D. George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland (London: Routledge 1982; 2nd edn. 1991), 475pp. [with index.]

‘This picture of a country marked out from contemporary European by its failure to build up national institutions has been accepted by many modern historians, and it is an amusing paradox that a country which prided itself on its strong sense of nationalism, than sought statehood and emphasised unity, should in its infant days have been totally devoid of all these characteristics.’ (p.26)

No Tudor rebellion ever included the whole political nation of Ireland; nor, of course, did it have much to offer the common people, who were referred to by their betters as peasants, churls or even slaves. … Had the nine years war been successful for the Gaels, it would have preserved an Ireland not only free and Gaelic, but aristocratic as well.’ (p.64).

‘But some creeds were more equal than others in early nineteeth century Ireland.’ (p.163).

In a sense, therefore, the battle in Ireland in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, was not one between two ‘civilisations’, but between three; between the Gaelic league idea of Irish Ireland; the Anglo-Irish idea of Celtic literature; and, perhaps in the middle of these mighty opposites, the Davisite idea of a “racy of the soil” literature, in the English language, but catering for the tastes of the nationally-minded mass reading public. The Davisite tradition was the enemy of the other two, for it accepted the fact that the bulk of the Irish people must have their reading matter in the English tongue (at least until the day dawned when they mastered, as Davis himself hoped they would, the Irish languange), and postulated that literature must serve politics. And, despite the works of high artistic merit produced by the Anglo-Irish school, and the achievements of the Gaelic leaguers in making the language a vital issue of the day, and of succeeding years as well, it cannot be denied that the Davisites triumphed, a triumph symbolized by the appointment of Charles Gavan Duffy as first president of the Irish Literary Society. They triumphed because they coincided with the tastes and intellectual capabilities of a sentimental, stubbornly nationalist, reading public. This public, mainly rural, or urban but with rural roots, loved the image of themselves that they found in the poems of, for example, Padraic Colum as much as they hated the image of themselves portrayed in the Countess Cathleen or the Playboy. It was easy for Yeats to dismiss them contemptuously as “Paudeens”; but it would be truer to see them as sensitive, conservative people who held a deep affection for their locality, an affection perfectly illustrated in C. J. Kickham’s novel Knocknagow, when Mat the Thrasher gazed on: ‘the thatched roof of the hamlet … And, strange to say, those old mud walls and thatched roofs roused hirn as nothing else could. His breast heaved, as with glistening eyes, and that soft plaintive smile of his, he uttered the words ‘For the credit of the little village’ in a tone of deepest tenderness.” This was the sentimental side of Irish nationalism; but Kickham also caught the sense of betrayal of the noble Irishry (and pride in their military prowess) in his portrayal of the eviction of Tom Hogan. [Quotes extensively a battle scene.] (p.253.)

The reason why a settlement of the land question could not ‘de-nationalise’ Ireland was partly because there were vigorous groups working to keep nationalismm alive - the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin - but mainly because Ireland stood in a relationship to England that had inspired and shaped her nationalism in the first place. Ireland was a small island in the shadow of a large and influential one; but thanks to the Protestant nationalists of rhe eighteenth century, she had inherited a tradition of separate institutional development, an idea [270] of a corporate national existence. After 1800 Ireland lost her separate institutions of government, except for Dublin Castle, and this style of executive signalled that Ireland was not to be treated as just another member of the United ingdom body politic. Why was she not to be thus treated? Here, for Roman Catholics, was the crux of the matter. For while they were the majority in Ireland, the “Irish people”, they remained a minority in the United Kingdom as a whole; and they were subject, at one and the same time, to the veto also of the non-Catholic Irish minority. Thus their majority status in Ireland was not recognised, and this in a century which saw the inorexorable advance of democratic politics almost everywhere in western Europe.’ (p.271.)

British unionists also denied that there was such a phenomenon as a separate Irish nationality; indeed, the whole purpose of the construcitve unionism of the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first five years of the twentieth was based on the assumption that Irish nationalism was at bottom a protest against bad government, rather than a desire for self-government. Irish nationalism was both; but because the bad government was Englsh, self-government was necessary. (p.281.)

Not surprisingly, farmers could show resentment at the prospect of IRA men being “billeted” on their farms, and had it not been for the British Government’s expedient of handing the enforcement of law and order over to the ill-disciplined “Black and Tan” recruits to the RIC, and to the brave but reckless Auxiliary division, public sympathy for the peace-keeping authorities might have been retained, or, at any rate, forfeited less easily; even as matters stood, Ernie O’Malley’s 2nd southern division admitted in August 1921 that for 12 months the IRA had been “steadily losing its grip of the towns and villages”.’ (p.322.)

In later years some members of the IRA were wont to twit the politicians about the way in which the gunmen had beaten the British army while the Dáil did little or nothing; but, by giving tacit, and then active, approval to the military wing of the movement, the Dáil invested the IRA with a legitimacy that it could not otherwise have claimed, and in the end the Dáil did more for the IRA, and for the fight for freedom, than its detractors ever allowed.’ (p.323.)

The fighting in Ireland in 1919-1921 was a conflict that neither the IRA nor the Crown forces could win; but the IRA’s success in maintaining an army, however small and however depleted, in the field made it imperative for the British Goverment to seek some comprise with its opponents before taking the sterm measures that would bring the struggle to an end. (p.323.)

[T]he IRA’s campaign of 1919-21, and its apparent success, gave political violence a new lease of life in Ireland, and this political violence was not he kind of conflict envisaged by Meagher of the [232] Sword or Patrick Pearse. (pp.323-33.)

The Sin Féiners of 1918 were, so to say, political animals, not bold Fenian men. But by 1912, after years of violence and terrror, traditional Irish nationalist reverence for the physical force men was less safe than it had been since 1870; and the problem of reconciling the methods by which freedom had been achieved with the long-established democratic tradition in Ireland was to prove a difficult, and at times almost intractable one, for the new State.’ (p.324).

After the violence and sacrifice of 1916, Sinn Fein had hoped to build a firm political foundation on the embers of Easter, only to find that Michael Collins, Dan Breen, and other Volunteers were resolved to fan the embers back into flame, and reassert the primacy of physical force. Thus in 1920 a new period of revolutionary activity began, one that led to the destruction, not only of the Union with Britain, but to the ‘national unity’ that Sinn Fein had temporarily achieved in 1917. By 1923 Ireland was more deeply divided politi lly th n at any time in her fraymented history. The existence of pro- and anti-treaty groups, regular and ‘irregular’ armies, ‘men of no property’ and the ‘stake in the country’ people, not to mention unionists (northern and southern), northern Ireland nationalists, and partition, all revealed how flimsy and transient the national movement represented by Sinn Fein really was. Not even the ‘southern part of Ireland / Three-quarters of a nation once again’ could claim the political allegiance of all of its citizens. Nationalism had not united the nation nor the three-quarters of a nation; time would tell if the experience of statehood in Ireland could succeed where the promise of statehood had failed so spectacularly.

Boyce characterises Irish nationalism as peculiarly ‘Irish’ in the ‘vulgar sense’ of a ‘paradoxical, self-contradictory’, &c. In this his reading of the history corresponds to that of Michael Hechter (Internal Colonialism), who notes the contradictions that Ireland tended to surrender its culture yet retain its notion of national distinctness.

The historian, faced with these contradictions, might seek solace, possibly even explanatio, in the general laws of social science: if Ireland and Irish nationalism were subjected to the rigorous methodly of the social science instead of the very imprecise and discrete analysis offered ehre, the short sharp shock might bring Irish nationalism to its sense. And, thus stabilised, Ireland might conform, or be made to conform, to the rules of the game, instead of pursuing her own wayward path.’ (p.375.)

His further characterisation of Irish nationalism as a ‘recalcitrant patient’ indicates the extent to which he is out of sympathy with the processes he is describing.

In discussing modernisation, he contends that, in the absence of pre-industrial social identities, nationality becomes the badge: ‘Since the individual’s essence is no longer simply his social position, he must carry his identity with him: his “culture” becomes his identity; and classification of men by culture is the classification of nationality. Thus men become concerned with the ethnic rubric under which they survive.’ (p.376.)

Further argues that the need for an educational system to produce universal literacy among citizens advances the nation to the status of ‘minimal political unity in the modern world’; ‘The nation is distinguished from other loyalty evoking groups (tribe, kin, clan) by its mass nature and by the definiation of its members by “culture”.’ (p.376.)

Enumerates theories based on these sociological premisses: a) Irish nationalism results from the relative disadvantage of the island in relation to the uneven process of modernisation, and the resort to nationality and culture as a means of securing a higher position for the leadership cadre; b) Hechter’s view that nationalism was a political response to “internal colonisation” by the “core”; and that the ethnic identity of the periphery provides a basis for the movement of resistance.’ Hence ‘regional inequality and ethnic identity, in Ireland, created nationalism.’ (p.377.)

Boyce dismisses Hechter on the basis that Irish nationalism was antecedent to the cattle crisis of 1870, and manifested in the policy of Sinn Féin without regard to it. (p.377).

Bibl.: footnotes supply a bibliography of British studies of Irish nationalism addressing the puzzling question of Irish exceptionalism from the sociological standpoint: D. W. Millar, ‘Queen’s Rebels, pp.46-9; E. Gellner, Thought and Change (London 1964.) A.W. Orridge, 'Explanations of Irish nationalism: a review and some suggestions', in Journal of the Conflict Research Society, Vol. 1, Part i (1977), pp.29-57; also 'Uneven development and nationalism' (1978), and 'Structural preconditions and triggering factors in the development of European sub-state nationalism' [nn.d.]; Michael Hechter’s internal colonial Thesis: some theoretical and Methodological Problems (Univ. of Strathclyde; Public Policy Paper No. 9, 1977.) A. D. Smith, Nationalist Movements (London 1976.) &c.

Boyce acknowledges that Gellner’s theory of a nationalist elite espousing separatism in pursuit of jobs in the new state breaks down in the face of the fact that ‘Sinn Féin purists of the early twentieth century [378] did not become nationalists to secure their material position in an independent Ireland: on the contrary, they despized [sic] the brokerage and place hunting of the parliamentarians, and often sacrificed already promising careers in teaching, and university work, to free their country.’

‘Anyway, nationalists were individuals, and their beliefs and actions were often influenced by their personal experiences.’ (p.379.) ‘Theories of nationalism of the social scientific type do not take account of the multiple and varied nature of human experience, of the rich variety of nationalist tradition in Ireland. (p.380.)

Roman Catholics were divided, not only from their Protestant minority, but from the British Protestant majority; and any loyalty the Catholics amy have felt towards the crown - and such loyality was felt by the Roman Catholic hierarch and influential laity in the time of the French Revolution - was soon dissipated by the recognition that the Roman Catholics had majority status in Ireland, but minority status in the United Kingdom; and, moreover, their Protestant minority was able to rely on the British to defend privileges that seemd more appropriate to a majority in Ireland as well: local power, landed monopoly, and an established church - and, above all, a sense of superiority, of being the masters in the new Ireland as in the old. / The mainstream of Irish nationalism, therefore, involved mounting an attack not only on England, the alleged originator of Ireland’s ills, but on the Protestant minority in Ireland, who sheltered behind the British Protestant’s skirts. This attack - from the time of O’Connell to that of Redmond - was not upon Protestants as such; it was upon Protestant power and privilege, on the Protestant’s refusal to accept the inevitable fact that the Roman Catholics were the majority, the Irish people, and must eventually have their way in Ireland. (p.382.)

[Full page, p. 388:] The problem with Ireland was that she encompassed a plural society that did not and could not see itself as plural. The racial self-consciousness of the Gaels was rivalled by the sense of distinctiveness of the Catholic Anglo-Irish. The distinctiveness of the Old English was surpassed by the religious exclusiveness of the new English. The Ulster Protestant concept of the ‘public band’ - a body of men bound together in mutual trust for the purpose of community defence - automatically excluded any Roman Catholic participants. The nationalist idea of the race, of the ‘real nation’ excluded all but the most enthusiastic and thick-skinned Irish Protestants, and worried even Thomas Davis and John Mitchel. And this exclusiveness was a consequence of the colonial period in Irish history, which brought to Ireland layers of peoples, strongly self-conscious of their national or religious distinction from the majority of the inhabitants. (p.388.)

The colonial period of Irish history came to an end in the third decade of the seventeenth century, and there followed a struggle for power, precipitated by the crisis of crown and parliament in Great Britain. This struggle was one, not only between native and colonist, but within these groups, for the Catholic Old English colonists were ranged against the Protestant new English. The Williamite victory in 1690 enabled the Protestants to establish the claim that theirs was the kingdom of Ireland, and to lay the foundations of modern Irish nationalism. But the impact of the French revolution, the romantic era, and the rise of democracy in Ireland challenged and finally overthrew this Protestant claim, and replaced it with the idea that the Roman Catholics were the Irish people. (p.388.)

At the same time, few Irish nationalists denied that the Protestants were in some sense part of the Irish nation; but because of the heterogeneous nature of Irish society, its temptation to lapse into fragmentation and localism, nationalist politicians had to strive to create and maintain a core of national unity. This obliged them to stress, not the pluralism of Ireland, but the homogeneous nature of those Irishmen whose loyalty and support were essential to the realization of their political programme. Thus the pluralism of Irish society, in a country where nationalist politics came to dominate all aspects of life, was the very factor that prevented any practical or lasting acknowledgement of the pluralism of Irish society. (p.388.)

‘A “colonial” view of Irish hsitory, totally inappropriate to nineteenth-century Ireland, and highly divisive in its implications, was widely propagated and readily accepted as authentic./ Ireland, after the seventeenth century, was not a colony, but a sister-kingdom, and then, after 1800, an integral part of the British polity, inextricably linked with British politics, and, as always, exposed to British cultural influence. (p.388.)

… Ireland’s dominant tradition, like most aspects of her life, bears the ineradicable influence of England.’ (p.389.)

For Bibliographies by periods, together with a Supplementary Bibliography (1986), see under Bibliography/History.

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