According to the Webster dictionary, there are two definitions for the word nationalism;
a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries
a desire by a large group of people (such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.) to form a separate and independent nation of their own
The two definitions, to me, seem somewhat at odds; the former having a more aggressive, unyielding tone to it while the latter is softer, suggesting a unity based on shared morals and culture.
Why am I writing a blog post about this you ask? Well in Ireland we recently celebrated the centenary of the 1916 rising when a hastily coddled band of men and women (mostly in Dublin) took up arms in order to secure Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire. An extremely risky operation, resulting in many innocent deaths, and ultimately at first glance, a failure. What drove them was their unwavering belief that Ireland should be able to govern itself and that the Irish people should be given governance over their own land, a task they were seen as being incapable of doing on their own. Naturally as all these rebellions go, the British empire was reluctant to lose its Irish base. Afterall, if it couldn’t keep control of its nearest colony, it did not bode well for its other colonies. Ireland and England have always had a Facebook “It’s complicated” status kind of relationship. One of hate but also one of need that England didn’t quite share with its other lands; a relationship that continued for some time after Ireland declared itself free.
These men and women were nationalists, who were willing to die for their beliefs and country. It was interesting to see the question put forward to young people on the centenary of the rising would they would have risked their lives, as those men and women did? Few responded that they would. In fact, the question was often responded with “No one can decide where they’re born. Why should I feel pride or risk my life for a country that I merely happen to be born into?” In Ireland, despite its turbulent, rebellious history it does not share the same patriotic understanding that countries like the United States has, where a flag graces the outside of every house. In Ireland flags are keep to government buildings and commemorative occasions. Children do not start school pledging allegiance to the flag nor do they robustly sing out its national anthem bar at national GAA matches or rugby. People do have some sense of pride for the country, though it’s less overt. It seems that Irish people are more likely to show that nationalistic streak when it comes to other Irish people (see Conor McGregor, Colin Farrell etc). Even this is tinged with bitterness; as if Irish people fear that those who do well for themselves will forget where they came from and develop what is known to the Irish as ‘notions’ – the act of thinking highly too of yourself and becoming an embarrassment.
I must admit, I am guilty of this with respect to Saoirse Ronan and others whose Irishness has been plastered all over American TV like a leprechaun on display. Watching her talk about Irish names and ‘Irish traditions’ made me squirm without really knowing why. I wasn’t the only one. The comments from other Irish watchers were of similar or harsher sentiment. Before this the spotlight hadn’t been really shone on her and people were content with that. She was Irish but didn’t throw it around. But now, she was everywhere, not distancing herself from where she was from but actively speaking about it and that made people uncomfortable. It was not that she was developing notions in fact the opposite. They don’t wish for others to develop notions but neither do they wish for them to embrace their Irishness too much. Why? I can’t say for certain, but there has always been a tinge of shame and embarrassment when Irish people consider their country and its people. Maybe its roots are in that rising and the many failed rebellions before. In my mind they weren’t failures, they were incredible stands against an extremely powerful enemy that had unlimited resources on hand to rein in any inconvenient disruptions.The Irish rebels held out for five days with limited training men and crude weapons. After the rebellion was quelled the men who had risked their lives were met with revulsion by the local people in Dublin who considered them to have caused great chaos and trying to disrupt daily life (many civilians died and many businesses suffered extensive damage, leading people to react venomously to the rebels).
People didn’t want change; for most people day to day life was just bearable enough. Most who were involved in the rebellion had the means, time and education to consider such ideas of freedom and independance from a foreign enemy. The call for countrywide rebellion only really took off when the lower classes began to be brutalised by English soldiers and the notorious Black & Tans. Soon everything that the lower class had been put through by the English and Anglo-Irish (famine, evictions, mockery, discrimination) came to a head. Prior to this they had suffered but merely just picked themselves up and carried on. Interestingly, today’s young Irish people said that they would be more likely to take up arms if family, friends or themselves were being brutalised. They were not as different as they seem to their 1916 ancestors. To them the flag and the country were not symbols to base their nationalism on. It was the people that surrounded them that gave a sense of their identity and meaning. Senseless brutality, regardless of who carried it out, was and is unacceptable.
Maybe this subdued nationalism is due too to what happened after Ireland gained its longed for ‘freedom’; a bloody civil war where Ireland was no longer fighting a foreign enemy, but fighting itself, pitting brother against brother, father against son as people argued the meaning of freedom and what the real meaning of the word ‘patriotic’ meant. Ireland’s civil war and the atrocities committed have only really being spoken about in the last decade or so as the Peace Process took hold in Northern Ireland creating relative peace. Maybe the Irish people have such a recent memory of how nationalism can go so wrong and rip people and lands apart that they reserve this pride for individuals and sports and even then, reservedly keeping the patriotic fervour under close guard (though it has a tendency to spring up, especially in sports matches against England, but that’s understandable given such a tangled history Ireland shares with his closest neighbours or when a lot of drunken Irish people gather in large swarms). Too much of a show of nationalism is met with sarcastic comments and belittling remarks.
Really to summarise it; nationalistic pride is Ireland is confusing, as I’m sure Ireland is not the only country to experience this. That really doesn’t summarise it at all well, does it? There’s a wariness about embracing it, as if it might run away, as if declaring it too strongly is dangerous. The idea of being loyal to a country or flag has shifted too, maybe because we are 100 years removed from having to consider taking up arms to secure the country’s freedom. It’s hard to tell if we would do it now if we were in that situation now. The hatred and distrust in England has thankfully mostly disappeared in this country. Ireland relied too heavily on England to continue such a tense relationship so many people went to work there, were born there (me) and become reliant on England to provide for them when Ireland was flooded in poverty and essentially under the thumb of the Catholic Church, creating a county of little hope despite being sprung originally from very different intentions and wishes. Maybe people see nationalism as achieving little; in the case of Ireland, the only thing that actually changed were the accents of those in charge and the colour of the flag. Maybe that’s what really affected the idea of nationalism in Ireland, that your own people could do more damage than the person who you all perceive to be your enemy.