1916 and all that
Benedict Anderson’s classic account of the history of nationalism, Imagined Communities (1982, rev. 1993) asks a simple question in its early pages: why is it so hard for us to imagine someone who possesses no nationality? After all, “nation” is hardly a precise concept. It is not a tribe, or an ethnicity, or even a language community. Nationality cuts across all of these.
The book’s title gives the answer: nations are communities that have imagined themselves into existence and in the process have made it impossible for any member to conceive of existence outside a similar community. Though he says little about Ireland directly, many of Anderson’s insights throw brilliant flashes onto our own history.
Take the Gaelic Revival and the wave of Irish nationalism that lead to 1916. The compelling story at the heart of the movement was of reawakening: an ancient people was rising from centuries-long slumber to reclaim self-government, language, culture, sport . . . The book shows that this image of the sleeping giant coming back to life is present in every single 19th-century European nationalist movement: it appears in Greece, Finland, Bohemia, Hungary, Germany. And these giants were fictional, idealised versions of a pure and distant past pressed into the service of modern political aims. So the Gaelic Revival should more accurately have been the Gaelic Reinvention.
Restoring vernacular languages was a key aim of this nationalism-as-reawakening, and the most vital factor in securing its success in Europe, Anderson argues, was the pre-existence of vernacular newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, all the paraphernalia of what he calls “print-capitalism”. By this account, our Irish language revival failed not (just) because so many of us were shoneens, but because printed Irish never had the chance to become a medium of commercial culture in the eighteenth century.
1916 was the most successful act of national re-imagining possible. It invented the nation which we still live inside. Anyone interested in the deep history that made the Rising possible should read Imagined Communities.