Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven

Four Nations History in Perspective
(2004)

I begin with a quotation which helps, I believe, to set the tone for a discussion of “Four Nations” history.

Bernard Crick in a well-known essay, “An Englishman Considers His Passport,” wrote

I am a citizen of a state with no agreed colloquial name.

Our passports call us citizens of the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But what does one
reply when faced by that common existential question of
civilised life, which is neither precisely legal nor precisely
philosophical, found in foreign hotel registers, “Nation-
ality”?

(Crick, Political Thoughts and Polemics, p. 94)

Crick's comment may serve as a reminder that the U.K. is a union of peoples. The nature of that union has changed over time, however, and while “Four Nations” may have been an accurate enough label for the period 1801–1921, the century or more from the Act of Union from the recognition of the Irish Free State, it is less satisfactory as a description of the situation from 1921 until now. The United Kingdom continues to exist, however, albeit subject to change, often radical in character. Histories organized on “Four Nations” lines involve taking as their starting point “The British Isles” (a term always to be used with quotation marks) rather than “Britain” if we are to do justice to the United Kingdom.

British history of course would be easier for the historian if the history of the larger island of Great Britain had been self-contained. In that event, Ireland could be ignored. But in 1169 the Normans did invade Ireland, with fateful consequences. As I write this, however, I realize that I am

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