Deconstructing Irishness

How the Irish became Irish

Term Paper, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


§ 1 Introduction

When I lived in Ireland, there were a lot of things that crossed my paths which seemed to me rather peculiar compared to Germany. Apart from the great hospitality, the different landscape, the Irish interpretation of planning and organizing things, it was the sense of history and of „Irishness“ which people appeared to have that struck me as something special.

Of course there are stereotypes of and in both countries although the Irish stereotype is much more popular, e.g. with Saint Patrick‘s Day parades celebrated all over the world. Whereas the Germans are seen as very serious, punctual, tidy and organized, the Irish have the reputation of taking things easily, living in a beautiful country, having a rich history and being not English. Michael Flatley and his likes have their share in promoting the Celtic Ireland of dra í ocht, ceol and damhsa (magic, music and dance) although the Troubles are also associated with the image of Ireland. So what is Ireland really like? What does it mean to be Irish?

If we take the assumptions and images above to a higher level, we arrive at something that is a more scientific frame for discussion: identity. It includes much more than stereotypes describe.

The term is a controversial one in Germany with its history and it is therefore not very often discussed in public. The attempt in the last few years to discuss and find a definition of a German identity (or Leitkultur) was not successful and finally ended, stuck with a bad connotation. With Ireland having a completely different history than Germany, Irish identity seems to me much more evident and shown in Ireland and by the Irish people.

After tracing out the limits and meanings of the term identity in general , this paper will deal with the components and characteristics of Irish identity and how it was constructed and developed.

§ 2 Definitions

The Term identity, especially when talking about a whole country‘s identity, is closely linked to the concept of culture. So we need to define both terms in order to find out about Ireland‘s identity (and culture).

§ 2.1 What is 'culture'?

There is no one and only definition of culture and the sociologist Raymond Williams even says that „ Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language“.1 Nevertheless, we need to find components of culture to get parameters which help us to find components of an Irish Identity in the end. A start would be the rather simplistic definition of culture as „the way of life of a group of people“, i.e. how we live your lives2. That definition includes such an immense amount of things that it cannot be used for my purpose here. The literature on the topic is also huge and I therefore exclude things such as styles of architecture, patterns of land use (which is definitely a distinctive feature compared to Germany), the values that lead to social change or what is considered as a high achievement in arts, etc... So which parts of culture are interesting for this paper?

Looking into the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, one finds a more specific definition of culture: „the ideas, beliefs, and customs that are shared and accepted by people in a society“.3 Furthermore, I would include the values of a society, formal behavioural traditions and rituals and its language.4 Since later on we will focus in the Irish identity, it is vital not to forget the national aspect which is amongst others a "historical territory, [...] and historical memories."5

§ 2.2 What is 'identity'?

What is now still left unclear is the concept of identity. Again very basically, it means to know who we are. Here, we don't need to go into more detail about the meaning of the term itself but we need to distinguish. Namely, between Individual, social and cultural identity. Individual identity is the unique sense of oneself whereas social identity is created by a collective sense of belonging to a group and of individuals identifying with other members of the group. Cultural identity is more specific with individuals having the sense of belonging to a distinct ethnic or cultural group.6 Since a group cannot exist without individuals and a society always includes culture, these three definitions intertwine.

Identity, especially for a whole country, is inter alia the knowledge of those things that we above have defined as culture.

To sum it all up, Irish identity is the knowledge of shared values, beliefs, customs and traditions, of a common language, history and territory.

I hope the following illustration helps to clarify what I mean:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

§ 3 The components of Irish identity and how they developed

Before I start off with (de-)constructing the Irish identity, I would like to mention that the identity of a people or nation or state (therefore one could also call it a national identity) usually is the result of the influence of and the exchange and discussion between different social or political movements within a country of which each one promotes its own idea of identity. So there are a lot of different opinions within a society about which things should be included in the concept of the national identity. The final result is determined by the access a movement has to state and public sphere, the openness of the public sphere towards its messages and also the receptiveness of other movements or wings to its message.7

§ 3.1 Territory

The Irish constitution of 1937 defines the island of Ireland, including its islands as the territory of the Irish Nation.8 It still is and has been so for more than several thousand years when the first settlers arrived on the island although one cannot call these people "Irish" yet. The first pre-Irish speakers settled there in the sixth century BC9. Even though there are now more than 70 million people in the world claiming Irish ancestry10, the important point is that one can say that the Irish always had a country of their own and have never been expelled or their country or been a minority in another country, like e.g. the Azerbaijanis in Armenia.11 So there has never been a question about the territory of a state for the Irish which is and has been a rather unusual fact according to Omar Dahbour.12

§ 3.2 Language

The official language of the Republic of Ireland is Irish or Gaeilge. And still only 41.4% of the Irish population stated to be able to speak Irish in the 2002 census13. Furthermore, one should bear in mind that this figure comes from a census and is therefore a self-reported proficiency, i.e. it does not guarantee fluency in speaking or even the ability to write or read the language and therefore the real figure might even be lower. I only met one person in nine months in Ireland whose mother tongue was Irish. However, Irish still is the official language of Ireland so it must be essential to the Irish national identity and must have seen better times. So where are the roots of the Irish language?

Around 300 BC the Celtic Language that is now known as Irish came to Ireland. But it took until the fifth century until there emerged something one could describe as literacy in Irish. The monasteries introduced written education in Ireland and a lot of scholars from all over Europe went to Ireland because of its reputation as the "island of saints and scholars". The earliest manuscript completely in Irish is Lebor na hUidre and was written in Clonmacnoise in about 1100. Ireland has the oldest vernacular literature in western Europe with inscriptions and interlinear glosses in Latin texts long before 110014. What followed could be described as the best years of the Irish language. Irish even expanded to Scotland, introducing itself to the Picts, northern Britain and the Isle of Man. Nowadays there is still Scottish Gaelic whose roots lie in the expansion of Irish. From the 9th century on, Viking raids and settlements took place in Ireland which had an influence on the Irish language, namely, introducing new words dealing with commerce and navigation, but did not have a major impact on Irish culture and language15. The Vikings founded ports such as Dublin, Galway, Cork etc. but assimilated over time to the Irish culture, probably because of a lack of female settlers. In 1170 the Anglo-Norman conquest began and still the Irish language prevailed because the new landowners intermarried with natives and became Irish speakers themselves.


1 Kidd, Warren, Culture and identity (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002) 9.

2 Kidd, 5.

3 Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 3rd ed. (München: Langenscheidt, 1995) 330.

4 Kidd, 9.

5 Searle-White, Joshua, The Psychology of Nationalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) 52.

6 Kidd, 26.

7 Patrick O'Mahoney and Gerald Delanty, Rethinking Irish History, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1998), 26.




1 Searle-White, 11.

1 Dahbour, Omar, "The Ethics of Self-Determination: Democratic, National, Regional," Cultural Identity and the Nation-State, eds. Carol C.Gould and Pasquale Pasquino (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) 7.


1 Williams, Nicholas, "literature in Irish, " The Oxford Companion to Irish History, ed. S.J. Connolly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 336.

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Excerpt out of 15 pages


Deconstructing Irishness
How the Irish became Irish
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Landeskunde Irland: Shared Histories - Modern Ireland and Germany
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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491 KB
Deconstructing, Irishness, Landeskunde, Irland, Shared, Histories, Modern, Ireland, Germany
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Eva-Maria Griese (Author), 2007, Deconstructing Irishness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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