Guest Editor's Introduction

By Farrell, Sean | Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Guest Editor's Introduction

Farrell, Sean, Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies


IN ULSTER AS IT IS, Thomas MacKnight, editor of the Northern Whig, described late nineteenth-century Ulster in the following terms: "The plain, the undeniable truth is that there are two antagonistic populations, two different nations on Irish soil." (1) While rarely described in such a reductionist fashion, the two-traditions paradigm has proven to be uniquely powerful over the past century, providing the framework for much of the analysis of Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism. In recent years, however, an increasing number of scholars have challenged this approach, showing how variables such as class, denomination, gender and regional variation complicate the two-nations model. Work on unionist identities has been particularly fruitful of late, a fact that can be traced to the confluence of three overlapping themes. Within Irish Studies, scholars have shown a greater appreciation for the complexity of Irish identities, a trend no doubt shaped by the Northern Ireland peace process and the ongoing socio-economic transformation of the Republic. This has coincided with the advent of the "New British History," with its emphasis on the construction of national identity and the evolution of Britishness within the context of the dynamic interplay of the four nations of the British Isles. (2) Finally, the rise of Atlantic History has opened new vistas for Irish Studies. (3) This has been particularly true in diasporic studies. Of course, scholars have long recognized the centrality of emigration to the modern Irish experience. Despite the rich quality of much of the work on emigration, however, scholars have only just begun to explore the impact that eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century emigration had on the formation of unionist identities. (4) In short, this is a very exciting time and this issue of Eire-Ireland reflects both the dynamic quality and the promise of much of the new scholarship.

One of the leading characteristics of recent work on unionism has been an increased recognition of the complexity and diversity of unionist political and cultural identities. This has moved scholars toward perspectives that transcend traditional disciplinary lines. With this in mind, we start with Patrick Maume's essay on Standish O'Grady. Using a wide variety of journalistic sources, Maume paints a nuanced portrait of this always mentioned but rarely analyzed figure, suggesting that O'Grady's efforts to reconcile unionism and nationalism through an eclectic but synthetic and ultimately insightful body of work merit more considered scrutiny. In "An Open National Identity," Karen Vandevelde explores another aspect of turn-of-the-century cultural history. Examining the work of the Ulster Literary Theatre, Vandevelde shows how Rutherford Mayne and Gerald MacNamara used regionalism, social realism, and humor to entertain audiences in Belfast and Dublin during the tense political climate of 1910-20. Here we find biting satirical portrayals of unionism (and nationalism) that manage to navigate that fine line between effective satire and controversy--an impressive achievement in that most contentious period. Much of this same political strife can be seen in Maebh O'Regan's essay on the Irish painter Richard Moynan. Analyzing Moynan's political cartoons of the late 1880s, O'Regan shows how his work documents some of the central tenets of unionist ideology. If, as Declan Kiberd argues, a cultural struggle over the nature of Irish identity preceded the political and military revolution of 1916-23, (5) then perhaps we should pay more attention to the works of people like Moynan, who articulated a potent unionist message through his artistic medium.

If Moynan's political cartoons often featured a series of well-rehearsed Irish stereotypes that reinforce some of the less attractive elements of unionist ideology, the next two essays celebrate the complexity and variety of nineteenth-century liberal unionism. …

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