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3. An Outlandish Sense of National Identity?

No Unitary Irish Mind

Fintan O’Toole’s conclusion that a single “Irish identity” does not exist (article #2 GKIS) is echoed by Declan Kiberd when he says: … there is no single Ireland, but a field of varied forces, subject to constant negotiations, and there is no unitary Irish mind, but many Irish minds … [1]


center of Irish identity; St Enda's School, Rathfarnham, Dublin

St Enda’s – a school for Irish identity

However, in the aftermath of independence, the Irish State took a simplistic view of its so-called “national identity”. It opted for a culturally pure nation based on an inflated sense of connectivity of all Irish men and women to Gaelic Ireland.

In so doing, alternative traditions were conveniently ignored. Today, few outside the state apparatus attach much seriousness to the contrived myth. However, its residual influence casts a long shadow over the nation.

Identity Based on a Gaelic Foundation 

Truly, the young Irish State built its official “identity” on a Gaelic foundation. But, the following statement made by contemporary academics about the history and prehistory of the country’s native inhabitants is revealing: It is difficult to think of another area of Ireland’s past that has been so poorly served by scholarship.[2]

The reason for this situation—as explained by these scholars—is astounding: One of the problems has been the lack of recognition of Gaelic society as a cultural group meriting scholarly archaeological investigation … How, then, could a nation base its “identity” on an ethnicity it knew little about?

The scholars in question go on to say that: Much of the material published on Gaelic dynasties during the nineteenth century and in the greater part of the twentieth century, although not devoid of useful references and occasional insights, tended towards romantic sentiment rather than historical accuracy.[2]

A Bogus Notion of “Irishness”


Reconstruction of Gaelic roundhouses

Being based largely on fanciful sentiments, therefore, the nation’s view of itself—the remnants of which still survive today—requires fundamental revision.

Journalist John Waters expresses the situation as follows: There is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in the idea that the initial attempt at reconstructing [the] Irish nation after Independence was deeply flawed. Irish people of a certain age have strong memories of the clumsy efforts to create and preserve a notion of Irishness that was bogus, impracticable and unattractive.[3]

In hindsight, the original exercise which created a national sense of self was so outlandish that only a highly critical review of what passes for the country’s “national identity” will suffice.

Call for a New Vision of “Irishness”

But, a review alone is not satisfactory; a fresh conceptual vision of “Irishness” needs to be drawn up.

Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations and Centenaries (2012-2022) is the ideal period in which to undertake a revision of this kind and convert introspection into an activity with a purposeful outcome i.e.—A new vision of “Irishness” that will have a lasting positive impact.

Coming Next

Identity: Wise to be Skeptical of Easy Solutions here


[1] Kiberd, D. 1996. Inventing Ireland. Vintage; p. 298.

[2] Duffy, P. J., Edwards, D. and FitzPatrick, E. (Eds.). 2004. Gaelic Ireland.  Four Courts Press. Dublin; pp. 22; 26; 34.

[3] Waters, J. 2012. Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot. Transworld Ireland; p. 271.

GKIS = Gerald Keogh Identity Series