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(ESSAY 2) Irish National Identity—Pre & Post 2016

Recommended: read from the start here

Part II

Seeking an Alternative View of Irish Identity

The Obstinate Question

In Part I of this essay, I suggest that discussions on Irish identity are never taken far enough. Terminating the debate prematurely solves nothing. So it’s time to stop going around in circles and come up with something which will answer the obstinate question­­—once and for all—What is Irish identity? Part II  finds clues for an adequate response in an unusual place: an artist’s portrayal of Dublin’s Gaelic middle-class.

Declan Kiberd in his complex and dazzling review of how “New Ireland” might be invented, suffers one annoying habit: that of over simplifying and demeaning the emerging native middle-class of the capital. This may be a fatal weakness in his work; fatal in the sense that it thwarts precisely what it implicitly intends to achieve: that is, provide a base on which to redefine Ireland in the 21st century.

Whenever the emerging indigenous middle-class of Dublin are mentioned by Kiberd, words like pushy, snobby, philistine, arriviste, comprador, complacent, barbaric, bourgeois, shabby-gentility are never far off. He suggests that at the beginning of the 20th century, Dublin was a periphery-dominated-centre. In other words, the capital was overrun by a would-be bourgeoisie who had not yet washed the stains of turf from their hands. In their attempts to trot after nobility they claimed to be descendants of the Gaelic aristocracy. He goes on to say: They falsely vilify the rhythms of a city life which they have never entirely mastered, and correspondingly sentimentalize the rhythms of a country life which they have not yet, in their minds, completely abandoned.[1] To press home his point, Kiberd provides verbal illustrations of a flock of sheep being herded across Carlisle Bridge into Sackville Street and thistledown blowing along the fashionable arcade of Grafton Street to show that the city is never far from the dung heap. Those who carried manure into its streets on their brogues did not dream of a free Ireland but wanted to don collars and ties … to replace their former British overlords and to take over their privileges.[1] Besides … the vast majority of them never learnt how to produce, only how to consume.[1] Even when they did attempt to do something Kiberd puts them down as shoddy native manufacturers who worked behind protective tariff barriers.[1]

What seems to bug him is the audacity of pretentious and ignorant country people who flood the city in the lead-up to independence, before becoming the elites of the new state. He claims that members of the nationalist movement for Irish political and cultural freedom … were to a man the urbanized descendants of country people … [1] It’s true that all city dwellers trace themselves back to the country at some stage. But the urban elites who seized the positions of power, according to Kiberd … tended to be dominated by first- or second-generation immigrants from rural areas.[1] He goes on to claim they … had not yet fully emerged as a social formation …. [1] Most of this is incorrect. Kiberd’s hatred of the native middle-class gives rise to a deep and unfortunate myopia.

In the short story Grace in Dubliners, James Joyce observes that the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street was almost full of gentlemen who were about to attend a retreat. In this single phrase he tells us something valuable concerning the city’s Catholic middle-class during the early 20th century. They were not newcomers. These men represented a mixture of Gaelic and Old English entities. The native component consisted mainly of descendants of former leading families and the professional ranks of Gaelic society. Their forbearers lost their tribal inheritances and properties during the colonisation of the 17th century and, after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, they became a visible and permanent presence in the city.[2]

As mentioned in Part I of this essay, the native population was always at a disadvantage compared to the Old English. That is until Dublin merchant John Keogh defeated the Old English aristocrat Lord Kenmare in a vote in 1791 and became the undisputed leader of the Catholic Committee. This victory was significant. It represented the emergence of the urban Gael in a formal leadership position over the Old English. From then on the Gaelic component would act on equal terms, no longer subservient to their old masters. Under Keogh, the emerged indigenous middle-class of Dublin led the way in creating the structures for constitutional agitation in the country that continued for more than a century after the Act of Union was passed in 1800.[3]

The indigenous middle-class of Dublin had been a prominent and active political entity in Ireland during the 18th century, when the country had its own assembly. But, they became a marginalised group within the wider United Kingdom when the island lost its parliament, which was transferred to Westminster after the 1800 Act was passed. At that stage they forgot their achievements; their history; they even forgot who they were.[3]

Self Imposed Exile

It is, without question, that James Joyce expressed the mind of the Gaelic urban middle-class. He was its primary representative in terms of written artistic expression. All his observations about the rich or poor of Dublin—or about Ireland—are from this vantage point. Joyce is the great legacy that his urban people have left to the world, yet it has never occurred to them. Joyce has been usurped by the Irish, yet his own are totally unaware. The reason is now outstandingly clear and can be traced to the lack of awareness that they were part of a distinct community. In the early 20th century the native Dublin bourgeoisie appeared to be a non-culture and, as a result, they were understandably confused. They stood uncomfortably between the would-be “true” Irish-Irelanders on one side—who saw them as West Britons—and a British public on the other, who saw them as bog trotters. They were isolated from other social groups. Edith Somerville observed that their society had … practically no normal points of contact with any other class, either above or below it.[1]

The inability to see that the native middle-class of Dublin was a genuine social grouping with a long history seems to have afflicted many writers, critics, historians and even Joyce himself. Joyce shared, at a personal level, the confusion of his people. Besides, in a country where elite intellectuals worked beyond the constraints of objective scholarship in the lead-up to independence, anything was possible. The emotionally charged atmosphere of the Irish Renaissance gave rise to a tsunami of Celtic verbiage from Patrick Pearse, Padraic Colum, Standish O’Grady and many other so-called “patriotic” Irish writers. Even the Anglo-Irish, in the form of W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, got in on the act. Politicians like Eamonn de Valera and Douglas Hyde were also in Celtic celebratory mood. Nothing could be done to prevent a groundswell of sentiment that blinded them to the actuality of life in the towns and cities of Ireland.

Joyce was dismissive when these contemporaries attempted to fuse the Irish into a single grouping during the pre-independence climate of the rural-centric Celtic Revival. But he was incensed when presented with a fabricated blueprint that was meant to define the identity of his people—including him. He instinctively knew that his Dublin culture had little to do with the fictional narrative being created. But, even if he could make himself heard over the tumult, Joyce didn’t possess a sufficiently robust set of arguments to challenge the “New Ireland” which was emerging. It seems that in his early period as a writer he was unable to articulate, to his satisfaction, the identity of his particular Irish community and counter the folly.

Without possessing a clearly defined or recognised uniqueness, he felt that the only way he could understand and articulate his culture was to extract himself from the hype and become immersed in a distinct society where he could best pursue the self-understanding that his own people had lost. He attempted, therefore, to make a clean break from all cultural attributes associated with Ireland and Britain. Kiberd remarks that Joyce cut himself adrift in Continental Europe and became a nomad writer, tangential to the cultural life of both Ireland and England.

Richard Ellmann acknowledges that he struggled … for a hold on the meaning of his exile.[4] Clarity came with time, but he could never have foreseen the outcome that his self-imposed exile would produce. He was surprised, for example, by the influence Italy had on him. He realised that his experiment was changing his manner of thinking in a unique way when he began to see resemblances in Trieste to his native Dublin. He had been rejecting, with varying success, Irish nationalism, the Irish language, the Irish literary movement, Catholicism, home politics, English officialdom, Irish rural roots and even Irish friendship. In reality he was not as much rejecting as distancing himself from many of these influences to bring them constantly into sharp focus and clarify them.

Social Black Hole

Although the intellectual elites of a nationalist hue overlooked the Gaelic urban middle-class during the turbulent decades at the beginning of the 20th century, it is ironic that—in time—it became part of the most resilient and fastest growing sector of any within the nation. Middle-class, of course, can be defined in many ways; it may be based on occupation, education, income or all these factors together. In his book The Pope’s Children, David McWilliams suggests that Ireland became a middle-class nation.[5] Whilst this conclusion is questioned under the close scrutiny of the likes of Kieran Allen[6] and others, McWilliams does make an interesting point.

Incomes may vary depending on boom or bust; they now straddle the traditional middle- and working-class occupational divides. And anyone who has lived in Ireland through the latter half of the 20th century, or has experienced real class divisions in the developing world, will understand that class distinctions have largely dissolved compared to what they were. Viewed in this way there is a definite lean in favour of McWilliams’ thesis, or towards the suggestion that a 70:30 society exists (i.e. only 30 percent of the population retain old class-based resentments).[6] Perhaps “middle-class” is now an attitude of mind.

Irrespective of its precise definition, the urban hub—like an embryonic black hole after the death of a star—pulled all around it towards a common centre of social gravity. This centre has absorbed the remnants of the Protestant Anglo-Irish that refused to leave Ireland after independence; it has sucked in the working class who have had the opportunity to avail of free education and attend college; it has magnetised the sons and daughters of well-off farmers who were not content to stay on the farm and it has provided a life-line to the poor of a rural Ireland that is fast disappearing. It has, in recent times, attracted into its all-embracing clutches, returned expats and non-national immigrants. A wide spectrum of stellar dust and debris from other classes still exists. Some energy has escaped through emigration; but the pull of this centre is narrowing class variation in a broad sense and the trend is likely to continue.

This process began before the time of James Joyce. The trend influenced his life and writings, which contained the germ of what Ireland was to become and how its “national identity” might be defined. Part III takes up the narrative at this point.


[1] Kiberd, D. 1996. Inventing Ireland. The literature of the modern nation. Vintage; pp. 485; 517; 551; 552; 481; 484; 491; 71.

[2] Keogh, R. M. 2015. The Emergence and Growth of Gaelic Merchants and Traders in Dublin 1660-1911. Dublin Historical Record. Vol. 68 (2): 149-162.

[3] Keogh, R. M. 2016. Shelter and Shadows, An Awakening to our Common Identity. Our Own Identity; p. 77. here

[4] Ellmann, R. 1983. James Joyce. Oxford University Press; p. 199.

[5] McWilliams, D. 2005. The Pope’s Children: Ireland’s New Elite. Gill & Macmillan.

[6] Allen, K. 2007. Ireland: Middle Class Nation. Études irlandaises. Vol. 32 (2): 49-67.

Coming Next (June, 2017)

From April to June, instead of the usual monthly article, the Identity Series is publishing a three-part essay by Raymond Keogh to mark the 101st year after the 1916 Rising. Part III comes up with an answer the obstinate question­­ What is Irish identity? It’s entitled: Future Aspirations within a Framework of Universal Identity here