Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Irish National Identity Once Again

(Please forgive the formatting problems with this post. It's exhausting trying to solve them.)

I haven't been updating Irish Papist much recently, as you can see, but I'm regularly surprised by how many people actually tell me they read it-- people I didn't suspect read it. Facebook has been the outlet for my ideas in more recent times, along with the Irish Catholic Forum which is, I think, an admirable venue for important discussion. Recently there has been a discussion on Irish national identity, which was the subject of my last post. A contributor who goes by the name 'Irishconfederate' had this to say (you have to scroll half-way down the page to get to him, but all the other stuff is interesting too): Consequently, I believe that the only option available to us is the constitutional one: I mean the creation of a new set of civic and economic institutions which, with its attendant socio-political philosophy and ethical values, would bond the nation and distinguish it from Britain and America.

Irishconfederate is also an admirer of the Irish Catholic writer Desmond Fennell, who has some very distinctive views, such as a longstanding belief that Ireland should be governed as a federation of smaller units, like Switzerland or America. He believes a flowering of local identity is necessary to revitalize our culture. There is much back and forth (all very civilized and genial, which is one of the great virtues of this forum) between himself and other contributors, including me, on this topic. The Napoleon of Notting Hill was mentioned, and not by me!

As readers of this blog may remember, I am a strong believer in local and regional identity myself, but this discussion made me realise that, for me, national identity needs to be the ground of local identity, and takes precedence. Here is how I put it in my last post:

I'm completely on board with devolution in principle, and with local revival and identity, but for my part I am an old-fashioned nationalist who sees local identity as subsidiary to national identity. It would be interesting to hear Hibernicus's argument that national cultures derive from local cultures (I'm not saying there are no such arguments, I'm saying I'm genuinely interested to hear them).

This is an interesting discussion because it is making me examine my own suppositions. Why does local identity seem subsidiary to national identity, to me? I think it's because the very virtues of local identity are also its shortcomings. It would be great if everybody was involved in their local community and knew the place and the people very well, but I feel cultural identity does have to be bigger than that-- the air you breathe, the backdrop of your existence. It has to be 'meta', to some extent, to include places you haven't been and people you have never met, to evoke the atmosphere of the sublime. Ulysses returning to Ithaca is certainly coming home in a special sense, but the Greeks who went to Troy with him were his wider culture.

Desmond Fennell himself even hints of this when he uses the phrase 'a representative community' to describe a nation. Local communities are not going to have airports and world-class poets and universities and hospitals and all the things that are part of national life; they will always seem more partial and fragmentary, part of a whole, than a nation. (But, once again, I'm not at all opposed to the project of decentralisation of media and government.)

I also dislike the waste of abandoned projects which don't have to be abandoned. I agree that modern nationalism was a secular and Protestant invention, but I don't have a problem with that. Generations put a huge amount of effort into the project of 'traditional' Irish nationalism, and great gains were made. It seems to dishonour that, in my view, if we decide that old-fashioned nationalism was on the wrong path, especially if there is no compelling reason to do so. I am for reviving that project, which has demonstrated that it can galvanise tens of thousands of people (or more).

So, in brief; I am all in favour of strengthening and promoting local identities, but within the umbrella of cultural nationalism rather than as an alternative to it. If it is done as 'the next thing', yet another form of revisionism, I am even against it. You cannot preserve or create traditions by continually starting again.

***I want to say very clearly, though, that 'old-fashioned nationalism' for me does not include a territorial claim on Northern Ireland, or promotion of the use of violence for political purposes. My nationalism is cultural and social, rather than political. I denounce the Provisional IRA and their offshoots with all my heart. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov-- twenty-six counties is room enough.****

Having made that clear, I was very pleased with that line: "You cannot preserve or create traditions by continually starting again".

Regarding my efforts to improve my knowledge of the Irish language I mentioned in my last post, they are ongoing. I have now read twelve Irish language books (novels and essays) in a row and I'm on my thirteenth. I am still very, very far from proficiency or anything like it. My reading comprehension has improved and my vocabulary has increased somewhat. I read the reading at the Irish language Mass on Sunday. I think it went pretty well. However, I haven't even begun to work on my grammar. This is the great sticking point with me and I'm hoping that, the more I read, the more grammatical intuition I will absorb.

One interesting by-product of trying to acquire or improve a second language is that you find yourself thinking more about how you use your first language-- for instance, you borrow foreign words without a moment's hesitation, you create compound words and neologisms, you use sentence fragments when writing, you play with language very spontaneously. Of course, you have to learn the rules before you can break them like that, but the artificiality of that situation becomes very apparent very soon. (I have been writing my diary in pidgin Irish.)

Heidegger famously said that language is the house of being, and some other crazy philosopher said that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. I am becoming more aware of living in an Anglophone world, something that was invisible to me until now. My horror club watched a German-language film on Sunday, and I found myself musing on how silly it is to take English as the 'natural' or the 'given'-- but that's what I did. These are interesting thoughts to me, as I have always felt very at home in 'the Anglosphere'. But we don't have to develop an antipathy towards something to realise-- to really realise-- that it is something specific and not just given. "What should they know of England, who only England know?" wrote Kipling. Certainly the loss of Latin has made our intellectual and cultural horizons much smaller, and this is something that I'm just going to have to live with in my own case.

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