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THE DEGENERATE AND THE MARTYR: NATIONALIST PROPAGANDA AND THE CONTESTATION OF IRISHNESS, 1914–1918 JOHN S. ELLIS The years 1914–1918 witnessed a dramatic transformation in the politics and ideology of Irish nationalism. In a position of political dominance in 1914, the constitutionalist Irish Parliamentary Party under the leadership of John Redmond was all but annihilated in the General Election of 1918 by separatist Sinn Féin. The constitutionalists’ vision of a semiautonomous Irish nation existing in harmony within a multinational British state was effectively dethroned by an alternative vision of an Irish nation-state—Gaelic, Catholic, and fiercely independent. Much has been written on the national vision of individual Irish separatists during World War I; but less attention has been paid to the forms in which their national vision was disseminated, and how it successfully competed with a contrasting and initially more dominant constitutionalism .1 In its collections, the Trinity College Library carefully preserves a copy of the Proclamation of the Republic, its burned edges testifying to its original position on the wall of the General Post Office in 1916. An Irish Volunteer pasted it there, directly over a score of Irish recruiting posters that are also conserved at Trinity. The action of this unknown insurgent beautifully illustrates that the meaning of separatist propaganda can only NATIONALIST PROPAGANDA AND THE CONTESTATION OF IRISHNESS 7 1 For a recent exception see Thomas Hennessey, Dividing Ireland: World War I and Partition (New York: Routledge, 1998); for the ideology of the separatist leaders, see Sean Farrell Moran, Patrick Pearse and the Politics of Redemption (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1994); Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha and Theo Dorgan, eds., Revising the Rising (Derry: Field Day, 1991); Brian P. Murphy, Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal (Dublin: James Duffy, 1991); Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure (New York: Gollancz, 1978); Francis Shaw, “The Cannon of Irish History—A Challenge,” Studies (Summer 1972): 117–53; William Irwin Thompson, The Imagination of an Insurrection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967). be fully understood within the context of competition with other forms of propaganda flooding the streets of Ireland during the war.2 The separatists’ definition of the Irish nation must be examined in direct relation to its opposition to the constitutionalist form of nationalism that it sought to discredit and replace. Constitutional nationalists embraced the idea of a dual sense of national identity that was capable of embracing both British patriotism and Irish nationalism. They believed that once the national rights of Ireland were recognized through the granting of Home Rule, a new “union of hearts” would reconcile the Irish nation with the multinational British state and empire. In the wake of the passage of Home Rule and as a reflection of this new relationship, constitutionalists rallied to Britain’s side when it declared war against Germany in 1914. Constitutional nationalists defined World War I as a moral struggle for the rights of small nations, the vindication of the principle of nationality and the triumph of spiritual values over materialism. By joining the colors, constitutionalists argued, Irishmen were defending the principles of Irish nationhood and advancing the nationalist cause. The call to enlist was couched among nationalist iconography and symbolism that effectively joined Irish national sentiment with British imperial pride, constructing a dual sense of Irish-British identity. Separatists vigorously opposed the pluralism of this conception of national identity. Dismissing the idea of reconciliation between Ireland and Britain, separatists maintained that Irish loyalties should be to Ireland alone and that the idea of a dual sense of national identity was anathema to the principles of nationality. Separatist propagandists responded to the constitutionalist view of Irishness through contrasting images of “degenerate ” Irish soldiers fighting in the service of the British King and noble “martyrs” who died for the Irish cause. Rather than the champions of Irish nationhood, the “degenerate” soldiers who were slaughtered on the fields of France and the “corrupt” constitutionalists who recruited them embodied the Irish nation’s fall from grace. The tainted Irish nation could only be redeemed through the self-sacrifice of Irish patriots, a sacrifice approximating the salvation of mankind through the suffering of Christ. Since Irish constitutionalists monopolized...


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