Robert Lynd: Essayist and Irishman

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Robert Lynd, son of a Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, was born in North Belfast on 20 April 1879. When he died in October 1949 and was buried in Belfast City Cemetery Sean McBride, Minister for External Affairs, attended the funeral as the representative of the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Conor Cruise O'Brien, at that time an official in the Department of External Affairs, was also there.

Although Robert Lynd had an international reputation as an essayist and was indeed considered in literary circles to be the best since Charles Lamb, the Northern Ireland Government was not officially represented at the funeral. William Lowry, the Minister of Home Affairs, was no doubt there but as a member of the family not as a member of that government. Lowry was Robert Lynd's first cousin.

Perhaps, at least from the point of view of the Ulster Unionists, official indifference to the funeral of Robert Lynd was both understandable and justified. The year 1949 was not by any means one of the best years for North-South relations in Ireland. Dail Eireann, the Southern Parliament, had just repealed the External Relations Act, thus creating the present Republic of Ireland and bringing to an end Southern Ireland's remaining links with the British Commonwealth. The Westminster Parliament had responded with the Ireland Act which included the statutory guarantee that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority in the Parliament in Northern Ireland. Those two enactments were followed within Northern Ireland by a general election that was yet another violent and unruly confrontation of Ulster Unionists and Irish Nationalists. As the remains of Robert Lynd were being laid to rest in Belfast City Cemetery Ulster Unionists were once again asserting their determination, and their right to remain citizens of the United Kingdom and declaring that Northern Ireland would never by taken over by the Republic of Ireland.

On his mother's side of the family Robert Lynd's grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather had all been Irish Presbyterian clergymen. His father the Rev. R.J. Lynd had spoken as a fervent Unionist at the Henry Cook Centenary in 1888. Cook was in nineteenth-century Ireland what Ian Paisley has been in Northern Ireland for the past forty years.

In the early 1900s when Ulster Unionists, determined never to accept Home Rule in Ireland, raised the Ulster Volunteer Force and brought two shiploads of rifles from Germany, Robert Lynd joined the Sinn Fein Party. He was one of the original members, in Belfast, of the Dungannon Club, an Irish Republican organisation. He joined the Gaelic League and learned to speak the Irish language. He had the courage to stand by his friend (Sir) Roger Casement when Casement was tried for treason in 1916 and hanged in Pentonville Jail.

Robert Lynd remained an Irish Nationalist all his life, never missing the opportunity to denounce what he believed to be the hypocrisy of British politicians in their dealings with Ireland. In one of his earlier essays he wrote: 'Then came August 1914 and England began a war for the freedom of small nations by postponing the freedom of the only small nation in Europe which it was within her power to liberate with the stroke of a pen.'

In 1916, in words that were to be echoed many years later by Jack Lynch, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Lynd observed that: 'to blame Ulster is sheer dishonesty. It is not Ulster but the British backers of Ulster who must bear the responsibility for all that has occurred within the last four or five years in Ireland.'

Despite what the literary critic Desmond McCarthy once denounced as 'this abhorrent Irish Nationalism', the Queen's University in Belfast awarded Lynd an honorary Litt D in 1947. Among his other literary awards Were the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Literature, awarded in 1928, and in 1932 The Sunday Times Gold Medal for Belles Lettres. …