As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have been reading Richard English’s magisterial history of Irish nationalism, Irish Freedom. Previously I had read English’s history of the IRA, Armed Struggle, which had impressed me as much the most subjective and fair minded history of the republican movement that I had come across. Similarly I would commend Irish Freedom as a cold eyed and balanced account of nationalism in Ireland.
English is intent from the beginning of the book, on not only explaining Irish nationalism within Ireland itself, but also locating it within a larger global context. This book does not comprise a hagiography of patriots and martyrs, but rather an exegesis of what exactly nationalism is and how its Irish specific version fits into the phenomenon generally. Thus there is a lengthy examination of whether nations truly are a modern invention or whether they can claim ancient roots.
The author is circumspect, concluding that nationalism as we understand it did develop from the ideas of Rousseau and the French Revolution but acknowledging that there are continuities and elements of proto-nationalism on which modern nationalisms also draw. He argues that three common characteristics can be observed in nationalist movements – community, struggle and power. The first characteristic is shaped by a series of sub-strands – culture, history, ethics, perceived common origin, exlusiveness and so on.
English is rigorous in applying his theoretical constructs to the Irish model throughout his book. He challenges the notion that there is a single original Gaelic or Irish race and points out that historians are often at odds with nationalist arguments which are frequently framed in the context of a single historical narrative for their perceived nation. The author charts the development of an Irish proto-nationalist consciousness from the arrival in Ireland of Strongbow in 1170. It was from this point that meaningful elements of what English describes as the “proto-nation” can perhaps begin to be detected.
The reformation provided a more concrete impetus for Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” to develop in Ireland. Protestantism’s failure on this island allowed Catholicism to become entwined with a sense of being more authentically ‘Irish’. Ironically the leaders of the first identifiable Irish nationalist movement in the modern sense, the United Irishmen, were mainly Protestant and drew on the revolutionary ideas of Rousseau and Thomas Paine. However the 1798 rebellion soon assumed sectarian overtones in its execution and English is lucid in demonstrating that although attempts were often made to separate Catholicism and nationalism, the connection was strong and Catholicism has powerfully shaped nationalism right through to the present.
Indeed Catholic Emancipation was the theme of early 19th century nationalism under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell’s subsequent anti-repeal campaign fed into a tradition of constitutional nationalism which offered an alternative, even though its attitude toward more violent forms of struggle was often ambivalent. English raises the possibility, for example, that Parnell may have been sworn into the IRB. The more violent tradition is also traced from the United Irishmen, to Young Ireland, the IRB and then to the IRA from 1916 onwards.
English subsequently examines the Catholic Gaelic autarky of de Valera’s Ireland and the continuance of the exclusivist, violent tradition practised by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. He is careful frequently to test the empirical evidence against his hypothesis that nationalism is composed of a synthesis between community, struggle and the quest for (or consolidation of) power.
His book is a scholarly and thorough treatment of the subject. He exposes the fallacy of the notion of an authentic Irish people with Catholic and Gaelic roots, but acknowledges nevertheless that there is a long and explicable tradition of Irish distinctiveness. The ironies in his book are the ironies of Irish nationalism itself. The central role which England played in providing an other against which nationalism defined itself for example, whilst simultaneously it was England who in many ways brought Catholicism to Ireland and imported many of the intellectual ideas which were to stimulate nationalism. Neither is he afraid to examine the internal contradictions of nationalism whereby one group is declared a nation and presumed to have the right to self-determination, whereas the nationalist will decline to extend that right to a minority within his notional territory.
This is an impressive book that demonstrates Irish nationalism should not be viewed in splendid isolation, but should be examined within the larger global proliferation of nationalist ideas. It is an aberration to view nationalism within Ireland as a largely progressive force, whilst adjudging it as illiberal in other contexts.