The illusion of “Irish Identity”

Micheál Martin: A protagonist of Ireland’s Mao-Zedong-style cultural revolution?

Ireland’s cultural revolution

In a speech given at a Dáil and Seanad Session attended by European Commissioner Michel Barnier in 2017, Fianna Fáil Leader, Micheál Martin stated: Let there be no doubt about where Ireland stands. We want nothing to do with a backward-looking idea of sovereignty.

In a separate speech at Charlottesville, Virginia, in May 2003 President McAleese, passionate about the possibilities of the future, stated: If “imagining” carries always the hint of something not yet formed, of a fantasy not yet real, today’s Ireland is full of things not yet known with certainty but things which are most certainly different from and mostly better than the past.

Ironically, both these politicians belonged to Fianna Fáil, a political party whose roots were firmly embedded in that past which they were repudiating. Furthermore, the father of that party, Eamon de Valera helped create that distasteful national memory. The collective rejection of history by many contemporary politicians endorses Shakespeare’s immortal words:

Eamon De Valera crafted his own speeches which echoed the general outlook of his period. His words express, in recurring themes, what the Irish State regarded as its national identity during its early years. Of outstanding relevance in this regard is his most famous “dream speech” which was broadcast to the Irish nation on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1943. De Valera envisaged a singular Gaelic nation with one history, one faith and one language.

De Valera and his cohorts left behind what has been epitomised by more recent generations as a colossal obstacle to development. In response they have dismantled the blockage in a Mao-Zedong-style of cultural revolution in which old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas are rejected.

Common understanding of identity?

Early protagonists of Ireland’s cultural revolution were artists who challenged the notion of de Valera’s pure unitary race. In his book Inventing Ireland, literary critic Declan Kiberd has assembled the arguments provided by Irish writers. A change in metaphor summarises Kiberd’s entire thesis. The unitary green flag of the visionaries and revolutionaries of the early 20th century, that wrapped Cathleen Ní Houlihan (figurative representation of Ireland) was really, in the minds of the writers, a quilt of many colours. This was an all-inclusive rug in which all the different and disparate patches were equally beautiful. In other words, Ireland was complex, multi-cultural and had many “identities”.

Dermot Ferriter, one of the leading Irish historians of the modern period, makes it clear in his book Ireland 1900-2000 that the narrative of history of the 20th century coincides with the views of the Irish writers. The cultural revolution was, without doubt, fuelled by them. The population at large eventually joined in and purged the country of the idea of a unitary Catholic and Gaelic culture. The course of history came to acknowledge that the Irish, like any other people, are a hybrid race.

Unfortunately, historians, like the Irish writers and specialists in most disciplines, avoid offering a clear definition of identity when dealing with the subject. Separate disciplines place emphasis on different aspects of identity in accordance with what they understand the term to mean. But, when most readers encounter a segment of text written about identity by a writer, historian, politician, anthropologist, genealogist or other expert, it normally appears to make perfect sense.

Historians, like the Irish writers and specialists in all disciplines, avoid offering a clear definition of identity

But to have any hope of reifying our understanding of the contemporary meaning of identity, without the aid of a definition, consideration must be taken of all approaches. Surely a common understanding will then emerge. Let us examine this assumption.

Professional contributions

In addition to the contributions made to the subject by the visionaries of the early State, Irish writers and Irish historians, the views of anthropologists, archaeologists, social scientists and, indeed the general public must also be taken into account before examining how all these views relate to one another.

Prehistoric archaeologist J. P. Mallory, in his book The Origins of the Irish, admits that the term “the inhabitants of Ireland” is too broad. Instead, he considers the possibility of defining the group as an ethnic unit. He attempts to circumvent the many difficulties he encounters by anchoring his target ethnicity in the fifth century A. D. and, more specifically, in the person of “Niall of the nine hostages”.

His reasons for choosing this point in history and his particular “iconic Irishman” are explained as an attempt to provide a definition of the Irish that should meet minimal objection or, at least adhere closest to what he imagines the general reader will regard as “the Irish”, and to make his target as concrete as possible.

Unfortunately, rather than solving the problem it highlights the difficulty that archaeologists, like members of all other disciplines, have in dealing with Irish identity. Perhaps the easiest way of avoiding the issue would have been to title the book The Origins of the Early Irish and dispense with discussions about identity.

From the anthropologist’s viewpoint, notions of Irishness are never fixed. Professors Thomas Wilson and Hastings Donna point out that they are negotiated, questioned and affirmed according to societal, historical and political contexts. Neither are they confined to the two Irelands North and South. What counts for Irishness depends on how the many different groups that make up the population of Ireland interpret its meaning. Irishness is fragile, shifting, relational, ambivalent and context-dependent, in which each group comes with its own competing claim to authenticity.[1] Far from exhibiting any semblance of internal “sameness” it seems that, for some anthropologists at least, national identity is a constructed narrative which can be read in conflicting ways and transformed through time.

Mention of a “more inclusive” concept of Irish identity has been made in relation to the Presidencies of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. References to “inclusivity” in present-day politics often involves discussions about class or social issues like discrimination and racism. Before coming to a unified understanding of what is meant by “Irishness” in this complex social milieu we must look to the social scientists to inform us about how such divisions are incorporated without entirely dismantling the notion of a basic commonality in Irish society at large.

We must also look to the social sciences to understand how the new waves of migrants have affected Irish culture and the Irish. A whole new chapter opened in the mid-1990s when economic growth succeeded in attracting Irish emigrants back to the country. This was followed about five years later, when new peaks were reached in non-Irish immigration flows. In fact, the decade up to 2011 saw the number of non-nationals almost double to more than half a million. By 2016, over 13 percent of the total population of the country was made up of non-Irish nationals from more than 200 countries.

Many continue to question the impact that migrants have on Irish uniqueness. Studies like that carried out by the National Youth Council of Ireland give reason for concern regarding discrimination and racism. The new situation certainly makes the search for “sameness” within the entities that comprise the Irish much more difficult to comprehend.

Citizens’ contributions

And yet, the scope of the inquiry into identity must be extended even further if it is to be comprehensive. Individual citizens are acutely aware of the value of identity in their lives. It is here that the pursuit of family history equates with the search for the self, or personal identity. Family history and genealogy has blossomed in recent years with increasing accessibility to genetic fingerprinting. Many amateur researchers belong to the Irish diaspora and pursue these studies in attempts to understand the strength of their links to Ireland. But how is personal identity in a genealogical sense defined and how does it relate to communal and national identity?

Often, when people are asked to explain their distinctiveness, they are at a loss. Uttering platitudes and opinions—which is common—demonstrates confusion rather than a succinct understanding about their identity. Referring to ethnic percentages in their DNA is meant to overcome some of this confusion and rest perceptions on a more objective base; however, it is impossible to distinguish Irish identity in DNA which is shared across national and international borders.

Enough said. It is at this point that common sense must prevail.

No unified concept

Let’s be honest. There is absolutely no way to bring all the disparate perspectives of Irish identity from the professionals and society at large together and come up with a unified concept. End of story. The confusion that results from such an exercise is an endorsement—once again—of reality: we are dealing with an illusion. No element of “sameness” can be found that binds the whole group together. In other words, there can be no such thing as “Irish identity”.

There is no way to bring all the disparate perspectives of Irish identity together and come up with a unified concept

The new paradigm of universal identity, on the other hand, overcomes confusion and obfuscation. It succeeds in separating “Irishness” (subjective perspectives about the Irish) from “identity” itself. All issues relating to one’s “sense” of self (affinities, affiliations, belonging, communality, connectedness, cohesion, self-understanding, self-identification, etc, etc, etc) are different from the underlying “sameness” (identity) that is specific to each individual and humanity at large. The long list of interpretations that are linked to contemporary views of identity are hereby discarded, allowing us much needed clarity when it comes to understanding ourselves.

It is time to leave the morass behind and deal with a much more important issue: the future of human identity itself.


[1] Wilson, T. M. and Donna, H. 2006. The Anthropology of Ireland. Berg.

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