Irish Identity Change (5) Rewriting the territorial myth

In the first post on Irish identity, I suggested that the narrative of Classic Irish Nationalism had three interwoven strands: sacral, historical and territorial. And I’m suggesting that in contemporary Irish identity has moderated its claims significantly in each of the three strands – and this gets pretty obvious as we sketch what the third strand looked like compared to today.

[PS – the focus here is on the changing identity of Irish Nationalism. Being glad of changes in its narrative does not mean I’m pro-Unionist or am laying ‘blame’ for recent history at its door alone. It would be significant if at a future date, all sides in the recent conflict [Irish, Unionist and English] could come to a place of ‘owning’ how their beliefs and actions contributed to the conflict. We’re still a long way from there. I think the Queen’s visit helped this along a bit which is why I thought it a good thing to happen.]

First a question: what ‘map image’ comes to mind when you think of the word ‘Ireland’?

Ireland is an island. Classic Irish Nationalism was a movement concerned with territorial tidiness or completeness that insisted on the incorporation of all thirty-two counties within one national territory. The Irish ‘homeland’, in Nationalist thinking, has consistently been represented in terms of a single geographical unit. This immediately recognisable shape has profound symbolic importance. Ireland, in de Valera’s eyes at least, was a chosen nation with a unique destiny, planned by God himself. God had designed the island as one unit;

‘there is something about the boundaries that seem to be drawn by the hand of the Almighty which is very different from the boundaries that are drawn by ink upon a map.’[1]

So successful has been the forging of the connection between the image of Ireland and the Irish State that John Bowman suggested some years ago that few citizens of the twenty-six county Republic had any clear map image of their state.

Given the common assumption of the shape of Ireland as ‘naturally’ one nation it was no surprise that the 1937 constitution contained an explicit, all encompassing territorial claim that would bedevil North-South relations for generations.

Article 2: The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.

Article 3 : Pending re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by the Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstat Eireann (Irish Free State) and the like extra-territorial effect.

The abstract ‘will of the nation’ gave such a claim moral justification. The Unionists, by their veto of the Home Rule bill and their (reluctant) acceptance of Partition, were, to use de Valera’s phrase, a rock ‘to be blasted out of their [Nationalists] path’ if necessary.[2] De Valera believed that no concessions to Unionist views were necessary, desirable or would be productive. The Unionists could remain in Ireland only as long as they renounced their claim to be British. Objections were not only to be ignored, they were illegitimate and to be overcome by constitutional pressure or, as some logically concluded, by force if necessary.

To assert dogmatically that the Ulster Unionists were really members of the Irish Nation was to be faced with the uncomfortable reality that they refused to take up their rightful place in the ‘New Ireland’.

It is remarkable how superficially Unionist objections were treated during the de Valera generation and beyond. In 1938 de Valera stated that “until I die, Partition will be the first thing on my mind”.[3] The fact that his policy of building an exclusive, culturally and economically isolationist, Catholic Gaelic state was in flat contradiction to achieving Irish unity was a matter of indifference to him.[4] De Valera pragmatically realised that no policy of Fianna Fail would be able to deliver on that dream. Instead the Republic had a right to develop its own sense of national identity and ‘go ahead in our own way’

The effect of nationalist frustration with the Unionists was the formation of a profoundly negative stereotype. Nationalist Irish history portrayed the Protestants as usurpers and aliens introduced to Ireland by a hostile foreign power at the time of the Plantation.[5] Deep within that narrative was the belief that was an innate contradiction between being Irish and being Protestant.[6]

In her study Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism, covering the period 1922 to 1984, O’Halloran showed how Nationalists consistently clung to different theories of how to harmonise their core belief of Irish unity with the glaringly obvious Unionist rejection of the idea.[7] These hopes included:

– economic development enticing the Unionists to join;

– the border being unnatural and temporary;

– the Unionists being persuaded that they were Irish despite their beliefs to the contrary;

– and that the common study of Irish culture and language would foster unity.

Yet, regardless of such aspirations, they were impotent to alter an unpalatable truth – Unionists had no intention of buying into the alien narrative of Classic Irish Nationalism. As a consequence, she concluded that the most common attitude of southern Nationalists towards Ulster Protestants was irritation.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement, and subsequent referendum within the Republic on Articles 2 and 3, moderated the territorial claim. Rather than dismissing Unionist rejection of the narrative as illegitimate, the articles were revised to include Unionist consent. This represented an absolutely fundamental rewriting of the Classic Irish Nationalist narrative.

As I said in the last post, some cry ‘Betrayal’ and are determined to continue to live for (and kill for) that story. The vast majority have left its dogmatic ultimacy behind. Postmodern questioning of meta-narratives and post-nationalist scepticism over all-embracing histories aren’t all bad you know ….

Comments, as ever, welcome.


[1] De Valera quoted in 1939, after J. J. Lee and G. O Tuathaigh, The Age of De Valera, Ward River Press, Dublin, 1982, 111.

[2]Freemans Journal, Irish Times, Northern Whig, Belfast Newsletter, Irish News, Dublin Daily Express, all on 28 Jan.1918. Source; Bowman, De Valera, 35. Such remarks and many like it were characteristic of de Valera’s early period. He later rejected the use of force to coerce Ulster. However such distinctions were easily lost in a situation where words have a long ‘historical trajectory’.

[3] The Times, 30 April, 1938.

[4] Bowman, de Valera, 129..

[5] R. Buchanan, ‘The Planter and the Gael’, in Boal and Douglas, Integration, 68.

[6] C. C. O’Brien, Ancestral Voices, 9-14. See also Barry Coldrey, Faith and Fatherland: The Christian Brothers and the Development of Irish Nationalism, 1831-1921, Dublin, 1988, 126.

[7] C. O’Halloran, Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism, 1987, 36-41, 44, 159-63, 170-175.

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