The Irish Angle – Murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland

THE IRISH ANGLE

Murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland – Richard Hannay meets his match

I have to confess that John Buchan is a guilty pleasure of mine. He is not fashionable today and his novels express views on Africans, Jews, Arabs, etc. that are not repeatable in our politically correct age. Despite this, his writing is good, the plots rattle along, and his characters are believable and likeable. His creation, Richard Hannay, introduced in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), was the forerunner to all literary spies to follow, including James Bond.

It would be a mistake to conflate Buchan and Hannay. Buchan was an imperialist who ended his life as a peer and Governor-General of Canada, but his politics were nuanced. He was a Unionist MP, but although he opposed Irish independence, he supported Home Rule, for Scotland too. In ways he was progressive, advocating free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and reforming the House of Lords. He also had a legal career, served as a diplomat, and wrote wartime propaganda.

The Three Hostages (1924) sees Richard Hannay, now retired, living as a country squire until his idyll is interrupted by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macgillivray (an Ulsterman and so alright) who informs him that the world’s troubles, such as unrest in the Middle East, revolution in Russia, political scandal in France, and organised crime in America, are controlled by a gang of criminals for their own ends. The authorities are about to swoop but the gang have taken three hostages as a safeguard: “the daughter of the richest man in the world, the heir of our greatest dukedom, the only child of a national hero”. The only clue to their whereabouts is a childish rhyme. Hannay is tasked with locating the hostages before the authorities strike or their lives will be forfeited.

There are hints that something Irish is behind all this. A few pages in Hannay comments on how the Irish who “shirked the War are the worst” and later Macgillivray refers to the “murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland” in a list of undesirables that includes moral imbeciles and “Bolshevik Jews”. He explains that the chances of settlement in Ireland also depends on breaking up the gang. Irish nationalists are portrayed as propagandists who “managed to persuade most people that they were a brave, generous, humorous, talented warm-hearted race” despite the truth.

It becomes clear that the ringleader of the international conspiracy is an ornament of the English upper-class, Dominick Medina, a Member of Parliament. The redoubtable Hannay discovers that Medina is really Irish – well half Irish and half Spanish. One can’t help but think that Buchan was making a sly reference to Eamonn de Valera here. Medina has been brainwashed by his Irish mother into hating England and the whole international conspiracy is just a means to bring low Great Britain. Hannay dismisses Ireland’s struggle for independence as a neurotic dream and describes Medina as “déraciné Irish, such as you find in America”.

Hannay, is not so crude as to demonise the entire Irish race. He distinguishes between the decent and those with criminal tendencies. Yet throughout the novel, there are references to inferior races prone to cunning and crime. Buchan draws his readers’ attention to the similarity between the Irish and such races. Medina passes himself off as an Englishman by careful dress and brushing his hair to disguise his head’s true shape. In one crucial scene when Hannay sees Medina and his mother together for the first time, he vividly describes Medina’s head as being “as round as a football … it meant madness – at any rate degeneracy”. Earlier he had suspected that Medina’s head was round as a Negro’s. Buchan’s readers would have been familiar with the racial theories of the time. The Anglo-Saxon and Germanic races were characterised by blunt, square-type skulls, reflecting their moral character, while inferior races had round skulls. Buchan is clearly signalling that the Irishman Medina belongs to the latter. In the same scene, Hannay is disgusted when Medina and his mother speak in “Erse”, as alien to him as Choctaw.

However, we should not condemn John Buchan as a bigoted racist. He was a Lowland Scot with a romantic attachment to the Highlands and must have known of the affinity of the Highlanders to the Irish. After all, Hannay is careful to distinguish the “hobbledehoys” from the decent Irish. And in charismatic, Irish, Dominick Medina, he finds his greatest adversary, unequalled in intelligence and ability. If he hadn’t wanted to destroy English civilisation, Hannay would have been his ardent follower.

While Hannay’s crude racism appears outdated, many of his views would not be out of place today. The notion that all the world’s troubles have one source, and that if the head of the criminal conspiracy could be taken out then all would be well, is current in Europe and America today. Is it not the kind of thinking that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussain and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden? Replace Bolshevik and Jew with Islam and Arab and The Three Hostages could almost be a contemporary novel.

Tony Canavan


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