MacNeill as historian

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

As a historian MacNeill’s credentials were strong indeed, giving him a position of authority as one who sought to ‘define’ Irishness by examining the most important constituent of national identity (certainly in Ireland): the nation’s past. He became Professor of Early Irish History at University College Dublin, and was well known among the ranks of Europe’s Celticist scholars. He was what we would now call a public intellectual. His principal historical works, though they would have required a certain amount of advanced education to be read profitably, were all (including—and perhaps especially—Phases of Irish history, published in 1919) ‘written with an unashamed bias intended to arouse interest in and respect for the history of Gaelic Ireland and its civilization’. They contain not only the fruits of MacNeill’s studies of Irish history but also more general reflections on the nature of nation and nationalism. MacNeill defined ‘nationality’ as ‘the type of civilization that a people have developed, which has become that people’s tradition, and is distinctive of that people’. For MacNeill, the origins of Irish civilisation, tradition and distinctiveness all lay in the distant past, in pre-medieval and early medieval Ireland: in other words, in a pristine and unsullied Gaelic Ireland (though also one which had been able to successfully assimilate newcomers such as Norseman and Normans). To MacNeill, the Irish nation was (to quote Donal McCartney) ‘no invention of nineteenth-century romantics, still less of eighteenth-century pamphleteers and parliamentarians, but an ancient historical entity whose formation could be traced to the blending of the two traditions of Christianity and Celtic culture during the fifth and sixth centuries’.

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