Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Chapter Four

Parnell and Beyond:
Nationalism in These Islands, 1880–1980
(1994)

There are four nations coexisting in these islands. Nationalism, while present in all, has taken a different course in each of them. Exploring why this should be so is the theme of this lecture. In these four nations, national identity was never beyond controversy. Indeed, concepts of what constituted “Irishness,” “Welshness,” “Scottishness,” and “Englishness,” changed over time, thus putting a question mark against Enoch Powell's belief that “the nation is the ultimate political reality,” or Parnell's statement that “no man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of an nation.” “Nation” is a term riddled with ambiguity; nonetheless the phenomenon of “nationalism” shows no signs of disappearing. Today, in the Irish Republic, nationalism may well be in decline, but it seems to be on the upsurge in the United Kingdom, with unforeseeable consequences.

I define nationalism for our purpose as referring to political movements aiming at a great measure of independence for a group of individuals who see themselves as members of a “nation.”

But what is a “nation”? Benedict Anderson's definition of “Imagined communities” stresses the role of the imagination. Other commentators emphasize the problematic character of nationhood. How do nationalists recognize members of their nation? Is it language? Religion? Race? A combination of all three? Clearly there is plenty of room for disagreement and the history of nationalism contains many examples of disagreements, which led to violence. If I imagine a community, which I call a nation and define you as a member of it, can I use force to compel you to accept inclusion? What validity does the idea of “nationhood” possess? Who decides?

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