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Marc Mulholland, Oxford University
Hay Talk

These are very rough notes, used as a guide, so don't expect too much by way of spelling etc!


  • I want to talk about the use of language in justifying both rebellion and conformity in Ireland. Language is not neutral medium.


Language is a slippery, pliable medium. It is common to perceive nationalism (and to a lesser extent, Unionism) as justified only in atavistic terms. In fact, modernity is often seen as the hall-mark of credibility. Modernity itself is a pliable term.


  • We can mix up rhetoric with its use. Identity is not explicable in rationalised terms. A left-wing playwright finally realised that Bobby Sands died not for jobs & housing, but have a tri-colour flag fly in the garden.


The need to identify is built into us as a species. The form is socially determined from a society of orders to an imagined community. But identity is defended in practical terms, which change according to prevailing norms.


  • Intertwing strerams of nineteeth & twentith century. Jacobitism (support for a Catholiuc British monarch) taken over by United Irish revolutionary fevour. Natural Law (reform of the state), Romantic (the melded nation) & democratic. But subsidiary trends remain to explode out. Whiteboyism & Defenderism.


Great modernising force after defeat of 98 was Post-Tridentine Catholicism. It took a smashed gaelic debris & built it into a catholic nation.


By 1898 Father Murphy a central hero.


Arm, arm, he cried,

For Ive come to lead you,

For Gods / Irelands Freedom

Well fight or die.


But other traditions underlie. Even then the anti-sectarianism of United Irishmen / Young Ireland / Fenians built in. Prevents a catholic nationalist imperialism (Home Rule).


  • It is important to realise that Irish identity constructed in an international context.


The Irish histories of the 19-century were concerned with lineage. Same as European Discovery of the vulgate, rather than classical.


But the idea was that nations proved themselves by success. Complications of evident, relative backwardness of Ireland. British / Unionist critique of nationalism.


Response:             Negatively: Anglo-phobia. Blame Britain (Mitchel).


Positively: Sinn Fein. Celtic revival. Make a virtue of it. Thus W. B. Yeats as a national political poet (Milton). Though he moved from celticism to  aristocracy, his popularity was rooted in concept of spiritual dawn.


As important was Arthur Griffith and D. P. Moran.   Ireland could sustain population 20 million. Ruralised Industrial Revolution, avoiding big cities.


  • What of tradition of violence? Partially British defined.  (Paris Commune: Forbes Is Ireland quiet?) Gladstone in 1885 (Colin Matthew). Mitchelstown massacre (1887) three killed.


Genuine 19th century revolutionary traditions. Patriotism as a pastime attractive in age of blood and Iron.


  • Relates to idea that nations prove themselves by valour. But also, defined by context & serve practical purposes.


Attraction of Republicanism partially United States connection.


Precocious real politick of 1916. Coup on German side. Hope was to have an army in the field at cessation of hostilities. Also in spirit to the age. Blood sacrifice cheaper for nationalists to occlude Irish slaughter on Western Front.


Then 14 points and para-state. Victory of natural law. Dail Eireann and Republican courts etc.


Volunteers built up to oppose conscription. Radicalised core created by repression.


  • But para-state & natural law create their own logic. IRA took rhetoric of a separate government seriously.


Were you ever in the Army, Stewart? Yes.  What regiment were you in?  We have no regiments in the Irish Republican Army. Ernie OMalley, p 222.


Accidental creation of revolutionary war. Lloyd George's murder gangs.

De Valera quote.


You are going too fast. The odd shooting of a policeman here or there is having a bad effect, from a propaganda point of view, on us in America. What we want is one good battle about once a month with about 500 men on each side. Dev, Jan 1921..


Kilmichael (November 1920 18 / 2) & attack on Customs House (25 May 1921). Had its effect.


  • How did democracy emerge? On basis of natural law (voice of people) but close run as the majority do not have the right to be wrong (De Valera).



Democracy accidentally validated. Treaty debate made Democracy, with difficulty, the touchstone.


Irish traditions of democracy, United Irishmen, O'Connell.


  • But strong anti-democratic traditions in nationalism. A passing majority cannot sell birth-right.


Fenian constitution


the Supreme Council of the IRB is hereby declared in fact, as well as of right, the sole government of the Irish Republic. Its enactments shall be the laws of the Irish Republic until Ireland secures absolute national independence, and a permanent Republican Government is established.


Celtic revival. Inherent elitism of Gaelic League. 1916 validated in turn. O'Malley on necessity to mobilise quiescent population.


Continuing elitism of the republican movement. Provisional IRA Green Book:


The Army is the direct representative of the 1918 Dáil Eireann parliament, and that as such they are the legal and lawful government of the Irish Republic, which has the moral right to pass laws for, and to claim jurisdiction over all of its people regardless of creed or loyalty.



  • Suspicion of democracy also in Unionism.


Unionism an all-Ireland elite movement in the 19th century and thus inherently anti-democratic. (Colonel Sanderson, but, on basis of Prebyterian democratic traditions,  Tenant Right, Russell, Independent Orange Order).


1905, Ulster Unionist Council. Only an awkward and partial tradition. WWI  reinforced Britain as a legitimate entity. 1920 accepted unwillingly. Not in the basis of self-determination, but the Supreme sacrifice.


  • Little wonder that nationalists saw no democratic justification for democracy. This was not the basis of unionist justification.


Democracy only partially workable in a state of siege. Instead constitution was the basis of justication. Edmund Warnock:


Craig thought that the fate of our constitution was on a knife-edge at the time and that, in the circumstances, it was defensible on the basis that the safety of the state is the highest law.


Constitution seen as prior.


Tom Lyons:


We took over in 1921 under certain conditions. The principles were all laid down and we have abided by them very accurately. Like most parliaments, we like to protect our own authority, and we propose to do so by refusing to touch one man one vote.


Maintenance of one-party rule.


Harry West, 1969:


If the Unionist Government ever goes out of power it will never get back in again. The opposition will so manipulate things that it will be impossible for the Unionist Party ever to return to power.


  • The democratic deficit led to Civil Rights crisis.


Assimilationism of ONeill.


Unless a number of catholics were won over the Unionists could exist for another 20 years and the boat would sink.


Versus civil rights. Note justification for Burntollet long march - to stop everyone been seen as acquiescent unionists.


Partition seen as a mutilation.


  • Nations do not emerge by vote how is the unit to be selected but from struggle. Unionism appeared to be the beniciary of imperial might. A colon class. It could not be a unit of democratic self-determination. Unionists had, by 69, a majoritarian view of democracy within Northern Ireland, winner takes all.


Spiral of polarisation. Loyalists try to expose catholics as anti-democratic nationalists &, tapping into dormant ideology, succeed.


Upping of stakes. Passive aggressive, calculated martyrdom.


Militarisation. August 1969. Shankill Defence Force. Inability of ROI  to help.


Paddy Devlin Bombay Street was attacked that night and the police would not come out. The police were paralysed. There was no defence for the catholic people. I sought weapons from Dublin but got nothing. There were no arms in Dublin.


Arms trial. 100,000 legally held arms.


Army pressure to disarm catholic areas. IRA to the fore.


Made their analysis credible.


  • Prevailing militarism made apparent inevitability of democratic pro-nationalist solution (through birth-rate, natural justice) need to be heroic. Heroism in turn justifies nation newly forged.


1916 quote from 1966:


We knew that independence was coming, but we wanted to take it, not have it given to us.


On that black day in August,

When Faulkner showed his hand,

He thought that by internment,

He could break our rebel band,

But the boys from Ballymurphy,

How they showed the way that night,

When they are taught those English soldiers,

How Irish men can fight.


Internment and Bloody Sunday legitimised war. But IRA incapable of using it.


Eire Nua. Though more imaginative than given credit for. Failure of July 1972 ceasefire talks and subsequently Motorman.


  • Unionists happy to retreat onto moral high ground of democratic community under siege. Ironically, made easier by the fall of  Stormont. This insulated NI from representative democracy. Will of the majority crucial. Less use for controlling Unionist monolith to preserve one-party state. Didnt, however, produce moderation. Rathera  double-act of Ulster Unionist Party and DUP. Paisley  the firebrand, Molyneaux and masterful inactivity.


Martial pride not the justification for loyalists. Legitimate forces available. Thus loyalists conducted largely a  war of the shadows. October 1994, they expressed abject and true remorse.


  • Failure of British government to develop a consistent line on democracy. After dalliance with IRA, March 1973 White Paper. Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals tried to squeeze out extremes But failure of Sunningdale. 1975 - 6 ceasefire.


IRA long war and expectations of a withdrawal plan waiting to be dusted off. Contacts activity during hunger strikes. Mountain climber. Labour  in 1981. For unity by consent. Something to hope for.


The Anglo-Irish Agreement an attempt to reinforce the centre. Largely failed, but gave birth to a new strategy of wooing the extremes.


Republicans drawn in by desire for seat at table of talks.


They hope for a break-down of talks & an imposed solution favourable to their cause (Joint Authority), but Trimble refuses such a gift. Blame game keeps thing on road.


  • Background to this, a determined redefinition of the dispute. Democracy redefined as multi-levelled agreement to escape strait-jacket of agreeing on unit of self-determination. Totality of relations (North South, East-West, Internal).




Political leadership is like being a teacher. It's about changing the language of others. I say it, and go on saying it, until I hear the man in the pub saying the word back to me.


Also, media, revisionism etc.


Rise of inclusivism has affected even republicans. Recent (13 February 2002) Adams attack on romantic nationalism.


"I want to see a united Ireland not from some old-fashioned sense of Irish romanticism but because I genuinely believe that the reunification of Ireland is the best option for the people of this island.
"Republicans have got to get our heads around the need to persuade a section of unionism than its interests will be better served in a united Ireland, a new agreed Ireland.
"How do we do that? By making sure that we dont do unto others what was done unto us.
"That involves ensuring that the national unity fractured by British policy in Ireland is repaired. In part, this means actively seeking unionist consent and assent."


All nationalism is essentially romantic, as indeed, it is the historic urge. Fichte, Herder, etc.


  • Only a redefinition of conflict, as outer form of persistant identity politics. The garb, once more, of modernity has changed. Of course dialectic with events. Omagh.


But other interpretations possible. Prevailing rationalism and can encourage a nihilistic real politic. Already factored into the Good Friday Agreement. Hobnobbing with criminals from beyond the pale.


Recent Anthony Macintyre review of Peter Hart's book attacking romantic interpretations of the old IRA.


Glenbryn & riots mean facts and the ground. Democratic geography & decisions can be imposed by terror. UDA pessimism, pull the house down.

As often happens, the talk I gave diverged considerably from these notes. It was a great experience though.