Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

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Immanuel Wallerstein, Yale University. Packed with insights about the historical-geographical specificity of nationalism and nation-states, using Ireland and the nationalisms of Ireland as it empirical touchstone. Mac Laughlin places the history of nationalism in Europe in the whole misbegotten history of racial stereotypes, religious prejudices, and, above all, competing elite political projects of nation-state-formation, hitherto reserved by many scholars for discussion of nationalism in colonial settings at some distance from a Europe presumably without its own internal experiences of colonialism.

Mac Laughlin writes with a sharp brilliance about the intersection between places, politics, systems and cultures. At once lucid and subtle, Reimagining the Nation-State illuminates the continuing importance of national constructs while steering clear both of nationalist myth-making and of a surrender to global blandness. Treating nations as works of political imagination, he shows how they can be imagined anew.

He has published widely on state-formation, nationalism, emigration, racism, and the politics of social and environmental sciences. English Nation-building and Seventeenth-century Ireland 43 3.

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Social and Ethnic Collectivities in Nation-building Ireland 7. The Surveillance State and the Imagined Community The latter present students of nationalism with more problems than they do solutions. One way of regarding these generic histories of nationalism and Unionism is to see them as the ideological components of much wider literary and cultural renaissances then sweeping through the south, and north, of Ireland Kiberd, , pp. Thus they either justified Irish nationalism and condemned Ulster Unionism, or they defended the latter and vilified the former. As programmes for constructing a nationalist Ireland or a Unionist Ulster, they literally penetrated into every corner of nation-building Ireland.

In his Making of the English Working Class, a classic study of the origins of working-class consciousness, E. As such class formation, like nation-building, always owed as much to agency and agents as to conditioning structures. Expressions of national consciousness here had a fluency which, like class, can evade analysis if we attempt to stop them dead at any given moment and anatomise their structure.

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This chapter is divided into four parts. It outlines his views on the political and economic criterion of nationhood in the nineteenth century. This includes a discussion of the pitfalls, again as Hobsbawm perceives them, of nationalism and national separatism in an ethnically divided society like Ireland.

Thus I agree with Thompson, and to a lesser extent with Hobsbawm, when these writers suggest that class consciousness, unlike national consciousness, is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born - or enter voluntarily Hobsbawm, , p. Here, for example, the class consciousness of workers and small farmers was intimately bound up also with two very different and diametrically opposed views on nation-building and the nation.

This meant that class consciousness in Ireland was not forged on an abstract plane. Like national consciousness it was forged on the anvil of nation-building and was articulated in a plurality of social class and regional contexts. National consciousness in Ireland was probably more nation-centred than in already existing nations elsewhere in Europe, including Britain. Here the class consciousness of workers and rural sectors of society generally did not threaten the territorial integrity of the nation-state.

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Yet it did not stop at that. However, unlike in more powerful European nations, statehood in Ireland has involved something more than an organic relationship with the territory of the nation. It also involved territorial contestations which resulted in acceptance or rejection of geopolitical and geo-ethnic relationships with the United Kingdom and the Empire.

Thus nation-building and nationalism in Ireland existed at two levels. Both were expressions of national consciousness that were literally rooted in real places in different provinces of nation-building Ireland. Therefore the section that follows provides the broad theoretical context for understanding rival approaches to nation-building in Ireland in the nineteenth century. Anderson has pointed to three paradoxes which, he argues, have perplexed theorists of nationalism in this century. The first stems from the contradictions between nationalist assertions regarding the antiquity of nationalism on the one hand, and evidence from historians, social scientists and historical geographers pointing to the historical and spatial contingency of nation-building and nationalism on the other Anderson, , pp.

As Smith and others have demonstrated, this means that we have at least two schools of thought on nation-building and nationalism. To the other school of thought belong the modernists and non-nationalists, those who look upon the nation as a social and territorial construct, which emerged, in the western world at least, chiefly in the course of the nineteenth century Smith, , p.

Thus, despite the claims of nationalists and social Darwinists to the contrary, modernists insist that nation-building never was the product of primordial forces. Neither was it inspired by pure altruism, or the product of autonomous social forces operating independently of time and place Agnew, , pp. It was instead the outcome of a whole range of socioeconomic and political forces operating across space and within quite specific socio-historical and spatial contexts.

So much for the first set of paradoxes of nationalism discussed by Anderson. Thus nationalism today exists in a whole variety of forms and contexts in many, but - as Rwanda, East Timor and Kosovo have recently demonstrated -in no means all parts of the world. In the nineteenth century in particular, nationalism was by no means a ubiquitous ideology, even within continental Europe.

This was a century which saw the world, including the European world, clearly divided between powerful self-governing nation-states on the one hand, and colonial societies and peripheral small nations ruled from the real centres of national power on the other hand.

As the exam-pies just referred to demonstrate, this clearly is not the case. The manner in which they articulated their nationalism, and indeed their national colonialism, was what gave the nineteenth-century world political map such diversity and cultural mix. If that diversity has since then been eroded through the homogenising forces of globalisation this should not blind us to the cultural -even the ecological - richness of that world, including that which stemmed from the plurality of nationalisms that ranged across a metropolitan world then consisting chiefly of Europe and North America.


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Many struggling nationalities also believed this, including small nations within bigger nations. Prominent among the latter were Catholic nationalists in nineteenth-century Britain, the Scots in the United Kingdom, the Basque people and Catalans in Spain, and the Quebecois in contemporary Canada. For Anderson the third great paradox of nationalism, historically as well as today, has been its power to mobilise people in large numbers, versus its philosophical poverty as a political ideology.

Thus nationalism has produced no Marxes, no Hobbes, no Tocquevilles or no Webers. Rooted in dilemmas of helplessness and modernity, in the nineteenth century as also today, it possessed almost the same capacity for mass descent into dementia as neurosis does in individuals. To resolve these paradoxes Anderson suggests that we treat nationalism less as a political ideology comparable to other ideologies.

We must equate it instead with much deeper and more integrative belief systems.

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Historically at least nationalism was never simply an ideology in the way that Liberalism, Socialism or even Conservatism were ideologies. It was always much deeper than these. It was something akin to a state-centred creed which had as its goal the construction, or defence, of something as sacred as the nation-state. This meant that nineteenth-century nation-builders recognised the significance of territory not only in symbolic terms, but also as a national and ideological resource.

They saw nation-building as a way of interpreting, exploiting and reorganising social space Williams and Smith, , pp. They interpreted nationalism as an ideology which in the widest possible sense was more akin to a religion than a state ideology. It is an imagined community because the members of even the smallest nation can never hope to meet, or even hear of, all their fellow members. Yet in the mind of each citizen resides an image of the national community tied together usually by a common history, a shared geography or national territory, a common culture, common religion and common language Anderson, , pp.

The nation is imagined as inherently limited because even the large nations of the nineteenth century, and unlike the empires which they spawned, set clear limits to the extent of the nation.

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Even the largest nation had finite - albeit elastic - boundaries beyond which lay other nations. Geilner has suggested that this was not so much a century which saw the awakening of nations to self-consciousness - it was instead a period which saw the invention of nations where none previously existed. That is not to suggest that nationalism promised what it could not deliver. Neither did it always masquerade under false pretences. This was because, as Anderson suggests, rational secularism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought with it its own modern darkness for which nationalism acted as an antidote Anderson, , pp.

In particular the ebbing of certainties, especially those of a political and religious nature - belief in the divine rights of monarchy, teachings on the origins of life and the nature of moral order - left in their wake a whole array of doubts and sufferings that once were assuaged by religion but could now be soothed by belief in the nation and in nationalism. In order to throw new light on the historic appeal and mobilising force of nationalism he simply suggests that we align it, not so much with other ideologies -Liberalism, Conservatism or even Socialism - than with larger cultural and belief systems like Christianity, Islam and Confucianism.

Viewed thus, nationalism in the nineteenth century was a veritable new Angel of history.

As Anderson sees it, the possibility of imagining the nation arose when, and where, three fundamental cultural conceptions underlying western life since well before the Middle Ages lost their appeal. The first was the idea that sacred script languages offered privileged access to deep ontological truths because they were inseparable from them.