Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Nationalism

The Case of Ireland—An Introduction

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight of
the continental empires, Europe's subject peoples dreamt
of forming “nation states,” territorial homelands where
Poles, Czechs, Serbs and others might live free, makers of
their own fate. When the Hapsburgs and Romanov em-
pires collapsed after the First World War their leaders
seized the opportunity.

A flurry of new states emerged and the first thing
they did was to set about privileging their national “eth-
nic” majority—defined by language or religion or antiq-
uity or all three—at the expense of inconvenient local
minorities, who were consigned to second-class states.1

In these comments on the emergence of Europe's “subject peoples” Tony Judt does not mention Ireland. Yet Ireland provides a striking example of the power of nationalism. The British Empire, unlike the Hapsburg, Romanov, and Hohenzollern regimes, did not collapse after 1918 but the British government, during “the Troubles” of 1916–22 was unable to control the rising tide of Irish nationalism, backed as it was by powerful lobbies among the Irish Diaspora, in the United States and Australia. The Irish situation was no doubt unique in many ways but as an example of the political power of nationalism it provides an illuminating case study for students of the modern world.

The vision of a free and territorial homeland provided inspiration for all nationalists during the First World War. Unfortunately, for Irish nationalists, as for Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, and other “subject peoples,” their homelands were contested territories. The concept of “nation” itself was contested and it was unclear how membership should be defined. Was it by religion, ethnicity or language or was the

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