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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4 thoughts on “Irish identity change (4) killing for Ireland

  1. Hi Patrick. Very interesting. Thank you. I’m afraid, though, that other than a rather skeletal history, I’m starting from scratch on all this. I’m sorry…but could you indulge a couple of questions?

    I’ve re-read each post in this series and I’m still not 100% sure what the “myth” or “imagined past” refers to. Do you mean that leaders of the early 20th century nationalist movement collectively created the false idea of an Irish nation (a culturally and politically united, God-sanctioned community) that existed prior to foreign dominance—and that their appeal was for a “return” to this ideal state? Or do you refer to something more specific?

    And just a point of curiosity…is it just the false and manipulative methods by which violent sentiments were raised, the self appointed representatives of the people, and their particular methods that you find fault with or is it the idea of establishing independence by force at all?

  2. Hi Crystal

    Whew – you’re putting me on the spot here 🙂

    By ‘myth’ I mean the idea of simple historical tale of the ‘imagined nation’. Not that it is all made up, but that it is simplified. All the (many) complexities, contradictions and paradoxes of Irish history tended to be edited out into one story of 800 years of English occupation etc until at last the nation rises up and is free … At heart it is an emotional as well historical narrative that is built upon an idealised ‘mythic’ past.

    Ireland isn’t unique in this – very much part of the rise of modern nationalism. Nor need this be manipulative or cynical, I think it was sincerely and deeply and passionately believed.

    What I think had a poisonous legacy, was the fusion of that tale with blood sacrifice for the nation and how violence was embedded in Irish identity. And how that mythic tale painted a type of nation that was exclusively Catholic. I understand why this was the case – but it was a long way from the vision of the Young Irelanders who thought up the Irish Flag of uniting Orange and Green.

    Fascinating historical question whether the War of Independence and then the Civil War were horribly unnecessary. Any Irish history buffs out there?

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