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?

The identification of Irishness and Catholicness stem back to Keating’s History and grew during the campaigns of O’Connell. “Catholicism, along with language and nationalism,…formed the bedrock of Irish identity since at least the mid-nineteenth century” (Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History, p. 536). What grew in parallel was a tendency to see Anglo-Irish literature as not really Irish – whether due to the fact the works are written in English, or due to them not being written for the “Irish” (see “Not Guilty”, DRB). The exclusion did not last long for some – Yeats was reaccepted into the canon early. But for others it was different. In 1985 when Richard Kearney wrote “The Irish Mind”, it was criticised for including thinkers who were “not Irish”, such as John Toland, Francis Hutcheson and William Molyneaux.

Today that identification of Irishness and Catholicism is breaking down, and none of the usual suspects (politicians, professionals, business men) seen able to fill the vacuum. Thomas Bartlett notes that the enthusiasm surrounding Seamus Heaney’s seventieth birthday in 2009 suggests “such a person might be found among the ranks of Irish poets, novelists or playwrights rather than among the traditional professions” (ibid, p. 473) and he sees a “way with words and music and dance” as one of our few remaining distinctive features.

Perhaps then it is time to embrace another view of nationality which grew first among the United Irishmen and was best put by Thomas Davis, “… a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, Milesian and Cromwellian, the Irishman of a hundred generations, and the stranger who is within our gates”. The idea is not (as this DRB piece suggests) to use this as an instrumental way to achieve a united Ireland, but to aspire to remove the divisions in our own past and present. This was, after all, the idea of nationality that Yeats adopted from O’Leary, his symbol of a dead romantic Ireland in September 1913. Perhaps it is time for it to rise.

And now is an opportune time. As the anniversary of 1916 approaches, the Irish government has spoken of five themes to the commemoration: remember, reconcile, present, imagine, celebrate.

In remembering the 1916 Rising we can remember the aspirations they included in the Proclamation…

..cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

In reconciling with our past, we refuse to separate off parts of it as alien and other. (On 2nd November on RTE Radio, Pat Wallace explicitly stated that this “othering” of relics of British rule is still an attitude in government.) If we don’t, how can we reconcile in the present?

And we need to imagine a future where we embrace difference (like Bloom and Joyce and Yeats) in a nation we can be proud of (unlike MacMorris).

Written for World Philosophy Day 2014.

Addendum: Also see President Michael D. Higgins’ speech at the unveiling of a statue of Davis in Mallow, 28 Nov 2014 (Irish Times): “Many of the values expressed in the writings of Davis are found in the Proclamation of 1916 and remain core to today’s Ireland. […] “Davis had a spirit of empathy that enabled him to give voice to the concept of an Irish national identity – his was a vision for Ireland of a country united by heritage, language and a sense of shared community.”

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