↑ Return to Articles

4. Identity: Wise to be Skeptical of Easy Solutions

More Irish than the Irish Themselves



Normans at Hastings 1066

When adopting an official Irish Identity for all its citizens, the state saw no problem in amalgamating the Old English (Normans) and the native Irish within a Gaelic milieu. After all, these invaders had adopted Gaelic culture; had intermarried with the natives and often spoke their language.

The state then latched onto the convenient 18th century catch-phrase which indicated that the descendants of the Normans became … more Irish than the Irish themselves.

Voilà! The Old English were as Irish—if not more so—than its first-nation people. Most citizens that had to be accommodated within the new “national identity” could be. Problem solved!

Divided Society


Irish Galloglass c. 1521

The make-them-all-Gaels approach to identity by the Irish State was the clearest demonstration of the desire to force a sense of connectivity of all Irish men and women to native Ireland. But, missing in this line of argument was the deep-seated and stubborn feeling, among the Old English, of being the natural leaders of all Catholics within the country. The attitude was particularly noticeable—throughout history—within their upper echelons. After all, they:

  • Represented the crown of England in Ireland up to the 1530s; [2]
  • Were the leaders in Irish parliaments before the coming of the New (Protestant) English; [3] and
  • Despite being Catholic and deviating from ‘English civility’ [4] were held in higher esteem by Protestant England than the native Irish.

The Gaels were inferiors in the eyes of the Old English and a barbarous race in the opinion of the English themselves. Small wonder, then, when they did fight together against the new colonizers in the 1641 revolution—one Gaelic insurgent  declared—in relation to the Old English: … you are of the one race with the other English though we make use of you for the moment … [5]


Battle_of_Kinsale, 1601

Battle of Kinsale 1601


The instinct of superiority of the Old English showed up again and again. It surfaced in their stubborn refusal to join their Gaelic counterparts in the battle of Kinsale; it appeared in the disregard they held the Gael in the Confederation of Kilkenny; it surfaced among escapees in Irish enclaves on the European Continent during the 17th century; it was revealed in the tensions that erupted in Catholic nation-wide organisations in the 18th century and it emerge again under Daniel O’Connell in the 19th century.

 Simplistic Notion of “Irishness”

The simplistic official notion of “Irishness” that was created at the beginning of independence causes much contemporary discomfort, if not embarrassment. In any new quest to re-define the concept of “national identity”, it is prudent to be skeptical of easy solutions. It is advisable to be open to counter arguments in order to come to more universally satisfying solutions about the real nature of “identity”. Whatever form is finally developed, it must avoid the mistakes of the past.


[1] Ó Siochrú, M. 2008. Confederate Ireland 1642-1649. Four Courts Press; pp. 17 ff.

[2] Ellis, S. G. 1998. Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603. Longman; pp. 143, 157.

[3] Canny, N. 2009. Making Ireland British 1580-1650. Oxford University Press; p. 407.

[4] Ellis (1998); p. 48.

[5] Canny (2009); p. 487.

Images: Normans at Hasting (scene from Bayeux Tapestry); Irish Galloglass c. 1521; Battle of Kinsale, 1601 (works in the Public Domain c/o Wikimedia Commons)

Coming Next

A Lifetime Quest to Solve the Meaning of Identity here

Share this Page