Identity crisis

<strong>Irish Freedom: the story of nationalism in Ireland</strong>

Richard English <em>Macmillan,

For anyone interested in the Northern Irish situation, the history of nationalism in Ireland is essential to trying to make sense of what has happened there. As Richard English states in his introduction, nationalism has shaped the modern world. It has caused and fuelled wars, stabilised and destabilised states, and defined political and cultural life across the globe. In nationalist thought, the collective will of the community expresses itself in legitimising the nation as the proper and free political unit. For nationalists, self-determination is a central political right. Some historians hold that nations are ancient, perennial or even primordial, others argue that they are in fact modern creations that began in the 18th century.

English argues that there was no single, original Gaelic or Irish race. With the Northern Ireland peace process in mind, he rejects the idea of a pure Irish race opposed to Protestants who are less truly Irish. Nevertheless, he shows that the establishment of a national church in Ireland in the seventh century did create the idea of an Irish nation.

That idea was strengthened by the arrival in Ireland, in August 1170, of the Norman earl Richard FitzGilbert de Clare (known as Strongbow). This invasion, which was sanctioned by the pope, began the long subjugation of Ireland. In the centuries that followed, ideas of Irishness underwent many changes. By the 16th century, the Reformation had failed to take root in the country and Catholics were seen as the true Irish. But it was a Protestant, Jonathan Swift, whose pamphlets collected as The Drapier's Letters helped to form the idea of an Irish people - or "imagined community", as Benedict Anderson famously put it. The pamphlets, which protested against a patent granted by the English for the coining of debased halfpence, were widely read and celebrated. Although he writes well about Swift, English argues that the author's deep ambivalence about Ireland excludes him from the category of founding fathers of Irish nationalism.

The next important influence on the idea of an Irish nation was Edmund Burke, who in the 1790s supported the enfranchisement of Catholics and their right to be admitted to parliament. He was an enthusiast for the redress of Catholic grievances and the advancement of Catholic power. Importantly, English argues that Burke should not be seen simply as a conservative polemicist against the French revolution - he helped to give shape and direction to the idea of an Irish nation.

This trend was countered by the Protestant patriotism of the late 18th century, followed by the Society of United Irishmen, who drew on the French revolution, Rousseau and Paine for the ideas that fuelled their unsuccessful attempt to establish a republic in 1798. In his memoirs, their leader Wolfe Tone wrote:

To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.

In the 19th century, Irish nationalism took a non-violent turn under the leadership of the Dublin lawyer Daniel O'Connell, who secured Catholic emancipation. But shortly after his death, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was formed. The movement achieved nothing, but it kept the idea of physical force alive. It was the physical force of the IRA in the 1916 uprising that destroyed constitutional nationalism, and the subsequent execution of its leaders that made moderate politics appear unworkable, with the result that Sinn Fein swept the board in the 1918 general election.

As English shows, nationalism has a cultural life, too - Tom Moore's melodies, the Nation newspaper, the Young Ireland poets, Yeats's poems and plays and the Abbey Theatre all contributed to building the idea of an Irish nation. But one theory, popular for a time in the 1980s, is that there are really two Irish nations - one Catholic Irish, the other Protestant Northern Irish. English has no truck with this idea - he is, he says, an agnostic when it comes to nationalism - but his prose warms to the challenge that the Ulster unionists mounted to traditional Irish nationalism. "Unionists could claim as much moral sanction from democratic legitimacy as their nationalist rivals," he writes of their 1912 mobilisation to oppose the Third Home Rule Bill. Beyond that, one of their chief leaders, Edward Carson, believed deeply that Ireland could only be truly happy and prosperous within the United Kingdom. Like many unionists, he held that nationalist Ireland was culturally isolationist, economically backward, would-be tyrannical, Romish in religion and constricting of Protestant, British liberties.

In recent years, Irish nationalists have begun to accept that they must recognise unionist culture as a significant and enduring part of the national idea. This is symbolised by a step taken by the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, in April 2003. Along with senior members of the British army, Maskey attended a service in Belfast's St Anne's Cathedral to commemorate the First World War dead. Maskey's own grandfather had fought in that war, and on Remembrance Day he laid a wreath at the City Hall Cenotaph. Though English doesn't mention them, similar symbolic gestures have taken place in the Irish republic, which failed to honour the dead of both wars for many decades.

English's survey of what in Ireland is an obsessive subject shows how important family lore and group life were for the formation of the mulch of emotion, imagination and political theory that is modern nationalism. It is a stimulating and learned study that deserves to be widely read.

Tom Paulin is lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change