Imagination is mother of the nation

The distinctive Irish ideology of “nationalism” evolved as an expression of our desire and increasing capacity to rule ourselves, but, like elsewhere, wrapped in all the supposed trappings of nationhood

Our ancestors the Firbolgs, wrote Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, Oscar’s mother, were “a small, straight-haired, swarthy race . . . dark-haired, talkative, guileful”, combative, sometimes nomadic, litigious, spendthrift and, “when their immediate wants are supplied, lazy, especially during the winter” – much indeed like their 19th century descendants, as seen at least by their English or Anglo-Irish betters.

It is one of the paradoxes of nationalism that while it can scarcely be said to have existed anywhere before the later 18th century – indeed the word itself is not found in English until the middle of the 19th – one of its first instincts has always been to establish the origins of the nation whose existence it is celebrating in the furthest recesses of time. Thus we find 19th century writers treating the mythological gods and heroes of pre-Christian Irish tradition (Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Danann, Fomorians) as actual peoples, thereby bestowing on the nation a long and distinguished pedigree – longer perhaps than that of our neighbours and masters.

The Irish were not the only ones at this game. For many centuries the French flattered themselves with a Trojan origin: their ancestors, it seems, having escaped the burning city, founded a new settlement on the Danube and eventually migrated to the Rhine, where they became the people known to history as the Franks. After the publication of Amédée Thierry’s Histoire des Gaulois in 1828, however, the French found it more congenial to believe they were descended from Gauls rather than Franks, who were, after all, a bit German. The phrase “nos ancêtres les Gaulois” (our ancestors the Gauls) became part of the heritage of every French schoolchild and was in due course reinforced by the appealing images of Astérix and Obélix.

The concept of nationalism is a compendious one and the word is arguably used to denote a number of quite different phenomena. There is the nationalism, or chauvinism, of the “great nation”, which sees itself as endowed with a manifest destiny, a civilising mission, a duty, even a burden (America, France, England) to bring its power and values to bear on lesser peoples.


There is the virulent nationalism of blood and race, which seeks to assimilate or expunge impure elements within the state and expand its territory by making war on its neighbours. And there is the reactive, assertive nationalism of subject peoples, ruled by more powerful neighbours and deemed by them not to be sufficiently mature, strong or united to run their own affairs.

The political theorist Benedict Anderson believed nationalism depended on the existence of an “imagined community”, a group that is not an actual community, in that its members do not know or meet each other, but which nevertheless believes itself to be a community, a group which has, in the splendid German word, Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl, the feeling of belonging together. Of course there are other types of imagined community apart from the national one: in 19th century Ireland one might feel oneself to be primarily a Catholic or a Protestant, or, towards the end of the century at least, a worker, or a subject of the Queen.

But by the late 19th and early 20th century the identity feeling that was demonstrably growing was that of nationality, and not just in Ireland but in many of the European territories long incorporated in the declining Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

It is another paradox of nationalism that while the notion of distinction is pivotal (this people or nation is essentially different from that one and therefore should run its own affairs), there is nothing more international than the process of forming national identities.

The French historian Anne-Marie Thiesse has written of “the IKEA system”, a kind of kit of essential or desirable items that furnishes national ideologues with everything they need to build their own, of course distinct, identities. Thus we should have a history that establishes a connection with great ancestors, a language, epic poems, national monuments, a folklore, a landscape deemed typical, particular national character traits, a peasant “costume”, music, games, a flag, an anthem and certain official institutions that celebrate the nation’s history and achievements and help mould and comfort its cultural elites – a national gallery, museum, library, university. An agreed historical narrative, in which national feeling was continually suppressed yet never quite died out in the hearts of the people, can also help.

Looking around European history, it can be observed that short cuts were sometimes taken in the process of assembling the necessary attributes of nationality. The Bohemians and Moravians did indeed succeed during the nineteenth century in reversing a near fatal decline and re-establishing Czech as a national language, yet the poet Václav Hanka still felt the need to concoct a fake epic centring on Princess Libuse, the mythical founder of the Czech nation. Similarly the 19th century Greeks were concerned to establish the continuity of their culture and language from the classical period – a rather unlikely continuity given the population movements that had occurred over the intervening 2,500 years.

The modern Romanians, who achieved independence in 1881, insisted they were essentially the same people as the ancient Dacians, who had retained their Latin culture and language, in spite of successive Slav invasions, ever since the Romans left in 271.

If the ideological construction of the nation in Europe was often attended with considerable anxiety – and an over-eager desire to tick every box – this is not to say that the process was necessarily either bogus or illegitimate. The anxiety may have derived from a fear that, after all, the new nation was not sufficiently different and that therefore its distinctiveness had to be constantly underlined, a process that could involve some ideological straining.

Yet if the spiritual attributes of nationality were sometimes overcooked, in most of the emerging nations of Europe, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Ireland, there existed a sound material basis for legislative independence in the emergence of a native class that was quite capable of assuming the burden of administration formerly borne by the imperial power.

By 1912, Ireland’s desire and capacity to rule itself had been in evidence for more than half a century. It was not going to be smothered for very much longer.