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.

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3 thoughts on “Irish Identity Change (3) The imagined story of Irish nationalism

  1. scepticism of all nationalist narratives (of whatever identity) once they begin to claim ‘exceptionalism’ –

    I completely relate to this sentiment. Good stuff here! Thanks for the insights.

  2. Greetings and welcome Karen. BTW, Loved what you said about the media laziness and cynicism about Camping and ‘if its trending on Twitter its news’ – similiar to the Terry Jones ‘story’.

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