"The Covenant"

Ulster 1914


Notes by John Radcliffe


the poem
[June 16th 2011]

Publication history

First published in a special issue of The Covenanter Magazine in Belfast on May 20th 1914, and reprinted in The Times of May 22nd, with the following heading:

The COVENANTER, the organ of the League of British Covenanters, which appeared for the first time yesterday, contained the following poem by Mr Rudyard Kipling.
The poem is listed in ORG as verse No. 1003 (p. 5440). It is collected in:
  • The Years Between (1919)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 33, p. 358
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library) 1994
Theme

At a time of continuing high political tension over the future of Ireland, which threatened civil war, the poem powerfully urges the cause of the Protestants of Ulster, who —if Ireland were to be given Home Rule—were violently determined to remain under the British Crown. See also Kipling's earlier poem "Ulster" of 1912.

This is a call to arms, couched in the stern Biblical language of which Kipling was a master. The first stanza suggests that the loyal people of Ulster have been lulled into a sense of false security by the lies of dishonest British politicians; these were the Liberals, whom Kipling detested. The second asserts that the Ulstermen will fight for their cause.

Background

For the political background to the poem see our notes on "Ulster".

Covenant is a term of powerful historical resonance, dating back to the religious wars and conflicts which largely dominated politics in 16th and 17th century Europe after the Reformation had broken the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Churxh. It originated in Scotland in the 1550s, where after the teachings of John Calvin had taken deep root, attempts were being made by Catholic interests to reassert the authority of Catholicism, and ultimately the Pope in Rome, over church government in Scotland.

Scottish Presbyterians, followers of Calvin, believed in the authority of God and the scriptures, and in the right of individual congregations to appoint their own ministers, without Bishops, Archbishops, or the Pope. By a series of solemn 'Covenants' as early as 1557 and later in 1581, they bound themselves to maintain these principles in their country, rejecting 'popery'.

In these secular days, one needs to bear in mind that in the 1550s, under the Catholic Queen Mary, hundreds of reformers across the border in England had been burned at the stake, and that from 1562-98 France, with its strong links with Scotland, was torn apart by wars of religion.

Despite British rule, Ireland had remained a predominantly Catholic country. But from 1609, under the rule of James 1 of England, came the "Plantations" of Ulster, when large numbers of Scottish Presbyterians were settled on some half a million acres of land in Ulster which had been confiscated from rebellious Irish chieftains. These people were violenty hostile to the religious beliefs of the native Irish, and strongly loyal to Britain. Over the centuries since they have ferociously held to these loyalties.

Thus in 1914 the idea of a 'Covenant' to assert the determination of Protestant Ulstermen to fight for their Union with Britain and against 'Popery', had strong echoes from over three hundred years of history, as Kipling was well aware. He was also well aware that the 'British Covenanters' were seriously contemplating rebellion. As Andrew Lycett writes (p. 440) :

It has been suggested that Rudyard not only demonstrated his commitment to the cause but also his considerable wealth when he contributed £30,000 (the same as the millionaire Waldorf Astor) to a secret fund for the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. While there is no evidence to substantiate this it was clear to everyone else if not to him that the money was going to buy German arms. [Lycett notes that this is stated in John Monroe's biography of Lord Milner, who alao signed the Covenant]
It was just as well that after August 1914 the issue of Irish Home Rule was shelved because of the over-riding imperatives of the war with Germany, in which many thousands of Irishmen, Catholic and Protestant, fought and died in the British armies. When Home Rule came in December 1922. six of the nine counties of Ulster remained psrt of the United Kingdom, a source of dissent to this day.


[J R.]

©John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved