Irish Identity (8) Evolving Irishness
In this post I’ll begin to consider changes to Classic Irish Nationalism. In other words, how has the narrative of Irish Nationalism continued to unfold and develop since its ‘Classic’ period under Eamon de Valera?
What would you say are the biggest shifts?
A nation’s particular narrative does not come to an end with the successful attainment of independence and the implementation of relevant state institutions. An important chapter may have concluded, but the story continues. Circumstances change and so nation building is a ‘recurrent activity’.
Such updating of national identity does not occur in a vacuum, ‘each generation must re-fashion national institutions and stratification systems in the light of the myths, memories, values and symbols of the “past”, which will best suit contemporary needs.’ Thus, new facets of national identity will develop within very definite traditions.
Although new generations may come to question and even repudiate the values and myths of their fathers, such revisionism will usually operate within the confines of the accepted ‘historical heritage’ of the nation. This is because this common sense of history has been the glue that bonded the members of the imagined community together.
Irish national identity has changed radically from de Valera’s generation. However it has not metamorphosed beyond all recognition. In a sense, the myths of that period have done their work. They still exert a considerable but generally waning influence in modern Ireland, but for good or ill they helped shape the nation and direct its future. At one level therefore, attempts to ‘explode the myths’ of Irish Nationalism miss the point.
Clifford Geertz identified four stages of nationalism; formation, triumph, organisation and stability. While this can too neatly suggest that all nationalisms follow a clearly defined progression, it does, I think, helpfully describe Ireland’s trajectory (except that today we seem to have moved from stability to an instability that threatens the sustainability of the state once more!).
The most dramatic and public of these stages tend to be the second and third – in Ireland it was de Valera who was intimately involved in both and a major influence on the fourth. His nationalism was characterised by an obsession with sovereignty, freedom, language, ethnicity, religion and common myths of descent. However, Irish identity has slowly developed beyond such narrow and exclusive categories to a greater emphasis on defining the nation in more open and pluralist terms. Has Ireland, in A. D. Smith’s terms, moved on, or is moving, from being an ethnic community to a civic type of political unit?
My last posts on Irish identity will look briefly at changing perceptions of the three strands of Irish identity – sacral, historical and territorial – discussed in earlier posts. And we’ll discuss some of the missional implications of these developments as we go.
 Smith. Ethnic Origins, 206.
 For example Roche and Barton, Myth and Reality. The stated aim of the book ‘is to substitute analysis for myth’. (See p. vii.) While valuable in attacking Nationalist myths that continue to foster conflict in Northern Ireland, such an enterprise is striking in its failure to recognise profound changes in Nationalist identity since Partition.
 Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 238.
 Smith, Ethnic Origins, 209.