Gendered Nation and Nationhood: The Case of Irish Nationalism

Saga Jaubert graduated from King’s last year with a degree in War Studies and History, and is now studying for a Master’s in Public Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. She is interested in international affairs focusing on conflicts and intelligence, and is passionate about feminist issues and their manifestation in everyday life.

[Featured Image: Walter Paget, Birth of the Irish Republic (Date Unknown, ~before 1936). The painting depicts the 1916 Easter Rising inside the General Post Office in Dublin, during which Irish nationalists took over key buildings in the city to stand up to British rule of Ireland. The artwork shows Irish nationalists fighting, while female nurses attend wounded soldiers on the ground. Source.]

Few topics of study overlap as often and extensively as nationalism and gender studies do. Nationalism infamously collects a variety of traditionally masculine adjectives: whereas patriotism calls forth feelings of belonging, loyalty, and pride vis-à-vis one’s country, nationalism takes on a strongly masculine nature when it comes to defending the nation against aggression. Throughout the ages, the fusion of the concepts of masculinity and violence produced a general societal consensus that perceived the defence of the realm as a profoundly gendered national duty. [1] While the most obvious example is surely that of the valiant knight in shining armour, so brave for his nation yet so chivalrous for his lady, other chapters from history books offer interesting cases of gendered power structures. In colonial and post-colonial eras especially, the exploitative relationship between the colonizing power and the colonized people was a highly gendered one: the imperial state boasted its strength, authority and rationality to emphasize the weakness and inferiority of the oppressed party. [2] Feminizing the latter by presenting them as uneducated, overly emotional and feeble enabled imperial powers to ‘justify’ the colonized people’s ‘unfitness’ to govern their own territory, thereby ‘legitimizing’ the colonial enterprise.

The case of Ireland under British rule is an interesting example of gender seeping through such power dynamics. While Ireland was not a colony per se, we find similar gendered colonial discourses on both the English and Irish sides in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Irish were seen as weak and ‘primitive’ people, ‘unfit’ to rule the island of Ireland; demeaning slurs appeared in English newspapers, claiming that ‘the eternal Paddy was forever a Celt, a Catholic, and a peasant’. [3] The British government’s perception of the Irish as an ‘inferior’ people stemmed in great part from religious, ethnic, and class differences between the two countries. The depiction of the Celts as an ‘essentially feminine race’ therefore served to bring these various ‘justifications’ under the umbrella of a gendered colonial relationship between the dominant, intellectual British imperial government and the primitive, superstitious, and weak Irish people. [4] The feminization and emasculation of the opposing party thus acted as a tool to neutralize it.

The rise and organisation of advanced Irish nationalism – armed and republican, that is – around a very masculine and virile national identity in the 19th and 20th centuries must therefore be understood as partly a response to the humiliation endured by the Irish people in the belittling of their civilization. Firstly, the Irish Literary Revival provided a spur for the Irish to look into their past and root up their Celtic origins, drawing inspiration from ancient Celtic mythology and fairy folklore to form a new Irish literary tradition devoid of English influence. [5] The mythological warrior figure of Cú Chulainn, hero of the Celts, became a symbol of hypermasculinity and virility for many Irish nationalists – not least the poet and Irish Republican Brotherhood leader Pádraig Pearse – who saw themselves as the inheritors of their civilization’s struggle against the enemy. [6] The reconnection with ancient Celtic civilization served to strengthen the idea of a ‘Gaelic manliness’ to counter British gendered power dynamics.[7]

In addition to emphasizing the ‘Celtic masculinity’ that ran in Irish veins, nationalists ‘turned to sports to redefine the body of the nation’. [8] The Gaelic Athletic Association, created in 1884, sought to ‘purge the Saxon influence’ by formalizing the practice of traditionally Irish sports such as Gaelic football and hurling, but also aimed to dismantle emasculating discourses by showing that young Irish men could ‘[match] physical strength with self-discipline’: what Sikata Banerjee called ‘muscular nationalism’ is perhaps one of the most direct and overt associations of nationalism with virile, masculine power, and was employed by Indian nationalists as well in their opposition to the British government. [9]

The ambition of ‘[creating] a more honourable self-image’ to reach national sovereignty therefore trickled through almost every aspect of the construction of a distinctly Irish national identity, from the establishment of a quasi-training programme for the national youth to digging up the historical roots of ancient Irish civilization.[10] However, restoring Irish nationalists’ dignity as men fit to govern their country ultimately meant finding a gendered benchmark, another group or party against which they could reassert their manliness. This required playing along with the gendered power structures imposed by British colonial narratives, and it is not surprising that internal male-female polarities came to mirror the external masculine-feminine tensions to which the nation was subjected. [11]

The Irish nationalist movement developed in a manner that not only distanced women from the concept of nationhood, but also was at odds with the sustained portrayal of Ireland, Eire, as a woman. Some historians have argued that the depiction of the ‘motherland’ as a damsel in distress clashed with Irish nationalists’ masculine image: their identification with a country which they themselves referred to as feminine contradicted their efforts to reverse British emasculating discourses. [12] At the same time, one could say that the perception of a clear discontinuity between the country and its people – the realm to defend being ‘female’, and those tasked with its defence being the ‘male’ nationalists – served to reinforce their image as brave, selfless men dying for their country. In fact, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during the 1916 Easter Rising rested on that very male-female dichotomy, referring to the ‘children’ of Ireland being summoned to ‘her flag’ to fight for ‘her freedom’. [13] However, the separation of the ‘female’ country from the ‘male’ people raises further questions regarding the perception of the nation and women in the construction of Irish nationhood. Firstly, the realm to defend being depicted as a woman shows the unicity of the female experience within the nationalist movement and excludes Irish women other than from playing a central role in the national psyche: one woman, and woman only – ‘Mother Eire’ – is included in the nationalist narrative. Secondly, the attribution of a masculine persona to the ‘people’ results in Irish nationalists being given the exclusive representation of the people, thereby casting women as passive actors, if actors at all, as opposed to their active, male counterparts tasked with carving the country into a nation. Such a vision of the nation obviously alienates the female population not only from the nationalist struggle, but also from the national identity that is being carved.

What about Irish women, then? Women were generally given a merely supporting role in the advanced nationalist movement and were consequently distanced from the nationhood narrative.[14] Certain prominent female figures, such as Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, and Maud Gonne, do stand out from the crowd, but women were generally much less involved in armed, republican nationalism and often turned to women workers’ rights and other forms of social activism. [15] The Irish Republican Brotherhood’s emphasis on the need for ‘blood sacrifice’ by the ‘sons of Ireland’ for the national cause served to exclude women nationalists from what was presented as the only just and legitimate fight for Irish independence. [16] Eamonn De Valera, second Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland, stated that ‘women are at once the boldest and most unmanageable revolutionaries’, summing up how women were very much seen as an unknown and a nuisance in the nationalist movement. [17]

The question of gendered nationalism is one of the utmost importance given its repercussions on the formation of a new-born nation around a common identity to which individuals can relate. Women’s ‘othering’ from nationalist movements results in the crystallisation of a profoundly gendered national history, from which female and minority voices are consistently excluded. This reinforces the importance of providing alternative readings of the past, and even looking to the present for patterns and trends that may have withstood the test of both time and progressive societal developments. Whether or not vestiges of gendered nationalism persist in contemporary Ireland is beyond the scope of this article, and one must of course be wary of drawing direct and indisputable links between present-day male privilege as presented by Pat O’Connor in ‘Ireland: A Man’s World?’ and its 1900 equivalent. Nevertheless, it reminds us of the need to rethink our relationship to our ‘motherland‘ or ‘fatherland’, and to look for the deeper roots of our attachment to our native countries.

Footnotes

[1] Fidelma Ashe, ‘Gendering War and Peace: Militarized Masculinities in Northern Ireland’, Men and Masculinities, vol.15 no.3 (2012), p.236.

[2] Lorna Stevens, Pauline Maclaran, and Stephen Brown, ‘Gender, Nationality and Cultural Representation of Ireland: An Irish Woman’s Place?’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol.7 (2000), p.409.

[3] Aidan Beatty, Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938 (Palgrave London, 2016), p.4.

[4] Stevens, Maclaran, and Brown, ‘An Irish Woman’s Place?’, p.408.

[5] Maryna Romanets, ‘Denegerating the Myth of Transhistorical Masculinity: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Cú Chulainn Cycle’, Nordic Irish Studies, vol.2 (2003), p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Ibid., p.58.

[8] Tracey Teets Schwarze, ‘”Do you call that a man ?”: The culture of anxious masculinity in Joyce’s “Ulysses”’, European Joyce Studies, vol.10 (2001), p.121.

[9] Ibid., p.121; Martin Francis, ‘The Domestication of the Male? Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Masculinity’, The Historical Journal, vol.45 no.3 (2002), p.651; Sikata Banerjee, Muscular Nationalism: Gender, Violence, and Empire in India and Ireland, 1914-2004 (New York, 2012), p.7.

[10] Beatty, Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, p.6.

[11] Romanets, ‘Denegerating the Myth of Transhistorical Masculinity’, p.58.

[12] Stevens, Maclaran, and Brown, ‘An Irish Woman’s Place?’, p.409.

[13] The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 24 April 1916, accessible from: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/pir24416.htm [Accessed 15 September 2020].

[14] Romanets, ‘Denegerating the Myth of Transhistorical Masculinity’, p.58.

[15] Stevens, Maclaran, and Brown, ‘An Irish Woman’s Place?’, p.409.

[16] Michael Böss, ‘Country of Light: The Personal Nation of Patrick Pearse’, Irish University Review, vol.30 no.2 (2000), p.272.

[17] Stevens, Maclaran, and Brown, ‘An Irish Woman’s Place?’, p.409.

Bibliography

Ashe, Fidelma, ‘Gendering War and Peace: Militarized Masculinities in Northern Ireland’, Men and Masculinities, vol.15 no.3 (2012), pp.230-248.

Banerjee, Sikata, Muscular Nationalism: Gender, Violence, and Empire in India and Ireland, 1914-2004 (New York, 2012).

Beatty, Aidan, Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938 (Palgrave London, 2016).

Böss, Michael, ‘Country of Light: The Personal Nation of Patrick Pearse’, Irish University Review, vol.30 no.2 (2000), pp.272-288.

Francis, Martin, ‘The Domestication of the Male? Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Masculinity’, The Historical Journal, vol.45 no.3 (2002), pp.637-652.

Gosine, Andil, ‘Marginalization Myths and the Complexity of “Men”: Engaging Critical Conversations about Irish and Caribbean Masculinities’, Men and Masculinities, vol.9 no.3 (2007), pp.337-357.

Morgan, Eileen, ‘Ireland’s Lost Action Hero: “Michael Collins”, a Secret History of Irish Masculinity’, New Hibernia Review, vol.2 no.1 (1998), pp.26-42.

O’Connor, Pat, ‘Ireland: A Man’s World?’, The Economic and Social Review, vol.31 no.1 (2000), pp.81-102.

Romanets, Maryna, ‘Degenerating the Myth of Transhistorical Masculinity: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Cú Chulainn Cycle’, Nordic Irish Studies, vol.2 (2003), pp.57-74.

Spike Peterson, V., ‘Political Identities/Nationalism as Heterosexism’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol.1 no.1 (1999), pp.34-65.

Stevens, Lorna, Stephen Brown, and Pauline Maclaran, ‘Gender, Nationality and Cultural Representations of Ireland: An Irish Woman’s Place?’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol.7 (2000), pp.405-421.

Teets Schwarze, Tracey, ‘”Do you call that a man?”: The culture of anxious masculinity in Joyce’s Ulysses‘, European Joyce Studies, vol.10 (2001), pp.113-135.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 24 April 1916, accessible from: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/pir24416.htm [Accessed 15 September 2020].

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