- Nation States: The Cultures of Irish Nationalism
Michael Mays begins his consideration of nationalism in Ireland over the last two centuries by citing George Bernard Shaw: “A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones” (1).1 He continues quoting Shaw, who noted that if “you break a nation’s nationality, it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the Nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation” (1). Just as nationalism subordinates “other commitments [End Page 620] to itself” (6), this interesting study uses nationalism as a main frame to determine the texts considered but also ambitiously considers, in subtext, other ideas that intersect and overlap with the central one: postcolonialism, literary history, and theories of modernity, for instance. Like many of the more readable academic texts that have been published in recent decades, Nation States takes a multi-theoretical and interdisciplinary approach that might be said better to reflect that elusive thing, an historical reality.
Committed to this type of representation, the author notes that “[a] cultural history of Irish nationalism since the Act of Union of 1801 cannot escape, even if it wished to, considerations of memory and its various histories” (7). Mays argues that academia’s surging interest in memory suggests the need for
not “harder” history, but rather a cultural history attentive to the manifold forms of memory, both critical of those forms yet cognizant of their potency; a cultural history genuinely complementary to archival history, and not merely a history of cultural forms, not a subspecies or branch of history proper, but a field of inquiry in its own right; a cultural history whose realm is the archive, not of objective documentary evidence, but of subjective affect and emotion; in short, a cultural history capable of studying the effects of affect.(8–9)
Mays here lands himself in the middle of a complex and ongoing debate about the role of memory in historical studies (as well as the role of history in memory studies). While memory is secondary to his considerations of Irish nationalism, this text does add to the growing body of work that considers cultural memory generally and cultural memory and Irishness particularly. That he acknowledges the claims—and emotional impact—of memory on nationalism is important.
Following this setting of the boundaries, Mays leaps into Finnegans Wake, which he argues is a “model for a critical postcolonial history that dissects those processes through which ‘fuzzy’ memory instantiates itself as ‘concrete’ history” (9). Early Irish nationalists, Mays suggests, were in the position of having to create and/or authenticate an Irish history that was glorious and far from the suffering and defeat that frequently marked the present. The result was often the invented tradition and the appearance of a return to origins, encapsulated clearly, for instance, in “Mother Ireland.” Early Revivalists’ reliance on an exalted feminine form of the Irish nation—seen most obviously in W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan2—and the simultaneous remasculinization of the nation promised a kind of restoration of some “true” history and lost Irish identity. The Wake offers, by contrast, an uncertain confrontation between history and memory. [End Page 621] Mays argues that
[w]hat Joyce dramatizes in Finnegans Wake is the relentless effort, incited by need and desire, to discover that [lost] identity by reconstructing it in monumental detail with the aid of identity-confirming facts, documents, stories, and archives. Juxtaposed against the solidity of these forms of “history,” however, are the vagaries of “memory,” the identity-shattering melange of gossip, rumor, innuendo, and of faux pas, Freudian slips, and indiscretions.(10)
If the nationalist impulse is to employ “sense-making strategies,” the impulse governing the Wake is a celebration of “magisterial strangeness” (26). It is unfortunate that Mays turns only briefly to Joyce and to Finnegans Wake, since any...