Ireland: The Shirt of Nessus

Irish Nationalism: A History of Its Roots and Ideology

by Sean Cronin
Continuum, 391 pp., $19.50

Mr. Cronin’s book raises a fascinating subject: ideology in Irish nationalism. His own treatment of the subject is unsatisfactory, but he deserves some credit for making the attempt. In this article I propose to consider his treatment, briefly, and then the subject in itself, at some length.

Mr. Cronin’s book is based on a PhD thesis for the New School for Social Research, New York. In his introduction he tells us: “For the purposes of this study ideology means ‘the political ideas and outlook of Irish nationalism.”‘ We are plunged immediately into confusion, for, as I shall argue, there is no such continuity of political ideas as might make the idea of Irish nationalism, as a distinct ideology, meaningful or useful. Irish nationalism is a historically formed amalgam of sentiments and traditions. Its “political ideas” are protean: at the end of the seventeenth century, for example, they took Jacobite form; by the end of the eighteenth century, a Jacobin form. Irish nationalism is not itself an ideology, but it has acquired an ideology: that of Irish Republicanism.

Irish Republicanism affects Irish nationalism—along with other forces, by far the most potent of which is Irish Catholicism—but the Republicanism is neither identical with the nationalism, nor coextensive with it. By treating Irish nationalism as itself an ideology, Mr. Cronin loses touch at the outset with what should be central to his subject matter: the relation between Irish nationalism and a quite distinct entity, the ideology which it has acquired.

The theoretical part of Mr. Cronin’s book goes down in that confusion, bravely flourishing irrelevant quotations from Mannheim and Morgenthau. But for the most part, the book is not theoretical but “historical”: a rambling survey of recent Irish history from an Irish-Nationalist-Catholic-Republican point of view, proving yet once more how right the Catholic people are, and how wrong the Protestants; politically speaking, of course. The book is not so much an analysis of its subject matter as a specimen of what the subject matter secretes and exudes.

Mr. Cronin’s title, however, suggests an interesting train of ideas, which I should like to pursue. There is a real continuity of Irish nationalism: not an ideological continuity, but a continuity of the traditions and feelings of a people. That people sees itself as the people of Ireland, and that perception is a large part of the problem. For these are not all the people of Ireland. They are the Catholic people of Ireland, formerly Gaelic-speaking. These were the losers in the seventeenth-century wars—wars that were dynastic, social, cultural, national, and religious, all at the same time. The forms of oppression which this people suffered—as a result of their decisive defeat—throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, were economic, social, and cultural, but justified by a politico-religious criterion: the presumed disloyalty of Irish Catholics to the British Protestant Crown. This presumption of disloyalty was generally well founded.

The main theme of Irish history, for nearly three centuries now, has been the recovery of…

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