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Imagining the Irish

David Blake Knox
Are the Irish Different?, edited by Tom Inglis, Manchester University Press, 304 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0719095832

The question raised in the title of this collection of twenty-three short essays invites an obvious response: “From whom?” In fact, that question is posed in an extended form by Michael G Cronin, one of the book’s contributors: “Is there a way of asking ‘is X different?’ that does not include the corollary ‘from Y’, thereby always already implying that this difference is from some norm or standard of how things should be?” We might also ask “Are the Irish more preoccupied with asserting their identity than other ethnicities ‑ and, if so, why?”

It can prove difficult to identify national characteristics without appealing to ethnic stereotypes. However, these essays, edited by Tom Inglis, make a credible and systematic attempt to clear some of the ground and establish the empirical basis on which certain Irish experiences can be differentiated from those of other nations or ethnic groups. A wide range of issues is covered ‑ from the nature of Irish capitalism to the role of the GAA in modern Irish society. Although most of the essays have been written by sociology academics, they are, for the most part, free of technical jargon, and are readily accessible to a general reader ‑ such as myself.

To begin with, it is clear that Irish identity is both a real phenomenon and a social construct. To a considerable extent, our sense of Irishness remains the product of ideological contests that took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In other words, the origins of the modern concept of Irish identity can be traced back to the political movement for popular democracy and Irish independence. As that movement gathered momentum, the prevailing sense of what it meant to be Irish could almost be summarised by an adaptation of Pearse: to be authentically Irish was not only to be Catholic, but Gaelic ‑ not only Gaelic, but Catholic too. In some respects, this collection of essays both questions and endorses that equation ‑ since the weight of analysis falls heavily on the dominant ethnic-cum-religious bloc within southern Ireland and other non-Catholic groupings receive little attention. One of the most significant of these is Ulster Presbyterianism ‑ which possesses a strong and distinctive sense both of its own identity and of its historic role in Ireland. Some space is given to consideration of the recent Polish immigration to Ireland, but none to the ways in which Irish dissenting culture has, for example, affected the self-perception of northern Irish Catholics across several centuries.

The development of a modern Irish identity has been closely associated with the historic rise of Irish nationalism, but, as Sinisa Malesevic reminds us, “for 99.9 per cent of our existence on this planet we have lived in entities that bear no resemblance to the nation-state, and our dominant belief systems had no room for perceiving the world in nationalist terms”. Although each of the nationalist movements that emerged throughout Europe in the course of the nineteenth century saw itself as different and unique, they had certain critical features in common. Indeed, as Malesevic points out, the Young Ireland movement drew explicit inspiration from Young Italy, and Young Germany ‑ just as Young Poland and Young Bosnia would be influenced, in turn, by the example of Irish nationalism.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, the growth of nationalism was rooted in the modernisation of civil society. However, the explicit cultural goal of Irish nationalism from the late nineteenth century was to “de-anglicise” the country. In other words, the aim was to construct a modern Irish identity in direct opposition to what was then perceived as British, or English. Sometimes, “anglicisation” was confused by advanced nationalists with more general processes of modernisation. This was accompanied by a tendency to equate England with crass materialism ‑ while Ireland was thought to have remained, in spiritual terms, unsullied by the “filthy modern tide”. In part, this was an understandable response to the misery and hardship that many Irish people had endured in the course of the nineteenth century ‑ and to the condescension and contempt with which the Irish were often represented by the British media. Irish nationalists looked to the past in order to shape the future: some ancient traditions were revived ‑ often in a greatly modified form ‑ others were simply invented. Perhaps inevitably, the Irish identity that emerged from this complex process included features that had originated in Victorian England.

Matthew Arnold, in The Study of Celtic Literature, had characterised the “Celtic temperament” by its passion for nature, imaginativeness ‑ and melancholy. He saw these attributes as innate, and as a turbulent reaction against the “despotism of fact”. Viewed from one perspective, this portrayal of the Celts as a race of visionaries and dreamers was flattering: from another, it implied that such an impractical people would be best governed by those who were more pragmatic, who were armed with a better grasp of “facts”. In the case of Ireland, Arnold’s thesis could, therefore, be used to justify political union with the United Kingdom ‑ and the dominance of Great Britain. Despite that implication, his work seems to have cast a long shadow over subsequent notions of Irish identity ‑ including those formulated by Irish men and women. Yeats was particularly influenced by Arnold at the start of his literary career. However, he recast Arnold’s melancholic Celts in a more active and heroic light: indeed, Yeats believed that the “Celtic movement” had a global significance, and was destined to fire “the imagination of the world”. A belief in the transcendent role that Ireland could play can also be seen in the work of the philosopher Richard Kearney. Writing in the 1980s, Kearney claimed exceptional qualities for the “Irish mind” ‑ which he identified as the “intellectual ability to hold the traditional oppositions of classical reason in creative confluence”.

It could be argued that this claim was largely based on intuition ‑ and was, therefore, highly subjective and impressionistic. It might even be suggested that the whole concept of a coherent Irish identity is essentially a work of the imagination. Indeed, I was struck when reading through this collection of essays by how often the language of romantic fiction is drawn upon by eminent economists, philosophers, and sociologists to explain Irish differences. Michael Casey, for example, is a former member of the board of the International Monetary Fund, but he has argued in The Irish Times that the “characteristics of the Irish psyche” must be taken into account in any analysis of the latest economic crash. Monica McGoldrick is a highly regarded Irish-American sociologist: she describes the Irish as “dreamers … good-humoured, charming, hospitable and gregarious”. However, she also believes that they are “drawn to tragedy” and are prone to assuming that “anything that goes wrong is the result of their sins”. This impulse to depict the Irish as suffering from some sort of collective manic-depression ‑ lurching wildly between exuberant craic and existential despair ‑ has sometimes become linked to post-colonial theories. In that context, the impact of the Famine has been explained in the psychoanalytical terms that are primarily used to describe childhood abuse: to my mind, an approach that is fundamentally anti-historical.

There is little difficulty in identifying some aspects of Ireland’s history that separate us from the rest of Europe ‑ if not the world. One of the most obvious is the central role that the Roman Catholic church has played since the formation of the Irish state. Marie Keenan suggests that for many decades an “ecclesiastical dictatorship” was able to co-exist with Irish political democracy without any serious conflict. According to Tom Inglis, the power of the church was founded on its effective control of the educational system in Ireland. That allowed it to develop a monopoly ‑ not only over schooling, and the principles of discipline and punishment which that entailed ‑ but also over the practice of sexuality, marriage and fertility. For many years, Irish Catholics married later and had more children than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Despite the large size of families, Irish attitudes towards children ‑ particularly those from impoverished social backgrounds ‑ could be extremely harsh, and this led to many of them being incarcerated in industrial and reformatory schools, where they were often subjected to regimes of physical and sexual abuse.

Of course one of the reasons why the Catholic church in Ireland could speak with a sense of moral authority was because of the oppression it had suffered through the years of British rule and colonisation. Given that, it is hardly surprising that, for much of the twentieth century, social life in Ireland became closely bound to the strict observation of traditional Catholic mores. As late as the 1980s, Michele Dillon believes that Irish politicians still deferred to the authority of the Catholic hierarchy. However, the religious orthodoxy that was a central feature of Irish life in the first half of the last century has greatly diminished in more recent decades. This has occurred in the context of major structural changes in the economic base of the Irish state ‑ as it has been transformed from an insular and agricultural economy to one that is globalised and predicated on advanced technology. In the last few decades, in particular, Irish social attitudes and behaviour have moved much closer to the norms of Western Europe. Contraception and divorce have been introduced ‑ and limited forms of abortion have even been permitted. Cheap air travel may also have encouraged the Irish to see themselves in a wider context, and it seems no coincidence that Europe’s largest airline was established in Ireland, with its headquarters in Co Dublin. Of course, emigration has been a recurrent feature of Irish life for almost two centuries, and, as Mary J Hickman points out, the Irish diaspora has also played a significant role in shaping our perception of ourselves: even the modern celebration of St Patrick’s Day originated in North America.

Against the background of greater European integration, it might be presumed that the awareness of Irish differences with the rest of Europe would also diminish. However, questions of national identity do not seem to work along such straightforward and predictable lines. Indeed, Sinisa Malesevic argues that new forms of nationalism are on the increase in contemporary Europe, and that the sense of a separate Irish identity has also grown in recent years. According to Tony Fahey, there was a time when sociologists believed that cultural differences were perceived as real simply because they were real. Nowadays, the reverse seems to be assumed: differences become real because they are perceived as real. The Irish are famous ‑ or notorious ‑ throughout the world for their intimate relationship with alcohol. In reality, our drinking habits are very similar to those of England ‑ yet the English are not associated to the same extent with excessive alcohol consumption. According to recent research, young Irish men and women feel constrained to fulfil the expectation that they are heavy drinkers: in a sense, it helps to define their identity. In the era of European integration, such relatively insignificant differences can gain in symbolic value ‑ or retain an importance that dates from a earlier period. In this context, Tony Fahey cites Northern Ireland ‑ where the features that distinguish Protestants from Catholics can seem negligible to the outsider. However, they are not viewed as such by many of the Northern Irish ‑ some of whom have been prepared to assert their differences through murder.

The defining of national identity invariably involves a creative process ‑ in which some characteristics are imagined, some emphasised and some suppressed. As a result, it seems inevitable that we should turn to fiction to justify or query some of our preconceptions about the typical features of the Irish. There is no doubt that novels, plays and movies can offer valuable insights to the societies in which they were produced. In her essay, Anne Byrne uses two works of fiction ‑ William Trevor’s The Ballroom of Romance, and Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne ‑ to provide a perceptive analysis of the position of unmarried women in Irish society during the historical periods in which Moore’s novel and Trevor’s short story are set. However, there is an obvious danger of treating fictional material as if it were a primary source of social documentation. In such cases, as Tom Inglis observes, we may end up merely with the “reading of a reading”.

The questions raised by this stimulating collection of essays do not only relate to external factors: it is clear that the Irish of today are also different from those of previous generations. It would seem from these essays that we are currently in the process of further ‑ and more radical ‑ change in our sense of Ireland’s national identity. Indeed, according to Bryan Fanning, there is a huge disjuncture between official Ireland and the present diversity of Irish society. This may be, in part, because the connection between the Catholic church and national identity has been seriously weakened ‑ if not broken; it may be caused, in part, by the changing nature of the Irish economy; and it may be due, in part, to the arrival of significant numbers of immigrants from other European counties and elsewhere. The notion of Ireland as a monolithic nation may persist in some quarters, but it has become increasingly obsolete. The future that is indicated in this important book is of a hybridised nation. Perhaps, even the word “Irish” will lose some of its current connotations, and come to be used more often as an umbrella term to cover a number of discrete communities.


David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published in 2012 by New Island Books.