The most important cleavage in politics today is the cleavage between globalism and nationalism. This is hardly an original statement. Indeed, it has almost become a truism. In country after country, election after election, the burning issue is not economics, or the limits of the state, or any of the other themes that have dominated politics in the recent past. The burning issue is whether we should progress enthusiastically to an ever-more globalized world, or whether we should go in the opposite direction and seek to strengthen national sovereignty and national identity.

Most (though not all) of the readers of this publication will situate themselves firmly in the latter camp. Indeed, it is obvious that there is currently a revival of Irish nationalism, though it has yet to translate into electoral politics, and it is scrupulously ignored in the mainstream media (aside from hysterical denunciations of “the Alt-Right” and “hate speech”). A new generation of Irish people are rejecting the post-nationalism of the Civil War parties — not to mention the bizarre internationalist nationalism of Sinn Féin — in search of a more authentic and traditional Irish vision of national identity. One which honours the “old tradition of nationhood” passed down by “the dead generations” as stated in the Proclamation. 

This resurgence is mostly seen in the new media, with the popularity of YouTube channels such as Dave Cullen’s, and the birth of new parties such as the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party.

Many are calling for a return to Irish nationalism — a meaningful Irish nationalism, one that can resist the tide of globalization. But exactly what form should this nationalism take?

My thesis is that there are three basic varieties of nationalism, cultural nationalism, ethnic nationalism, and civic nationalism. I would argue that cultural nationalism is by far the most important of the three, but that the other two cannot be disregarded.

Why is cultural nationalism the most important? Because a nation is distinguished and defined by its culture, much more than its demographics or its civic values.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine two possible futures for the Irish nation. In one future, the country is mostly Irish-speaking, babies are given Gaelic names, GAA games remain as popular as they are today, Irish folk ballads are sung in every pub, Irish writers and artists draw on the island’s tradition of Gaelic mythology and folklore, and, in short, all the aspirations of the Gaelic Revival of the nineteenth century have been resoundingly achieved. But let us suppose, in this scenario, that only ten or twenty per cent of the island’s residents are actually descended, genetically, from the Irish people of that time.

In the other future, the opposite pertains. The inhabitants of the island of Ireland physically resemble the Irish of the nineteenth century; they are, for the most part, their blood descendants. But nobody speaks the Irish language anymore. The sports that are played, the entertainment that is consumed, the songs that are sung (if any songs are sung) are exactly the same generic type as would be found in the rest of the developed world. 

In which scenario can we say most reasonably that Ireland has retained a national identity? Surely in the first one. Culture and tradition are the essence of nationality.

When was the high tide of Irish nationalism? Undoubtedly the era of Patrick Pearse, Éamon De Valera, Arthur Griffith, W. B. Yeats, John Clarence Mangan, Francis Ledwidge, Sean Keating, and other patriotic heroes — all of them cultural nationalists. The iconography of that time — the roundtower, the Irish wolfhound, Cúchaillin and Fionn MacCumhail, the Celtic Twilight — remain the defining images of Irishness all over the world, no matter how often they have been repudiated or satirised by later generations of the Irish. 

The things that still distinguish Irish culture today — the survival of the Irish language, the popularity of the GAA, the persistence of names such as Deirdre and Séamus — are all legacies of the Gaelic Revival. More than anything else, a resurgent Irish nationalism must take back up the needlessly abandoned project of the Gaelic Revival.

One benefit of cultural nationalism is that it is — in the best sense of that much-abused word — inclusive. Patrick Pearse had an English father. The actor Micheál Mac Liammóír, born Alfred Wilmore, was an Irishman entirely by choice. It is identification with a tradition that counts, not DNA.

However, we also have to be pragmatic, and accept that parentage does have a connection to nationality, for most people. Even the most cosmopolitan liberal will announce, in unguarded moments, that they have Irish, Scottish, or Cherokee “blood” — indeed, they will even scream “cultural appropriation” if a person without the correct genes identifies with a particular culture. From this perspective, it is very hard to imagine a future Ireland where the native-born Irish have become a minority, and yet the broad mass of the island’s residents still subscribe to Patrick Pearse’s formula of Irish nationalism: “Not free merely, but Gaelic as well.”

Perhaps such a thing might happen. Or perhaps the Irish nation might have to survive in the manner of the Apache or Choctaw, or the Jewish people through the centuries. Perhaps liberals will discover a new protectiveness for the native Irish if and when they become that class so beloved by them — an ethnic minority. Perhaps the native-born Irish will remain a majority on this island, and those of a different ancestry will embrace the traditional culture. In any case, only the most ideologically blinded would not admit that ancestry has some connection to ethnicity. It is foolish and naive to pretend otherwise. A case such as Michael Mac Liammóir is exceptional.

What about civic nationalism? Many conservatives today are hostile to the very notion of civic nationalism, and for understandable reasons. From morning to night, we are bombarded with the message that a nation’s culture is its “values” — democracy, tolerance, free speech, or even progressivism. But values are bloodless things, and there can be nothing distinctively national about them. Even America, which G.K. Chesterton called the only country in the world founded on a creed, is realising in the era of Trump that a creed is not enough — that a nation is not the same thing as an idea, however fine that idea might be.

And yet, I would argue, some element of civic nationalism remains essential, and historic Irish nationalism accepted this. The Irish tricolour is a visual representation of the ideal, symbolising peace between orange and green. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic resolves to cherish all the children of the nation equally, “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”. The Travelling Community is (arguably) another example of a “traditional” Irish ethnic minority.

Pragmatism also recommends some element of civic nationalism. No society is a monolith. There are ethnic minorities; there are ideological minorities, and dissidents; there are resident aliens; but, ultimately, those who live within the same borders, drive on the same roads, use the same postage stamps, and obey (or flout) the same laws do share a bond that goes beyond common humanity. When Jean-Paul Sartre was arrested for participating in the delinquent student riots of 1968, Charles de Gaulle had him released and pardoned, supposedly with the words: “One does not imprison Voltaire”. A national ideal that does not find some place for its black sheep, its gadflies, its eccentrics, and even its critics, is wanting in humanity and imagination.

That then, is my suggestion of how the “three nationalisms” might be blended; cultural nationalism above all, and importantly open to all; an acceptance of the importance of blood ties, even if they are not paramount; and a place (but very much the third place) for civic nationalism, so that those left out of the first two categories are not entirely excluded. 

Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh is the author of the recently released book “Inspiration from the Saints. Stories from the Lives of Catholic Holy Men and Women” available from Angelico Press

Posted by Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh


  1. Mary Stasia Concannon 22/04/2021 at 3:49 am

    What an amazing article – your thought problem of the two Irelands is still taking my breath away – and breaking my heart. But you know Ireland, the land of Ireland, is a living thing herself. i wish i had found your article sooner, but I’ve only just discovered The Burkean this week, and I’m devouring it.


    1. Maolsheachlann 20/01/2023 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks so much for this lovely comment, Mary. I’ve just seen it.


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