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(ESSAY 1) Irish National Identity—Pre & Post 2016

Part I

Shape of Irish Identity before 2016 Commemorations

What is Irish Identity?

In the lead-up to the 1916 commemorations President Michael D. Higgins called for a huge debate to redefine Irishness in a manner that is … appropriate for a real republic.[1] The ambition was not achieved by Easter 2016.

The goal remains elusive because a clear concept of “Irish identity” is absent as the country moves deeper into the 21st century and leaves behind the romantic visions articulated by earlier generations. One year after the dust has settled on the 1916 centenary commemorations, it’s time to face the perennial question again: What is Irish identity?

I present a new approach to the topic in this three-part essay, which deviates from the normal format of the Gerald Keogh Identity Series’ articles.

  • Part I examines the shape of the “official national identity” of the new state and how that view could not be sustained as the country moved through its first century
  • Part II outlines where an alternative view of the country’s identity might be sought
  • Part III looks ahead into the 21st century and proposes a comprehensive view of identity

The essay is designed as a contribution to the discussion on Irish identity that is sure to continue during the remaining period of the Decade of Commemorations and Centenaries (2012-2022)—an ideal period for a debate of this kind.

Official National Identity pre-1960s

“Irish identity” in its modern, nationalistic, anti-English sense began as a reaction to the aggressive Tudor State. It lasted throughout the most oppressive period of British colonisation and continued well into the 20th century. An embellished offshoot flowered after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. This movement, known as the Irish Renaissance or Celtic Revival was animated largely by the work of intellectual elites including artists, poets, teachers and writers. Followers of the Renaissance found justification—through the writings of 19th century antiquarians—to focus their attention on the West of Ireland where they found a Gaelic-speaking treasure-house of culture and traditions. Drawing on their observations in this “living museum”, combined with ancient heroic mythology and Celtic Christianity, the intellectuals developed their views of what life was like for the “real” Irish. Their imagined idyll reached an unprecedented level of intensity and generated an immensely inspiring legacy in the lead-up to independence in 1922. A love of all things Gaelic was used to inspire the band of brothers and sisters who came together to cast out the British. After independence the architects of the new state translated the resulting vision into a cohesive inward looking “official national identity”.

But the invention was doomed to failure because it was created on myth and ignorance. The myth was based on an inflated sense of connectivity of all Irish men and women to Gaelic Ireland. For example, the fact that some descendants of the Anglo-Normans, who were the first—or Old—English invaders, married Irish women, wore Irish dress and spoke Irish allowed the intellectual elites to resort to the convenient catch-phrase which indicated that they had become … more Irish than the Irish themselves.

A more nuanced study of history reveals that the Old English … never lost sight of their origins. They always saw themselves set apart from the Gael and knew their status to be on a higher pedestal—and therefore more privileged—than the native Irish in contemporary English eyes. They used this advantage to their own aggrandisement. Their instinct of superiority showed up again and again in the actions and attitudes of families like the Kildares and Ormonds who acknowledged themselves to be the legitimate representatives of the monarch in Ireland. It showed up in the stubborn Old English refusal to join [Hugh] O’Neill in the Nine Years War; it appeared when they ignored Gaelic interests in the Confederation of Kilkenny; it was revealed in the tensions that erupted in the Catholic Association in 1763 and it emerged again in opposition to Daniel O’Connell in later years. Catholics in Ireland were clearly divided into two nations …[2]

Present-day academics have revealed the depth of ignorance that existed about the history and prehistory of the country’s Gaelic inhabitants and the society on which the early notion of an official Irish identity was fabricated. According to a number of contemporary historians: It is difficult to think of another area of Ireland’s past that has been so poorly served by scholarship. The reason for this situation—as explained by these authors—is surprising: One of the problems has been the lack of recognition of Gaelic society as a cultural group meriting scholarly archaeological investigation …[3] How, then, could a nation base its identity on an ethnicity it knew little about?

The absurdity goes deeper. In the lead-up to independence, most Irish intellectuals failed to recognise the urban dimension of Gaelic society as they looked westwards to discover the roots of “authentic Irishness”. Gearóid Ó Crualaoich reminds us that Folklore was … one very important element, perhaps the chief one in that identity and that heritage, and was a main ground for the ideological bias that disregarded contemporary and urban popular culture in the official reckoning …[4] According to the elite intellectuals of that time, genuine Irishess was not to be found in urban Ireland. Unbeknown to them, the native urban middle-class emerged from the leader and professional landowning ranks that lost their properties during the dispossessions of the 17th century.[5] The urban natives were closer to the literate Gael—which Irish leader Patrick Pearse was aiming to emulate in his school at St. Enda’s—than the landless that had been left behind in rural Ireland after native territories were confiscated and on whom views about Irish identity were largely and, therefore, erroneously based.

Groups that did not fit comfortably into the all-encompassing, putatively Gaelic (mostly Catholic) social orders were the suspect outsiders (e.g. descendants of the New English) who could only be accommodated within the official Republican identity if they paid deference to the majority view. These New English were Protestants. Other Protestant outsiders were the descendants of Scottish invaders (later Orange Unionists) who resided mainly in the six counties of Ulster. All of these interlopers would have to—sooner or later—succumb to the official nationalist’s vision of identity under a united Irish Republic. However, as Declan Kiberd remarks: At the level of practical politics, the ‘green’ and ‘orange’ essentialists seized control, and protected their singular versions of identity on either side of a patrolled border.[6]

Onslaught of Change after 1950

By mid-20th century, pressure from outside forced the Republic to modernise. During the era of Taoiseach Sean Lemass and Irish economist T. K. Whitaker in the 1960s the nation broke out of its insularity and self-centeredness. To survive and prosper, the country would have to join the rest of the world. Economics was the driving force of change. Foreign direct investment; removal of tariff barriers; membership of the European Economic Community (European Union) and a host of other influences helped to mould modern Ireland. On the political front, there was a new realism about North-South relationships which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. The visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and many other initiatives helped to dissolve old enmities.

The “official identity” of the young state could not survive the onslaught of change. The imagined links with an idyllic Gaelic past weakened as the country matured and as a more enlightened scholarship flourished. Besides, an identity that was spawned through conflict and sustained by division, inevitably melted away in the absence of strife and the ascent of peace.

Another great pillar of official identity, embodied in the phrase Island of Saints and Scholars collapsed under the weight of external secular influences. The collapse was exacerbated by clerical sex abuse scandals and the mishandling of these cases by church authorities. Today the Catholic Church, which was at the core of the Republic’s religiosity, has diminished in power and prestige.

Fast forward to 2016. How did the Republic define its identity on the eve of the Easter Rising commemorations? The Irish Examiner provided a cross-section of views from a selection of Irish people.[7] While acknowledging some limitations—like having continued poverty, homelessness and some marginalised groups in the country—to be Irish, they felt, generally generates pride, pleasant memories, good feelings and great conversations. The Irish have a superior sense of humour; they don’t take anything too seriously; they are dextrous in the use of everyday words; can speak on any topic; are hospitable; are welcoming like no one else; are known for fairness and acceptance of difference; are great with disabled people; are open to what’s going on all around the globe; are the best sports supporters; are well regarded and appreciated all over the world. They have a rich history; they promote peace; build bridges; all in all, they are a sound bunch.

Time to cringe. The only way a people can maintain the illusion that it has qualities that are better than most is to refuse to recognize that all nations feel the same way about themselves. Besides, opinions of this nature are platitudes that have nothing to do with the real meaning or definition of “identity”.

More views—generated before 2016—were often conflicting, polemical or trite, but not necessarily enlightening. Beginning at the corny end of the spectrum: In 2012 the Irish Times asked readers to tweet their definition of Irishness. Reaction included: #beingirishmeans …

  • Having freckles—Niall
  • You can mime the whole national anthem—Colm Keegan
  • Nothing really. Other than buying into the view that there could possibly be an all-encompassing national stereotype—Cathal McQuaid

On a more serious note, the intellectuals who had drawn their notions of authentic Irishness from the “living museum” of the western seaboard, like the Blasket Islands, were held up to ridicule. Fintan O’Toole suggested that, rather than uncovering a literature that evolved out of Neolithic Ireland The standardised Gaelic in which the [Blasket] books were published was in large part the creation of German scholars … and The people who prompted the creation of thebooks, and edited and translated themwere British and The book that served as a model for Maurice O’Sullivan’s apparently naïve but in fact highly sophisticated Twenty Years A-Growing was Russian …[8]

Declan Kiberd, another contemporary intellectual challenged the notion of a fixed Irish identity, stating that … 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.[9]

Finbarr Bradley hinted that the Irish … appear to lack a clear sense of themselves and their own culture.[10] In a mood of despondency, Desmond Fennel in his article entitled Ireland has become a nothing mosaic with no binding identity, suggested that disaffection towards Ireland had been recurrently visible in the Irish mass media.[11]

The consensus appears to be that, in the run up to the 1916 commemorations, what stood for “Irish identity” was bereft of substance and meaning. What a sad fate—many will say—if the Irish have emerged after a century of freedom, only to find that they have lost the very essence of what they set out to establish in achieving independence: their identity.

Costs of a Nonexistent Identity

The lack of a clear view of identity comes at a cost. A youthful Irish society that has ever-reducing contact with the vestiges of older social forms is taking over and the speed of this transformation is unprecedented. There is a danger, in this process, of discontinuity with the past, which may generate an ever-shallower cultural dimension in the country leading to the dominance of rampant consumerism and materialism to the detriment of human values.

As far back as 1967 Michael Viney warned that the Irish were becoming more selfish as affluence improved.[12] Frequent media reports on racism; joy-riding; binge-drinking; drug-taking; feuds; stabbings; murders; gangland-violence; bullying; suicide; the sex trade; corruption; obesity; endless scepticism and other disagreeable aspects of Irish society appear to confirm a continuing and deepening of undesirable trends in contemporary Ireland. Where, in this, is the “Ethical Republic”?

Has the malaise anything to do with the abandonment of religion? In former times, to be Irish meant the opposite of being English. Whatever the English were; the Irish were not. Today, this adage appears to have been reworked, by social elites, into a form of “Catholophobia”. What is today regarded as Irish spiritualism is everything that the Catholic Church is not. As a result, sin, guilt and confession are out. A deep understanding of all human weaknesses is in. Unfortunately, victims of this reversal litter Latin America as a result of the ability of Irish drug consumers to numb themselves to the horrific consequences that their habits have on local populations south of the Rio Grande.[13]

Further loss of cultural consciousness may lead to an even greater breakdown of social order in future. To be fair, the whole overarching sum of Irish attitudes is responsible for contemporary impoverishment; the blame cannot be laid fully on to the shoulders of “an inferior sort”. It is highly unlikely that inappropriate behaviour will find expression in a people who are intensely conscious of the value of their culture and harbour aspirations and visions of their individual roles and responsibilities in society and their society’s role in the world based on deep-seated convictions. Therefore, aspiration, conviction and vision—beyond mere mercenary or economic levels—continue to be as important to modern and future society as they were in the past, irrespective of how the overall culture changes.

Time for Something Completely New

In summary: scepticism has won the day; few believe in the old identity. However, nothing of significance or well thought out has been put in its place. Whenever the question What is Irish identity? is asked, the resulting discussion is never taken far enough. Terminating the debate prematurely ensures that the question arises repeatedly. It’s time to stop going around in circles and come up with final answers.

In Part II, I outline where an alternative view of the country’s identity might be sought and found.

Raymond M. Keogh


[1] http://www.eolasmagazine.ie/michael-d-higgins-on-redefining-irishness

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

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

[4] Ó Crualaoich, G. 2003. De Valera’s other Ireland; p. 155. In: Doherty, G. and Keogh, D. (Eds.). De Valera’s Irelands. Mercier Press. Cork.

[5] 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.

[6] Kiberd, D. 1996. Inventing Ireland. The literature of the modern nation. Vintage; p. 7.

[7] http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/1916-centenary-eight-diverse-people-discuss-irishness-and-their-identity-389723.html

[8] O’Toole, F. 2002. The Clod and the Continent: Irish Identity in the European Union. EurUnion 1; 1-16. Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

[9] Kiberd, D. 1996. Inventing Ireland. The literature of the modern nation. Vintage; p. 298.

[10] http://frankarchitecture.ie/wordpress/tag/strong-cultural-perspective/

[11] Irish Times January 25th 2013.

[12] Ferriter, D. 2005. The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000. Profile Books. London; p. 6.

[13] https://rmkeogh.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/dirty-pieces-of-silver/

Part II Seeking an Alternative View of Irish Identity here