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(ESSAY 3) Irish National Identity—Pre & Post 2016


If call is made for something radical, then expect radical proposals

Recommended: read Essay from the start here


Future Aspirations within a Framework of Universal Identity

Back to Basics

James Joyce, who became the literary voice of Dublin’s native middle-class, broke the conceptual boundaries enclosing this community, which enabled him to perceive its identity in universal terms. He succinctly encapsulated the concept in the phrase … in the particular is contained the universal.[1] But, he delved into the subject as an artist. Even if he wished, he would not have been able to apply a simple definition to express what he meant by “identity”. And here we reach the nub of the “identity problem”. Political scientists admit that they can’t define the term. James Fearon of Stanford University, points out that the concept has remained something of an enigma which cannot be captured well by dictionary definitions.[2] So, if Joyce had attempted to define identity at a personal level, philosophers would have reminded him of an age-old conundrum: the paradox that is well illustrated in the Ship of Theseus. The newly constructed ship is itself; no difficulties here. However, if we begin to change the planks one by one, at what point does the original ship cease to be itself? If every plank has been replaced, along with the nails that held them together, how could it be the same ship? We know that the chemical constituents of our bodies are continually changing. As such, are we the same person as we move through time? The humanities failed, and still fail, to provide a satisfactory answer. However, recent discoveries in science have turned this scenario on its head. Identity can now be defined in simple objective terms. Where philosophers and social scientists are unable to thread, human genetics comes to the rescue. Science has given us, for the first time, the ability to resurrect the dictionary definition of identity, which may be expressed as: the sameness of the individual or group at all times and in all circumstances; the condition or fact that the individual or group is itself and not something else.[3]

In 2003 human genetics discovered mankind’s complete hereditary “blueprint”. Every individual has an exclusive genetic structure, which is a distinct pattern of DNA sequences. Even so-called “identical twins” are not really identical.[4] These basic patterns endow each person with a “sameness” that remains at all times and under all circumstances throughout their entire life and, as such, satisfy all the requirements for the definition of identity at the level of the individual. Furthermore DNA sequences are measureable and constitute an objective description of a person’s deep-seated unchanging corporeal makeup. As such, DNA sequences provide an unambiguous answer to the question: Are we the same person at all times? We are. These sequences, therefore, define our individual identity in physical terms.

But, what about the identity of the group (e.g. Joyce’s native middle-class of Dublin)? On what basis can its identity be defined? It can’t. Consider again the identity of the individual. It emerges from a male and female that havein their turnoriginated from the organic substratum of the human species. A species is defined, in biological terms, by a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. Reproductive events can happen, in theory, anywhere within the wider human genome. Ability to reproduce with our own is the essential unchanging constant that endows “sameness” to the group at all times and under all circumstances and distinguishes us, biologically, as human. In other words, the species boundary defines the identity of the “group” in a comprehensive manner.

Within the physical domain of humankind, therefore, there are only two levels at which “identity” applies: the individual level and the species level. Furthermore, both definitions meet in the act of reproduction. Therefore, communal and individual identity is singular in nature.

National Identity

The repercussions of our ability to define identity precisely constitute an enormous shift in paradigm for all aspects of the term, including national identity. Consider the question of identifying the distinctiveness of sub-sets or divisions within humanity. The inherent “sameness” that defines the human species (ability to interbreed) is and was identical for every sub-set that can possibly be devised. Every sub-set is permeable to the “other” through interbreeding. The unity within humanity, based on its common origins and ability to intermix, resists any notion of fundamental internal divisions.

Porous boundaries encase commonly-held notions of ethnicity and culture. Race, in genetic terms, does not exist. Nations are defined within artificial geographic borders. All of these classifications are subject to change in terms of the individuals and groups that inhabit them, as well as their defining characteristics. In other words no innate “sameness” exists at all times and under all circumstances within ethnic, cultural, racial or national “boundaries”. Therefore “identity” does not and cannot apply in these circumstances. The simple answer is: we can’t employ a strict definition of identity to sub-sets of humans, because there are no innately distinct divisions. The best we can do is to acknowledge that all commonly-held divisions are appendages or outgrowths of our shared humanity. This inference forces a fundamental change in our view, for example, of culture. There can be but one human culture that has given rise to a range of cultural appendages over time and space. These sub-cultures are convenient, not discrete, divisions even though they may be useful in distinguishing aspects of sub-groups in a practical anthropological sense.

Where does all this leave “Irish identity”? Problems always arise when those who belong to a nation, like Ireland, try to find some unchanging or common characteristics that identify the group within its synthetic borders. It’s a futile exercise. It’s undeniable that some sub-groups, even the majority that happen to be living in a determined area share many things in common, like history, a sense of belonging, feelings of familiarity, a particular language or have deep roots within locally recognised ethnicities. They may identify intimately with aspects of the countryside or be identified by their association with national games. All these characteristics can give inhabitants of the country a “sense of self”. But this is not identity per se. To “identify-with” or be “identified-by” are not the same thing as “identity”. For those who find this notion difficult to accept, it is well to remember that the perennial question (what is Irish identity?) arises precisely because the dual concepts of “who we are” (true identity as per definition) and the way we live or express that identity (our jobs, choices, preferences, lifestyles, history, language, etc, etc, etc) are normally amalgamated and confused in popular dialogue. This is why identity causes so many problems. To gain clarity it’s necessary to separate being (true identity) from all aspects of how that identity is lived out. Identity is fixed; how we express it is fluid.

The fact that “identity” is valid at only two levels in human kind means it cannot be applied to the nation. The simple answer to the obstinate question what is Irish identity, is: there is no such thing. National identity does not exist.

Icon for our Times

The stark conclusion that national identity does not exist, has many repercussions. Most of these are positive because they begin to align our understanding of “nation” with the true nature of our universal identity. Besides, the new perspective is totally in line with what is actually happening at the global level. The world is experiencing the beginning of a reunification and re-blending of the entire human population as modern transportation and economic systems have enabled the overlapping and intermingling of previously separated peoples. This trend is enhanced by the urgent need for young blood within countries whose populations are below replacement thresholds. The trend is also boosted, albeit painfully, by current waves of migrations. The short-term consequences are unavoidable and, unfortunately, heighten cultural tensions. But, the overall process is set to continue, perhaps for centuries, until an entirely merged society becomes the norm. The best way to prepare, psychologically, for the future as Ireland moves relentless towards a fully blended world, is to embrace an objective understanding of universal identity. This shift in attitude will provide the flexibility to prepare the country to deal with the enormous challenges that lie ahead in its second century, even though many of these may be wholly unknown at present.

When creating a new national vision or “sense of self”particularly where the move is radical, as in Ireland’s casethere needs to be a symbolic recognition that a genuine cultural evolutionary step is occurring. The best way for this country to acknowledge that it is truly entering a new era is to replace all old icons with a fresh set of insignia that reflect the enormity of the change. This involves confining all national emblems, the militaristic anthem and all associations with Gaelic Ireland to the national bin. All the figures that spawned Ireland’s nonsensical sense of so-called identity should be put into boxes and these placed in the national attic. Next; in the space left behind by all former figures, emblems and symbols, just one simple icon should substitute for all: James Joyce. He is selected because he recognised the universal dimension in his people. Had the Irish been able to understand this reality, the country would have been saved from the fabrication of an absurd sense of self and from the agony of disentangling and extricating itself from the delusion at an enormous cost to its citizens. Accepting Joyce as the national icon is not meant to create a static condition. He symbolises a new situation that has not yet been achieved and an aspiration to embrace our common humanity. As such, Ireland has the potential be the first country in the world to covet the notion of universal identity as a national goal.

Perhaps some will find it difficult to accept these proposals because they are too drastic. But, it is well to remember that the President called for a huge debate on the meaning of Irishness. A plea of this nature is an admission that a fundamental rethink about our identity is required. So, if something radical is needed and called for, then we shouldn’t be surprised if something radical is proposed. Besides, only a far-reaching solution will fix the broken record and take the needle out of the groove. In other words, we accept a final answer to the question: What is Irish identity? or the record player will continue regurgitating the same question. Others will respond, ad nauseam, with no progress being achieved. The present proposal breaksonce and for allthe Groundhog-Day cycle.

One last symbolic adjustment needs to be made at the national level, in recognition of Joyce’s empathy with the plight of Charles Stewart Parnell. A recognised link between these figures would endow the new national icon with a historical dimension and satisfy an earlier point, made in this essay, that the country should not lose its connections with the past. Indeed, Joyce’s legacy is somewhat like a modern highway running from the 1890s, through a landscape created by former Renaissance elites and “patriots” who, as noted, worked beyond the constraints of objectivity. This mythical countryside may be quaint, but has passed its sell-by date and is irrelevant in terms of a true understanding of the country’s real identity. The Joyce-Parnell partnership also underpins the proposed national aspiration through what might be termed a “mission statement” for the nation. This statement is derived from Parnell’s own words and should surround the central iconic figure of Joyce, reading: … no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’.[5]

Raymond M. Keogh


[1] Ellmann, R. 1983. James Joyce. Oxford University Press; p. 505.

[2] < https://web.stanford.edu/group/fearon-research/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/What-is-Identity-as-we-now-use-the-word-.pdf >

[3] Keogh, R. M. 2016. Shelter and Shadows. An Awakening to Our Common Identity. Our Own Identity.

[4] < https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/identical-twins-genes-are-not-identical/ >

[5] Lyons, F. S. L. 2005. Charles Stewart Parnell. Gill & Macmillan. Dublin; p. 264.

PhotoPresident Michael D. Higgins delivering the keynote speech during his Official Visit to Peru, February 2017. Courtesy: Maxwells Photography / Áras an Uachtaráin.

Coming Next

Irish Identity: Call for Objectivity