Irish identity change (4) killing for Ireland

Continuing discussion of ‘Classic Irish Nationalism’ and in particular the imagined narrative of the nation.

I was going to post next on how Eamon de Valera implemented this story in the real world of politics and nation-states. But before getting to Dev, allow me a wee detour reflecting on Townshend’s description of the virtually established Irish republic; an Irish version of what Benedict Anderson called an ‘imagined community’.

The emotive and political power of that narrative had dramatic and violent consequences. It led to the War of Independence (1919-21) and immediately into a subsequent vicious Civil War (1922-23).

That Civil War would cast its shadow the rest of  20th Century Irish politics. I don’t think it is too simplistic to say that, at heart, it was a fight to the death over who got to control the imagined story of the Irish nation.

Collins and the Pro-Treaty forces had ‘betrayed’ the narrative by pragmatically accepting Partition, even as a stepping stone to a United Republic. The republican ‘purists’ could not accept Partition of the virtually established nation and would spill their own blood and that of others for the dream of a ‘united’ Ireland.

The brutality and vitriol unleashed within the imagined community would leave deep scars. I’ll put my hand up here and say this bloody legacy is one reason I have a deep-seated scepticism of the content of the ‘Classic Irish nationalist’ myth.

I might get into trouble for saying this, but despites all the efforts of later republicans to distinguish between the legitimacy, heroism and courage of the ‘Old IRA’ in liberating Ireland from the British, from its later heir in the form of the illegitimate Provisional IRA, the two shared practically the same nationalist narrative.

This is why there was decades of ambivalence about the actions of the Provisional IRA violence in the North from large swathes of Irish nationalism. While most abhorred the IRA’s methods, most also shared their narrative mythology and therefore struggled rationally to disentangle the ‘rightness’, ‘morality’, heroism and state celebration of the IRA soldiers of 1919-21 from the ‘wrongness’ and ‘immorality’ of the post-1969 IRA.

From 1969 to 1998 (and beyond) the IRA killed thousands of people, motivated by the ‘purist’ nationalist desire to ‘cleanse’ Ireland of foreign rule. They followed the voices of Pearse’s ‘Ghosts’ calling for the Irish nation to rise up and spill blood (one of the Ghosts being my relative John Mitchel, the father of violent republicanism).

Those Ghosts continue to be heard today by the most recent forms of violent republicanism. Just listen to the titles: the ‘Real’ IRA, the ‘Continuity’ IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann etc … As their names suggest, they reject the ‘re-writing’ and moderation of the Classic Irish nationalist narrative expressed in the 1998 Belfast Agreement and compete with each other to be the ‘authentic’ successors to the Old IRA.

As Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA, ‘they haven’t gone away you know’. In other words, the new splinter groups of the IRA are still ‘believers’. Yes, they may long ago have ditched the ‘sacralised’ strand of the story, but they are still committed to the ultimate ‘authority’, ‘truth’ and legitimacy of the utopian story of a liberated and territorially complete Ireland fulfilling its ‘destiny’.

If a small minority want to live in the past, no-one would care. The trouble is that, as the family of policeman Ronan Kerr know to their grief and cost, as Townshend said of 1918, such ‘believers’ also see themselves as ‘a self-elected vanguard’ with the right to ‘interpret the general will’ of the Irish people and kill in the nation’s name.

Nationalist idolatry in Ireland isn’t finished claiming lives yet. I pray it will be soon.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Sundays in Mark (59) A moment of truth in the garden

This week, a very simple Sunday reflection on the Gospel of Mark.

Within the Gethsemane narrative in chapter 14 are these 2 verses

50Then everyone deserted him and fled.  51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Despite their recent sincere and passionate protestations of utter loyalty, when suddenly confronted with the ugly reality of armed guards in the middle of the night and all that they symbolised, to a man, the disciples flee. (And whether the naked young man is Mark himself is not that important, the point is he deserts Jesus in shame along with all the others).

I think sometimes what we really believe is revealed most profoundly, not in conversations, or in statements of faith and certainly not in blog posts (!) – but in sudden unexpected ‘moments of truth’. Where you have no time to plan or theorise, but are faced with an instantaneous choice:  to act with courage and/or say something true, or to act with cowardice and not act, say nothing or perhaps even ‘run away’ from the situation.

And for many Christians around the world such moments of truth do involve life and death decisions.

Such moments expose faith and character. And this moment in the garden exposes the disciples’ promises as empty words. To be blunt, deep down, when tested, they simply didn’t believe or trust Jesus. Arrest, torture and death did not form part of their expectations of following this Galilean Messiah.

The question this text asks me and you is, deep down, when confronted with a ‘moment of truth’ that may test your faith to the limit, will you keep trusting and believing in Jesus?

Irish Identity Change (3) The imagined story of Irish nationalism

A proposition: We are storied people. We seem to be made to seek and find significance and meaning within larger narratives. The Christian gospel is one such narrative and Christians find their ultimate identity, purpose and hope within the ‘story’ of Jesus Christ. Such is the universal claim of that narrative, revolving around the claim that Jesus is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings that, for Christians, the ‘pull’ and ‘power’ of other narratives should be radically relativised.

So when it comes to your national identity – how important is it for you? If you are a Christian, how do you relate it to your Christian faith? At what point does the Christian narrative ‘trump’ a nationalist one?

I ask because this post outlines the rise of ‘hot’ Irish nationalism around a century ago. And let me say upfront that growing up, this was not ‘my story’. I’ve never had an emotional attachment to this narrative. I’m critical of it because as a Christian I have distinct Anabaptist sympathies and lean towards scepticism of all nationalist narratives (of whatever identity) once they begin to claim ‘exceptionalism’ – ‘our story’ is unique and we must follow it all the way wherever it leads, even if it means violence and martyrdom. Neither am I a fan of the content of the Classic Irish Nationalist narrative.

You might disagree but I think that the exclusionary, violent ‘myths of origins’ of both Unionism and Irish Nationalism led directly to decades of conflict and death. They are not stories that I feel remotely proud of.

 Anyway, here goes a sketch of the imagined story of the Irish nation.

Kristof, in discussing the state-idea says,

the nation draws its strength from a sense of being pushed by history and pulled by an ideal – from a sense of past fulfilment and a duty to fulfil the future destiny. By linking that which was with that which is to be, the nation develops an image of what it itself is and what it should become.[1]

The connection between the imagined past and an idealised future is vividly demonstrated in the emergence of newly independent Ireland.

Despite the fact that the actions of the IRB Volunteers[2] had been greeted with `incredulity, suspicion and dour hostility’ by much of rural Ireland in 1915[3], and the Rising itself `dumbfounded general opinion in Dublin’[4], within a year attitudes had been transformed. What were at first appalled reactions all over the country, rapidly moderated.[5]

An interesting account of such `passionate stirrings’ can be found in Dan Breen’s, My Fight for Irish Freedom. He records how in the general election of 1918, `the people went Sinn Fein mad’. `Britain’s treachery on the Home Rule question, her cold blooded murder of the 1916 leaders and her threat of conscription’, resulted in `a great awakening of national spirit had stemmed from the Rising of 1916′.[6]  His comments succinctly summarise Nationalist sentiment. The seemingly impractical and dreamlike prose of Pearse was having concrete consequences in the light of his and his comrade’s executions.

Not only were the executed leaders prayed for (and even prayed to)…Pearse’s poems and addresses, carefully marketed to secure maximum effect, became a sacred book. On every level, martyrolatry had taken over.[7]

The additional affront of Lloyd George’s 1918 Military Service Bill threatening conscription of Irish troops to fight for Britain in the Great War turned rising support for Sinn Fein into a landslide.

The deaths of Pearse and his comrades struck a deep chord with long cherished beliefs about the virtuous Irish nation which had suffered long at the hands of alien tyranny. Such a myth both gave moral legitimacy to the separatist movement while simultaneously providing the imaginative resources to interpret the ignominious end of the Rising as a re-enactment of ancient oppression. It was only after the callous actions of the British authorities that the Rising began to grip popular imagination.

A result of this reawakening was that the functions of national identity came into play with a vengeance. `The world of symbols and interpretations so dominated politics after 1916 that there is a danger of forgetting the importance of everyday events’.[8] The desire to re-forge a free, independent and politically sovereign Ireland became irrepressible and which climaxed in a period of effective mass mobilisation. The emotive power of nationalism over-rode the failed route of constitutional politics. The Irish Parliamentary party of John Redmond won just six seats in the 1918 election.

While the Gaelic Revival had been significant in reviving an interest in cultural Irish nationalism, particularly in areas such as literature, language, sport and the arts, its effects had largely been limited. Tension between different strands of the revival had become increasingly evident as the Anglo-Irishness of W.B Yeats sat uncomfortably with assertive and exclusive Catholic nationalism of writers such as D.P. Moran.[9] However, after 1916, cultural and territorial nationalism converged to form a powerful political force. An `ideologically complete’ type of national identity was winning converts and changing the shape of Irish history. The quest to impose an idealised version of Ireland in the present, based on a mythical simple past, was gathering momentum. Townshend describes the process eloquently,

The rising…was not the prelude to a democratic national movement which led in turn to the establishment of a `normal’ constitutional national polity. It was, rather,…the armed propaganda of a self-elected vanguard which claimed the power to interpret the general will. Cathartic action was substituted for methodological debate; ideal types replaced reality; symbols took on real powers. The Irish Republic, `virtually established’, would not now go away[10]

And we’ll continue in the next post the story of how this virtually established identity was then actually established in the ‘real world’ by one man more than any other – Eamon de Valera.


[1] L.K.D. Kristof, `”The Russian image of Russia”: an applied study in geopolitical methodology”‘, in Charles A. Fisher (ed.), Essays in Political Geography chapter 19, 345. Quoted in Bowman, De Valera, 19

[2] Irish Republican Brotherhood: Founded in 1858, better known as `the Fenians’, an oath bound secret society based on Republican ideals which became the precursor to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) around the time to the war of Independence.

[3] E. de Blaighid, quoted in `Ireland in 1915:National Spirit at Its Lowest Ebb’, A tOglach, vol. 1, no.5 (Autumn 1962), 5. From R.F.Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, Penguin, London, 1988, 485

[4] Foster, Modern Ireland, 481

[5] Foster, Ibid., In a survey of County Meath newspapers of 1917, Foster shows how even extreme nationalist organisations were being given a `new kind of respectful coverage’. See 485-6

[6] Dan Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom, Anvil Books, Tralee, 1924, 37. (My emphasis)

[7] Foster, Ibid., 487

[8] Foster, Ibid., 487

[9] C.C O’Brien, Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland, Poolbeg Press, Dublin, 1994, 53-91

[10] C.Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance since 1848, Oxford, 1983, 312. Quoted in Foster, `Modern Ireland’, 487.

O’Bamania

Not much need to add to the torrents of media comment on Barack & Michelle Obama’s day visit to Ireland. Save to say I can’t think of any politican or public figure who can hold a torch to Obama as a communicator.

Absolute masterclass in warmth, humour and style from both of them all day from start to finish.

Leaving aside hard politics (if that’s possible), this was a stunningly successful, warm, joyful visit.

Not bad advertising for Guinness as well

Even Maureen Dowd when interviewed said she’d been covering Obama before he was known and had never seen him so relaxed and hugely enjoying himself – as witnessed in the apparently the longest crowd walkabouts in Presidential history in Moneygall and Dublin ….

My daughter’s out there in the crowd – half the schoolchildren in Dublin were there. I don’t know about the USA, but in Ireland Obama has that generation’s attention and admiration.

Irish Identity Change (2) God is on our side

Last week, in my first post on changing Irish Identity, I suggested that Classic Irish Nationalism had three main strands:

– It sacralised its cause through a mutually beneficial alliance with God

– The boundaries of its rightful homeland were asserted by the construction of a myth of territorial completeness

– and its sense of destiny was created and sustained through a creative historical narrative

What follows below is something I worked on a while ago – it sketches the religious strand of Classic Irish Nationalism – a claim that ‘God is on our side’ and the creation of the state is a sign of his divine blessing. But more than this: once created, the duty of the state and its citizens is to honour and obey God.

And let me be blunt: at the heart of this narrative was an idolatrous fusion of Christian imagery and nationalism.

But also let me throw in a disclaimer:- criticism of this narrative doesn’t mean I’m not also highly critical of alternative nationalist myths and how they also co-opted God to their cause. I wrote a book on how some Protestant evangelicals did that in Northern Ireland. (You can buy it for £110 🙂  obviously a huge bestseller)

Have a read and make up your own mind. And it’s worth asking how should the upcoming centenary of 1916 be remembered? 

The Sacralising Myth

An outstanding success of Irish Nationalism is the way it has combined mythic views of history with Catholic religious identity. This conceptual leap, linking Catholicism and nationalism, is a complex story and we must limit ourselves to a few observations on the key figure of Patrick Pearse, an extraordinary and highly influential force behind much twentieth century Irish history.

Pearse successfully fused his Catholicism with a zealous Irish Nationalism.[1] The results were startling, emotive and quite heretical. Pearse’s pamphlet Ghosts was written in late 1915, shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising. The ghosts were the fathers of the vision of a separatist Ireland who had left behind a holy and authoritative body of teaching to be obeyed by the faithful.[2] In this and other pamphlets, Pearse raised Irish Nationalism to a sacral religion. The people were made in the image and likeness of Christ. It is they who would be tortured, naked and crucified and then would rise again victorious over their foes,

‘the people itself will perhaps be its own Messiah, the labouring people, scourged, crowned with thorns, agonizing and dying, to rise again immortal and impassable.’[3]

The date for the Easter Rising was carefully chosen; the blood of the martyrs would seal their sacrifice for Ireland. Pearse believed in the redemptive power of a nation’s blood sacrifice in the fight for freedom, ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.’[4] The national cause was elevated to the level of sacred faith in an explicit and yet mystical way.

Like a divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession. Of unity, for it contemplates the nation as one; of sanctity, for it is holy in itself and in those who serve it; of catholicity, for it embraces all the men and women of the nation; of apostolic succession, for it, or the aspiration after it, passes down from generation to generation from the nation’s fathers.[5]

Later nationalists saw the partial success of the 1916 Rising as a stage towards the fulfilment of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence. The rebellion was not only sealed literally with the sacrificial blood of the martyrs, it also called the ‘Nation of Ireland’ to further blood sacrifice in the cause of Irish freedom.[6] Such graphic and emotive imagery became deeply embedded in classic Irish Nationalism because of the ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice of Pearse and his comrades as they gave their lives for Ireland to die in front of a British army firing squad.[7]

Although his socialist contemporary, James Connolly, said ‘we are sick, and the world is sick of this teaching’,[8] and some later Republicans withdrew from the explicitly religious imagery of Pearse’s rhetoric, his ‘ghosts’ could not easily be laid to rest. The Proclamation became a sacred document for whole generations of nationalists, displayed in public buildings and schools throughout the newly independent Ireland. Nationalist leaders after Pearse, to differing degrees, were influenced by the call of his dramatic rhetoric. Those who sought to accept anything else but complete separatism were dishonouring ‘holy’ Ireland. Thus Pearse’s legacy cast a long shadow over subsequent Irish history far beyond 1916. [9]

If is from this context that leaders in the newly independent Ireland, (and specifically Eamon de Valera), began to implement policies designed to give expression to a specifically Catholic Irish identity. It is sufficient at this point to note that this process, in de Valera’s mind, was assumed to be synonymous with the divine will for Ireland. The ‘recovery’ of ancient Catholic faith was a sign of God’s protection and blessing against her (Protestant and British) foes.

Since the coming of Saint Patrick 1,500 years ago, Ireland has been a Christian and a Catholic nation. All the ruthless attempts made down the centuries to force us from this allegiance have not shaken her faith. She remains a Catholic nation.[10]

De Valera’ 1937 Constitution (still in force today) was a logical outcome of this romantic fusion of an oppressed faith and nation finally rising from centuries of domination to glorious freedom. The cause of nation and faith were vindicated by the success of achieving (partial) independence. Thus, the preamble to the 1937 Constitution affirms the nation’s gratitude to God for his help, in other words for being ‘on our side’,

In the name of the Most Holy Trinity … We, the people of Eire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, gratefully remembering their heroic struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation…

Ensuring the continued Catholic ethos of the state would pay the nation’s debt owed to God for his blessing. Article 44 of the Constitution gave, for the first time, special recognition to the ‘Holy Catholic and Roman Church’, as the ‘guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of its citizens’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


[1]For a detailed examination of the life and politics of Patrick Pearse see Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure. Poolbeg Press. 1977. Conor Cruise O’Brien has a discussion of the origins and legacy of Pearse’s mystical nationalism in his book Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland. Poolbeg Press, 1994, 96-122.

[2] The four, Theobold Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, John Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor, were likened to the four evangelists. Tone became the image of noble republicanism, Davis the father of a separate Irish culture and language, Lalor the originator of the doctrine of the sovereign Irish nation and Mitchel (a relative of mine which I’ve posted about before) the inspiring example of militant physical force insurrection. See Ruth Dudley Edwards’ discussion of the four “fathers”, in Patrick Pearse, 252-264.

[3]Patrick Pearse, Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin, Talbot Press, 1952, 91.

[4] Pearse, Ibid., 99.

[5] Pearse, Ibid., 99.

[6] The Proclamation closes with the impassioned plea for the Nation to live up to its exalted calling. “..we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.”

[7]The execution of Pearse and his compatriots after the abortive rebellion is widely recognised as a crucial turning point in the political success of Irish Nationalism. Within six years Britain had withdrawn from the twenty-six counties and Ireland was (partly) free.

[8] K. Allen, The Politics of James Connolly, London, Pluto, 1990, 151. Quoted in J. Marsden, ‘Religion and the Nationalist Cause in the Thought of Patrick Pearse’, Studies, Vol.84, Number 333, 28-37, 32.

[9] R. Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse, 252.

[10] De Valera, Catholic Bulletin, (XXV,4), April 1935, 273.

Sundays in Mark (58) Jesus Arrested

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark and the events in the Garden of Gethsemene.

This is a dramatic scene, full of pathos and utterly believable in its simultaneous tawdriness. It brings to mind a phrase I heard somewhere on ‘the banality of evil’.

An armed group are led by Judas under cover of darkness to Gethsemene. It is significant that they are sent by the three named strands of Jewish leadership – presumably with the authority and knowledge of the Sanhedrin. Israel has decisively rejected its Messiah; Judas is doing as Jesus predicted – and through their actions the Scriptures are being fulfilled.

The group have probably little idea of who Jesus is or why he is to be arrested. Jesus challenges the courage and legitimacy of their actions. Just as much today as then, the powerful want to keep suppression of their enemies well hidden from view.

Judas’ betrayal and Israel’s rejection raise deep questions around God’s election and human choice. The text simply states the facts but does not explain them. Israel and Judas are responsible for their actions, but their actions fit within the salvific purposes of God.

What do you make of this? (a small question I know!)

Jesus’ rhetorical question is an extraordinarily important one, especially in light of later church history.

It explicitly distances his mission, life and teaching on the kingdom of God from the use of violence. (In John’s account, Jesus heals the man’s severed ear and Peter’s use of the sword is rejected). The mission of the Messiah will not be achieved through coercion, threat, or political or military power.

And this means that followers of Jesus must follow the same path.

What challenges to you see for the contemporary church here?

Jesus Arrested

43Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”

Irish identity change (1)

Well QEII leaves today. You wouldn’t have known she was here except from the TV and bumping into clusters of Guards at every street corner, so removed was she from public view behind a ring of steel. A small minority opposed her visit, some warmly welcomed it and most weren’t too bothered either way.

There was much talk of ‘Irish self-confidence’ in finally inviting the British head of state over the Irish sea, but ironically that confidence didn’t seem to extend to trusting the Irish people actually to get within half a mile of the Queen.

But anyway … it was ‘historic’ in being the first visit by a British monarch to Ireland as an independent nation-state.

The Queen’s visit prompted me to muse a bit on the changing face of contemporary Irish identity, so here goes.

And what follows is, as ever, up for debate and discussion if you’d like to join in …!

The threefold structure of ‘Classic Irish Nationalism’

What I call Classic Irish nationalism provided the cohesive power to sustain an improbable, and ultimately successful, mission to build a new nation, against all the odds, with its own unique identity, different to Britain.

A national myth is vital to create and sustain a strong national identity. An effective myth will tell of the unfolding story of the nation in compelling and necessarily simple terms,

there must be no loose ends, no doubts or conflicting versions, which can blur and erode … Divergent readings of ‘history’ can only weaken and stifle a sense of identity which external events have succeeded in ‘awakening’; a unified history and a single account can ‘make sense’ of and ‘direct’ that aroused consciousness. (A. D. Smith)

I’d like to propose that the ‘simple’ mythical story of an ‘awakened’ Irish national consciousness had three main strands:

          It sacralised its cause through a mutually beneficial alliance with God

          The boundaries of its rightful homeland were asserted by the construction of a myth of territorial completeness

          and its sense of destiny was created and sustained through a creative historical narrative

In further posts I’ll unpick these strands and then discuss their contemporary relevance and significance. I’ll argue that each strand has been so profoundly weakened that little now holds ‘Classic Irish Nationalism’ together.

And along the way, it will be interesting to discuss what implications such changes have for followers of Jesus in contemporary Ireland …

Comments, as ever, welcome.