Why I Am Not A (Irish) Nationalist

During my teenage years, I was a passionate nationalist (because nationalism varies so much by country, this will be mainly in reference to Irish nationalism, but applicable to nationalism generally). I’ve always had a great interest in history and I loved to read about heroes from the glorious past. I especially loved the stories about the heroes who fought the British during 800 years of foreign occupation. While my classmates were interested in football and television, I read everything I could about Gaelic chieftains during ancient times, glorious rebels who fought for liberty, the United Irishmen who battled for a Republic where Catholics and Protestants would be equal, the brave war of independence and the modern war to throw the British out of Northern Ireland.

Of course, I also knew about the crimes of Britain. It invaded and conquered my land, oppressed and robbed us. I read about despicable villains like Oliver Cromwell whose name was as cursed as the Devil. The Great Famine when the fields were filled with corpses due to British neglect. The sectarian Northern Ireland government that suppressed Catholics and only served Protestants. They tried to kill our language, our traditions, our culture. If they succeed we would cease to be Irish, instead Ireland would merely be a province of Britain. Because of Britain we were poor, because of Britain we suffered. Perfidious Albion, the cause of all our problems.

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But the more I read, the more I began to doubt. If Britain caused all the problems, why did the problems not disappear after independence? Under British rule, Britain was blamed for all our problems – if only we had our own state! But after independence we painted the post-boxes greens but little else changed. We had a new flag but the same old poverty. With independence we have national pride and nationalist symbols but people still suffered terrible living conditions. It soon became clear that nationalist slogans were not enough to improve the country.

The greatest and most obvious sign of failure was the waves of emigrants. We had a free and independent land but every year tens of thousands of Irish people fled the country. Was this something the nation could be proud of? Nationalists often boast of the glory of the nation, but if the country was so glorious, why were so many people fleeing it? During the first seventy years of independence, the population actually decreased due to emigration. Nationalists frequently blame the British and the Famine for the decline in the population of Ireland, but this trend continued long after the British left. Nationalism gave us the right to fly our flag and sing rebel songs, but you can’t eat a flag and songs don’t provide for your family. That’s why I lost my belief in nationalism, I saw that it didn’t solve our problems.

When Britain left, the Catholic Church entered and oppression was replaced with oppression. We were independent from Britain but totally dependent on the Catholic Church. The Church ruled without opposition for decades, controlled most schools and hospitals and censured anything they considered against church teachings. Homosexuality, divorce, contraceptives and “dangerous” books were all banned. The Church created places for “incorrect” people and there they beat, raped and neglected babies, children and women. Close to my hometown, they discovered a mass grave filled with the corpses of babies. Not British, but Irish people did this. Is it better that our fellow nationals committed these crimes under our flag as part of our own state?

The dark side of nationalism is that it needs an enemy. Nationalism is not only love of your country, but also dislike for other countries. Heroes of course need villains. If your country is superior, then that means that others are inferior. Irish nationalism is as much anti-British as it is pro-Irish. To be Irish means not to be British.

Nationalism can also motivate people to kill others. Nationalists believe that they should die and kill for their nation. The First and Second World Wars are the worst examples of this, when millions of people killed each other in the name of their nations. People were expelled from their homes so that the land could belong to our nation. In the name of nationalism, people can commit terrible crimes, they can steal, beat, kill and be a hero for doing so.

As I read more, I learned about events that don’t appear in the songs or on the murals of the heroic rebels. All Irish people know the slaughters of Cromwell, but how many know that he was responding to slaughters committed by Irish people? During the 1641 rebellion, Irish rebels massacred thousands of Protestants. In name the 1798 rebellion was for all religions, but in action the Catholics locked Protestants in a barn in Scullabogue and set it on fire. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the IRA murdered many innocent people just because they were Protestant. I never heard any song about a hero that left a bomb in a pub and ran away. Was that a blow for freedom?

I don’t understand how the IRA helped the cause of freedom when they exploded a bomb during a memorial service in Enniskillen for those who died in the First World War. Were they heroes, the Irishmen who halted a bus in Kingsmills and shot every Protestant onboard? Should we be happy that they didn’t harm the single Catholic onboard (who the Protestants tried to protect?) Why has no one written a song about the brave men who strapped bombs to cars and forced innocent people to drive into British checkpoints and exploded the bombs?

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Every Irish person knows about “Bloody Sunday” when British soldiers killed 13 innocent people and Nationalists call this terrible atrocity a reason for the British to leave Northern Ireland. But what about “Bloody Friday” when IRA soldiers filled Belfast town with bombs, killed 9 and wounded 130? Of course Nationalists have excuses and apologies for these “accidents”, but how can you condemn the other side when your hands are covered in blood?

Even nowadays, during peacetime, Northern Ireland is an example of the bad effects of Nationalism. The region has serious problems of unemployment and poverty but the political parties prefer to argue over flags. I’m not exaggerating, there have been riots over the decision to fly the British flag at the City Hall only on special occasions instead of every day. Currently, the parliament has split up due to an argument over the Irish language. Even though almost no one in Northern Ireland speaks Irish, it has symbolic value for Nationalists, so that’s why they are ignoring problems of healthcare, education, transport etc. I heard a joke about an opinion poll that asked someone “Under which flag would you prefer to be unemployed?”. For Nationalists, poverty doesn’t matter so long as the right flag is flying.

I remember during my childhood, the four cul-de-sacs of my housing estate united against a common enemy, namely the housing estate across the road. Silly and trivial, isn’t it, but it was a petty form of Nationalism. We thought that our place was the best and were ready to fight against our neighbour. We united over our common identity and all the lads (the girls showed a disappointing lack of patriotism) overcame our differences for the greater good. If there was a border on the street, as in Northern Ireland (where the border runs along random streets and fields), people would say that it’s completely understandable that the boys oppose each other, because they are completely separate ethnicities.

But at the local primary school, all the housing estates in the village united against the common enemy, the neighbouring parish and its primary school. The two parishes had a common GAA team, but I remember players refusing to pass to me because I came from the other village. My secondary school had students from three parishes and during the breaks, we would stand in separate groups and occasionally fight. But even we could unite against those from the city because those lads were too different to us. But we could unite with the city against the foreign culture of Dublin. But with Dubliners we have our common Irish identity, we are the same compared with the British. Of course, with Britain and Western Europe we have much in common compared with the Eastern Europeans. Nowadays, some say that all Europeans must unite based on our common culture against Muslims with their strange and foreign ways. When I hear this, I think of the lads of my housing estate, throwing insults across the street at the lads from the other estate.

But Nationalism is a bit silly isn’t it? Based on the random luck of birth, I declare a link between myself and famous writers and soldiers, even though I’ve never met them. I take pride in buildings created before my birth and events that I never took part in. If two sportspeople I don’t know are competiting, I’m either delighted or devastated based on how well “we” do. George Bernard Shaw once said that “Nationalism is the belief that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it”. If there’s an intellectual, it’s because our nation is intelligent. If someone is a thief, we ignore it if they’re one of us, but there’s a problem if they’re a foreigner. Then we ask why are they so inclined to steal? How do we stop them? It’s no longer about one person robbing another, but “them” robbing “us”.

I grew up in a village where everyone was Irish, so it was easy to believe that us Irish were unique and special. But after university, I travelled, learned Esperanto, lived abroad and met people from many different countries. Maybe it’s naïve or cliched to say that I found we are all the same, but that did happen. It’s not easy to declare that your nation is special and the best after you’ve met other nationalities. I’ve sat and chatted with friendly and welcoming people irrespective of nationality, which had nothing to do with their personality. Viewing us as separate people who need separate homelands seems a bit silly after that.

I’m sure that some will call me a traitor for writing this or accuse me of being ashamed to be Irish. Maybe this blog is a left-wing SJW attempt to undermine the Irish nation (hasn’t political discourse online gotten awful?). No, I’m not ashamed to be Irish, I’m just realistic about what it means. I recognise the whole history, including the atrocities, not just the heroic parts that make us feel good. My nationality is a part of me, the same as my hometown, my family, my face. But I don’t believe that my country is the best in the world, just as I don’t believe that my hometown is the best or my family is the best. I accept it without boasting. Nationalism only creates walls between us and I prefer to overcome them.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Am Not A (Irish) Nationalist”

  1. This piece reminds me of GK Chesterton’s quote on Rudyard Kipling…
    “The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism–that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.”

    Nationalism is rooted in rivalry, patriotism is loving your homeland just because it is home.

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