Michael Mays's Nation States: The Cultures of Irish Nationalism proves to be a positive contribution to the debates about the connections between Irish culture, history, and national identity. Mays's book shares an affinity with theories of Irish national identity presented by scholars like Joe Cleary, David Lloyd, and Edna Longley. In addition to these Irish-centric scholars, Mays also engages with broader theories of nationalism and postcolonialism found in works by Benedict Anderson, Etienne Balibar, and Dominick LaCapra. Similar to both these sets of scholars, Mays argues that nationalism cannot be completely reduced to a homogenous and totally coherent force. For Mays nationalism is "not only the political project of establishing a state," but it also includes "the complex cultural and psychological affiliation of individuals to particular national identities and communities" (5). While his study acknowledges the competing forces inherent in Irish nationalism, his real focus is the process by which communities knit these competing forces into an "imagined ideal that is both [the] literal and figurative ground" for the values of "history, culture, and faith" (13). Mays's foothold into this "imagined ideal" is the process of memory; namely, the narratives, rituals, and symbols used by Irish and Northern Irish communities to create seemingly coherent national identities. Despite the power of this communal memory, however, the "nation is a fundamentally unstable formation in need of endless renewal and, as a result, open to all sorts of hegemonic [End Page 857] rearticulations" (19). These "rearticulations" become the precise focus of Mays's investigation of Irish nationalism and cultural memory.
As a whole, Mays's book is a well-written and concise look at the history of modern Ireland and Northern Ireland. In addition to his historical approach, Mays deploys readings of key literary texts to underscore the particular tensions in the development of nationalism. Yeats, in particular, gets the bulk of the literary attention in most of the Irish chapters. This methodological approach is one of the book's strengths, but it can be a drawback. One suspects that historians will be frustrated when the historical analysis is interrupted by Mays's literary readings that, while quite good, might not have the depth to interest a literary scholar.
To develop its investigation, the book's first chapter presents a discussion of how the process of national memory cohered, in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Ireland, around narratives of Mother Ireland. Irish nationalists used the symbol of Mother Ireland to transform established narratives of femininity into "exalted" nationalistic tropes that presented the nation as a "virtuous Irish spiritual alternative to sterile English materialism" (24). Against this unifying symbol of Mother Ireland, Mays uses Finnegans Wake as a counter-textual example that, in Joyce's literary bravado, exposes the gaps, conflicts, and muddles of Irish identity. The "magnificent strangeness" of Joyce's text exposes tropes of national unity as "the always-already interested effort to cobble together, out of the heterogeneous fragments of the past, homogeneous narratives" (35).
Mays continues to examine this interplay coherence and dissonance in the next three chapters that deal directly with Ireland's emergence into statehood. Mays's historical analysis covers roughly the post-Parnell period to the end of Éamon de Valera's government. He analyzes a number of major (and expected) figures from the period, such as Pádraig Pearse, James Stephens, AE, and Yeats. This middle section of the book follows a basic tripartite structure that classifies the narratives of the time as either "revising," "forging," or "evacuating" Irish nationalism. "Revising" narratives, such as those of Pearse, create a "distinctly nationalistic mode of memory: a mismemory marked as much by its amnesias, its distortions, and its fixations, as by its fidelity to historical fact" (43). According to Mays, the goal of "revised" narratives of Irish nationalism is to linguistically, culturally, and, to some extent, historically separate Ireland from its complex colonial history and give the nation a fabricated yet coherent origin. The element of "forging" focuses on how Irish politicians and writers attempted to create "a unified national identity capable of integrating...