyacinth (1906)

The protagonist of Birmingham’s debut novel, The Seething Pot (1905), is a Protestant youth of British descent, Gerald Geoghegan. His father was a landlord who owned a large estate at Clogher, a fictional town in the west of Ireland, which represents Westport. At the time of the Young Irelanders’ Movement in 1848, he led a small group of local Catholic farmers to raise a rebellion against Britain to establish an independent Ireland. But it ended in failure and he was deported to Australia.

Gerald is born in Australia and, according to his father’s will, goes over to Ireland to inherit his father’s estate and fight for an independent Ireland. Gerald meets a Catholic priest, Father Fahy, at Clogher.

After St. Patrick introduced Christianity in the early fifth century, Ireland turned into a pious Christian country. Most of the inhabitants believed in Catholicism. But they were persecuted by Protestants after Britain started to rule Ireland. In the early 19th century Irish Catholics won the freedom of their religion due to the Catholic Emancipation Act. The top of the Catholic hierarchy was the Church and the priests had an overwhelming power.

At Clogher Father Fahy puts the people under his power and they have to obey every order given by him. Father Fahy orders Gerald to rent his estate to the local farmers for a cheaper price than the market value. But Gerald rejects the Father’s order because he regards it as an unreasonable demand. It is John O’Neill, the leader of the Nationalist Party, that advises Gerald to reject the Father’s order. O’Neill is also a Protestant of British descent and is dedicating himself to the realization of an independent Ireland. He pleads with Gerald to join his party and stand for the parliamentary election. Gerald accepts his plea. But, when they go to the neighboring town for a public speech, the police ban them. O’Neill believes that this ban is imposed by the priests who are receiving bribes from the British Government to suppress anti-British activities. O’Neill’s attempt to break the police barricade ends in failure and he dies from illness. At the end Gerald withdraws himself from the movement for an independent Ireland. Birmingham criticizes Catholic priests with bitter words: “The Irish priests have schemed and lied, have blustered and bullied, have levied taxes beyond belief upon the poorest of the poor; but they have taught the people a religion which penetrates their lives, and which in its essential features, is not far from the Spirit of Christ. Such religion is not to be taught by words. The man who imparts it must first understand it and possess it in his own soul. This is the most wonderful puzzle in Irish life.” (pp.186-187)

One of the policemen who interferes in Gerald’s election campaign by the order of Father Fahy says to Gerald with compassion, “They (The priests) won’t let you hold your meeting. I’ve known Ireland, south and west, for forty years, and I tell you it’s no use your fighting the priests. Everyone that ever tried got beaten and went under.” (p.268)

A Catholic priest in Westport who read this novel conceived a wrong idea that Father Fahy was modeled on him and stirred up the people to burn Birmingham in effigy and boo at his house. But, in fact, Birmingham finished writing the novel before he knew the priest. Although many readers considered that the novel only criticized Irish Nationalism, a careful reading of it will show that Birmingham had a different intention. Gerald, on giving up his fight for an independent Ireland, writes a letter to Desmond O’Hara, who is the editor of a Nationalist newspaper, seeking for advice. In his reply, O’Hara, comparing Ireland to “a seething pot”, emphasizes the necessity of continuing to fight for an independent Ireland. “Just now it is the scum which is coming malodorously to the surface, and perhaps scalding your hands and feet. Yet within the pot there is good stuff. It may be dinner ‘for the childer’, to make them grow into men and women; it may be food for the men to make them strong……Far better it is to be sitting beside a seething pot than a stagnant pool. Dear G. G., let us keep the pot seething if we can. Let us do our little part in this dear Ireland of ours to stir men into the activities of thought and ambition. If we get our toes burnt and our fingers grimy, let us put up with it bravely. If there is a nasty smell, we shall remember that there is good food in the caldron.” (pp.297-298)

This seems to represent Birmingham’s belief and agony at that time, the importance of never giving up the fight for an independent Ireland and a lot of difficulties facing it.

Birmingham hoped that an independent Ireland should be realized by the Protestant leaders of British descent like Gerald, O’Neill and O’Hara. It is generally assumed that those of Irish descent are Catholic Nationalists and those of British descent are Protestant Unionists. But, at that time, there were a number of Protestants of British descent who dedicated themselves to the realization of an independent Ireland as Nationalists like Birmingham, Douglas Hyde and Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). Parnell was the son of a Protestant landlord of British descent, and he progressed the movement for an independent Ireland as the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the late 19th century. But the movement ended in failure and he died in discouragement. He is reflected in the character of John O’Neill.

Birmingham’s next novel, Hyacinth (1905), also caused misunderstanding among Irish Catholics and Nationalists and he was denounced by them. Hyacinth is the name of the protagonist.

In the mid-19th century, the English Government carries out a missionary movement in which they try to convert Irish Catholics to Protestantism. Hyacinth’s father living in the west of Ireland is converted to Protestantism and dedicates himself to the missionary movement as a clergyman. But he is discouraged because his mission bears little fruit. As contrition for his failure, he names his son after the pioneer of this missionary movement. Hyacinth enters the Divinity School of Trinity College, Dublin, where his father also studied, to become a Protestant clergyman. Hyacinth detests the English, regarding them as the new foreigners who tread Irish soil. When he is invited to the students’ prayer meeting at the college, he is appalled by the superlative Imperialism of the Protestant Unionist students who supports England. A Protestant clergyman gives a speech in which he praises England as the pioneer of civilization and the nursing mother of the missionary movement and justifies the English soldiers fighting in the Boer War. Hyacinth is bewildered by this speech because he sympathizes with the Boers who are oppressed by the English as cruelly as the Irish are.

Hyacinth tells the chairman of the meeting that he will not attend the meeting again because he does not hope for England’s victory in the Boer war. After realizing Hyacinth’s sympathy with Irish Nationalism, other students avoid interacting with him and chant offensive songs in front of his dormitory room. When the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland visits the college, Hyacinth refuses to take off his hat in greeting and is beaten by some students. After this incident, he keeps himself from the college and inclines to Irish Nationalist movements.

He joins an underground Nationalist organization led by a militant woman called Augusta Goold, usually known as Finola. She is modeled on Maud Gonne (1865-1953). However his involvement with this organization causes his disillusionment with Nationalism and he will depart from Ireland at last.

Finola recruits volunteers to fight against Britain in the Boer War. Her true desire is not to help the Boers but to damage the English. Although Hyacinth applies for the volunteers, Finola rejects him because she regards him as helpless as a tame Sunday School teacher who only voices high ideals. She believes that one must be a “blackguard” to fight in a war.

Then Hyacinth resolves to contribute to Irish Nationalism in a different way. He starts working for a woolen factory run by a brother of a soldier fighting in the Boer War. He is anxious to help the progress of Irish industry by selling his factory’s products to shopkeepers, but he is discouraged by two hypocritical Nationalist shopkeepers. O’Reilly, the shopkeeper of “The Irish House” displays a patriotic advertisement encouraging people to buy Irish goods. But, when Hyacinth visits the shop to sell his factory’s products, he discovers that O’Reilly is importing cheaper English goods and falsely labeling them as Irish goods. The other shopkeeper, Dowling, gives a patriotic speech at a Gaelic League meeting, in which he denounces factories employing Scottish workers and urges people to boycott the shops selling English goods. But Hyacinth is shocked when he finds Dowling’s shop stocked with English goods. Dowling calls Hyacinth a dirty Protestant and declares that politics is one thing and business is another.

Hyacinth is even more shocked by a woolen factory run by a Catholic convent. Despite the fact that the factory is funded by the Government, it employs girls at starvation wages and sells their products more cheaply than Hyacinth’s factory. Subsequently his factory goes bankrupt.

A fatal blow to Hyacinth’s faith in Nationalism comes from his argument about Irish politics with a Protestant clergyman, Canon Beecher. When Hyacinth visits the Canon for a permission to marry his daughter, he realizes that the Canon holds a different view of Ireland. Hyacinth’s work as a Nationalist is motivated by his hatred for England and everything English. On the other hand, the Canon says that he does not care what earthly government rules the Irish. He also says that it is impossible for anyone to accept hatred as the inspiration of his life and still be true to God and emphasizes that a true Christian must love his enemy. At the same time Hyacinth is reminded of his father’s last words, “Will you be sure to know the good side from the bad, the Captain from the enemy?” Being defeated by the words of the Canon and his father, Hyacinth withdraws himself from the Nationalist movement and leaves Ireland for England to become a Protestant clergyman.

In this novel, Birmingham criticizes the hypocrisies of both Unionists and Nationalists and reveals again difficulties facing the fight for an independent Ireland.

That Birmingham hoped for an independent Ireland at that time is clearly shown by the fact that he was the only one who expressed his support for Home Rule at the general synod of the Church of Ireland in 1912. Yet many Irish readers had the view that both The Seething Pot and Hyacinth profaned Irish Catholics and Nationalists. A local Westport paper, The Mayo News of May 19, 1906, published a joint statement of Catholic priests who demanded an apology from Birmingham. On September 27 of the same year, the local meeting of the Gaelic League was held at Claremorris, Co. Mayo, and attended by 22 members. A Catholic priest acting as the chairman of the meeting bitterly denounced Birmingham, saying that he had outraged and trampled on the dearest sentiments and aspirations of Catholics and Irishmen.