“If Ireland were in national health, her history would be familiar by books, pictures, statuary, and music to every cabin and shop in the land—her resources as an agricultural, manufacturing, and trading people would be equally known—and every young man would be trained, and every grown man able to defend her coast, her plains, her towns, and her hills—not with his right arm merely, but by his disciplined habits and military accomplishments. These are the pillars of independence.”
— Thomas Davis, The History of Ireland.
The political landscape of established modern politics appears to have brought about a resolute ignorance and denial as to the origins and purposes of the nation. The ruling strata of Western nations have become champions of liberal democracy and multiculturalism under the naive presumption that such principles may beget a better world; particularly in Ireland has this been the case, where a political metamorphosis has joined all parties in their underlying world-views.
As such, the politics of Europe have been reduced to bickering over administrative and factional disputes. Between a pernicious state-funded NGO sector, ambitious Eurocrats, and the corporate ladder of international politics, Ireland is not even sovereign in name.
Amidst such a dearth of national education, in which few are attuned to the historical nature and ethnic origins of their society, a necessary reflection must be made as to the processes by which nations are formed and characterised, both in general theory and specific reverence to Irish history.
The trajectory of twentieth century politics has, as a consequence, condemned nationalism as a controversial and dangerous political ideology.
From this self-induced indiscretion it has been lamentably forgotten by Irish elites that should “we attempt to govern ourselves without statesmanship—to be a nation without a knowledge of the country’s history, and of the propensities to good and ill of the people—or to fight without generalship, we will fail in policy, society, and war.” The democracies of the twenty-first century have demonstrated a persistent unwillingness to recognise the existence of principles higher than their own. To what effect has the displacement of nationalism and tradition for democracy and tolerance guided the West?
Modernist sociologists like Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner, have typified the present anti-national sentiments of the Western political realm. Hobsbawm declares the nation to be a “very recent newcomer in human history,” and decries objective definitions of nationalism as inconsistent with the ambiguities provided by stateless ethnic groups and peoples—whilst simultaneously acknowledging the existence of objective characteristics of nationhood. Hobsbawm’s historiography may be denoted as one in which the existence of conceptual exceptions requires the creation of completely new rules.
Hobsbawm’s semantic crusade against an objective conception of nationhood puts him at odds with Joseph Stalin’s definition of the nation as “a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture”; and demonstrates his distinction from Gellner’s belief of nationalism as “a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent,” which in essence, is “a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones.”
Hobsbawm postulates an agnostic or provisional definition of nationality in which any group may lay claim to the title of nationhood, in accordance with the modernist emphasis of “invention and social engineering” in the creation of nations. Gellner’s justification for this artificial constitution of modern nationality is described as a political phenomenon that emerges from an environment in which“a high culture pervades the whole of society, defines it, and needs to be sustained by the polity.”
When understanding that modern era in its technological, political and industrial consequences has invariably altered the proverbial rules of European statecraft, modernist analyses of the adaptation of nationalism to modern conditions raises a series of peculiar insights and intriguing questions. The problematic aspects of modernist analyses of nationalism are not derived from their focus on the adaptation of the state to industrialisation and shaping of modern mass-culture, but from their self-professed distaste for, and attempts to discredit and undermine the very concept of the nation. There is no doubt that such a hostile predisposition towards nationalism is a mentality induced by the sensation of academic shell-shock brought about by the Second World War, and the ideological intolerance of the Cold War.
The historicity of the national ideal and the politicisation of ethnicities vastly predates the modern era, with premodern historians such as Adrian Hastings asserting a more reasonable case for the mediaeval origins of European nations.
However, despite Hastings’ defence of premodern national constructions, he too expresses a distaste for ethnic based nationalism, calling it “the most dangerous of all nationalism’s forms.”
Consequently, Hastings desires to pacify the concept of nationhood, creating a distinction between jus soli and jus sanguinis nations. Hastings’ arguments, contrary to the standard modernist analysis of nations as artificial, modern phenomenon, may be characterised as a recognition of the organic premodern case for nation-building. Hastings’ analysis falters in its obfuscation of jus sanguinis conceptions of nationality and his attempted courtship of a diluted, vaguely defined territorial nationalism that—explicitly inclusive in nature—is subservient to the principles of internationalism.
While persuasive in his case for the mediaeval origins of modern European national identities, Hastings’ writings suffer greatly from his desire to pacify and integrate the idea of nationalism into his avowed multicultural sentiment. So clouded is Hastings’ judgement that he frequently states England to be a territorial national construct—whilst much of his book, The Construction of Nationhood, is dedicated to discussing the ethnic fusion of Britons, Danes, Angles and Saxons in the creation of the English ethnos. The presence of such a contradiction alone degrades the value of his arguments, but when considering Hastings’ arrogance towards and misconceptions of Irish history, his theses require rectification.
Ethnicity and Nationality
In discussion of ethnicity and nationhood, it is important that specific definitions be given as the sociology of nationalism is a field of study riddled with varying distinctions and characteristics between the concepts of the ethnos, nation and state.
Adrian Hastings defines ethnicity as “a group of people with a shared cultural identity and spoken language. It constitutes the major distinguishing element in all pre-national societies, but may survive as a strong subdivision of loyalty of its own within established nations.” However, one must expand upon this definition, and include specifically common kinship amongst the peoples of this ethnic group; for example, the primordialist conception of political ethnicity proposed by Azar Gat considers the fact that “ethnicity overwhelmingly tends to combine both kinship and a common culture.”
Common descent is predominantly the manner by which a kinship may create a people, creating an ethnically homogeneous culture like that of Gaelic Ireland. However, whilst it is its most frequent manifestation, consanguinity is not the only form of kinship a society may be founded upon. In the case of immigration-based Western societies like those of Australia and America, the existence of a common culture arises from the efforts of an initial settler ethnic group, such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in America. This one-way entrance to immigrant societies may be surmised by the statement that a Frenchman may become an American, but an American cannot become French.
Though the common culture of a society may be predominated or characterised by an ethnic group, a different form of kinship may bind such a society—that of cultural submission and intermarriage, by which immigrant populations are assimilated. Though there is a necessary precondition as to the kinds of people that may be welcomed into such a society, such as an exclusivity towards foreign religion and other unrelated or distantly-related ethnic groups.
When discussing the construction of nations, the ethnogenesis of the Afrikaners serves as a useful example. The ethnogenesis of a people is typically a long process by which independent traits and characteristics are subconsciously manifested and developed within an off-shoot ethnic community, and which come to end with a particular nation-building myth or event which comes to characterise the entire process in a historical climax. The Great Trek of the Voortrekkers is an example of such a nation-defining event, in which the Cape Dutch ethnic group was mobilised by a desire to establish a nation of their own.
A nation is not “a daily plebiscite” as Renan called it so, rather it is the sovereign, political product of a common identity drawn from the circumstances of history—such an identity by its very nature cannot be an artificial perception, it is an organic product of historical development. Renan’s emphasis on the general will of a people to continue existing in a national form places far too much agency on the public in their self-awareness and capabilities for separatist political action.
To believe the nation to be a kind of “daily plebiscite” would be to presume that the Parisian French could justifiably declare themselves a nation, distinct from the rest of France, or that the people of Leinster or Connacht could secede from the Free State. Such a whimsical depiction of the nation neglects the historicity of the nation-building process and the significant degree to which it is determined by the affinities between related ethne and the geographic, territorial constraints which may converge them into a singular ethnos, as demonstrated so clearly in the creation of the English ethnicity.
“One cannot begin to comprehend the enormous appeal of nationalism… unless it is understood as the tip of an iceberg. Ethnopolitical formations, including premodern and modern nationalism, permeate political history and history in general; and while diverse and subject to sweeping historical transformations, they spring from deep within the human psyche.”
— Azar Gat, Nations.
The most frequent modernist rejection of premodern nationalism is to discuss the modern characteristics of the state and its influence over the creation of a national identity from the ethnic groups within its borders. The modernist emphasis on the role of the state shaping or exploiting national sentiment towards its goals, is one that is altered by Gat, asserting that “once states existed, they regularly and profoundly affected ethnicity, with the two shaping each other in a close and reciprocal relationship.”
That is to say that various ethne may inhabit a state, and are perhaps subject to the rule of a predominant ethnopolitical group whose traditions, customs and symbols the state represents.
From such circumstances, the state may alter the traits of the plurality of interrelated ethne inhabiting it, unifying it into a singular ethnos. New ethnic groups may also be produced by the actions of the state, such as the formation of the Ulster-Scots and Anglo-Irish ethnic groups from British intermixing with and domination over Ireland.
The concept of ethnicity is primordial, yet the new ethne produced throughout the course of history are themselves temporal entities, which are subject to cultural alteration, integration or secession in the progression of history. What grants these ancient ethnic groups a continuity with living history is the cultural or ethnic continuity provided by a genealogical understanding of modern nationalities. Ethne are a prehistorical reality of human society, and while an individual ethnos may wither and dissipate, aspects of their history and identity may stand the test of time through their descendents and subsequent ethnic groups.
“Every people has two distinct lines of descent—by blood and by tradition. When we consider the physical descent of a people, we regard them purely as animals. As in any breed of animals, so in a people, the tokens of physical descent are mainly physical attributes—such as stature, complexion, the shape of the skull and members, the formation of the features. When we speak of a particular race of men, if we speak accurately, we mean a collection of people whose personal appearance and bodily characters, inherited from their ancestors and perhaps modified by climate and occupation, distinguish them notably from the rest of mankind.”
— Eoin MacNeill, Phases of Irish History.
Yet ethnicities are not produced in a vacuum, with particular reference to the peoples of modern Europe and the millennia of written history behind them, there is a remarkable awareness and available knowledge of the ethnic origins of European nationalities. The cultures, traditions and symbols of ancestral European peoples such as the Gaels of Ireland, the Germanic peoples of Germany and the Roman provinces from which the nations of France, Spain and Italy are rooted, persist to this day in some form, altered by the course of national histories.
The conscious national existence of European nations most similar to their contemporary forms dates to the mediaeval era—though there is an irrefutable cultural nostalgia for the ancient peoples who came to influence the formation of their ethnos, whether it be a reverence for Gaelic Ireland, Gaul, Germania, Celtic Britain, Ancient Greece or Rome.
Nation-building is an inherently constructive process, but this does not necessarily mean that it is an inclusive one, as Hastings proposes. It may, to a certain extent, be inclusive of particular adjacent ethnic communities, but it is simultaneously an exclusive process by nature of its codification of a culture’s assertions and emphases of their ethnic distinctions from others. The jus sanguinis form of German nationalism in the nineteenth century was by its very nature exclusive towards non-Germanic ethnic groups. Perhaps in Spain is such a limited inclusivity of related ethnic groups present in the nation-building process, where the nature of the state was founded upon a Castile-based monarchy at its centre, and a pledge to uphold the legal rights of adjacent Iberian sub-cultures in the form of various fueros.
“By ethnicity, I mean the common culture whereby a group of people share the basics of life—their clothes, the style of houses, the way they relate to domestic animals and to agricultural land, the essential work which shapes the functioning of a society and how roles are divided between men and women, the way hunting is organised, how murder and robbery are handled, the way defence is organised against threatening intruders, the way property and authority are handed on, the rituals of birth, marriage and death, the customs of courtship, the proverbs, songs, lullabies, shared history and myths, the beliefs in what follows death and in God, gods or other spirits.”
—Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood.
Hastings’ expanded definition of ethnicity summarises the hallmarks of an ethnicity, though in such a manner by which the question arises as to what the distinction between an ethnic custom and a national one exactly is. For many the ethnos and nation are intrinsically linked, to the point at which the definitions may be blurred. In brief, once an ethnicity achieves the creation of its own nation—including specific, not necessarily clear, political boundaries—it is then that the ethnic characteristics of a group become the national characteristics of the nation, defining the collective mass of people which inhabit it. For multi-ethnic states this poses a problem as contradictory ethnic or religious traditions may become a point of aggression between different ethnic groups.
Azar Gat clarifies the concept of peoples as a transitory state between ethnicity and nationhood, as “there is a people in every national state, but there can also be people without one.” All people belong to an ethnic group, and when politically mobilised desire the establishment of a kind of national-state, but there are those peoples in which national existence is an impossibility or is actively prevented by other ethnicities. Or as Hastings writes “[i]t is so obvious that all ethnicities do not turn into nations that it does not need stressing. Groups of smaller related ethnicities can grow together naturally unless there is some specific factor to divide them; yet once a particular ethnicity has hardened with its own characteristics and written literature, it may be almost impossible for it to fuse ethnically with a neighbour.
Modernist scholars emphasise the role of the state as the most modern and powerful form of sociopolitical governance, and under such a characterisation, see its role as essential in the development of the nation. However, one should keep in mind that forms of governance predating modernity, whilst they may have been less centralised than the modern state or mediaeval kingdoms, still existed.
The antiquity of Ancient Greece, coupled with an understanding of the ethnocentrism exhibited by ancient city-states suggest that the concept of political governance—what we now call the modern state—and the ethnos are engaged in a mutualistic relationship.
Jus soli and jus sanguinis nationalism
“The nation-state has always been itself to a very large extent an unrealised myth; it only too manifestly does not fit the complex reality of human society very helpfully in many places; its values have often been overplayed in the past hundred years, its dangers, until recently, foolishly belittled. Nationalism has been enormously damaging to peace, tolerance and common sense; and the model of the nation-state, which could seldom fit social reality without grave injustice to numerous minorities, may well be wisely superseded by arrangements which stress both smaller and larger units of power and administration.”
—Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood.
Hastings attempts to discredit the ideal of the nation-state and nationalism on subjective moral grounds—that any potential threat to the customs of a minority ethnic group necessitates a kind of compromise with nationalist principles. Hastings further illustrates territorial, or jus soli nationalism as a benign, inclusive force—radically different from its ethnic counterpart by virtue of its ethnic inclusivity. Yet Hastings even finds issue with territorial nationalisms in that their “ideal has relied far too heavily on simplistic concepts of the indivisibility of sovereignty,” and subsequently conflict with the prevailing internationalist world-view that national sovereignty is ultimately subject to international institutional arbitration. Such a perception of jus soli nationhood is the mentality from which Micheál Martin’s rejection of a so-called “backward looking idea of sovereignty” is derived.
It must be recognised that both territorial and ethnic elements are required for the creation of a true nation, though more often than not one element may predominate or beget the other. Territorial nations are essentially civic nations, in which all who pledge loyalty to the state, in both its interest and territorial boundaries are—regardless of ethnicity—rightful members of the nation. What this conception ignores is that oftentimes, the geographical realities of a landmass may prevent the incursion of ethnic groups beyond certain boundaries—thereby limiting their expansion and interaction with others. At the same time, this maximises their interactions with adjacent ethnic communities and may provide the impetus behind an ethnic fusion of peoples.
Hastings, consistently emphasises the territorial basis of English nationalism so as to purify it from the immoralities of ethnonationalism—despite specifically explicating the process of the English ethnogenesis and their creation of the English nation-state within British territorial boundaries. Speaking of the invasions of Britain and synthesis of Saxon, Briton, Dane and Angle into the English, Hastings regards the role of Christianity as essential to the development of a singular identity from these constituent groups, stating that “Christianity certainly did not make them one people, but it undermined part of the reason for their not being so, it created something of a larger community and in the case of any closely similar separate Teutonic groups it set them on the fast route for ethnic fusion.” And hence the territorial and ethnic origins of the English ethnos may be considered essential to understanding the creation of the English nation-state.
Jus sanguinis nations are explicitly defined by the customs, symbols and mythos of a specific ethnic group—blood and ancestry are the determining factors as to membership status. Often the national state acts as a combination of both ethnic chauvinism and civic authority as exemplified by the Prussian state. Even in a jus sanguinis nationalist society, the land in which they inhabit occupies a sacred role in the national mythos—and as discussed by Eoin MacNeill in his writings on ancient Irish history, this mysticism is perhaps most evident in Ireland.
“We have seen how the divine race of the Tuatha De Danann came to Ireland in the clouds of the air, without ship or boat, and alighted on the Iron Mountain in the heart of the country. I have found nothing to show clearly whether their human descendants, the Gaels, were thought to have originated in Ireland or outside of it, except perhaps one scrap of ancient tradition. It was from the northern parts of Europe that the Tuatha De Danann came. The Gaels, according to the learned legend already discussed, came from Spain to south-western Ireland. There is, however, a totally distinct version of their arrival, which says that they first arrived at the opposite corner, in the north-east, in the locality of Fair Head. If this is genuine tradition, it would follow that the Gaels, the offspring of the gods they worshipped, were thought to have originated outside of Ireland, somewhere in northern Europe. The Book of Invasions… treats the principal elements of the ancient population, both Celtic and Pre-Celtic, as offshoots of one stock, united in ancestry, and it thus symbolises the effective national unity and fusion which had come about. The land of Ireland is the unifying principle, and all the children of the land are joined into one genealogical tree. Some recent writer… has remarked how Irish people, apparently quite naturally and unconsciously, speak and think of their country as a person. This they have been accustomed to do through all the ages of their literature. The first words spoken by a Gael on Irish soil, in the ancient legend, were an invocation addressed to Ireland herself by the druid Amorgen: “I entreat the land of Eire,” and the land itself, under its three names, Éire, Fódla, and Banbha, when the Gaels arrived, was reigning as queen over the Men of Ireland. Thus we find the clearly formed idea of one nation, composed of diverse peoples, but made one by their affiliation to the land that bore them—the clearest and most concrete conception of nationality to be found in all antiquity.”
—Eoin MacNeill, Phases of Irish History.
The enigma of Irish nationalism is a topic much discussed by scholars like Hastings and Hobsbawm, who relish in their misconceptions of Irish history. Most notably is Hastings’ arrogance towards the issue of the Old and New English settlers in Ireland, proposing that such a presence may threaten the Gaelic foundations of Irish nationalism.
The Old English, perhaps primarily as a consequence of their common religion, integrated into Irish society—albeit over a period of centuries—whilst the New English came to construct their own ideal of an Anglo-Irish nation, with a sense of Celtic mysticism and English culture being synergised not unlike what has been done to Scotland.
The existence of the Anglo-Irish parliamentary tradition and the Parnellite era of Irish history do not in any way compromise the nature of Irish nationalism, one may consider separatism the political character of Irish nationalism, yet the Irish language movement and Gaelic identity have always been the inseparable cultural components from which it was centred upon. From such a position, the actions of politicians whose perceptions of the Irish nation may have been contrary to its Gaelic character, nonetheless may be respected for their commitment to a common political goal.
“We are proud of Grattan, Flood, Tone, Emmett, and all the rest who dreamt and worked for an independent country, even though they had no conception of an Irish nation; but it is necessary that they should be put in their place, and that place is not on the top as the only beacon lights to succeeding generations. The foundation of Ireland is the Gael, and the Gael must be the element that absorbs. On no other basis can an Irish nation be reared that would not topple over by force of the very ridicule that it would beget.”
—D. P. Moran, The Philosophy of Irish Ireland.
One may personally critique the actions and beliefs of Grattan, Flood, Tone, Emmett or Parnell, but it cannot be disputed as to their contributions to Irish nationalism—whilst not its purest theoretical form, the political action or practicality behind their actions must be respected, even should their personal fallacies have been tantamount to a belief in an Anglo-Irish Ireland. A nation must be prudent towards the poets whose works it integrates into its national mythos—as such artists will inevitably become synonymous with the characterisation of their nation; but the political efforts of like-minded yet misguided patriots are historical realities which a nation must answer to. The political dispensation of Wolf Tone may be distasteful to some, but it is irrefutable as to the influence of the 1798 Rebellion on the trajectory of Irish history.
Benedict Anderson’s definition of the nation as an imagined community surmises the artificialist or social constructionist perspective of nationalism, in which nationalism was shaped by the advent of mass-culture in the modern world. Most often cited by modernist theorists is the role of mass culture and its dissemination in the formation of nations, but, did religion, commerce and common language not provide a common culture to the ancient and mediaeval worlds? How else could the truly national literary texts of the Fenian Cycle and the Book of Invasions be produced?
Hastings even asserts that “it is a dangerous concern if [nationalism] implies that the modern world must be composed of nations and that each ethnicity must either turn itself into a nation, indeed a nation-state, or perish. The central cultural challenge facing society in Europe, in Africa or elsewhere is, on the contrary, how to find a way of safeguarding ethnicity in a non-national way.” Hastings lacks understanding that as a consequence of the perennial nature of the concept of ethnicity and its intrinsic politicisation, there is no genuine alternative to preserving the lifestyles and wellbeing of ethnic peoples outside of nationalism.
The modern commitment to safeguarding ethnicities from the challenges of the modern world may then be depicted as the polar opposite of the right to self-determination that characterised the early twentieth century. Rather, such an anti-national affirmation of the rights of ethnicities may be understood as Adrian Hastings writes, “[w]hat is needed… everywhere is rather to focus upon a diversity of ways in which ethnicity can survive and thrive quite apart from any transformation into [a] nation-state.” Consequently, the nation-state represents the evils of the modern world and despite the historicity of nations as political institutions, ethnicities are to be regarded as apolitical entities, devoid of concern towards matters of statecraft. The reductio ad absurdum within such argumentation is clear to any national-minded person—to even suggest that ethnicities must choose to survive without striving to create a nation their own is to be deservedly ridiculed; and yet a comical narrative illustration of the artificial nature of nation-building persists.
Modern sociologists, whilst their analysis are often correct on a very basic level, erratically stack contradiction upon contradiction in pursuit of a vain campaign to purge nationalism of its historicity as a political force—for such evidence legitimises its existence.
Modernist sociology of nationalism in effect dilutes the ethnocentric nature of nationhood in favour of affirming an artificial inclusivity which thereby may create a preparatory stage for internationalist humanitarian politics.
I am a proud ethnic Irish nationalist, my carbon footprint is my DNA.
Many fail to grasp that a nation is not an idea or artificial construction, but a particular people of a particular ethnicity, language, culture, and historical memory, guarded by territorial sovereignty. A nation is possessed of an identity. Propositions might complete but do not lay a nation’s foundation.
True Irish people , at home and the Diaspora abroad ,love their Nation,
Their ancestors fought ,died, suffered starved and their bones have been buried here for thousands of years.
The land of the Nation has been sprinkled by the tears of those forced to flee oppression, war and starvation over centuries
This Nation cannot be surrendered, by a Quisling Regime and the fake Opposition, who betray us to enrich Foreign interests.
Our youth are again fleeing to foreign shores as they are treated as untermenschen in their own Land.
Time is long past ,for when the worm turns and again stands for his historical Nation and its People.
Thank you Bells of Shandon for your insight and understanding on this article. Does anybody truly understand the feelings that are passed on through generations of Irish Culture and existence?
I cannot adequately explain personally the emotions or empathy that I have experienced throughout my whole life, but despite a full belly and food always on the family table, I always felt an inner hunger,not of nutrition or bellyache, but something that transcended generations by DNA and personally made me feel the great hunger,Famine,holocaust of
my Irish Ancestors. Is this possible…I believe it is, and this HUNGER has
a greater meaning, it is a message from my forefathers and I heed it’s call
I am not an ethnonationalist and therefore disagree with most of your article, but it is well-written, interesting, well-argued and well-documented. Thank you for that, as it is all too rare on all sides of this argument.
I believe that nations evolve and change and are essentially political constructions while I would not deny the role of cultural identity and the past. My real concern and interest is what will happen between now and the end of the century as global warming causes tens of millions of migrants to move as entire territories become uninhabitable. Are we simply going to pull up the drawbridge and say ‘let them die?’ Or can we imagine a new model of nationhood?