Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam

This famous quote from Padraig Pearse is possibly the greatest source of confusion in Irish politics today. 

To be clear, this is not the fault of the author. Pearse, in this short statement, outlines a clearly true fact of existence. A nation is its identity, and one of the strongest hallmarks of said identity is its language. As such, a nation without a language is a nation without identity.

However, this is where so many aligned with the new iteration of post-GFA Sinn Féin get completely confused. Time and time again, when nationalists make serious strides either politically or intellectually, online or off, there inevitably is a Sinn Féiner present to deride their efforts. “You’re not a real nationalist! You can’t even speak Irish!”

First off, it must be said that, a lot of the time, this claim made isn’t even true. A lot of nationalists on the right have a great fluency in Irish, while others make serious attempts to increase their understanding of it on a daily basis. 

However, let’s examine the times where the Neo-Sinn Féiner is correct about the nationalist, and they don’t have a grasp of Irish. In this scenario, does the lack of Gaelic render said nationalist illegitimate? 

Imagine a protester at an anti-pedophile rally is approached by one of these Neo-Sinn Féiners, who derides them for not being a true nationalist as they do not speak the Irish language. 

What implicit claim is this Neo-Sinn Féiner making? Simple. That the protester is not a real nationalist, and that they’re merely cloaking their own racist/sexist/etc views in the cloak of nationalism. Meanwhile, the Neo-Sinn Féiner is, in fact, a real nationalist, because of their knowledge of Irish. The justification for their claim? Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.

What the Neo-Sinn Féiner has just committed here is the fallacy of modus morons, which occurs where one incorrectly derives a conclusion from an if-then clause.

The Formal Breakdown of Pearse’s statement

Pearse’s statement is actually a very simple one, logically speaking. Breaking it down, it is the statement that, if a nation has no language, then it must also have no soul. In short, the statement takes the logical form of ‘if p, then q’.

Taking this ‘if p, then q’ statement as being true, we can then derive one further truth. That is that if q is not the case, then p also has to not be the case. In regards to Pearse’s statement, this means that if a nation has a soul, then it must also have a language. This converse truth can be expressed in the form of ‘if ~q, then ~p’, or ‘if not-q, then not-p’.

What cannot be derived from Pearse’s statement is the claim made by the Neo-Sinn Féiner — that their knowledge of the language makes their nationalism legitimate. This translates to them stating that a nation with a language is a nation with a soul, or, ‘if not-p, then not-q’. This is where the fallacy arises.

The mistaken notion that ‘if p, then q’ statements imply that if p isn’t the case, then q isn’t the case is as common as it is incorrect. To show how, let us take the following example: ‘If x is an aerial vehicle, then x can fly’. Quite clearly, this statement takes the form of ‘if p, then q’, with the statement ‘x is an aerial vehicle’ taking the spot of p, and ‘x can fly’, taking the spot of q. Assuming this statement is true (which it clearly is), we can also come to the conclusion ‘If x cannot fly, then x is not an aerial vehicle’, which takes the form of ‘if not-q, then not-p’. So far, so good.

However, what of the ‘if not-p, then not-q’ variant of the statement? This would be ‘if x is not an aerial vehicle, then x cannot fly’. Is this true? 

Clearly not. Birds can fly ,and they are not aerial vehicles, as can a number of insects. Just because p is not the case, that does not mean q is also not the case. 

However, this is the exact claim that the Neo-Sinn Féiner is making. The protester is not a legitimate nationalist because of their lack of Irish, while they are, because of their knowledge of Irish, real nationalists. However, if this claim is primarily rooted in the Fenian philosophical tradition, which it is, then they have no right to make this claim. This is because their derivation from the Fenian tradition to their conclusion is fallacious. 

Distinguishing between the Nation and the nationalist

So where does this leave us? Firstly, I have established that the Neo-Sinn Féiner has no special claim to nationalism under the criteria so far set out. However, we have also established, in accepting Pearse’s statement outright, that the protester in our example is lacking in their own nationalism. Does that make them not a real nationalist?

Up until now, I have been conflating two separate things. The first is that of the nation and its status, and the second that of the nationalist and their status as legitimate. So far, if the lack of language indicated a complete lack of soul in a nation, I have taken for granted that a lack of language in the nationalist indicated a complete lack of legitimacy in their actions as a nationalist. I will now amend that position. 

I believe it is fair to say that a nationalist, if they do not know their native language, is lacking in their nationalism. Since, as Pearse says, the lack of language in the Nation means that it also must lack a soul, it seems perfectly clear that a lack of language in the nationalist will mean their efforts are, at best, imperfect.

However, it would be unfair to say that the nationalist is completely illegitimate in his efforts because he lacks an understanding of his language. 

Imagine you were out at sea in a boat that had a small, but significant hole in it. It seems perfectly clear that we would deem this boat imperfect, and that we would much rather be in a boat without a hole in it. That being said though, this imperfection does not completely undermine the purpose of the boat. As long as we can bail out water from it and keep it from sinking, we would much rather have our imperfect boat rather than no boat at all.

The same goes for the nationalist project that lacks and understanding of the language. While far from ideal, as long as that nationalist acted in a way to preserve the Nation and her people, then their claim to nationalism is still legitimate. 

Language and the Soul of a Nation

With it established that the protesters’ nationalism is not completely undermined by their lack of Irish, let us turn again to the Neo-Sinn Féiner. While we now can see the protester as legitimate in their nationalist project, surely, because of their knowledge of Irish, we must conclude that the Neo-Sinn Féiner is still superior in their nationalism?

To ascertain whether this is true, let us look at why language is so important. 

To answer this question, we need look no further than to Pearse’s simple statement to see his view on the matter. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam implies one thing above all others, and that is that language, teanga, is important because, without it, the nation cannot have a soul, anam. The primary purpose of the language is to enable the existence and maintenance of the Soul of the Nation.

What does Pearse mean when he says anam? Pearse in his essay, A Spiritual Nation, is not shy about telling us the answer. The Soul of a nation for Pearse is a real, metaphysical thing, though one he seemingly does not believe is unified in its existence, or at least not unified in a way that it has a personified existence. It is not to be taken as mere metaphor for a physicalist phenomenon.

But does Pearse’s view have any merit? The vast majority of Irish campaigners seem to have moved away from the exaltation of the metaphysical in exchange for various dialectical materialisms. Sinn Féin’s own view seems to align with this modern view, the party not seeing the language as some spiritual reliquary for the Irish soul, but a bludgeon to bash Unionists with, at least judging by their conduct up north. Why should we take the view of Pearse over that of the modern Neo-Sinn Féiner?

Nation-Soul as Religion residing in Language

What are some of the world’s greatest spiritual languages? 

There are many world languages, such as Spanish and English, but these languages have become so cosmopolitan, that they no longer seem tied to any specific culture or nation, and as such no single Soul. Pearse himself alludes to this, stating that he believes that the US and England share a national Soul, though not an intellect. As such, it would be difficult to regard these languages as denoting a single, cultural spirit, which is what we are looking for.

If we’re looking for the language of Soul, then where better to start than with Latin. The language of the Roman Empire, Latin outgrew its culture of birth to become the liturgical language of the Catholic church and, in turn, the liturgical language of Europe. When many conservatives talk of the ‘West’, how could we think of anything else but the common European identity forged by Latin, the common language of the learned class? Latin transformed a disparate group of tribes and kingdoms into a unified realms that, while filled with different peoples, shared a common cultural and spiritual Soul.

The Catholic empire of that Latin language, however, has since died a harsh death. English has largely replaced Latin as the lingua-franca of the academic world, and unlike Latin, it is not tied to one of the world’s most powerful religions. As such, we should turn elsewhere to see how language maintains Soul in the modern day.

For that, let us look no further than Arabic. As I have stated previously, Islam is a faith built for on implicit Arab nationalism, and exists almost solely to enable an Arab empire to survive and thrive. Arabic as a liturgical language, in turn, enables Islam to function as well as it does. 

No matter where you are in the world, or what tribe you are originally from, if you are a Muslim, then Arabic will dominate your life. Your greetings will often be in Arabic, your prayers will be in Arabic, and ultimately, your view of god will always be filtered through Arabic. This forces a spirit of unity throughout the Islamic community, or Ummah. A spirit the nature of which is almost unbreakable.

It is for this reason that Muslims often struggle to truly integrate into host nations. While many conservatives view this as an almost racial failing of immigrants, it is anything but. Instead, this failure to integrate is a design of the religion, one that allows it not only to survive, but maximize its existence in the post-modern, materialistic world. It’s a trait worthy of praise, not derision. 

Likewise should we praise those same traits found within Hebrew. After the scattering of Jews from across Europe during the second world war, Israel used the holy language to unite Jews from across the world under a single banner. This eventually turned a rather small province building project consisting of a few disparate farmers into the Middle-Eastern powerhouse the world knows today. Hebrew enabled the creation of a militant Jewish identitarianism which has enabled a population to thrive in a land surrounded by a number of groups that absolutely despises them. The role the liturgical language of Hebrew played in this cannot be understated.

Finally, we have Japanese. There was a very good reason why many Irish nationalists were awestruck when looking at this small island nation in the east. As described by world famous weeaboo, W.B Yeats, the literary and religious tradition of Japan, reminded him “of our own Irish legends and beliefs, which once may have differed little from those of the Shinto worshipper.” 

Yeats along with a number of others looked towards Japan as possessing a spiritual truth or energy that, though had once existed in Ireland, had since been long lost, with Yeats often making an attempt to transplant this spirit back into Irish culture. His most notable attempt was ‘At the Hawk’s Well’, a Noh style play starring Cu Chulainn that Yeats wrote in 1916, and was subsequently adopted back into traditional Japanese theatre under the name ‘Takahime’.

Japan’s national identity is probably more closely tied to its spiritual identity than any other living nation. This in turn is reflected in its language, liturgical, and literary traditions, which explicitly tie the very notion of being Japanese to the traditional Japanese understanding of divine rule. Another 19th century Irishman, Lafcadio Hearn, praised the hard nationalism of Japan, as well as its unyielding devotion to its religious/cultural traditions.

This hardline view of identity have been preserved to this day. Japan has had a hardline nationalist party in government almost continually since the second world war, and, contrary to popular belief, the Emperor is still believed by many in the ruling class to be divine in one way or another. 

As such, while  the rest of the developed world wrestles with liberalism and its consequences, Japan remains mostly free of the problems of identity the likes of Ireland are facing down. While the likes of Irish identity is watered down into meaninglessness, the isolated tradition of Japanese language and literature has maintained an unmoving standard on what is Japanese. As a result, like muslims, the Japanese are able to (mostly) weather the perils of the postmodern world.

From these examples, we can see how language supports the maintenance of the collective soul of a religion or nation, and how, a lot of the time, the two can be conflated if the language promotes a strong enough within communities. It is this phenomena that Pearse made reference to when he stated Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.

Where materialism fails

Now that we have seen the strengths of Pearse’s nationalism, and why language is so important for said system, it is time to compare this with what the Neo-Sinn Féiner has to offer us.

As alluded to earlier, it amounts to very little. With the refutation that language is the sole domain of what makes a Nation, the question of ‘what is Irish’ stumps the materialist. So keen on deconstructing identity, especially race based identity, any attempt at ironing out a solid foundation for a group is always going to be messy. This results in a wide variety of farcical claims, such as being Irish is ‘all about the craic, loike’, or that it’s about being an antiracist, whatever that means.

Meanwhile, those who came before, those who built the nationalist tradition of Ireland, had no such issues. For these men and women, Irish identity was a metaphysical reality instantiated in blood, language, and land. Support for this view comes from how effective such bonds such a national Soul can create through these three things, as shown in the examples I have listed above.

So, returning to our example of the protester and the Neo-Sinn Féiner, we must conclude the following: 

First, the protester is practicing an incomplete form of nationalism, lacking the language element. However, this practice is still overall truth-apt, and aimed towards preserving and promoting the nation. 

Meanwhile, the Neo-Sinn Féiner lacks any link to the metaphysical that underwrites national identity. As such, how could they ever be seen as a nationalist when they cannot define national identity? In truth, they cannot. The value of language and identity is not routed in the material, but the metaphysical. No amount of deconstruction can change that fact.

Posted by Daithí O'Duibhne


  1. why was my comment on the previous article censored?


  2. Eamonn Gaines 09/09/2020 at 11:56 am

    Modus morons? Modus ponens, surely? Perhaps a spell-czecher malfunction…


    1. Nope. It’s a slang term in Formal Logic for the common fallacy of affirming the consequent. Google it, and it comes up pretty quickly.


      1. Eamonn Gaines 09/09/2020 at 12:43 pm

        Thanks, I just did. I’ve always called it affirming the consequent, when teaching logic.


  3. Kevin Carroll 18/09/2020 at 4:20 pm

    To be nationalist is to be internationalist according to Gerry Adams. You can’t be one or the other.


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