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  • The Irish Revolution and World History:Nation, Race, and Civilization in the Rhetoric of the Irish Revolutionary Generation
  • Jason Knirck (bio)

As the first Dáil was debating the wisdom of Irish support for the League of Nations, Deputy Terence MacSwiney arose and noted that "no League would be permanent if small and large nations were not admitted on equal terms. It could not be permanent if Germany and the neutral countries were not equally admitted. Ireland was the test case."1 At first glance this statement appears to be an example of Irish nationalist self-importance that verges on the ridiculous. Of all the issues that could bedevil the creation of the League of Nations, the status of Ireland seems rather far down the list. But if examined in the context of Irish revolutionary rhetoric about the rest of the world, the comment becomes more comprehensible. Sinn Féin took seriously President Wilson's language about self-determination and the rights of small nations, and thought that the postwar order would be based on a system of equality between large and small countries. As victims of British imperialism, Irish nationalists also anticipated the breakup of European empires in the wake of the First World War. Thus the creation of Dáil Éireann in Ireland, combined with the near-universal hope that the days of large empires were over—what one historian has dubbed "the Wilsonian moment"—led Sinn Féiners and other Irish revolutionaries to magnify Ireland's importance in [End Page 157] the coming postwar settlement.2 As a colonized region whose leaders considered it to be a small, European, civilized nation, Ireland did seem to be a suitable case to test the intentions of the victorious powers—in particular, the United States—in creating a postwar order based on equality, rational discussion, and decolonization. When MacSwiney made this comment in April 1919, President Wilson had already proven unsympathetic to the Irish case and to its Irish American representatives in Paris, and suspicion of American intent was already appearing in the ranks of Sinn Féin. Given how the revolutionary movement saw Ireland as a crucial contact zone between the old world and the new, empire and decolonization, Europeanness and ethnic difference, it seems less absurd that those same revolutionaries would seek to elevate the Irish case into a vital component of the postwar settlement. While nationalists in Vietnam, Egypt, and India undoubtedly thought the same about the positions of their respective countries, MacSwiney's comment reveals fundamental assumptions that many members of Sinn Féin made about the rest of the world and Ireland's primacy in it.

Most of these assumptions rested on or were expressed through analogies to other situations that had arisen in imperial and world history. Analogies, of course, are always dangerous terrain for nationalists, as uniqueness is the fundamental assumption of any nationalism, but the perceived definitions of each unique nation also rest on implicit or explicit differences from other nations.3 Thus an argument from analogy risks either undermining the singularity of the nation or categorizing it with other nations in a way that jeopardizes the nation's self-image. De Valera recognized this as the Dáil was preparing to appoint plenipotentiaries to conduct negotiations in London in 1921. He declared, "Nothing disgusted him so much as introducing analogies when there was no analogy there. Their position was totally different to that of the American states or South Africa, and let them deal with plain facts."4 De Valera perhaps had particular reason to be [End Page 158] wary of analogies, having been burned politically by an ill-conceived attempt to compare Ireland to Cuba while touring the United States in 1920. Nevertheless, Irish revolutionaries often saw a need to place their country, themselves, and their revolution in a global context when defending, promoting, or evaluating their case. Recent historiography has exploded the notion that Irish nationalism was particularly insular, and the engagement of Irish nationalists with the rest of the world—particularly the colonized world—has become much better analyzed over the past decade or so. In particular, it has been shown that well before the revolutionary period "Irish...


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