Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Irish nationalism and history

This is a post setting out a few ideas that I have been trying to work out on Slugger O Toole recently.

All nationalisms need a historical narrative, a tale of the nation stretching back into history either to the foundation of the nation or back into the mists of time. Irish nationalism has chosen for itself a narrative that connects the modern Irish nation to the Gaels living in Ireland prior to Strongbow's invasion in the 12th century.

There are quite a few aspects of Irish history that do not fit easily into this narrative, especially the Plantation and the following religious wars of the 17th century and the Penal Laws of the 18th century. The way of assimilating these episodes to the national struggle has been to superimpose the later "Irish" national identification onto the Catholic side in each of those struggles. In other words it turns the Catholics of the past into the true Irish and the Protestants of the past into either British or the traitors. The Penal Laws, for example, cannot be just a persecution of the Catholic religion, they have to be interpreted as another chapter in the suppression of the Irish nation.

This would not have much significance if the divisions involved had somehow ended before the rise of Irish nationalism into a mass movement in the 19th century. Unfortunately the divisions had not come to an end when Irish nationalism began to look into its history to create its national myths. The "bad guys" of the nationalist historical discourse were still there and were not unsurprisingly largely opposed to the political movement founded on this discourse.

I do not believe that Irish nationalism as an ideology is capable of producing any self-image for the Irish nation that includes the children of the Plantation. To have a common sense of nationhood a group of people need to be able to look back on a shared sense of their own history. The parts of Irish history that nationalists look to in forming their sense of nationhood, such as the Penal Laws and the struggles against England, are largely those parts of history that are the most divisive for Ulster Protestants.

This nationalist narrative is now fairly well established as the story of the Irish nation. It works well for the nationalist community in Ireland, it is only when it comes to trying to assimilate Ulster Protestants that it falls down. I do not believe that it is possible to change nationalism so that it embraces unionists. Attempting such change may be counter productive. In a divided society, such as ours, changes within one of the communities that are both drastic and painful from the inside often seem shallow and cosmetic from the outside. Such changes rarely receive a large positive response and often the efforts to change end up leading to more bitterness.

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