Ireland and national identity – Reply to the Irish ambassador |


“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

Source: My reply to the Irish ambassador |

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”!

Who’s To Blame for World War One?

Source: Who’s To Blame for World War One? – LewRockwell

Imperial German Army staff officers
Prussian officers, prior to the First World War.

The conventional answer to this question, of course, is “the Central Powers, and especially Imperial Germany.” But the conventional answer is not always or necessarily the right one, and the linked paper by Paul Gottfried points out the error of choosing to “attach overwhelming responsibility to the losing side while making the Allied governments look better than they were.”

The victor writes the history, of course, and so it has largely been in the hundred years, or nearly, since the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” finally came to an end with the defeat of those Central Powers  by a coalition (the Allied Powers) consisting primarily of France, Britain, Russia (until the Bolshevik Revolution took it out of the War), and eventually, the United States.

But what I have come to discover, in recent years, and what this article makes clear, is that the truth is much more complex; and a fair-minded look at the political maneuverings, prior to the War, takes some of the shine off the Allies. As Gottfried notes,

“The charge that Germany was the unprovoked aggressor should have rung hollow by 1914, given the intrigues that had gone before. Of course, no one is denying that Germany’s catastrophic blunder furnished the casus belli. But as the historian Thucydides noted thousands of years ago, a true historical study examines the genesis of events. Such an account is not limited to the immediate causes of a war nor to the pretext or excuse (prophasis) that is given for one when it breaks out.”

Furthermore, during the War itself,

“France and the US suppressed civil liberties more than their adversaries… In 1914 Germany and Austria permitted more, not less, academic freedom and free expression of political views than now exists in such ‘liberal democratic’ citadels as Sweden, Canada, and the German Federal Republic. These state-of-the-art ‘liberal democracies'” – unlike the Central Powers in WW I – rigorously punish so-called hate speech and monitor politically correct behavior, of course in the name of ‘democracy.'”

Ironic indeed!

World War One was a tragedy, plain and simple. It did not have to happen; it was the result of blunders and miscalculations on both sides, but also – as this article makes clear – of calculated and long-standing plans to bring down Germany. And the horrific casualties, including some 11 million European military personnel on all sides, and about 7 million civilians, was a catastrophic loss that continues to resonate to this day.

It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But we cannot learn from it properly if the lessons are obscured by ideology. A more clear-eyed and balanced view of the roots of the First World War might help us to avoid similar missteps, and similar catastrophic consequences, today. Or so one may hope!