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20 Nov

What ish my nation?

"Yet could we turn those years again" illustration from Yeats' "September 1913" (c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Yet could we turn those years again”
 illustration from Yeats’ “September 1913”
(c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged[…]
“What ish my nation?”
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, “Ireland,” said Bloom,
“I was born here. Ireland.”
Traditions, Seamus Heaney

Bloom may have been sensible, but his simple statement was not undisputed. A spit on the ground is the response to his reply in Ulysses. MacMorris, the original stage Irishman in Henry V declares “Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal”, a admission unsurprising, Heaney suggests, to an English audience with a low opinion of the Irish. Identity is complicated, Irish identity perhaps especially so.

“[T]he histories of dependant, colonized nations are for the most part histories of ‘accidents'” – whether of births at home, ventures abroad, fortunes of war (Duddy, History of Irish Thought, p. xiii). Simple criteria to try and define the products of such a complicated history inevitably exclude – something Joyce was deliberately targetting when he wrote the words of Bloom’s reply. Could Bloom, nonCatholic and nonChristian, be accepted as Irish?
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17 Mar

Patrick and a question of identity

Statue of St Patrick overlooking green fields and a rainbow

Image: starbeard /Flickr (CC BY)

Last year Vox Hiberionacum published two posts on the historical Patrick and the voicing of early Irish identity: one relating to classical and early medieval terms used by outsiders and a sequel on terms used in Patrick’s own writings. In brief, Patrick used the term Scotti, which had with negative connotations, but mainly to refer to the pagan Irish. The converts he referred to as Irish/Hibernae, including in the famous account of his dream where ‘the voice of the (not yet converted) Irish’ calls on him to return to Ireland, and in contexts referring to existing converts. Vox Hiberionacum points out the complexity of identity involved in both terms – the people referred to in both were of multiple backgrounds, classes and tribes. Some were not even born in Ireland. In his Letter to Coroticus protesting the killing and enslavement of Irish converts to Christianity by a British chieftain, Patrick writes

Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumus
‘For them, it is a disgrace/shameful that we are from Ireland‘. 

Whether this is a slip or a rhetorical device, it is the first insular expression of an Irish ‘we’, and it includes not only the Irish born in Ireland but Patrick himself.

This complexity inherent in the term “Irish” brought to mind two of Ireland’s greatest philosophers. Johannes Scotus Eriugena adopted two names denoting his Irishness, plausibly because even by his time being an Irishman (Scotus) did not automatically mean born in Ireland (Eriugena). George Berkeley in several places in his Philosophical Commentaries writes, “we Irish” (“we Irish do not hold with this”, “We Irish think otherwise”). Yet he is often claimed as English. Both philosophers are enmeshed in the complexities of Irish identity.
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11 Apr

Berkeley: Irish archetype?

Philosophical Lecture

Philosophical Lecturer (1829) – detail
© Trustees of the British Museum

This section from a satirical print from 1829 is held in the British Museum, who describe it as follows:

The lecturer, wearing breeches and top-boots, stands on the edge of his platform gesticulating to an audience of men and women who register amusement, horror, or stupidity: ‘It’s all a farce! I tell you it’s all a farce—there are no clouds, no mountains, no trees, no water—I’ve proved it, it’s nothing, depend on it—nothing—bona fide nothing’. Behind him is a terrestrial globe on a table, and on the wall a paper: ‘Bishop Berkley’.

Philosophical Lecturer © Trustees of the British Museum

This print is one of four vignettes. Another is called “Irish Character”, the third, called ‘March of Intellect’, features an Irish accent (being corrected) and the fourth is a picnic where all have brought legs of mutton. It seems plausible that the set is a set of satires of the Irish.

This is interesting in light of the discussion about Irishness in Richard Kearney’s “Post-Nationalist Ireland”. Kearney reports a claim that Berkeley can’t be Irish since he is included in books as an English philosopher. (That, despite Berkeley’s famous use of “we Irish” in his writing.) It certainly appears that eighty years after his death, Berkeley wasn’t English yet…