Speech by Dennis Kennedy at the Philosophical Society, Trinity College Dublin, October 29, 2010, supporting the motion ‘that this house believes nationalism is a hangover from history’.
In The Poor Mouth, Flann O’Brien recounts how his hero, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, wandering among the rocks of Donegal, feels menaced by something evil pursuing him. He smells it and hears it snorting and barking, and then he sees it – ‘a large quadruped – a great hairy object, grey haired with prickly red eyes’. In terror of his life he flees home, and the next day tells the Old Grey Fellow all about it.
“Could you put down on paper, said he, the shape and appearance of this savage thing?”
O’Coonassa makes a drawing of the beast. “The Old-Fellow looked closely at the picture and a shadow crept over his visage.
“If that’s how it is, son, said he fearfully, it’s good news you are alive today and in your health among us. What you met last night was the Sea-cat. The Sea-cat.”
The text includes a sketch of the beast, which is unmistakably the outline of the island of Ireland turned on its left side, making Ulster the head, with Lough Neagh as one baleful eye, and the indentations of the western seaboard forming the legs.
The people of Ireland, like O’Coonassa, it seems, are being pursued and terrified by a creature, possibly of their own imagining – and it is Ireland, ‘the pleasant little land which is our own’ as O’Brien has it.
And that, it seems to me, is Ireland in a nutshell, a nightmare hangover resulting from too much bad history and an obsession with the physical island itself.
History, like alcohol, is highly intoxicating, and bad history, like bad drink, can cause serious hangovers. Nationalism is one of these. It can leave those who have over-indulged incapable of thinking clearly, possessed of strange notions, in a general state of hostility towards any who do not share their views.
What is nationalism? Love of country? But what is a country? It is not just a piece of geography, but a piece of geography defined by the fact that it is, and has been, the homeland of a particular set of people. This is a fairly new idea. Up until the 18th century countries, or states, were defined, not by the people who lived in them, but by the dynasty exercising power over them, which power, or authority, they claimed from God.
In the late 18th century, the American and French revolutions both invoked ‘the people’ as the source of power and authority, not God. The word ‘people’ occurs in the first sentences of the American Declaration of Independence, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The people, in the form of the nation, became the key unit of governance in the western world. Hegel, the great apostle of the nation, declared that in the existence of a nation, the supreme aim is to be a state, and from that we now have the nation-state as the accepted norm. It has worked, but it has also been a disaster in that has produced more than two centuries of a new kind of war, not between dynasties and their professional armies, but between peoples, wars that have caused unprecedented death and destruction, even in this pleasant little land which is our own.
The fly in the ointment has been the concept of the nation – what is it, what determines its territory, what governs relations between nations?
In Ireland before the end of the 18th century the Patriots and Grattan’s Parliament had begun to embrace the concept, and the United Irishmen had asserted it by force of arms. By the end of the 19th century a great many people in Ireland were in a high state of nationalist intoxication. They were so far gone that they believed the island was populated by one nation of Celts, only lightly touched by passing Normans, Vikings, Scots and assorted Anglo Saxons. They also believed that the language of the country was one spoken by a tiny minority, and totally unintelligible to the vast majority.
W.B.Yeats, under the same influence in 1903 wrote and produced his remarkable short play Cathleen ni Houlihaun, set in Mayo in the summer of 1798, and amounting to a powerful plea to the young men of Ireland to help Cathleen regain her four green fields and eject the strangers from her house, and to kill and die if necessary to do so.
When, in 1916, young men had done both those thing, Yeats, still intoxicated, penned one of his most memorable and most fateful lines ‘a terrible beauty is born’, implying that terror and terrible things could also be beautiful.
Near the end of his life, a more sober Yeats asked himself “Did that play of mine, send out certain men the English shot?” Well might he have asked.
The 1916 leaders may have proclaimed a republic, but they had wandered far from the republicanism of the 18th century revolutions. There is no mention of ‘the people’ in the first line of the Proclamation. It reads:
‘In the name of God, and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom.’
Authority here is not derived from ‘the people’ but, first of all from God, in whose name the writers claim to be acting, and then from that mythical entity ‘Ireland’ – that same hairy beast that was terrorising O’Coonassa – then from that most remote of constituencies, ‘the dead generations’. Far from the people being sovereign, they are mere ‘children’ who are being ‘summoned’ by God and his chosen few.
The proclamation ends by invoking the ‘protection of the Most High God’ and his blessing on their use of arms. It all sounds more Bourbon than firebrand, more ancient regime than revolution. 1916 was no popular rising; at the time it was a decidedly unpopular rising, with almost no support from the people.
By the time of Yeats’ death in 1939 the idea of the nation was widely questioned by those who feared its exaltation in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and elsewhere. One British commentator and writer the gloomy Dean Inge of St Paul’s, acidly described a nation as a ‘a society united by a common delusion about its ancestry and by a common hatred of its neighbours’. He was probably thinking of Germany, but the definition applied as aptly to Ireland.
That was the 1930s. Has everything, or anything, changed. The definition of Irish nationality may have turned out to be as flexible as the worship of it has been inflexible. (One Irish grandparent was/is enough to get you an Irish passport; £1m invested in Ireland meant you could buy one no matter who or what you were; in the Belfast Agreement a whatever you like yourself approach is the rule -– Irish or British, whichever you prefer.)
In February of this year, as the full blizzard of the economic crisis hit, the Taoiseach made an impassioned plea to the people for their acceptance of the painful sacrifices needed to restore prosperity. And on what did he base this plea? On 1916, on its upcoming centenary, and on the need not to fail those whose sacrifice had led to the foundation of the State.i
Patriotism was as good a refuge as any for the Finance Minister/Taoiseach who had led the country into economic collapse.
Intoxication, and the resulting hangovers, frequently follow binge drinking. The same with nationalism. The centenary of 1798 led to Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihaun. The half-centenary of 1916 in 1966 helped prepare the ground for the Provisional IRA. Mr Cowen’s reference to the 1916 centenary tells us we are in for another massive binge on Republican mythology.
Bingeing is associated with youth - a phase to go through. To an extent it is the same with nationalism – it is a stage that individuals and nations go through. In moderation, a sense of nation may have its uses – in consolidating the institutions and practices of a new state, in fostering identification of citizens with the society in which they live.
But when nationalism becomes a prevailing political ideology it is a harmful and dangerous addiction. This particular state, Ireland, is no longer young; it is now approaching its 90th birthday. In today’s Europe, it is middle-aged. Yet it is still suffering from advanced nationalism, contracted through years of over-indulgence in bad history. (As indeed is its much older neighbour, where rampant Euro-scepticism is a hangover from too much consumption of imperial delusions.)
It is time we grew up, forgot about Cathleen and all her hang-ups and hangovers. Time to forget about the Celts, time to face the reality that Irish unification may never happen, and it does not matter much anyway.
Time to embrace a post-nationalist Ireland in a post nation-state Europe.