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2. There Never Has Been a Single Identity

Genuine Irish Identity

What could be more iconic—as representative of genuine Irishness—than the native culture of the West of Ireland?

cartoon W of Ireland

Begobs Genuine Irish Identity

Aidan O’Sullivan wrote emotionally about a pilgrimage to the area: I was a young schoolboy then, perhaps 13 or 14 years old … I had become fascinated with the lives, traditions and ways of the people of the Blasket Islands.[1]

To him, the inhabitants were truly Irish and belonged to Gaelic-speaking fishing and farming communities. He was not alone in eulogizing them as genuine representatives of Irishness.

He says: My schoolboy belief was no accident—it was the deliberate outcome of a long tradition of Irish scholarship … that stretched back into the early nineteenth century, or perhaps even earlier

A Living Museum

The Irish Flag

Do Flags Confirm Identity?


Aidan is referring to the discoveries made by Irish antiquarians during the 19th century who had ventured into the remote West and were impressed by the lives of the local Irish-speaking people who still used material implements like querns and wooden homemade vessels; wore clothes created from locally produced materials; preserved specific types of thatched houses and built boats based on ancient designs, like the currach. They were portrayed as representing a treasure-house of Gaelic culture and traditions; a living museum.

Vision of an Ethnic Golden Age


Followers of the Irish Renaissance or Celtic Revival movement that began in the late 19th century found justification—through the writings of these antiquarians—to focus their attention on the West where they developed their own views of what life was like for the Gaelic Irish.

In hot pursuit, the architects of the new Irish State also found in this region a ready-made blueprint for defining “Irishness”. Combined with ancient heroic mythology and the notion of Ireland as an island of saints and scholars, they created the base for a cohesive “official national identity”. The vision of an ethnic golden age told modern Irish men and women what was “authentically theirs”, and how to be “themselves” once again in a free Ireland.[2]

No Single Irish Identity Exists


GKIS #2c

Does Any Nation Possess a Single Identity?

But, eight decades after independence—and making reference to the Blasket Islands—Fintan O’Toole was to write: The desire to make the microcosm stand for the macrocosm, to make the little island stand as a metaphor for the big one of Ireland as a whole, sprung precisely from the sense that the identity of the big island was far too messy, unstable and complicated. The truth is that there is not and never has been … a single Irish identity … [3]


Coming Next

An Outlandish Sense of National Identity? here


[1] O’Sullivan, A. 2008. The Western Islands: Ireland’s Atlantic Islands and the Forging of Gaelic Irish National Identities. In: Noble, G., Poller, T., Raven, J. and Verrill, L. (Eds.). Scottish Odysseys: The Archaeology of Islands. Stroud: Tempus.

[2] Smyth, A. D. 1991. National Identity. University of Nevada Press; pp. 66-67.

[3] O’Toole, F. 2002. The Clod and the Continent: Irish Identity in the European Union. Essay published by EurUnion; p. 11.

Images: R. M. Keogh