Nationalism, republicanism and the alt-right

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—While I haven’t the slightest interest in defending the alt-right, the arguments that Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc levels against them create more general problems for our understanding of history (HI 28.1, Jan./Feb. 2020, Platform). For example, he accuses the alt-right of not understanding the difference between Irish nationalism and republicanism. He says that republicanism espouses a ‘far broader, secular and more inclusive definition of Irish identity’ than nationalism. Is such a characterisation accurate?

All of the republicans that Dr Ó Ruairc cites were also nationalists of some sort. With the exception of Tone, they were certainly cultural nationalists, if not also ethnic nationalists. An ethnic group is comprised of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. Sometimes the shared attributes are racial but they can alternatively consist of linguistic or other such cultural ties, as was the case in Ireland. Davis’s idea of an ancient spiritual nation inspired the Gaelic Revival. Most national ideologies that develop under colonial conditions are ethnic because they do not have a state to form around. Ethnic nations based on cultural ties are capable of assimilating the ‘stranger within the gates’.

Dr Ó Ruairc seems to endorse a view of nationality that is no less ‘narrow’ or ethnic than one based on religion. He speaks of how the foreigner can become a Gael and writes approvingly of Arthur Griffith’s test. He rightly praises ‘the contribution that immigrants have made, and still make, to Irish culture through their involvement in Gaelscoileanna, the GAA, traditional music and the arts’. However, many liberals and unionists would find this view of Irish culture as objectionable as any confessional one.

Finally, while the revolutionary generation may have been political secularists, they had little problem with Catholic Church involvement in social matters and were largely in agreement with that church’s moral teachings. Their outlook would not be considered secular today. Constance Markievicz would today be regarded as a ‘conservative Catholic’ (to use Dr Ó Ruairc’s term) for regarding divorce as a deplorable English influence, as would Mary MacSwiney, sister of Terence, for her opposition to birth control.—Yours etc.,

JERRY McCARTHY
Dublin 15

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