Hail Glorious St Patrick – a history of Irish Nationalism

At some point today somewhere on Irish radio, “Hail Glorious St Patrick” will be played. A traditional staple for St Patrick’s day written by a woman, Sr Agnes, this hymn not only praises Patrick and asks for his help for the “poor children” of Ireland, but also praises Ireland itself. Written in the early 19th century, it closes with the assertion that “And our hearts shall yet burn, wherever we roam, For God and Saint Patrick, and our native home.”1

The interaction between nationalism, patriotism and love of country is a complex one. They are not synonymous.

If nationalism is, as an early theorist said, “a state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due the nation-state” 2 it’s hard to see any such thing existing before the revolutions of the 18th century, and after the development of ideas such as popular sovereignty. The debate continues as to whether nationalism is a recent phenomenon (Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawn and Benedict Anderson) or as more recent studies suggests, one with deep roots.

St Patricks Day card featuring St Patrick with a white beard and wearing a bishops mitre. The card reads: Greetings March 17th
Vintage card featuring St Patrick
UpNorthMemories/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Looking at the history of “Erin’s green valleys”, we can see both aspects at work. Ireland has a long history as Ireland, but yet modern Irish nationhood is still, as the Anglo-Irish theorist Benedict Anderson called it, an “imagined community”3.

As outlined in last years blog post for St Patrick’s Day, the idea of the Irish “natio” had its roots in Counter-Reformation attempts to unify Catholics in Ireland, followed quickly by a view of the nation as all born on the island of Ireland. The 18th century saw increasing self-identification of Irishness in Protestant Ireland, but not in the nationalist sense of owing supreme loyalty to “Ireland”.  It is arguable, however, that the conditions were there for that development. The position in Ireland was similar to that in colonial South America, where Arnold argued solidarity built up between local-born colonial administrators in South America, locked out both from the top positions at home and any position in Spain4.

The Sweet Land of Our Birth

The nationalism of the United Irishmen had parallels, not only with the liberation movements of the South American colonies, but with the French Revolution. The original organisation was a patriotic one, designed to spread commonwealth ideas and liberal ideals such as toleration. As the organisation evolved, it took in changing ideas about sovereignty over the eighteen century, widening of democratic rights and ultimately separatism (the establishment of Ireland as an independent country). The United Irishmen focused on a future of liberty and fraternity, rejecting the past: “In thus associating, we have thought little about our ancestors, much of our posterity. Are we forever to walk like beasts of prey over fields which these ancestors stained with blood?”5 As such, they had little relation to romantic nationalism that focused on history, cultural identity, language or genetic ties. This should not imply that “their hearts did not burn” for Ireland: William Drennan, a key member of the original United Irishmen, first called Ireland “the emerald isle” in his poem When Erin first rose, which looked forward to the day that the Irish “like the leaves of the shamrock unite”.

The national identity espoused by the United Irishmen extended to all Irish people in Ireland, putting confessional differences aside. Even before 1798, however, alongside the radical declaration of one nation encompassing all inhabitants of the island, sectarian identities were being reasserted in Ireland. The repression after the rebellion and the passing of the 1801 Act of Union abolishing the Irish Parliament did nothing to diminish those burgeoning identities. In the 1820s and 1830s sectarianism grew ever stronger6.

Charles Gavan Duffy described the situation from the Irish Catholic side as follows: “I was a strong nationalist, but a Nationalist of the school of Roger O’Moore, who burned with desire to set up again the Celtic race and the Catholic Church”7.

Card featuring a portrait of songwriter Thomas Moore. It reads: St Patricks Day in the Morning, and features lyrics from that song.
Vintage card featuring Thomas Moore VintageHalloweenCollector/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Irish patriotic feeling still persisted among Protestants, immediately after the Union was established.  Arthur Wellesley argued that, without the law making distinctions between Established Church members and the rest, “all will be Irishmen alike, with similar Irish feelings…whose anxious wish it is to see his country independent of Great Britain.”8. As the Union persisted, however, opposition to it faded among many protestants, though it persisted among Catholics, spearheaded by O’Connell’s Repeal Association. Among Presbyterians in Ulster, leaders such as Cooke led the reaction against eighteenth century radicalism in religion and politics.

Cultural interest in Ireland remained strong, however. In 1792, Edward Bunting was tasked with transcribing harp music at the Belfast Harp Festival: a lifetime of collecting music followed leading to the three volume The Ancient Music of Ireland, completed in 1840. Antiquarian studies grew and developed, spearheaded by George Petrie. Irish culture was still celebrated, though mainly for an English audience, in the novels of Maria Edgeworth and the songs of Thomas Moore.

Our Hearts shall yet Burn

A girl in a green pinafore carries a pot of shamrock. Card message: The Wearing of the Green.
Vintage Card: The Wearing of the Green
VintageHalloweenCollector/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

On 26th June 1840 Thomas Davis gave a presidential address to the Trinity College Historical Society on the lack of knowledge of Irish history, language and literature within the university. He argued that lack of knowledge of Irish history damaged the nation, since all in a nation should be aware of their heroes and martyrs. “The history of a nation is the birthright of her sons.”9

Davis was supported in his views by others in the Historical Society, both Protestants and middle-class Catholics who had been able to attend Trinity since 1793. His speeches were made when O’Connell’s Repeal movement was actively attempting to undo the 1801 Act of Union. Unlike O’Connell, however, Davis’ circle were critical of Benthanite (utilitarian thinking), and concerned about the loss of customs and traditions involved as capitalism was introduced to Ireland, which they viewed as Anglicisation10

They were also critical of the national schools which, while increasing literacy (which the group applauded), also taught no Irish history. This was a deliberate exclusion: the old hedge schools had been accused of stoking old grievances through the history they taught. While part of the Repeal movement, Davis was sceptical that the political process could achieve much. The group aimed to educate both children and adults in a romantic history that would be dramatic and inspirational11.

This group, later nicknamed “Young Ireland”, “can be seen as a classic example of Benedict Anderson’s theory of nineteenth-century nationalism’s use of print capitalism to create a mass solidarity that formed the basis of a new nationally based ‘imagined community’.”12 The Library of Ireland produced a series of affordable works intended to provide a national literature in poetry, history and fiction. The unifying theme was the struggle against foreign domination, including among the pantheon of Irish heroes the rebels of 1798, from whose memory they cleared away sectarianism and republicanism. The mass solidarity Davis was seeking to built was similar in scope to theirs. As Gavan Duffy wrote, “It was Davis that induced me to aim […] to bring all Irishmen, of whatever stock into the confederacy to make Ireland a nation.”13.

While Young Ireland had no direct links with European nationalists, the work they were doing paralleled similar efforts across the continent, particularly in eastern and central Europe, who also emphasised the uniqueness of their nations and of their resistance to absorption by large neighbours. The philosopher Herder was an important influence. “It is critically important to Herder than so much of what we think, feel, and believe is a product of the history of the cultural traditions into which we are born”14. Davis’ focus on the loss that a lack of Irish history is to Irish people draws directly on Herder’s thought.

Another influence was Thomas Carlyle. He had no sympathy for Ireland’s struggle for independence, but Duffy and Mitchel both found his condemnation of modernity and celebration of the past inspirational. His themes of heroic destiny and blood sacrifice affected them profoundly 15.

Herder’s advocacy of cultural unity, however, did not necessarily entail national self-determination. Recognising and supporting cultural difference does not entail each cultural group being a different state. His primary interest was primarily in the ability of individuals to live as they see fit. 16 But just as Herder’s philosophy had been developed by Fichte to argue for a German national identity in the context of French occupation during the Napoleonic Wars, and developed further by those seeking German unity over the succeeding decades, the same could be done for Ireland over a much shorter timescale17

Oh, come to our aid, in our battle take part!

A card bearing a drawing of a drummer boy, dressed in green with red trim. Message: Greetings. St Patrick's Day.

There is a direct line from Young Ireland to the Fenians. There is also a direct line from the Young Ireland project push back Anglicisation and the same project advocated from Douglas Hyde in 1892. His major plea was to reverse the loss of the Irish language, but he also wanted an Irish literature: “Every house should have a copy of Moore and Davis. In a word, we must strive to cultivate everything that is most racial, most smacking of the soil, most Gaelic, most Irish”18

From this came the establishment of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) in 1893 by Eoin MacNeill and others, with Hyde as president. This was building on previous efforts such as the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (1876) and the Gaelic Union (1880). Alongside this (and sometimes viewed with hostility by them) came the Irish Literary Revival, influenced by earlier poets such as James Clarence Mangan (friend of Thomas Davis) and the romantic histories of Standish James O’Grady. Hyde’s call to action was not a break, but a continuation and refocusing of previous movements.

These efforts were in line with what was happening in Europe generally. Nation-states and aspiring nation-states were standardising the language, as if in line with Thomas Davis’ dictum from decades earlier: “A people without a language of its own is only half a nation.”19 “Thus, educational institutions  became the locus for the creation of the nation-state, both through the inculcation of nationalist ideology and, more subtly, through the dissemination of a national language in which this ideology was incarnate.”20

Standish O’Grady certainly had no intention of advocating Irish independence, given he was a unionist. Most of the Gaelic and the literary revivalists were advocates for Home Rule, rather than complete separation. Their histories, plays, research on Brehon Law and on ancient Ireland, built on previous work, creating a joint idea of the nation.

It is interesting to note that this idea still contained elements going back to the patriotism of 1798. Thinkers such as Stopford Green, Bryant and AE did not argue for an Irish race, but for an Irish nation forged from many races, and the stronger for it.

However these artists and theorists were operating within the logic of romantic nationalism, which argued elsewhere for the establishment of the nation as a state. It was not surprising, then, that as the Home Rule crisis escalated, some sought a complete break, and the blood sacrifice Carlyle had lauded earlier in the century became part of the rhetoric.

“Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” asked Yeats in The Man and the Echo (1938)? Yeats was not so powerful: it was more than a play but a whole philosophy that underlay the Easter Rising.

Green St Patrick's Day card depicting a green flag with a golden Irish harp flying over Blarney castle. The view is framed with gold shamrock. The message reads: To Greet You on St Patrick's Day. Eire go bragh. Featured Image: Vintage St Patrick’s Day card. VintageHalloweenCollector/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


  1. “Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our isle” on hymnary.org)
  2. Hans Kohn (1961) “Nationalism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica XVI, p. 149. For an extended version of this definition see Hans Kohn (1946) The Idea of Nationalism, New York: The McMillan Company, p. 16
  3. Benedict Anderson (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. First edition: 1983.
  4. Anderson (2006) “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism” 2nd edition (first edition 1983), Verso Books, pp. chapter 4.
  5. “Circular Letter from the Dublin Society of United Irishmen” (30 Dec 1791) in The Report of the Secret Committee of the House of Commons, (Dublin, 1798), p. 94. Quoted in James Quinn (2015) Young Ireland and the writing of Irish history, University College Dublin Press, p. 60.
  6. McBride (1998), pp. 60-1.
  7. Charles Gavan Duffy (1880) Young Ireland : a fragment of Irish history, 1840-1850, London : Cassell, Petter, Galpin & co., p. 528 (online. Roger O’Moore was one of the four principal organisers of the Irish Rebellion of 1641.
  8. The Duke of Wellington (ed) (1860) Civil Correspondence and Memorabilia of Field Marshal Arthur, Duke of Wellington, London: John Murray, p. 353. (google books)
  9. Quinn (2015), p. 11.
  10. Quinn (2015), pp. 12-13.
  11. Quinn (2015), pp. 20-23, pp. 4-6
  12. Quinn (2015), p. 5.
  13. Quinn (2015), pp. 5-7, 85. Charles Gavan Duffy (1880) p. 528.
  14. Michael L. Frazer (2010) The Enlightenment of Sympathy, Oxford University Press, p. 139. Frazer places Herder as a contributor to moral sentimentalism, a theory whose early development owed much to Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson.
  15. Quinn (2015), pp. 37-40.
  16. Frazer (2010), p. 139.
  17. Patrick J. Geary (2002) The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, Princeton University Press, pp. 24-26. Ironically, Geary suggests that the politicization of Herder’s ideas were primarily supported by the British, seeking to  generate popular opposition to the French.
  18. Douglas Hyde (1892) The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland: Delivered before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, 25 November 1892. (Online).
  19. Thomas Davis (1843) Our National Language. Part I was first published in The Nation. 1 April, 1843. Part II was first published in in The Nation 30 December, 1843. Online at UCC CELT.
  20. Geary (2002), p. 32.
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