Take it down from the mast, ‘Irish patriots’ …

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2020), Platform, Volume 28

Right-wing propagandists fail to understand the difference between Irish nationalism and republicanism.

By Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc

Recent controversies surrounding Ireland’s immigration policy, the direct provision system and proposed ‘hate speech’ legislation have seen sections of the Irish ‘alt-right’ scene develop from a largely on-line phenomenon into an active protest movement. The Irish alt-right—who some would term ‘far-right’—are a disparate community whose membership includes conservative Catholics, anti-vaxxers, ‘freemen-on-the-land’ and conspiracy theorists who promote the idea that 5G telecommunications and ‘chemtrails’ are the secret weapons of sinister global cabals bent on world domination.

One factor that seems to unite most of the Irish alt-right is a narrow definition of Irishness in terms of ethnocentric nationalism and religious identity—if a person does not have white skin, two Irish parents and is not Roman Catholic/Christian then he/she cannot ever be considered fully Irish, even if he/she is legally an Irish citizen.

These self-styled ‘patriots’ are eager to exploit the historic imagery of Irish republicanism, and in particular the 1916 Rising, to further their agenda. These right-wing propagandists fail, however, to understand the difference between Irish nationalism and republicanism, which has always espoused a far broader, secular and more inclusive definition of Irish identity.

Above: Theobald Wolfe Tone, the descendant of refugees from a persecuted religious minority who had fled from France to Ireland via England—a ‘foreigner’ by the standards of the alt-right.

Theobald Wolfe Tone, the founding father of Irish republicanism, was by the standards of the alt-right a ‘foreigner’. Tone was the descendant of refugees from a persecuted religious minority who had fled from France to Ireland via England. Tone’s definition of Irishness was based not on blood or creed. He sought ‘To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish all past dissentions and substitute the name of Irishman in the place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter …’.

After Tone’s death, the cause of Irish republicanism was kept alive by Young Irelanders such as Thomas Davis, whose understanding of Irish nationality bears no resemblance to what the alt-right preach today. Davis, the son of a British soldier, declared: ‘We champion a concept of nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, the descendants of both the Gael and the Cromwellian Planter—the Irishman of a hundred generations and the stranger newly arrived within our gates’.

The leadership of the 1916 Rising included men like Roger Casement who, like Tone and Davis, were the descendants of foreigners who professed a minority religious faith. Casement stated that ‘A nation is a very complex thing. It never does consist; it never has consisted solely of men of one blood or one single race—it is like a river, rising in the hills with many sources, many converging streams, that become one great stream.’

Patrick Pearse was the son of an English Unitarian-turned-atheist who came to Ireland as an economic immigrant and was the victim of a sectarian and racist campaign from Irish Catholic competitors who tried to drive him out of business. Pearse was not ashamed of his mixed ancestry and told 1916 veteran Desmond Ryan to remember that ‘If you are ever free, it is the son of an Englishman who will have freed you!’ Paraphrasing Tone, Pearse spoke of how people of different cultural backgrounds should cooperate together to free Ireland: ‘I propose that we substitute for the denominations Gael, Gall and Gall-Gael the common name of Irishman’.

Another leader of the 1916 Rising, James Connolly, declared that Irish freedom would not be possible until ‘Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Freethinker, Buddhist and Muslim will cooperate together’. With the exception of Connolly, all the leaders of the Rising were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose constitution supported pluralism, equality and the complete separation of church and state. That same spirit was also reflected in the 1916 Proclamation, which guaranteed equal rights for all citizens, ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’. Nowhere does the Proclamation debar would-be Irish citizens of foreign extraction based on their parentage, ethnicity or religion.

At the time of the Irish Revolution, political exiles from England, economic immigrants from Germany and refugees from Czarist Russia would have been amongst the most identifiable ethnic-minority groups in Ireland. When the Irish Republic was declared, members of these communities were eager to spill their blood for Irish freedom. These foreigners included Arthur Wicks, the English communist who joined the Citizen Army and was mortally wounded during the Easter Rising; Antil Makapaltis, a Finnish Lutheran who fought as a member of the GPO garrison in 1916; Otto Hasselbeck, the son of German Protestant immigrants who was the IRA’s chief intelligence officer in Limerick; and Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants such as Michael Noyk and Robert Briscoe, who both insisted that being ‘Hebrews’ did not compromise their Irish identity.

Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, commenting on an acrimonious debate concerning a solely racial basis for an Irish identity, wrote in favour of adopting foreigners who made Ireland their home as Irishmen: ‘The very same test which is the hall-mark of the American citizen should be the test of the Irishman—That he accept the Irish nation, Irish in its language, Irish in its politics, Irish in every outlook … Be he Gael, Cromwellian, Huguenot or Spanish, the man who swears allegiance to an Irish Nation is an Irishman!’

The self-styled ‘patriots’ of the Irish alt-right would do well to study the intricacies and nuances of our history. Foreigners, outsiders and immigrants willing to adopt Irish customs and fight in support of the political aspirations of the native Irish were spoken of as being ‘níos Gealaí ná na Gaeil iad féin’. The concept that a person of non-Irish ancestry can become a Gael will be foreign to those not familiar with the Irish language, which has two terms denoting Irish identity—‘Éireannach’, a person from Ireland, and ‘Gael’, any person who embraces Irish customs and culture.

Interestingly, some of the most fanatical of the alt-right ‘patriots’ who proclaim the need to protect and preserve Irish culture only produce social media output in the English language. As an Irish-speaker I have encountered Russian, Slovak, German and English immigrants to Ireland who all speak Irish fluently. Furthermore, I have met immigrants from other countries who have a genuine love of the language and are trying to learn it. Any time I have ever encountered hostility or abuse for speaking Irish in person it has always come from native-born Irish people whom I know and who espouse conservative-Catholic views. The Irish alt-right’s definition of Irishness solely on the basis of genetics and religious faith ignores the contribution that immigrants have made, and still make, to Irish culture through their involvement in Gaelscoileanna, the GAA, traditional music and the arts.

Although the emerging alt-right are increasingly desperate to assert their claim to the historic legacy of the 1916 Rising, the reality is that the ideology of Irish republicanism has always espoused a much more open, liberal and secular concept of Irish citizenship then they are aware of or willing to admit. If those in the Irish alt-right who espouse xenophobic Catholic-nationalism are seeking a political pedigree for their views, I suggest they study the history of John Redmond and Joseph Devlin’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which Devlin described as the ‘right arm of the Catholic Church’. Redmond’s nationalists campaigned against Sinn Féin using the slogan ‘De Valera the Jew—Put the Bastard Down!’ and denounced their republican opponents who fought for Irish freedom as ‘Foreigners, Communists and Rainbow-Chasers’.

The depth of the ‘patriotism’ of those in the emerging alt-right was evident at a recent demonstration when they displayed a variety of Catholic statues on their platform and draped across it an orange, white and green tricolor—the flag of the Ivory Coast. It is possible that those who organised the event were making a subversive point about African immigrants, but I suspect the sad truth is that these self-styled ‘patriots’ were so ignorant that they displayed their country’s flag backwards.

The flag of the Irish Republic—green, white and orange represents diversity—represents people from different religions and from different cultural and historical backgrounds, fellow Irish citizens putting aside their differences and coming together as equals in a new republic. To the alt-right ‘patriots’ and xenophobic nationalists who wave that flag whilst proclaiming that Irish identity is solely a matter of genetics and religion, I say—‘Take it down from the mast …’.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc has a Ph.D in history and has written several books on the Irish Revolution of 1916–23.

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