Three Strands of Nationalism in Ireland: Preliminary Observations

Modern Irish nationalism, which we might place in the time after Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement and before the establishment of the Free State in 1922, was a weaving together of three, sometimes conflicting ideological strands: socialist politics, Gaelic linguistic revival, and Catholic identity. These three strands were exemplified by the passions of three of the most important figures in modern Irish nationalism, each of whom had strong personal connections to nations beyond Ireland and who, therefore, helped to imagine an Irish nation (as was often the case among postcolonial nationalisms). There was James Connolly, a Scotsman by birth, who injected continental socialism into Irish nationalism; Patrick Pearse, both the son of an English father and an Irish language teacher who endeavored to take the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) into the vanguard of militant, revolutionary politics; and Eamon de Valera–American born and of Spanish-Irish descent–who, as both Taoiseach and President of the Republic, ensured that Ireland’s political and educational infrastructure would be unwaveringly Catholic for generations to come. Both Connolly and Pearse were executed by the British after the 1916 Easter Uprising. De Valera was a dominant presence in Irish government until his death in 1975. The socialist strand was effectively crushed in the civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces, though republican militants in the North would remain nominally faithful to it through the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement era.  And there are signs that the other two strands of nationalism in Ireland are weakening in contemporary Ireland. A 2016 census, for instance, showed that the numbers of people who identify as religious and who speak Irish and a daily basis have dropped since the 2006 census. An old fashioned nationalist might say that Ireland is once again becoming West Britain, and that most people in the Republic wouldn’t feel the difference if they were being governed from London instead of Dublin. And indeed, despite their Gaelic names, the two dominant political parties in the Republic–Fine Fail and (especially) Fine Gael–have melded into two species of Tory. It would, however, be more difficult to make that case since the Brexit vote, the election of Donald J. Trump, and the beginning of the end of the Anglo-American order. Despite what sometimes feels like the suffocating influence of British and American media culture, Ireland is clearly hitching its political wagon to Europe, which is what a figure such as Connolly would have envisioned all along (minus, of course, the neoliberal economic agenda of Fine Gael). So, assuming that we are not hurling rapidly into a post-nationalist era (and it sure doesn’t look that way at the moment), what will nationalism in Ireland look like in coming decades? What might that tell us about the future of other nationalisms in the wake of the Anglo-American order’s decline?

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