Nationalism and its ideology is one of the most important ideas in the political, social and economic life of Western society for 500 years or more. It is as central a concern as kingship, state, church, and class.
Scholars are not agreed about what a nation means or when nations came into being. There are two views: the short one and the long. The short one is that the nation is modern and came into being some time in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries (Hobsbawm, Gellner, Kedourie). Scholars are not agreed when, or from where it emerged: the Enlightenment, American Revolution, French Revolution, Romanticism. According to the long view, the nation has its roots (in many cases) in the middle ages or earlier, in literacy in the vernacular, and in religions, especially the bible (Hastings, Anthony Smith). It begins with an ethnicity, a large group of people with a shared identity, based on culture and spoken language. Some ethnicities become nations. A nation is more self-conscious than an ethnicity: it normally has a written literature in its own language, a self-conscious identity, claims to autonomy and to a specific territory (like biblical Israel). Part of these claims are real, part imaginary.
From the seventh century to the twelfth (when it reached its most elaborate form, in An Leabhar Gabhála ‘the Book of the Taking of Ireland’), the Irish elite created a national identity, in the form of a striking myth of origin that established the position of the Irish amongst the peoples of the world and traced the Irish ruling classes to a single source. They state that they are a nation, as the Greeks, the Goths, the Gauls and others were nations. There were kings of Ireland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and a myth of an immemorial kingship of Ireland was created. This was accompanied by a remarkable flowering of Christian culture and an extensive literature in medieval Irish. The claim to nationhood (drawing on this myth of origin) is eloquently expressed in the Remonstrance of Domhnall Ó Néill (who claimed to be king of Ireland) and of the Irish kings to Pope John XXII about 1317. This idea of nationhood and the same myth of origin again became important in the seventeenth century, when the Gaelic Irish and Old English in Ireland, both under attack, were trying to create a Catholic nation under a Stuart monarchy. They failed.
In the eighteenth century Ireland was dominated by the ‘Protestant nation’, namely, the narrow Protestant ruling class (little different from other European ruling classes) that owned most of the land and had a monopoly of political power and the professions. The Government in London was determined to keep Ireland in a subordinate position, subject to the legislative authority of the British parliament. The position of the Protestant nation was early expressed by the learned William Molyneaux in his The Case of Ireland’s being bound by Acts of Parliament in England Stated (1698): Ireland and England were sister kingdoms, subject to the same monarch, but Ireland was not subject to the British parliament. Jonathan Swift put the case more trenchantly in his Drapier’s Letters (1724): ‘by the laws of God, of nature, of nations, and of your own country, you are and ought to be as free a people as your brethren in England’. With the American revolution in 1775, the constitutional demand became more insistent and finally the ‘Patriots’, Henry Grattan and his followers, won legislative independence in 1782, that is, that the Irish parliament alone had the right to legislate for Ireland. This lasted just eighteen years: it was swept away by the Act of Union in 1800. Some historians see this movement as ‘colonial nationalism’.
In Ireland’s case, nation and nationality are old, but nationalism, in the fullest sense, namely, that the nation should be an independent sovereign state and that all its members should struggle to achieve its independence and serve it, is an ideology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as it is elsewhere in Europe. Nationalism draws on all kinds of sources—myth, legend, religion, history, art, culture, language, literature—to create a cult of the nation. Irish nationalists drew on the achievements of the early medieval Irish church, the golden age, the idea that Ireland was a holy island, the early origin myths, and the history of its medieval kings. Besides, Irish nationalism was self-consciously the heir of the colonial nationalism of the eighteenth century and celebrated Grattan and his ‘Patriots’.
Political and cultural nationalism flowed in many streams in nineteenth-century Ireland and was understood in many different ways. Two main traditions can be discerned, though many held a position somewhere between. The one expressed itself through constitutional means, parliament, and peaceful agitation. Here belong O’Connell’s Repeal campaign (it is doubtful whether O’Connell was a nationalist), and the Home Rule movement of Butt and Parnell (both of whom wanted much more than self-government for Ireland). The other was revolutionary, often secret and oath-bound, and sought an independent Ireland, usually a republican one, by military force. The IRB (or Fenians) best represent this tradition. They drew some inspiration from revolutionary France, but little by way of a social or political programme. Forms of government and political theories were, in their eyes, things to be worked out after independence. The support of the people ebbed and flowed, and very many, often the great majority, were indifferent. Most of the landlord class was committed to the Union with Britain, as were many Protestants in the North-East, and saw Ireland’s best future as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Thomas Davis and the Nation created a new Irish national identity in English, and this identity was elaborated in the balladry of the nineteenth century. Popular nationalist poets such as Thomas Moore, added to the repertoire, as did nationalist song-writers such as T. D. Sullivan, R. D. Joyce, Charles Kickham and others. Each political movement, each failed revolution, and each commemoration produced its crop of nationalist songs. The political attitudes of the ordinary people who sang them were at best ambiguous, often mawkishly sentimental.
The Gaelic League (Connradh na Gaeilge), founded by Eoin MacNeill (together with Douglas Hyde and others) brought a new and powerful element to nationalism: the preservation and revival of Irish as a living language and a conscious cultivation of the Gaelic past in all its cultural aspects. It was non-sectarian and non-political (until 1915 at least), but it had broadly nationalist objectives. It deepened and enriched the English-language nationalist rhetoric of Davis and those who followed him. It inspired a literary revival that could claim Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory amongst its leaders. It also inspired a literary revival in Irish and nearly every major figure in Irish writing belonged to it—Peadar Ó Laoghaire, Patrick Pearse, Pádraig Ó Conaire, Pádraig Ó Duinnín and others. Most of the leading Irish scholars of the early twentieth century began as members of Connradh na Gaeilge, notably Osborn Bergin and T. F. O’Rahilly. The Gaelic League was swept into the political ferment of the early twentieth century. Advanced physical-force nationalists joined it and many of those who took part in the Rising in Easter 1916 were members of the Gaelic League and drew inspiration from its cultural nationalist programme.
The destructiveness of Irish nationalism became more evident in the twentieth century. In 1913 armed Unionists (the Ulster Volunteer Force) confronted armed nationalists (the Irish Volunteers) in an uneasy stand-off. In 1916 the IRB core within the Irish Volunteers organised a Rising in Dublin. It failed. It was put down with unnecessary brutality by the British authorities and most of its leaders were executed. This in turn led to guerrilla warfare in large parts of Ireland, 1919–21, ending in a truce and an Anglo-Irish Treaty. The terms of the Treaty were accepted by a parliamentary majority but did not meet the aspirations of more extreme Republicans (or satisfy the ambitions of some of their leaders). This led to a destructive Civil War that ended in 1923 and caused bitterness and disillusion that lasted for more than a generation. Two separate states in Ireland, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, came into existence in 1920–21. Those who saw themselves as true nationalists and true Republicans remained hostile to both, and saw both as a betrayal of the Irish nation.
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Donnchadh Ó Corráin