“We have come to the holiest place in Ireland; holier to us even than the place where Patrick sleeps in Down. Patrick brought us life, but this man died for us.”
Those words were spoken at the grave of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown Churchyard in 1913. The speaker was Patrick Pearse. To my mind, they represent one of the great and abiding dangers of Irish nationalism, of all nationalism: its tendency to become an idol, a replacement for God.
I don’t intend to disparage Patrick Pearse in this article. Indeed, I am a huge admirer of Patrick Pearse. We know he was a devout man, an observant Catholic. We know that he received the last rites before his execution. Perhaps the words quoted above were simply a moment of hyperbole, a rhetorical flourish.
But think about them. If taken seriously, they are absurd. To Christian believers, St. Patrick brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to our island, the means of our salvation and the knowledge of God’s will. How could any political achievement, any political ambition, be comparable to this, let alone more important?
In this article, I’m going to be addressing a particular segment of the Burkean readership: those who, like me, are both Irish nationalists and believing Catholics. And I’m going to presume that they are serious on both counts.
Let me begin by way of a little autobiography.
I grew up in a very republican family (and extended family, and community). Irish nationalism was very much in the air. I’ve heard stories of the 1916 Rising all my life. Although I’ve sometimes reacted against the nationalism of my upbringing (for instance, in my socialist early twenties when I considered it a distraction from bread and butter issues), for most of my life I’ve been an Irish nationalist. I still consider myself an Irish nationalist– a romantic nationalist, a cultural nationalist, an admirer of the Gaelic League and Gaelic Revival, of Pearse and De Valera and all that visionary company.
Nationalism– a proportionate and reasonable nationalism– is, aside from other things, a protection of the whole world’s cultural heritage. When it comes to resistance of the identikit consumer culture which is steamrolling the developed world, the motto “think globally, act locally” is surely the right approach. And “locally” here means “nationally.”
Internationalism is about as exciting as asexuality. It seems exciting to so many of our contemporaries because it’s relatively new. There’s still a novelty to the fact that we can send a message across the globe in a moment, or fly to another continent in a matter of hours.
A minority– including many young people on the right– are waking up to the fact that this excitement is a transitory phase, that internationalism and cosmopolitanism do not open up new vistas of diversity, but on the contrary erode the very diversity that they seem to promise. Globalization creates sameness, not plurality.
Having realized this there is a great danger of overreacting, of flying to the opposite extreme– of making an idol out of the nation.
A nation is part of the created order. It comes into existence, changes, and will eventually pass out of existence. It can’t take the weight of the human heart’s deepest yearnings, which include the yearning to give oneself utterly, to embrace a cause more important than life itself.
I think C.S. Lewis put it best when we said: “Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
When I write something like this, I’m scared of winning the approval of internationalists and cosmopolitans. I don’t want their approval. It would shame me. I think such people are lacking a healthy human instinct, even if (like every human instinct) it runs the danger of perversion. I especially don’t want the approval of internationalists and cosmopolitans in this era of globalization. That would not only shame me, but mortify me in the worst way. I don’t want to side with the powerful, the fashionable, the faction with the upper hand.
But there’s more. Irish nationalism stirred my nascent imagination in a way that is irrevocable. But now I see many of the emotions it stirred as being more applicable to Faith than nationalism.
For instance, I’ve always been tremendously moved by the words (possibly apocryphal) of Thomas MacDonagh at his court martial: “This rising did not result from accidental circumstances. It came in due recurrent reasons as the necessary outcome of forces that are ever at work.” It’s the words “forces that are ever at work” that thrilled me. But if those words are applicable to Irish nationalism, they are much more applicable to the Catholic faith, with its unbroken tradition of centuries, and its worldwide reach.
Or there are these words from The Countess Cathleen by Yeats, a play I’ve never read: “It is a hard service they have that help me. Many that are red-cheeked now will be pale-cheeked; many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it; many a child will be born and there will be no father at its christening to give it a name. They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that they will think they are well paid.” Very stirring, but really just an echo of Christ’s parable of the pearl of great price, or this memorable line from the Book of Acts: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”
We should, perhaps, learn from the fate of Catholicism in mainstream Irish republicanism over the last few decades.
From 1916 until the outbreak of the Troubles– and even beyond– it would be fair to say that many or most Irish republicans were sincere Catholics, often devout Catholics. They may have struggled to reconcile their politics with their religion, but it was an honest effort.
Today, however, we see that Irish republicanism has utterly renounced its Catholic heritage. Who can forget the photograph of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill grinning wolfishly at the prospect of abortion being introduced to the North of Ireland?
It didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow process. It began with a selective interpretation of Catholicism, setting this liberation theologian or that firebrand priest against the teaching of the Pope and bishops.
Sadly, we can see the same thing happening on the Irish populist right today. Young Irish nationalists are becoming besotted with a brand of ethnonationalism, even racialism, which has no basis at all in Catholicism or in Christianity. Instead of liberation theologians and dissident priests, they have their favourite “based” YouTube theologians, and they are as likely as an eighties liberal Catholic to dismiss the “institutional Church”. The outcome will be the same.
And so I ask all my fellow Irish nationalists who are also Irish Catholics: which do you revere more? The grave in Bodenstown, or the grave in Downpatrick?
For my part, there can only be one answer. Yes, Wolfe Tone died for us. But St. Patrick gave us life.