An Irishman’s Diary on Rudyard Kipling’s other island

A strained friendship, sealed in blood

    Kipling’s ambivalence to Ireland did not prevent him being constantly drawn to this country for a certain kind of hero. Photograph:    EO Hoppe/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Kipling’s ambivalence to Ireland did not prevent him being constantly drawn to this country for a certain kind of hero. Photograph: EO Hoppe/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

As Ronan McGreevy mentioned in passing here on Tuesday, it’s 100 years this week since the death of John “Jack” Kipling, son of Rudyard. His war had barely begun when, a month after turning 17, he died in the Battle of Loos on September 27th , 1915, plunging his father – who had pulled strings to get the Irish Guards to ignore his short-sightedness and give him a commission – into guilt-riven grief.

Not that Kipling snr knew of his death then. For long afterwards, he clung to the words of the commanding officer who had written: “Two of my men saw your son limping [...] and I am very hopeful that he is a prisoner.”

Kipling spent the rest of the war hoping the boy was still alive somewhere, and years afterwards searching for his body. But written in late 1915, his poem My Boy Jack was already striking the fatalistic note of someone waiting for the sea to give up the dead: “Have you news of my boy Jack?”/Not this tide./“When do you think that he’ll come back?“/Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

He himself would be long dead when his son’s remains were finally identified, in 1992.

Love-hate relationship

Even so, he eulogised them in the history and in a 1918 poem, also called The Irish Guards, that finessed their historic loyalties. It mentions only briefly that they’re “King George’s Men” now, while extolling a fighting lineage that goes back to the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy when, fighting for the French, the Irish brigade won a famous victory over the English:

“‘Twas Lally, Dillon, Buckley, Clare/And Lee that led us then/And after a hundred and seventy years/We’re fighting for France again.”

Kipling turns 150 this year (on December 30th), like WB Yeats. But unlike Yeats, and even in England, he’s gone badly out of fashion, insofar as he was ever in it.

This despite Henry James’s belief that he was “the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known”, and the fact that he was and remains the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907 when he was 42.

The problem in part is that he wrote too much, too fast, and often to no greater purpose than propaganda for causes including Ulster unionism. His love of empire and dislike of democracy might be less of a problem now if he’d exercised more quality control. Yeats wasn’t a great democrat either, after all.

But Christopher Hitchens once damned Kipling with his own words, or at least the words of one of his fictional characters, who said that: “Four-fifths of anybody’s work must be bad.” A fair self-assessment, Hitchens thought.

The remaining one-fifth, in Kipling’s case, includes Kim, his great novel about a street-child in British India, who is usually said to be half-Irish (from his father), although at one point, in a throwaway line, the author gives him an Irish mother too.

And Kimball O’Hara’s childish heroism aside, Kipling’s ambivalence to Ireland does not prevent him being constantly drawn to this country for a certain kind of adult hero. As Hitchens put it: “When [he] needed a romantic or daredevil or charmingly courageous character in fiction or ballad, he almost unfailingly selected an Irishman (or at any rate an Irish name).”

It seemed a questionable decision when, a few years ago, the GAA invoked Kipling in a promotional campaign. Of course, the ad centred on the poem If, which could be part of any sporting pep-talk about decision-making under pressure.

But even allowing for that, maybe Kipling and Gaelic games weren’t such strange bedfellows. He always liked the Irish when they were fighting – for England, preferably, but at any rate not against it. And sometimes, it was just the fact of the fighting he admired.

Here’s the chorus of the aforementioned The Irish Guards, as written by the bereaved father whose son had died with the regiment: “Old Days! The wild geese are flighting/Head to the storm as they faced it before!/For where there are Irish there’s bound to be fighting/And where there’s no fighting, it’s Ireland no more.”

@FrankmcnallyIT