Suspicious of ‘statist’ nationalism

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

MacNeill, though straightforwardly a nationalist, in fact disliked the latter term (at least for many of its late nineteenth/early twentieth-century connotations, though he did refer to it more favourably in Phases of Irish history in the context of medieval Irish history). In his opinion, nationalism had become too closely identified with elevation of the state to an ideal in itself, which inculcated a subservience that aided authoritarianism. He preferred to speak simply of ‘nation’ or ‘nationality’ as ‘the type of civilization that a people have developed, which has become that people’s tradition, and is distinctive of that people’; he did not accept that any nation or nationality was inextricably linked to any particular form of government, or that a nation’s history predetermined its form of government. The most important constituent of Irish ‘nation-ness’, MacNeill believed, was culture and, of course, language, not the state. The state should serve the nation, and not the other way around. Irish nationhood did not begin with Parnell or the Young Irelanders, or even with Wolfe Tone and Henry Grattan: it was an ancient inheritance which, despite all the ruptures of history, had persisted continuously since then. The early medieval Gaelic Irish, and their forebears, had demonstrated a conception of authentic nationality almost purely indigenous and rivalling in vitality anything found in Greece or Rome. In contrast to Roman centralism, authoritarianism and veneration of the state (which found its historical echoes in feudalism and the statism of the ‘great’ modern nations such as Britain and France), the bonds of union among the early Irish had been spiritual, intellectual and cultural. The period of Early Christian Ireland had been the ‘Golden Age’ of Irish history. He wrote:

‘You will not find anywhere in Europe during that age any approach towards the definite and concrete sense of nationality—of country and people in one—which is the common expression of the Irish mind in that age . . . The Irish people stand singular and eminent in those times, from the fifth century onward, as the possessors


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