De Valera and the Construction of Irish Identity

Here is a post I wrote a while back and thought I would share with you all. A little historical analysis.

Identity is an important part of one’s self, but also a fragile part. A person may have multiple identities, or may struggle to conceive a single one. Many things can occur in a lifetime which may play a part in affecting, destroying or creating a person’s identity. Looking back through history, it seems decolonization is a strong determining factor of such a process.

Decolonization frequently plays a role in the formation of identity; or rather it can strip a person of one sense of identity while providing space for them to develop another. However, more often than not, those who have been through the process of decolonization are often left with a mixed sense of identity.

Ireland was left at the sidelines of identity following its independence from the United Kingdom. Having been ruled by its neighbor for a long period of time, and following a long struggle in the fight for independence, Ireland as a sovereign state was determined to develop its own identity, one completely distinct from that of the UK. This was not an easy task to carry through. People had become accustomed to the British way of life, the north of the country was still in the power of the UK, and English was the native language, among many other reasons. Therefore, one man took it upon himself to build a totally unique identity for Ireland, Eamon de Valera.

De Valera had a specific idea of the type of identity he wanted Ireland to encompass. Firstly, he wanted Ireland to have a predominately Catholic identity. Although the majority of Irish citizens had a strong Catholic faith at the time, the religion was still injected into every avenue of Irish life, predominantly in schools. This was due to the strong relationship between the church and the state. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church was given a special mention in the Irish Constitution until it was removed through a referendum many years later.

More so than Ireland having a strong Catholic identity, de Valera imagined a strong rural identity for the country. This view is the basis of his famous St. Patrick’s Day ‘Dream’ Speech in which he described his vision of Ireland as a country with ‘cosy homesteads’ and ‘comely’ maidens. It was this romantic vision which played a part in the construction of the rural Irish identity. He dreamt of an agricultural-based, sovereign country and as de Valera was an influential speaker, he soon had the Irish people reverting to his way of thinking.

This Irish identity of de Valera’s was taken on board by the people and for many years Ireland was a predominately Catholic, rural, agricultural country. However, time changes people and now Ireland is beginning to evolve a new identity. The strength of the Catholic Church is wavering what with the introduction of divorce and the numbers attending church faltering significantly. The agricultural sector is no longer the principal career choice as Ireland growing massively in the technological sector. There has even been a large shift in the demographics of the country with many people choosing to live in urban rather than rural areas. All in all, de Valera’s Irish identity has almost faded into extinction. Ireland has instead sought to take on a new cosmopolitan identity, however the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger is sure to alter the definition of Irish identity once again.

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