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10. Gaelic Roots of an Urban Identity

Mistaken Irish Identity

Irish Volunteer Gerald Keogh—after whom the current Series is named—presents a relevant example, demonstrating the real links that existed between middle-class native Dubliners (article #9 GKIS) and their tribal roots in rural Ireland.

John Keogh

Native culture resurfaced in the city

Ironically, Gerald’s headmaster Patrick Pearse failed to realise the complexities of Irish society as he looked to the West of Ireland to discover “authentic Irishness”. Pearse was blind to the fact that native culture had resurfaced in modified form through the Gaelic business communities of the towns and cities of the country.

This image of myopia stands as a metaphor for the relationship between the new Irish State and its citizens. The State, too, was ignorant of the true composition of its people.

The irony goes deeper. Those who created the native urban middle-class emerged from the leader and professional landowning ranks that lost their properties during the dispossessions of the 17th century. They were closer to the literate Gael—that Pearse was aiming to emulate in his school at St. Enda’s—than the landless that had been left behind in rural Ireland after native territories were confiscated and on whom views about Irish identity were largely and, therefore, erroneously based.

Primordial Roots

However, the obsession that Pearse and other patriots had with the West was not based on a desire to understand native society from an anthropological standpoint alone. Article #2 of the Series mentioned that the architects of the new Irish State found in this region a ready-made blueprint for defining “Irishness”. Its associated Celtic imagery, myths and legends were so powerful that they succeeded in gathering about them the men and women who ignited the independence movement.


Search for primordial roots in the pristine environment of the Irish landscape

Part of the reason why the Celtic milieu was so potent a force related to the connectivity it evoked between contemporary society and its primordial roots in the pristine environment of the Irish landscape. It was a powerful underlying precept in the minds of those who chose the suggestive icons for the young Irish State.

Basic Standard of Identity

In Shelter and Shadows author Raymond Keogh felt that—at this juncture in his own investigation—he was approaching a more succinct expression of the true meaning of identity.[1]

The theory that “primordiality” and “naturalness” reach their maximum expression within a pristine biological environment in which the primeval society is embedded is attractive in its simplicity. It implies that human identity is best understood and defined in such settings. If so, it follows that “identity”, in all later cultures, has to be judged against this “basic natural standard”.

The desire to verify this theory led Raymond to undertake a life-changing expedition into the jungles of South America in the 1970s where—he believed—he could encounter and thereby understand how a primitive tribe lived in harmony with its environment. The whole tenor of his investigation into the meaning of identity changed during this expedition.


[1] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. (To be published in September 2016 as part of The Gerald Keogh Identity Series).

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series

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Exploring Identity: Orinoco Expedition here