The 'invention' of Irish tradition through selective representation. The distinctiveness of the Celt from the Saxon
Essay 2014 4 Pages
The funeral in 1915 of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a founding member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was a public event that attracted significant media attention. The propaganda potential of the event cannot have been lost on the man who gave the funeral oration, fellow nationalist and political activist Patrick Pearse, who a year later would be involved in the Easter Rising.
While the speech Pearse delivered was on the one hand a conventional eulogy that took as its prima facie subject the life and virtues of the deceased, many aspects of Pearse’s language suggest that he intended his funeral oration to speak to and for a wider assembly. What is particularly striking is the way the imagery and implicatures in the speech discursively develop an Irish identity.
Pearse implies that Gaelic society existed in an earlier and purer form, before its virtue was diluted by English culture, referring to ‘all that was olden and beautiful and Gaelic in Ireland’ (Aldous 2007) and going so far as to imply a contemporary spiritual connection to the members of that historical community: ‘Let no man blaspheme the cause that the dead generations of Ireland served’ (Aldous 2007); ‘in spiritual communion with those of his day, living and dead’ (ibid). Pearse uses the speech to construct an identity that is not only current and viable, but can also be traced back through history, an identity that the modern Irish have a moral obligation to perpetuate.
The use of religious allusions in this speech can be seen not only as a means to sanctify and sanction violent resistance but also as part of the process of discursively inventing a tradition. A polarized frame of identity described by Nelson (2012) was for the Irish to be seen as uniquely spiritual and the English crassly materialistic and Roman Catholic iconography is abundant in Pearse’s speech: baptismal vows, communion, miracles of God (Aldous 2007).
The tradition that is implied in this text is ‘invented’, inasmuch as it is a highly selective representation of Ireland’s past. In emphasising an Irish tradition that preceded and was viable prior to English rule, Pearse, like other nationalists, had to draw on legends and symbols from before the written tradition and the Anglophone elite in Ireland. This led to the depiction of a Gaelic and Catholic tradition, whereas in reality the Protestant Ascendancy meant ‘many people who regarded themselves as Irish spoke no Irish and were not Roman Catholic’ (Laurence 2008 p. 171).
In fact, the ‘invention’ of an Irish tradition as Ireland sought to and eventually did become politically independent, is easy to identify in the discourse and semiotics of the time. Symbols were drawn from a putative, purely Irish past. In a representation of the meeting that took place in 1843 to repeal the Act of Union, for example, a banner displays a harp, an Irish wolfhound and a medieval round tower under the Gaelic phrase Erin go Bragh - ‘Ireland forever’ (Unknown artist, Meeting to demonstrate in favour of the repeal of the Act of Union at Tara, 1843. Laurence 2008 p. 159). The site of this meeting, the Hill of Tara was itself symbolic as the historic seat of Irish kings.
The declaration posted by nationalists in the 1916 Easter Rising proclaimed that ‘dead generations’ conferred on Ireland an ‘old tradition of nationhood.’ (Laurence 2008, p. 151). In 1915 union leader James Connolly called for ‘…the reconquest of Ireland by its people.’ (Searc’s Web Guide to 20th Century Ireland, 1997 – 2008).
Irish nationalist politicians of the time and since have ‘relied heavily on reference to an immemorial Irish past’ (Laurence 2008 p. 151), a past that was portrayed as distinct from English or Lowland Scots heritage. This was particularly linked to the exploration and promotion of Irish folk culture and language. The Nation newspaper, from 1842, sought to preserve this folk culture, while the Gaelic League sought to revive the Irish language.
Heteroglossia – the use of different languages – is a strategy of resistance that has been identified in subaltern groups carrying out armed resistance against dominant groups. But in the case of Ireland it is also linked to the invention of tradition. The Gaelic League equated the demise of Gaelic with a wholesale loss of culture. ‘The moment Ireland broke with her own Gaelic past … she fell away hopelessly from all intellectual and artistic effort’ (O’Day and Stevenson 1992 in Laurence p. 134). James Connolly bemoans the loss of Gaelic in his political manifesto for a reinvented, socialist Ireland: ‘Capitalism did more in one century to destroy the tongue of the Gael than the sword of the Saxon did in six’ (Searc’s Web Guide to 20th Century Ireland, 1997 – 2008). And for Patrick Pearse the goal of Ireland becoming linguistically and culturally Gaelic is as important as achieving independence itself, indivisible from it in fact: ‘not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well’ (Aldous 2007).
This sentiment was taken up after the creation of the Irish Free State, when legislation was passed requiring the teaching of Gaelic in schools and the promotion of Irish cultural activities. By 1921 the primary aim of education was to ‘revive the ancient life of Ireland as a Gaelic state, Gaelic in language, and Gaelic and Christian in its ideals’ (Laurence 2008 p. 170).
The movement to recognise and maintain a distinct Irish tradition is also seen in the selective preservation of buildings after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Priority was given to Neolithic and early Christian sites such as Newgrange at the expense of the large country houses, mostly Anglo-Irish built and associated with colonialism. Dublin Castle and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, respectively associated with Britain’s governance and its military, were neglected by the Free State. The policy of maintaining certain buildings, while allowing others to gradually decay may not have been explicit, but it was discernible in the actions of the time, according to Brian Murphy (speaking in Ireland 2008).
The use Irish building material in renovations after the creation of the Free State was certainly explicitly directed, however. And the National Monuments Act of 1930 provided for the protection of buildings built before 1700, which meant that medieval buildings were protected, while colonial buildings de facto were not.
If we accept that the modern nations are not ‘human communities so ‘natural’ as to require no definition other than self-assertion’ (Hobsbawm 1983) then it follows that to exist as entities they must be partially dependent on discursive and semiotic construction. For Wodak (2009) the nation is an imagined community, which ‘is constructed and conveyed through discourse, pre-dominantly in narratives of national culture’.
Hobsbawm links the invention of tradition with nationalism and rapid transformation of society. A renewed interest in the Welsh language, for example, is said to have occurred when society was changing rapidly in light of large-scale industry (BBC Wales History).
Early twentieth century Ireland was characterised by social change and growing nationalist feeling, and historical texts and visual representations reveal the way republicans sought to enact and develop a discourse of Irish tradition and the cultural distinctiveness of the Celt from the Saxon.