The understanding of Ireland and Irish identity that many Irish-Americans labor under was set out memorably by Professor Thomas Corcoran of University College Dublin in an essay in the 1920s in which he wrote: “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.”
F.S.L. Lyons, a distinguished historian at Trinity College Dublin, argued that it is precisely this understanding that stands as one of the roots of the political and cultural problems that plagues Northern Ireland. Not only have the Catholic and Protestant communities failed to live together harmoniously, but an excessively narrow understanding of Irish identity on the part of Catholics continues to define the Protestant majority as non-Irish.
A version of the same problem continues to exist, albeit to a much lesser degree, in the Republic of Ireland. A small but significant portion of the population is Anglo-Irish. Many have strong cultural ties with Great Britain. However, the Catholic majority in the Republic generally refuses to acknowledge the great contribution of the Anglo-Irish tradition over the centuries.
By the Anglo-Irish tradition, I mean that embodied in the homogenous, yet numerically small community in the southern provinces that originated with the Norman and Elizabethan invasions and forged for itself cultural, intellectual, and political achievements that were quite remarkable.
This was the tradition that gave the literary world Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Lady (Augusta) Gregory, W.B. Yeats, and C.S Lewis.
Among its most prominent intellectuals were George Berkeley and Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism. Some of the most distinguished scientists and business leaders of the day were members of this community.
The Anglo-Irish community provided the United Kingdom with one of its greatest soldiers in the person of the Duke of Wellington, and a prime minister in the person of George Canning. Some very influential Irishmen were among its numbers, as were numerous members of the diplomatic corps, army, and navy.
What sparked the remarkable phenomenon in which the Anglo-Irish tradition emerged so powerfully? In my opinion, it was the marriage of Gaelic mysticism and imagination with British order and efficiency. If the soul of the Gael is fiery and poetic, the English soul is sensible and disciplined. When the marriage of the two worked, it was magnificent, giving rise to what has rightly been recognized as one of history’s most brilliant minorities.
The sad fact, of course, is that the marriage didn’t last. The tragedy of the English embrace of Ireland is that what began with the 12th century Norman invasions was only a half conquest, a failed experiment. As historian Fr. F.X. Martin has pointed out, if the conquest had been completed “a new nation would have emerged, combining the qualities of both peoples.”
However, when most of Ireland achieved political separation from the United Kingdom in 1922, the Anglo-Irish tradition, for long an integral part of Ireland, was defined as non-Irish and alien, and the country was sucked into a bog of Gaelic romanticism.
But the remnants of the Anglo-Irish tradition remain. They are there in the ruined and abandoned castles, in the remains of once-beautiful Dublin, and in the decaying gentility of provincial towns. They survive in the few fine institutions and academies allowed to retain the title “royal,” and in the tolerated excellence of Anglo-Irish culture.
This tradition will, as usual, be overwhelmingly ignored on St. Patrick’s Day – which is why some Irish men and women are found to be not particularly amused on that day.