Thursday, August 7, 2014

Some thoughts on Irish nationalism and identity.

I was born in Ireland during the recession hit 70s, spent my uneventful childhood in the 80s and become a teenager and a college student during the 90s. For my generation the holy trinity of Irish nationalism was the Church, the Gaelic sports and a national consciousness keenly aware of historical injustices committed by English colonial rule.

I devoured books when I was young and my diet was served by large English publishing houses. One of the earliest authors I read was Enid Byton whose books were written throughout the buildup to WW2 and its austerity hit aftermath. Her writing was full of fantastic fairy tales with magic chairs that transported children to magical lands and mystery stories with children acting as detectives and adventure stories of boarding school fun and mischief.  But, above all, her stories were utterly English in the old non-political correct fashion with racial stereotypes like golliwogs and upper class children with names like Julian, Hilary and Cyril. I was not surprised to learn her works are now near censored as sexist and racist. Nor was I surprised that many people resent the trampling of their childhood memories in the name of political correctness.

After Enid Byton I moved onto the comics churned out by the DC Thomson publishing house. At first it was the Beno, the Dandy and Topper. Later I discovered Warlord and the Hotspur. These comics too were completely English, produced when memories of WW2 were still too fresh in many minds. The Warlord featured British heroes like Union Jack Jackson fighting the 'Huns' and the 'Japs' throughout the former British Empire. At age ten or eleven I started reading collections of short stories with names like 'Adventure stories for Boys' where the stories took place in British controlled India and Africa; I even remember reading 'How I escaped the Boars' by Winston Churchill.

My television diet was more balanced, consisting of Irish classics like Bosco, the Den, Wanderly Wagon, all mixed together with British Saturday morning TV like Live&Kicking, Blue Peter and Bikers Grove.

At school I was taught this blend of British-Irish identity was constructed from 700 years of oppressive colonization. We learned of heroic Catholic priests suffering torture and death to pass along the Catholic faith of our fathers; of the great Catholic revival in the nineteenth century through Daniel O'Connell, but that coming into the twentieth century we were Anglicised and our was heritage stolen from us. To be truly Irish was to speak the language of our people and practice the Catholic faith of our fathers.

Blame my steady diet of English adventure stories and my utterly non-political parents but as a child I was completely unaffected by this narrative. As an adult I am convinced the fledging Irish state of the 1920's made a mistake in attempting to dismantle our dual Irish-British identity formed over 700 years of conflict and admittedly one sided cultural exchange.

I believe the Irish Free State that arose in the 1920s was a disaster – a backward step even from English rule, which was far from benign.  Upon gaining formal independence, Irish politics reduced itself to parochial squabbles over the civil war while policy making was turned over to a fanatical Church determined to protect the child-like faith of the Irish people through repressive censorship and social control. The State floundered rudderless for decades in a flood of of corruption and incompetence with politicians like Charles Haughey almost openly plundering our national treasury.

Hundreds of thousands fled the country. Some like my father left small rural fishing communities ruled by priests to find work in England -  "to take the Queens silver" as he called it. And they were bad years for a largely uneducated Irish man to travel to England -  the 'no Irish or no Dogs' years fuelled by IRA terrorism. Others left in search of social and artistic freedom, among them our greatest writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Our Free State bound us in even stronger chains of Catholicism and economic poverty. It is a state of affairs from which we are still recovering and may yet relapse.

We joined the EU in 1973, an act denounced by some nationalists as a betrayal of the 1916 martyrs. But for others the EU represented much needed modernity and an opportunity for national reunification through embracing an European identity. This of course was always doomed to failure; today we are closer to America than to Europe.
Paradoxically the rise of Irish nationalism left us a very apolitical people. We were betrayed by a church who abused it's own power and our trust. We were betrayed by an European Union that fostered billions of private banking debt onto generations of Irish people. We were betrayed by our own leaders through their incompetence and outright theft. Those who parrot 'luck of the Irish' must be ignorant of our history.

But strangely and perhaps irrationally I feel optimistic over the future. The old anti-English sentiment is mostly gone and with it the attempt at manufacturing a purist national identity which many of us simply do not have. The power of the Church is shattered, largely by their own actions. The misplaced arrogance present in so many during the Celtic Tiger years is replaced by a new found humility.

I see these things as a clearing away of the useless clutter holding us back. No healthy Irish identity can emerge from humiliation and anger over colonial rule - look to the former middle eastern colonies for proof of that assertion. Nor can a healthy identity arise from an aggressive and desperate nationalism that  ignores our history to hold the Irish language and Catholicism as a litmus test of Irishness.

A national identity is something which is lived; try to describe it and you soon flounder in ridiculous generalities. It can be captured in great works of fiction and poetry, but not by the philosophers or by the politicians or by the journalists. Our identity is found in our accents, our scenery, the (mis)management of our national affairs, in how we interact with each other and in the immutable small details which make up our lives. Our identities cannot be ripped from the steam of our lives, dissected into neat categories and judged by parochial ideological standards of nationalism.
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