Does ‘Ireland’ exist as an idea any more?

Some musings on John Bruton’s comment the other day about the current crisis being the biggest challenge to Irish sovereignty since the Act of Union in 1801. He went on to say this poses, at heart, a patriotic challenge.

But is there any real collective sense of patriotrism left in contemporary Ireland?

In a very broad sense (and I’m sketching big picture stuff here) we have had two dominant stories of Irishness since the foundation of the state.

Story 1: National Liberation

The first was the story of classic nationalism. An effective ‘national story’ does a few things at once: it gives vision, it unites people into a common sense of belonging; it inspires commitment – especially if the nation is seeking to be ‘free’ from colonial power; it mobilises for action; it calls people to self-giving for the ‘imagined community’; it explains ‘our’ origins and points to where we can go together; it creates a culture around language, music, history, ‘memory’ and often religion; it gives a sense of communitas – of equality of citizenship for all who belong  – it is ‘our’ story.

In Ireland in the late 19th / and 20th century, this nationalist story took shape and led to the fantastically successful nationalist narrative of ‘Catholic Ireland’. So successful was this narrative in Independent Ireland, that, ironically a story that was supposed to be about freedom, liberation and self-determination became itself a totalising narrative.

Sure there was lots of good in this first narrative – a strong sense of community, of shared identity, of collective effort to make the state viable, of unity. But on the other hand, no other stories were allowed. Catholicism ruled supreme with negative consequences culturally, economically, socially and, dare I say, spiritually. Those ‘outside the story’ – the marginalised and powerless victims who suffered abuse – remained hidden, invisible and excluded from the myth of holy Catholic Ireland.

Story 2: Liberation from the totalising narrative of religion

As story 1 fragmented (or was rejected with a fair degree of self-disgust) another story of liberation took its place. This time not liberation from the English, but from repressive religion.  A new story of individual freedom, economic openness, celebration of wealth and embrace of a broader European identity took its place. The old story of Ireland was falling apart.

Story 3: Liberation from debt

Now in turn that narrative of economic success has had its own spectacular collapse amid a welter of recriminations, political upheaval, and soul searching. Ireland’s independence is all but swallowed up in European debt. Europe is suddenly not the friendly and generous donor of the past. This story looks set to be all about a third quest for liberation – this time from unemployment, debt, despair and depression. The enemies of the state are now the former elites of Irish society: bankers, Fianna Fail, property developers as well as European bureaucrats. And, I should add, the violent Republican dissidents, committed fundamentalist interpreters of Story 1, who murdered PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr last week. The huge reaction across all spectrum of opinion shows that virtually no-one has any interest in returning to that Story .

So is there any real sense of ‘imagined community’ left to join together in a patriotic duty to regain Irish economic sovereignty? Is Bruton’s mention of patriotism hopelessly optimistic?

Does ‘Ireland’ as an idea exist any more in any real sense?

This this question is going to be in sharp focus the next few years as we approach the 100 year anniversary of 1916.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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