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.

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2 thoughts on “Irish Identity Change (2) God is on our side

  1. Hi Patrick I was under the impression that Daniel O’Connell was the first one to link catholicism
    with Nationalism.Also the Ulster Volunteers wrote their signatures in Blood was that a covenant Hope you are well my observations are probably wrong.All the best Graham.

  2. Hi Graham and welcome.

    Sure, you are right, the link goes well back into the 19th Cent – I was just using Pearse as a focus. And yes, the ‘other side’ forged their own ‘alliance with God’. Funny how he’s on both sides yet they somehow ignore his words about loving enemies etc ….!

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