Ireland is an invented nation: Declan Kiberd

A people get a sense of who they are through their artists, primarily the writers and poets who, through words and stories, reflect images that are somehow familiar. Irish scholar Declan Kiberd has written about this making of identity for Ireland — with the added layer that much of Irish identity has a colonialist residue.

'I never thought of myself as Irish growing up ... I always thought of myself as a Dubliner.'

Irish scholar Declan Kiberd writes in his book, Inventing Ireland: 'If England had never existed, the Irish would have been rather lonely. Each nation badly needed the other, for the purpose of defining itself.' (Nahlah Ayed)

*Originally published January 30, 2020.

"If God invented whiskey to prevent the Irish from ruling the world, then who invented Ireland?"

That's the question posed by Declan Kiberd in the introduction to his book Inventing Ireland. The idea that a nation is something invented might seem a startling proposition, but what he's highlighting is the idea that a people have of themselves — who they are.

And what makes a collection of people into a nation? It's a complicated soup of influences — part shared history, part the influence of our allies, neighbours and enemies, part myth-making by writers and artists.

The Irish writer has been thinking about the question of Irish identity for a long time. He argues that Ireland is an invention, and the Irish sense of identity is shaped in large part by what the British expect the Irish to be — the "stage Irishman." 

IDEAS producer (and Irish immigrant) Philip Coulter talked to Declan Kiberd at his home in Dublin. 

Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

In the preface to your recent book, Inventing Ireland, I think it was your mother who objected strenuously to the title, insisting that Ireland was always there. I know you're having a little bit of fun at your mother's expense, but on a more serious level, why was she wrong? 

Nations are a relatively modern fiction. They involve things like railways and the printing press and are bound into some kind of unity, even by administrations. And all of these words I've just used are about relative modernity. My mother probably thought it was wrong of me to say that Ireland had been invented. I said it had been invented partly by the Brits ,and that Irish people went to Britain and were told they were Irish and brought the idea back home, as Bob Dylan would say.

Of course, Ireland is an island, and my mother's generation and generations before her believed that it had been made by God with these natural boundaries to be like one — and to have a singular identity. But we know that Ireland, even small though it was, was a patchwork quilt of warring fiefdoms and very different forms of Christian practice.

So the idea of a unified Ireland is a rather English invention, and paradoxically in some ways a British one, even though we think of those working for Irish unity and fighting for it as nationalists. 

Well, you have said as much. You said that the English did not invade Ireland, they actually seized a neighbouring island and invented the idea of Ireland. What is that invention of the idea of Ireland? 

I think that the British have always needed to imagine an Other — with a capital O. Sometimes they've done it with the French, sometimes with us, Irish. But if they saw themselves as rational, we Irish were the opposite — irrational. If they saw themselves as analytical, we were the opposite — impulsive, etc.

Now, I think what happened was that a generation arose at the end of the nineteenth century, which didn't actually dispute those labels but gave itself the right to reinterpret them. So instead of 'irrational', say 'healthily rooted in emotion'. Instead of 'impulsive', say 'natural'.

In some ways there's an element of neurosis ... between two extremes of Irishness and Englishness. But I think a great deal of the neurosis was invented, if you like, by the Brits and projected onto an Irish "other." 

[George Bernard] Shaw meant this when he said that every English person should be sent to Ireland to learn flexibility of mind, by which he meant to embrace their own shadow, to come to terms with all that's opposed to what their daily self imagines themselves to be. 

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in the garden of his home, three days before his 90th birthday, July 23, 1946. ( Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But just to be argumentative for a moment, the implication is that there is no such thing as Irishness, or Britishness for that matter — if we are so malleable that somebody else can invent a role for us to play, like Hamlet in a stage play?

Yeah, I've often worried about this myself. I remember asking a Jewish intellectual I greatly admired in New York what the essence of Jewishness was, and he said, 'it was the experience of being perpetually defined, decided and derided by others.' And I said, 'that's very Irish.

It's no wonder that Joyce made a semi-Jewish man, Leopold Bloom, the centre of the great Irish narrative Ulysses, because of that experience of being at a discursive disadvantage, where other people seemed to play the main cards that determined the game you're in. 

Now of course there still are elements of Irish character, which I've identified in my writing. I'm not sure they add to a national typology, though. For instance, it seems to me that what I've just said to you, taking something that has its roots in binary thinking and then instead of saying either/or saying both/and — is a rather Irish thing to do.

For instance, we would oppose the idea that there's a necessary contrast between the ancient and the modern, and frequently even in things like recent legislation in Ireland, you get an example of what you might call the archaic and the avant-garde together. 

We had a victory for gay and lesbian marriage in a referendum a few years ago. And people in Italy where I was at the time of the referendum seem very surprised and said, 'Oh, we'd never vote for that if we had a referendum.'

Attitudes are still not so liberal. But you see in Ireland the strength of familism is so strong and it's a traditional, almost archaic thing that people said, 'Well, gay people should have that right, too.'

Same-sex marriage in the Ireland has been legal since November 16, 2015. A referendum on May 22, 2015 amended the Constitution of Ireland to recognize marriage regardless of the sex of the partners (Shawn Pogatchnik/AP)

Is the making of an idea of a people essentially then an imaginative act? And how does that relate then to the actual stones and mortar state/nation that we come up with? What's the contrast and connection between the two? 

Well, I think the ideas of Ireland, the ideas I know were mainly invented in the 19th century by processes, particularly the process of migration. People going to Britain or Canada or the U.S. and rubbing up against Italians and Poles and suddenly being aware, 'Oh, we should have an identity like they do, too.' And we do have our own language, after all.

You don't know what your own country is fully like until you've been out of it for a while. I mean, when I said that about inventing Ireland, I meant I never thought of myself as Irish growing up here in Clontarf. I always thought of myself as a Dubliner. But it was only when I went to England and was told in Oxford that I was an Irish person — this at the height of a bombing campaign by the IRA in the 1970s — that I began to carry in my head almost an abstract idea of Ireland.

August 1971, British soldiers patrol the Bogside quarter of the city of Londonderry during clashes between the Catholic minority, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the one side, and Protestants and paramilitary groups on the other. Between 1970 and 1971, the IRA took up arms while Protestant loyalist militias attacked Catholics. (AFP via Getty Images)

Time and again in your writing, you're talking about what goes wrong when we don't listen to the artists. At this crucial moment when we are looking at this border and thinking about what the future holds, what to your eye are the artists telling us?

When the '98 Belfast Agreement went through, Ian Paisley [a Unionist politician] complained and said 'it's too poetic, it's too vague. It's not clear like legal language'. It was actually in some ways borrowed as language from the poetry like [Seamus] Heaney, who is often quoted by Clinton during the debates about the peace process. So yeah, this was another example of the future being what artists are.

I think that that really is the answer. That borders are necessary — they're helpful as long as they're soft. I'm always struck when I go to the U.S. by how much space there is and how people don't even bother sometimes building hedges between one garden and the next. 

You need a bit of a border, though. It's like what Robert Frost said that good fences make good neighbours. But if their fences get too high and too hard, that's bad. Or if they don't exist at all, that can be bad.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.