Irish Identity (7) the character of Classic Irish Nationalism

I’ve sketched the three strands of Classic Irish Nationalism and then how they shaped the newly independent ‘imagined community’ of Ireland. Before moving on to reflect on how those three strands have changed in today’s Ireland, it’s worth pausing to look at the pros and cons of the de Valera era.

Someone said that ‘Our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses’. I think this is applies in the case of Classic Irish Nationalism.

Catholic faith and national identity in Ireland in the de Valeran period were inseparable. Over ninety per cent of its population were practising, committed Catholics. The Church, in the form of the local parish priest, was involved in ‘virtually all forms of political and social action among the Catholic community’.[1] As John Whyte showed, loose usage of the term ‘theocratic state’ will distort reality, the Catholic hierarchy did not control government policy.[2] However, while the country was never formally a Catholic state, it existed in practice. Catholicism was all pervasive in areas like moral values, social attitudes and political behaviour.

The symbiosis of ethnicity and faith meant that Catholicism became, in a sense, the ‘guardian of the political community’ in a period when the nation was striving to assert itself in the wider realm of nations. It is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.

This had huge benefits in terms of social cohesion, nation building expressed by a strong national identity, combined with a deep sense of everyone ‘pulling together’ to make the whole idea of Ireland a viable one (and the survival of the state was by no means secure). De Valera’s lasting legacy was this most fundamental of all achievements; the formation and sustainability of a new, yet stable, democratic nation-state.

But, it is apparent that classic Irish Nationalism was a belief system outlook replete with certainties, rigid borders, strict categories, and authoritarian figures. It was an imagined space to which, if you were a Catholic and an Irish Nationalist, you belonged at a profound level. However, the substantial achievements of the fledgling nation were bought at the expense of any critical distance from the potent force of Catholic Nationalism. For those located within the secure embrace of a narrowly defined Irish identity the absence of such a dialectic was irrelevant and unquestioned.

But for anyone outside the imagined narrative of ‘classic Irish identity it was a place of exclusion, coldness and, for all too many, shocking sexual and physical violence at the hands of those ‘religious guardians’ who had been, by default, given unquestioned respect, authority and power.

Their stories would only emerge with the later fragmentation of that Classic Irish Nationalist narrative.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


[1] Lee and O Tuathaigh, The Age of de Valera, 182.

[2] Whyte, Church and State, 369-370.

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