Irish Identity (8) Evolving Irishness

In this post I’ll begin to consider changes to Classic Irish Nationalism. In other words, how has the narrative of Irish Nationalism continued to unfold and develop since its ‘Classic’ period under Eamon de Valera?

What would you say are the biggest shifts?

A nation’s particular narrative does not come to an end with the successful attainment of independence and the implementation of relevant state institutions. An important chapter may have concluded, but the story continues. Circumstances change and so nation building is a ‘recurrent activity’.

Such updating of national identity does not occur in a vacuum, ‘each generation must re-fashion national institutions and stratification systems in the light of the myths, memories, values and symbols of the “past”, which will best suit contemporary needs.’[1] Thus, new facets of national identity will develop within very definite traditions.

Although new generations may come to question and even repudiate the values and myths of their fathers, such revisionism will usually operate within the confines of the accepted ‘historical heritage’ of the nation. This is because this common sense of history has been the glue that bonded the members of the imagined community together.

Irish national identity has changed radically from de Valera’s generation. However it has not metamorphosed beyond all recognition. In a sense, the myths of that period have done their work. They still exert a considerable but generally waning influence in modern Ireland, but for good or ill they helped shape the nation and direct its future. At one level therefore, attempts to ‘explode the myths’ of Irish Nationalism miss the point.[2]

Clifford Geertz identified four stages of nationalism; formation, triumph, organisation and stability.[3] While this can too neatly suggest that all nationalisms follow a clearly defined progression, it does, I think, helpfully describe Ireland’s trajectory (except that today we seem to have moved from stability to an instability that threatens the sustainability of the state once more!).

The most dramatic and public of these stages tend to be the second and third – in Ireland it was de Valera who was intimately involved in both and a major influence on the fourth. His nationalism was characterised by an obsession with sovereignty, freedom, language, ethnicity, religion and common myths of descent. However, Irish identity has slowly developed beyond such narrow and exclusive categories to a greater emphasis on defining the nation in more open and pluralist terms. Has Ireland, in A. D. Smith’s terms, moved on, or is moving, from being an ethnic community to a civic type of political unit?[4]

My last posts on Irish identity will look briefly at changing perceptions of the three strands of Irish identity – sacral, historical and territorial – discussed in earlier posts. And we’ll discuss some of the missional implications of these developments as we go.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] Smith. Ethnic Origins, 206.

[2] For example Roche and Barton, Myth and Reality. The stated aim of the book ‘is to substitute analysis for myth’. (See p. vii.) While valuable in attacking Nationalist myths that continue to foster conflict in Northern Ireland, such an enterprise is striking in its failure to recognise profound changes in Nationalist identity since Partition.

[3] Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 238.

[4] Smith, Ethnic Origins, 209.


7 thoughts on “Irish Identity (8) Evolving Irishness

  1. Thanks Crystal, last ones might be a bit sporadic. On hols with family and internet access occasional as well as a sort of unofficial holiday from blogging too !

  2. Greetings Norbert,
    I’m not sure how comments on De Valera can be anything but retrospective. I read through recent stuff like Diarmaid Ferriter’s book on Dev recently. I don’t think anything I’m saying is terribly out of step with his conclusions. He stresses Dev’s international achievements and remarkale success in nation building, but I’d stand by my comments that De Valera’s nationalism “was characterised by an obsession with sovereignty, freedom, language, ethnicity, religion and common myths of descent.”

    • Hi Patrick,
      What I mean by ‘retrospective’ is that sin which historians should never commit: evaluating the past from contemporary vantage points. I’m not sure that it is terribly illuminating to say that DeValera’s nationalism “was characterised by an obsession with sovereignty, freedom, language, ethnicity, religion and common myths of descent.” This is precisely what one would expect in the immediate aftermath of British rule in Ireland. How else would a republican born in the nineteenth century have articulated his nationalist aspirations? I’m no fan of DeValera’s – his nationalism insults my sense of what it means to be Irish. Yet this is only because he lived in an Ireland very different from the pluralistic country I live in today. In this sense we need a bit of historical humility treating of our past.

  3. I think I did say somewhere that it would hard to imagine how else Irish Nationalism would have been shaped given its emergence from British colonialism (or something like that). I’ve tried to be more descriptive than judgemental, and said in the post above that attempts to ‘explode the myths’ of Irish Nationalism may actually miss the point that those myths have done their job. Maybe I’m being a bit defensive here but still feeling the painfully cliched and retrospective charge is over the top.
    And given how nationalist myths or ideology (whether Irish Nationalist or Unionist) have impacted and motivated polticial events over the 20th century, I think it is vital to assess and critique them – and seek to move on beyond them where they are destructive or out of date or living in the past.

    • Yes I agree that it is vital to critique and transcend nationalist myths and ideology etc. It’s just that I think this whole subject has been done to death a thousand times. It’s hard to be original and even harder to not to get swept off one’s feet by theory laden jargon. Part of the problem I feel is that we are still too close to events (1916 and all that) for them to be “history” in any kind of detached sense. What we need are more spiritual and philosophical reflections on our history such as John Moriarty’s, “Invoking Ireland: Ailiu Iath n-Herend.” Though difficult and demanding, Moriarty’s volume breaks the mould of linear thinking about our past and offers a startling critique and vision of our problems and possibilities as a people.

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