Nationalism, Catholicism and Constructing Cultural Identity

On May 16, 2012

Important debate continues as to whether a nationalist, Catholic Irish cultural identity is sustainable (Smyth 2012, Penet 2008, Laws 2012, Moffatt 2011). With multiple reports of abuse within the church, many Irish are seeking to distance themselves from the organisation, while globalisation and disenfranchisement with government (post-Celtic Tiger) have left the people of Ireland seeking new cultural steerage. Due to many factors, Music, alongside other creative cultural industries, have boomed in the past 20 years, as Ireland also grew further from the church and purist nationalist ideals. To understand this debate, we must highlight how nationalism and catholicism came to lead the nation and Ireland’s current need for a new cultural leader.

The revival of the Irish arts began to take off in the 1890s; it acted to curtail the demise of Irish native language, literacy, music and dance, all of which had been outlawed under British colonial rule. The British had worked to replace the traditional Gaelic language with the ‘modern’ English and had likewise suppressed outlets for traditional music and dancing (McCarthy 1999, p. 55). In 1893, however, Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was formed to preserve Irish culture and language. It was also the base from which some Irish nationalist planned an uprising against British Rule (Ó Croidheáin 2006, p. 154).

The 1930s saw Ireland’s government begin bowing to pressure from the Catholic church. The ‘Anti-Jazz’ campaign of 1934 was led by a reaction to foreign music’s influence on public morality (Brennan 2011).  The Public Dance Halls Act of 1935 was soon made law, meaning public gatherings in local halls were licensed and monitored by local government and clergy. Similar restrictions in media and publications were enforced, monitored for blasphemy and heresy.

Nationalism and Catholicism became intrinsically linked, in part because of the dual oppression of cultural and religious expression during occupation. The Irish Free State made it compulsory for state schools to teach the Irish language and education would be led by the church. After the establishment of a Republic in 1937, overt wording in the Irish Constitution supported nationalist and Catholic values and in turn fostered anti-British sentiment.

Irish writers James Joyce and WB Yeats wrote both before and after independence and commented on both cultural instances. Yeats, rejected ideas of cultural hybridity and spoke negatively of the rural, peasant models of Irishness – what he saw as a crude representation of the real traditions. Joyce welcomed the translational hybridity of Irish identity but preferred ideas of a fluid cultural cosmopolitanism rather than one of racial nationalism (Gillespie 2001, p.86). Douglas Hyde, founder of Conradh na Gaeilge, held ideals of an Ireland from a previous era: of fairytales, heroic stories and Gaelic mythology. Like Yeats, he believed the native language was a pure pathway to a true Irish identity which encompassed traditional artistic practices. 

Ireland was shackled by the purists of nationalism and Catholicism.  The church was in charge of education, while the government brought in protectionist policies and distanced themselves from global economics and politics. Globalisation crept in, however, and Ireland could not avoid external influences. After joining the European Union in 1973, respite in new laws and sanctions was found away from the government and its guidance by the church – a key moment in its decline (Banks 2008, p. 64). Globalisation allowed foreign music and film to flood the country, and this was reflected in the music being created. The country experienced series of economic peaks and troughs over the next two decades, alongside multinationalism, multiculturalism and further emigration. Ireland’s nationalist, Catholic identity was slowly watered down by what was leaving and entering the island. 

The Celtic Tiger economic boom in the mid-1990s coincided with a fresh cultural outpouring: the rise of the Irish pop industry through Boyzone, Westlife, The Corrs, Bewitched and The Cranberries, the emergence of Riverdance (and similar shows) and successful films such as ‘In The Name of The Father’‘The Commitments’, ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and ‘Michael Collins’ – all movies which reflect important watersheds of Irish cultural identity. It enabled the country to produce creative cultural industries (Keohane et al, n.d.) (Hazelkorn 2001 p. 2) and an independent music industry from Britain – The IMRO (Cogan 2008 p. 65).

However, with Ireland today in economic crisis through the failings of the government and the banking sector, alongside a church in dire straits over multiple allegations of sexual abuse and its loss of influence in areas of education, health care and policy, it is easy to understand the shift from a nationalist, Catholic Irish identity (Smyth 2008 p.149). The wealth Ireland has experienced has created a far more materialistic country and one in tune with the global marketplace. As such, it has built a successful creative cultural, connected to a vast diaspora network to guarantee an audience for cultural exports (Issue 5). These liberal arts sectors thrive off the changes in Irish identity through globalisation, immigration, and individualism (Penet 2008 p.148-149). The government must rebuild its reputation, and through elections and policy changes it may do so. The catholic church may find that harder to do. 


Banks, M. (2008) Modern Ireland: multinationals and multiculturalism; Information, Society and Justice, Volume 2.1, December 2008: pp 63-93. London Metropolitan University [online]. Available at <> (accessed 28 April 2012)

Brennan, C. (2011) The Anti-Jazz Campaign; The Irish Story [online]. Available at: < 5 May 2012)

Coogan, V. (2008) U2: An Irish Phenomenon; New York: Pegasus Books

Gillespie. M. (2001) James Joyce and the Fabrication of Irish Identity; Amsterdam: Rodopi

Hazelkorn, E. (2001) The Dynamics of Cultural Production in Ireland: Economic Strategy, Digital Technology and Public Policy Making; Dublin Institute of Technology [online]. Available at <> (accessed 30 April 2012)

Keohan, K., Kavanagh, D., Kuhling, C.; (n.d.), The Creative Scene of Riverdance:  Artrepreneurship and the Celtic Tiger; Cork: University College Cork.

Laws, J. (2012) Generation Bailout Art, Psycho-Geography, and ‘The Irish Mind’ debate; Variant [online]. Available at < 12 May 2012).

McCarthy, M. (1999) Passing It on: The Transmission of Music in Irish Culture; Cork: Cork University Press.

Moffatt, J. (2011), Paradigms of Irishness for Young People in Dublin; The National University of Ireland Maynooth [online]. Available at <…> (accessed 26 April 2012).

Ó Croidheáin, C. (2006) Language from Below: The Irish Language, Ideology and Power in 20th-Century Ireland; Bern: Peter Lang Press

Penet, J. (2008) From Idealised Moral Community to Real Tiger Society. The Catholic Church in Secular Ireland;  Estudios Irlandeses, 3, p. 143-153

Smyth, G. (2012) Irish National Identity after the Celtic Tiger; Estudios Irlandeses, 7,  p.132-137


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