Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Culture Matters (3)

Cultural Absorption (1)

Throughout history various groups and peoples have arrived in Ireland but they have generally been absorbed into Irishness. For example, the Anglo-Normans or Old English, who came to Ireland in the 12th century, became known as Hiberniores Hibernicis Ipsis, or 'more Irish than the Irish themselves'. Of that process the English poet Edmund Spenser wrote, ‘Lord how quickly doth that country alter men’s natures.’
[A View of the Present State of Ireland p 151]

Since the advent of the Gaelic revival and Irish cultural nationalism in the 19th century, the cultural vision of Irish nationalists has generally included as a core element the absorption orassimilation of all others into their culture and identity.  They believe that those who arrive and settle in Ireland either become Irish or should become Irish, not merely in some vague geographical sense but in terms of cultural identity.

This view was expressed many years ago by David Patrick Moran (1871-1936), the voice of the Irish-Ireland movement, who wrote The Philosophy of Irish Ireland in 1905: 'The foundation of Ireland is the Gael and the Gael must be the element that absorbs.'

Such a view is thoroughly racist but it was very prevalent at that time in the Gaelic movement. Moran had a vision of an Ireland that was thoroughly Gaelic and he also had a vision of an Ireland that was Roman Catholic. He founded a weekly journal called The Leader and in it he said: 'When we look out on Ireland we see that those who believe or may be immediately induced to believe in Ireland as a nation are, as a matter of fact, Catholics … The Irish nation is de facto a Catholic nation.' [The Leader 27 April 1901]

It should not be imagined that Moran was a lone and isolated voice or somehow untypical. He was expressing the common view of Irish Gaelic nationalism. Professor David George Boyce states that: ‘Moran has been criticised for his alleged ‘racism’; but his real purpose was to spell out, regardless of cant and humbug, the principles which others accepted but preferred not to examine too closely.’ [Nationalism in Ireland p 243]

The vision of cultural absorption was also expressed by Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), who was the founder of the Gaelic League and later the first president of the Irish Republic: 'In two points only was the continuity of Irishism in Ireland damaged. First in the north-east of Ulster, where the Gaelic race was expelled and the land planted with aliens, whom our dear mother Erin, assimilative as she is, has hitherto found it difficult to absorb. … In spite of the little admixture of Saxon blood in the north-east corner, this island is and will ever remain Celtic at the core.'

Sir John Randolph Leslie (1885-1971) was born on the family estate at Glaslough in county Monaghan and he was a descendant of Bishop John Leslie, a Scottish churchman who became bishop of Raphoe in 1633 and Bishop of Clogher in 1661. At Cambridge John Randolph Leslie converted to Roman Catholicism, became a passionate Irish nationalist and changed his name to Shane Leslie. In 1923 he wrote the novel Doomsland and in it the character Francis Joseph MacNeill is a thinly disguised representation of the Belfast nationalist Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926). At one point in the novel MacNeill expresses in very succinct form the general view of Bigger: 'I tell you, there is no such thing as Scots-Irish, man or material. You might as well speak of a Scots-Irish potato. What comes to Ireland becomes Irish. Besides, Scotland is an Irish dependency beyond the seas.'

The Catholic Bulletin was an important expression of Irish republican thinking and in the post-1916 period its editor was John J O’Kelly (1873-1957), who was president of the Gaelic League (1919-1922) and acting chairman of Dail Eireann (1919-1921). In 1924 The Catholic Bulletin provided this demand for cultural assimilation: 'The Irish nation is the Gaelic nation; its language and literature is the Gaelic language; its history is the history of the Gael. All other elements have no place in Irish national life, literature and tradition, save as far as they are assimilated into the very substance of Gaelic speech, life and thought.' [Irish Kulturkampf p 10]

It is true that some Ulster Protestants such as Bulmer Hobson, Roger Casement, Francis Bigger and Alice Milligan were absorbed or assimilated and they played major roles in the Gaelic movement but as Professor Richard Kirkland has observed, ‘they were exotic figures in the often sectarian atmosphere of Northern nationalism.’

Moreover in A History of Ulster Dr Jonathan Bardon comments that these folk were ‘utterly unrepresentative of the mass of Ulster Protestants who were repelled by these new interpretations of cultural identity.’ [A History of Ulster p 422]

Unfortunately the vision or aspiration of Gaelic absorption is not dead. Brendan Clifford, who has provided a number of important insights into recent Irish republican thinking, refers to it in one of his booklets: 'This is the end part of a strategy which was worked out by some very respectable supporters of the Provisional IRA in the republic in 1970-71. …. A process would begin which would end with the people who are now unionists being indoctrinated into the nationalist culture.'  [Parliamentary Despotism – John Hume’s Aspiration January 1986]

Down through the years many of those groups that settled in Ireland were absorbed but there is one notable exception. In 1914 Rev J B Woodburn published his book The Ulster-Scot. The book was an immediate success and when it was reviewed in The Times on 30 April 1914 the reviewer commented: 'He is a mystery, this Ulster Scot. All other peoples Ireland tends to absorb.'

Almost a century later there is still an Ulster-Scots culture and an Ulster-Scots cultural community in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland.

The fact that the Ulster-Scots have not been absorbed was also noted, albeit in a thoroughly intolerant way, by John Francis Taylor (1850-1902), an influential Dublin barrister and Irish nationalist: 'Wherever the English have come they blended with the people … but these unthinkable Scotch, why indeed were they kept upon the planet?'

Today Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism are more sophisticated and subtle in their approach but they remain largely intolerant of those cultural traditions which are not Irish and Gaelic and therefore they continue to seek preferential treatment for Irish and Gaelic culture.

The Gaelic vision of cultural absorption set out by Moran, Hyde and others was an intolerant vision and one that should have no place in out society. We must seek to build a shared and better future in Northern Ireland, a future based on equality, diversity and interdependence, and that should also be the way forward for the Republic of Ireland.


  1. "The foundation of Ireland is the Gael and the Gael must be the element that absorbs.'
    Such a view is thoroughly racist but it was very prevalent at that time in the Gaelic movement."

    Very selective picking of inflammatory commentary to fit the context.
    It can be strongly argued that the large swathe of people who live in Northern Ireland but have no affiliation,loyalty or interest in being part of the UK are in the same position as you argue the Ulster Scot is within the island of Ireland. So where does that argument end?

  2. There was nothing selective about it. This was Moran's vision for an 'Irish Ireland'. Moreover, that was the reason I provided the other quotes. I wanted to confirm that such views of absorption were not limited to one individual, however prominent and influential. This was a general view within the Gaelic revival movement.

    I am not sure about the point you are trying to make in your second paragraph. Unlike those who were and are committed to cultural absorption, I have no interest in cultural absorption. I believe in cultural diversity, which I will return to in my next post.

  3. And people wonder why society in this part of Ireland makes progress at a snail's pace?

    It isn't very beneficial at focusing on selective statements that are outdated and made in the past. The world has moved on and so should the Culture Minister's perceptions of contemporary culture on this island.

    Show me a modern-day Gael who believes that everybody should be 'absorbed' into a traditional Gaelic Ireland... they don't exist.

    Why has the Minister not written about the vibrancy and openess of contemporary Gaelic society and thinking; about the many children from ethnic backgrounds who attend Gaelscoileanna, maintaining their own unique identity while also being able to speak Irish etc.

    That's the positive future that is being created. It's a pity, though not a surprise, that the Minister doesn't want to see it.

  4. While you have not been selective in your choice of quotations, you have not put them, or the 'principle of cultural absorbtion' into context. You are presenting the situation as though the Scots-Irish were an immigrant community who were settling in Ireland, hoping to co-exist on an equal par, culturally and otherwise, with the native Gaels. This, of course, was not the case. These British were planters, arriving in Ireland to secure the Empire's hold on this Country. Without going into the political, or humanitarian implications of their arrival, culturally what insued were centuries in which Gaelic culture, and perhaps most evidently, the Irish Language, were driven to the brink of extinction in many regions, particularly those counties most heavily planted in the North East.
    It was in this context that people like Hyde and Moran came to form such radical views on what the last hope for preserving the Gaelic culture might be. It is worth noting that these men were remarkably successful in their quest, with Hyde's Gaelic League resulting in a large scale Irish Language revival.
    I object to the way in which you have posted these sources (out of context)as if to use them in comparison to your belief in 'cultural diversity' (which I so look forward to hearing about). You appear to be setting up a 'my views versus theirs' scenario in order to cast yourself in a good light. What worries me most is that you are using these century-old quotes (with the exception of Brendan Clifford, who I do not consider to be a remotely insightful source wehn it comes to the views of Irish Cultural Activists), as representation and evidence of the views of Modern day Gaelic cultural activists. As someone involved in the Irish language / culture community I can categorically state that I have never found the people involved to be remotely 'intolerant of those cultural traditions which are not Irish and Gaelic' and have never heard the notion of cultural absorbtion, or anything like it, ever mentioned in such circles. I find your comments on this to be highly offensive. I personally commend the work of Ullans and Ulster Scots societies, and societies of any other ethnic groups within this country that wish to preserve and celebrate their culture. This does not make me any less passionate about the regeneration of my own heritage, but I do not seek 'preferential treatment'.
    To conclude, I suggest you compare like with like in your blog - either your views on this matter compared with any representative of the many Gaelic community-based organisations - Foras na Gaeilge, Pobal, Gael Linn, to name but a few - and at least then the views belong to the same cultural and politacal climate.
    The alternative is to compare the views of Moran, Hyde and Leslie, to the views of your Ulster-Scot's ancestors living in Ireland at the turn of the 20th Century, who I suspect, would not have been supporters of your 'cultural diversity'.

  5. I will respond to both RG and Blaithindoran over the weekend but I came across this quote this morning and it is significant as another example of the use of the language of absorption and assimilation.

    In 1924 the Catholic Bulletin, which was an influential journal, stated that:
    'The Irish nation is the Gaelic nation; its language and literature is the Gaelic language; its history is the history of the Gael. All other elements have no place in Irish national life, literature and tradition, save so far as they are assimilated into the very substance of Gaelic speech, life and thought.'

    Absorption and assimilation were at the heart of cultural nationalist thought in Ireland.

  6. Are there any such 'Gaelic Irish nationalist' movements in Ireland today? I really hope you aren't trying to pin Sinn Fein or even the SDLP to this sort of nationalism. I being an Irish republican know nobody apart from a few fringe lunatic right-wing individuals who would support this sort of ultra-conservative nationalist approach to Ireland (including the occupied 6 counties)

    In contrast the loyalist and unionist mentality and culture is one which is non-inclusive and one that spreads division and bigotry. Are we going to see an article on this type of culture?

    The shift towards the left by many Irish republican groups and their all-inclusive policies show that the above article is outdated and one which trys to protray a non-existent thought within Irish republicansim.

  7. There is nothing either inclusive or tolerant about someone who accuses 'the loyalist and unionist mentality and culture' of spreading 'division and bigotry', while at the same time failing to see that Sinn Fein ran a cultural war alongside their terrorist war as a means of 'broadening the battlefront'.

  8. Nelson was it not those within unionism/loyalism who brutally surpressed and criminalised the native gaelic culture ? And who still to this day will not admit or acknowledge that fact but wish to attack those who want to re-introduce such a culture ?

    Whether you want to admit the the reality of the situation regarding what you call the 'terrorism' from Sinn Fein and denying British state terrorism which divided society and demonised only one community which actually goes against international law of the right to national self determination and national liberation shows to me a very bigoted mentality, especially given the fact that Orange Order and Loyalist parades are forcibly pushed through areas where they cause upset and provocation, yet any wish to try and push through legislation for anything perceived to be of Irish culture is slammed shut and not allowed, despite such culture not being provocative or causing hurt.

  9. Your post is simply undiluted Sinn Fein dogma, based around your view of 'national self-determination'. Moreover your post confirms that republicans use Gaelic culture as part of their cultural arsenal.

  10. Go fóill ag fanacht...still waiting for you to respond.

  11. RG - The statements I quoted in relation to 'cultural absorption' were made in the early part of the Gaelic revival but that makes them especially interesting as they show the mindset of the founders of that revival. Yes, they were of their time, but these were the men who formed and fashioned the Gaelic revival.

    Just because something was said 'in the past' does not mean that it should be ignored or erased from the history books. It should be acknowledged and considered as to its significance. If we are to build a 'shared and better future' in Northern Ireland then we need to reflect on the past, understand it better and address the myths and misunderstandings.

    As regards the situation today, yes I do meet people who tell me that Northern Ireland is Celtic and is part of a Celtic fringe. I also meet people who tell me I am 'Irish or Gaelic, whther I like it or not'. I have also received correspondence from people who say that Gaelic is my 'ancestral language'. They ignore the fact that we all have a diverse ancestry and many ancestral languages. For example, my mother's surname was of Dutch origin, even though she was born in Scotland and my maternal grandfather was born in Ulster.

    Moreover I noted that, 'Today Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism are more sophisticated and subtle in their approach but they remain largely intolerant of those cultural traditions which are not Irish and Gaelic and therefore they continue to seek preferential treatment for Irish and Gaelic culture.'

    Finally, I intend to devote a future post to the Irish-medium schools movement.

  12. blaithindoran - Well at least we are off to a good start - you acknowledged that I have not been selective in my quotations - a charge made by another contributor.

    However you draw a distinction between the so-called 'planters' and others whom you describe as 'settlers' or 'immigrants'. In fact the history of Ireland has often been presented as a series of invasions. For example, the mythical Book of Invasions describes a series of invasions of Ireland by a succession of groups. Moreover the reality is that the distinction sometimes drawn between 'planter' and 'Gael' is unfounded. Every group that arrived in Ireland displaced, to some extent, an earlier group.

    Whatever their reasons, people such as Hyde, Moran and Corkery, adopted an assimilationist view of culture. This was very different from the unionist perspective which acknowledged a diversity of cultures within Britishness. Someone could be British and English, or Welsh or Scottish or Irish or indeed an Ulsterman.

    I disagree that the quotations were out of context. I placed them firmly in the early days of the Gaelic revival. Yes I could have set out the context more fully but this is a blog not an academic thesis.

    You write off Brendan Clifford by saying that 'you do not consider him to be a remotely insighful source when it comes to the views of Irish cultural activists' but the fact is that he was there at the time.

    I am surprised, indeed astounded, by your claim that you have never found Irish cultural activists to be 'remotely intolerant of those cultural traditions which are not Irish and Gaelic'. As someone who has worked in the field of culture for many years I have encountered widespread intolerance. Moreover a study of the letters column in the Irish News and other nationalist newspapers would provide a wealth of material to support that.

    You say that you do not seek 'preferential treatment' and I welcome that but there are certainly others who do.

    As regards my own views on cultural diversity, I intend to set those out in the next post. They are based on a 'three traditions' model which was prevalent in the 19th century. An obvious example was the little volume Three Wee Ulster Lassies, which was written by James Greer and published in 1883. The book includes three characters – Nelly Nolan the Ulster-Kelt, Bessie Stronge the Ulster-Saxon and Jennie Scott the Ulster-Scot.