Nationalism in Irish History:

Nationalism Defined
• Generally, “nationalism” refers to the
attitude that members of a collective
political unit have toward their nation,
whether that nation is equated with the state
or not…
• and, to the pursuit of political, judicial,
constitutional, economic, and usually some
form of cultural sovereignty
• Nationalism is often defined in terms of
common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties,
and is generally seen as a positive attribute
of a citizen or a collective unit by others in
that unit
• It is usually useful to distinguish nations
from states -- whereas a nation often
consists of an ethnic or cultural community,
a state is a political, judicial, and economic
• Individual states usually have a high degree
of sovereignty, and may contain various,
and even competing national units
• In terms of Irish nationalism, there was a
strong feeling of cultural commonality long
before there was any recognition of
• the Free State is established in 1922, while
Irish nationalism is arguably a recognizable
political platform for hundreds of years
prior to that
• Irish nationalism was expressed in various ways
prior to statehood
• Habits of dress, tastes in music and literature,
styles of dance, religious affiliation, sport, etc.
• It might seem that we couldn’t really be talking
about the same thing when we use the term
nationalism in this regard, but we are.
• Given the rising debates between Canada
and the US regarding everything from
softwood lumber to prescription drugs, we
could even talk about environmental or
medical nationalism.
• Nationalism underwrites a number of
practices and beliefs without being
exhausted within any of them
• It is common place to talk about ethnic
nationalism, civic nationalism, cultural
nationalism, constitutional nationalism,
judicial, economic, and even separatist
• Nationalism, as Tom Nairn says in The
Break-up of Britain, is “a mechanism of
adjustment and compensation” or a
continuous practice of definition and
redefinition that structures innumerable,
some might say, every aspect of a culture,
especially where the values that subtend or
underwrite these beliefs and practices are
perceived to be threatened.
Canadians are well position to look at U.S.
nationalism, which appears almost nonexistent except when it is thought to be
threatened. Canadians would probably
define themselves as somewhat more
nationalistic than Americans, if only
because many Canadians feel their values
and beliefs constantly under threat from the
larger neighbour to the south.
• So, the –ism points us to this continuous
quality, this mechanism, but it also points us
to the fact that nationalism is a field of
scholarly research, and it is sometimes
difficult to separate what is happening in
this body of collective research with what is
happening in the real world. In fact, at
times it appears that the two are inseparable.
• In the case of Irish nationalism, problems
in the nation are sometimes thought to
emerge out of deficiencies in the
scholarship. We are going to get back to
this periodically in this course: how the
body of knowledge sometimes tries to
distance itself from the real world (Gellner,
Anderson) even while this is impossible.
Strands in the debate and
• Primordialists: nations are as old as time
• Perrenialists: nations are very old, but
developed over time and in certain
historical ways
• Modernists: nations are entirely contemporary
phenomena, developing in 19th century Europe,
and any attempt to see them as emerging earlier is
borne out of the misapprehension of the historian
who grafts contemporary social realities onto past
epochs that either did not know about them or did
not care about them. Modernists like Ernest
Gellner tend to stress the economic underpinnings
of the historical change towards nationalism.
• Ethnic Nationalism, Patriotism, xenophobia
• Part of the appeal of the modernist
approach, and perhaps the reason that it is
most popular today, is that it allows us to
talk about the central political unit of our
time without talking too much about ethnic
nationalism, which is usually regarded as
the ugly side of nationalism.
Insurgent and Post-Colonial
• Almost invariably regarded as the positive
or beneficial species of nationalism, and
usually distanced from other forms of
• It seems simply obvious to us that people
will want to be ruled by some body with
whom they feel some deep historical,
religious, cultural, or ethnic tie.
• Ernest Gellner refers to this as
“exosocialization” and places it at the centre
of his theory of the nation.
• Exosocialization defined
• Problems with the idea in the Irish example