Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Part I

Contested Ideas of Nationhood

In this section I have brought together essays on issues involving nationalism in Ireland, Britain, and to some extent Europe. A work which had considerable impact on me and other historians working in this field is Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany by Rogers Brubaker (1992) which raises key issues of civic and ethnic nationalism. In his comparison of France and Germany, the French emphasis on “civic” identity comes off best. Now, however (2004), the legal ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves (the hijab) in French state schools presents civic nationalism with a challenge. The official identity of the state is secular and the hijab with its religious implications is raising problems of assimilation which are proving difficult to deal with.

In an Irish context, the Cyclops episode in Ulysses illustrates a similar situation. Leopold Bloom, a Jew, claimed to be Irish (“I was born here”) but “the Citizen” representing an ethnic nationalist outlook indignantly rejected this. Within liberal states it would seem that tensions between ethnic and civic attitudes to identity cannot be avoided. Today, for example, the United Kingdom advocates a multiethnic approach toward such problems but here also there seems to be no simple solution to the task of making new immigrants feel “British.” Is the possession of a passport enough or should immigrants be required to learn English and acquire some knowledge of politics, history, and the constitution? In the Irish Republic, so far as recent decades are concerned, emigration—not immigration—was the main problem faced by successive governments. Today, however, the arrival of asylum seekers and economic migrants is creating a situation which, though apparently novel, raises familiar issues of national identity, as the essays presented in this section suggest. The Republic is now a full member of the European Community and in this context the old slogan of “Sinn Fein” (Ourselves Alone) does not have the same resonance.

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