What role does myth play in Irish nationalism? More particularly, how does the mythology of sovereignty relate to the discourses of martyrdom and motherland which have informed Irish republican ideology? In Chapter 4 I talked of the need to explore the cultural and political imaginary of Irish society. In what follows I propose to interrogate the roots of this imaginary in two modes of discourse: (i) the prison discourse of martyrdom, and (ii) the poetic discourse of motherland. The interrogation will disclose a common myth of sacrifice underlying both.
We begin, however, with a more general question: how does myth relate to society today? Most contemporary nations and states invoke indigenous myths which provide a sense of ‘original identity’ for their ‘people’. The symbolic or ritualistic reiteration of these myths is thought to redeem the fractures of the present by appealing to some foundational acts which happened at the beginning of time and harbour a sense of timeless unity. Such mythic origins are frequently connected to figures of motherland (or fatherland)—potent symbols for reanimating the power of ‘dead generations’ and restoring a conviction of unbroken continuity with one’s tradition. Such figures generally lie at the root of national myths of sovereignty. Mircea Eliade describes their functioning thus: ‘Myth is thought to express the absolute truth because it narrates a sacred history; that is, a trans-human revelation which took place in the holy time of the beginning…. Myth becomes exemplary and consequently repeatable, thus serving as a model and justification for all human actions…. By imitating the exemplary acts of mythic deities and heroes, man detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the Sacred Time’. 1 When it comes to myth, the past is never past.