“Pondering the complexities that occur when national aspirations and identities come into conflict with each other, I wrote of Irish nationalism that ‘the claim to unite Ireland is tenuous since Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922. Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation.'” – Melanie Phillips
An interesting take on a challenging issue, in the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day! There are few who would dispute that Ireland has always (at least since the beginning of recorded history) had a unique, distinctive, and self-conscious culture and self-identity. Indeed, Ms Phillips notes that she understands and appreciates “the strong attachment felt by the people of Ireland to their country. Nothing I wrote was intended to denigrate that, nor to diminish Irish history, culture or traditions. I was instead looking at what lies behind specific claims of nationalism and national identity.”
And as a student of history, especially medieval history, who spent a semester studying ancient and medieval Irish history and archaeology in Ireland itself (University College, Galway), I must affirm that Ms Phillips’ assertion that, prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion(s) of c. 1169-71 and subsequent dominance of Ireland by England, Ireland was “divided between chieftains and petty kingdoms,” and that “although historical records are inconclusive and there is much mythology around this subject, it was never ruled by a single king as one self-consciously unified polity” is, in fact, historically and factually accurate.
There was, it is true, a “High King” through much of this period, but the office was nominal and much in dispute. Indeed, the Anglo-Normans were invited into Ireland to help in one of the wars for power and territory between rival Irish factions, and the Irish “national epic,” the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the “Cattle Raid of Cooley”), was entirely about a semi-mythical conflict between two of the Irish kingdoms, Ulster and Connacht. So the veracity of her statement is difficult, if not impossible, to challenge.
The problem is that once one starts down this road, one can easily find oneself on a slippery slope. Germany, for example, was prior to the creation of the Deutsche Kaiserreich in 1871 a loose confederation of of 26 constituent territories, including four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five or six duchies, seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Yet I doubt that too many people would attempt to assert that Germany’s claim to national identity was “tenuous”!
I shall not attempt to pass judgment on this issue, just highlight it as an example of the challenges of navigating between various claims to national, cultural, and ethnic identity, self-determination, and self-expression – issues which seem likely to increase rather than decrease in prominence, in the years ahead. As a historian, and not only of medieval history, I am all too acutely aware of the way in which the pendulum swings back and forth between periods of greater unification and centralization, and of greater fragmentation and emphasis on local self-expression and distinctiveness.
I suspect that we are near or at the top of the swing, with respect to greater central power and authority, and are beginning to see the shift toward local and national (perhaps even regional) expression, as opposed to internationalism and globalism. But there are powerful forces in play on the side of centralization, both governmental and corporate, and the process does not seem likely to be simple, tidy, or without conflict!
As the old saying goes, we are living in “interesting times”!