Longley: unsquashing complexity?

For the second issue of Britain and Ireland, I interviewed the leading academic and literary critic Edna Longley. Born in Dublin, Longley has spent most of her working life in Northern Ireland. It’s a cultural space in which she values greatly. In the early section she calls for a more rigorous historical re-evaluation of some of the grand narratives that have dominated public concepts of Irishness and Britishness:

I just don’t think that these narratives, whether articulated by Heaney or Kiberd, are historical at all. They are not based on historical analysis or historical thinking. They are literary or literary-critical notions, which yield diminishing returns. In some ways, too, they are very much post-1922 narratives, shaped by nationalist ideology and cultural stereotype. I think, ideally, we need to unravel (and the process of unravelling has begun) those narratives. Some people think, or want to think, that ‘revisionism’ is over. In fact, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

Indeed she argues that for all the reality of shared British and Irish spaces, the underlying complexity of identity has tended to be squeezed in Britain and Ireland:

It has been shown that this is the part of Europe in which two jurisdictions interpenetrate most extensively, where there has been the most enormous, complex and continuing historical traffic. I don’t deny that the flow of power has been mainly one-way. Yet I think at the moment we are liable to disregard the complexity of that traffic, despite all the talk about multiculturalism, because ethnic identity, national identity, is now more emphasised everywhere than would have been the case forty years ago. In fact – to use your terms – post-modernity or supposed post-nationalism seem to be producing their opposites. For example, I was just looking at Christopher Bryant’s ‘The Nations of Britain’, published this year, and his statistics indeed show that people in Scotland, Wales and England are now more likely to identify themselves as Scottish, Welsh or English rather than British. Unsurprisingly, this tendency is most pronounced in Scotland and least so in England. Nonetheless, a sense of national identity and ethnicity is much stronger all round than it used to be.

  • Brian Boru

    “Some people think, or want to think, that ‘revisionism’ is over. In fact, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.”

    I have to disagree with this. One form revisionism has taken is to label the 1916 rebels as criminals or terrorists, such as the Reform Movement on their website. I resent such a caricature. Admittedly support for them at the time wasn’t widespread until they were executed and set off events leading to the rise of SF and Southern Irish independence, but that is one major reason why we down here owe our freedom to them. They should not be so denigrated. I reject Edna’s allusion to the “murky” origins of the Southern state. We have nothing to apologise for.

  • Joe

    There has certainly been an identity crisis among a section of the Northern Irish population for a very long time. I have worked with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people from the U.K. over the past 40 years and have yet to hear them describe themselves as anything other than English, Scottish or Welsh. The only people I have met who call themselves British are people from the protestant background in N.I.
    Incidentally, after he was ousted from power back in the 60’s, the P.M. Terence O’Neill was interviwed at length by the B.B.C. One question asked was “What nationality do you consider yourself?” His reply was “I don’t really know.” This, from a member of one of the great Irish families!

  • Crataegus

    Why not, history is constantly being re-examined and often distance and time help improve and widen perspective. It is not a question of undermining cherished beliefs or identities, but perhaps broadening them out; maturing them somewhat. I agree the interrelationships are complex and often the simplistic models lead to unnecessary division and conflict. The reality is the diversity and complexity enriches the identity.

  • George

    While Ireland (Republic of) certainly has gone some way to addressing the “British” parts of its makeup and has a very long way to go before being at peace with all the cultural intertwining, I do feel that Britain itself hasn’t really started down the road of contemplating the idea of shared space.

    Maybe the Northern Ireland “issue” is scaring off those from across the water who want to look into this shared space.

    Maybe the BBC should get the ball rolling and commission a TV programmed called “what have the Irish ever done for us?”

    Well Mick,
    are you nostalgic for some lost unity in Ireland that Longley thinks might never have existed.

  • Crataegus


    What Nationality am I? My grandparents were Irish, Scottish, English and German. (Great grandparents even more diverse) I was born in Germany and spent my early years with my German Gran in India. I live in NI the greatest percentage of my life but have relations in the Republic, England, Scotland, Wales, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, Turkey, Algeria, Argentina not to mention Canada, Australia etc.

    What am I ?? German because I was born there? Indian because I happened to spend a fair portion of my first 5 years there, Irish because I once lived in Dublin, or perhaps English because I lived in London.

    What on earth does it matter?!?!?**?! Don’t get hung up on National identity and just accept people as individuals. We live in an increasingly inter-related world and often the question is increasingly difficult to answer.

    Do I feel I belong to any particular Nation NO and glad of it.

  • BogExile


    Another acerbic post.

    You are of course, like the rest of us, a mongrel. The issue only really becomes fraught if the nationality you cleave to is clearly threatened. For example, when a silly poster like Joe misrepresents a valid sense of identity – Britishness as ‘a crisis.’ Then like any self respecting mongrel, you’ll bear your teeth…!

  • Joe

    Did I just hear Bogexile play the man?

    I simply stated a fact that I know from personal experience.
    Certainly people are free to feel whatever they like about their nationality. It usually goes with whatever passport they carry (mine is canadian).
    N.I. is not part of Britain. It is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain AND Northern Ireland. The people of the north are mostly Irish (or if they prefer it, Northern Irish) and they should not be ashamed to say it.

  • BogExile

    Or even ‘bare’ your teeth!
    And another thing, EL says in her interview of reconcilliation:

    ‘..But it’s a matter of arriving at the right ratio between forgetting what retards us and remembering what will help us.’

    That is as always from Edna a beautifully balanced piece of prose but how can it be achieved?

    I know on one level that the sense of hurt I have as a Unionist who has lost a relative to republican terrorists in a sense ‘retards’ my ability to reconcile myself with those republicans who have genuinely eschewed violence and may in all sincerity want to persuade me to have a future in a UI.

    Put simply, if I can’t forget I can’t forgive. I don’t know how to forget and I’d always know my way to Edna’s monument to amnesia!

  • Joe

    Can you point to the place in my first post where I said that poeople should not be treated as individuals.
    I am not personally tied up in Nationality. I said some other people seemed to be.
    I have also lived and worked in other countries and with dozens of people from other countries.
    I have met very few people who are not decent folks and I have the utmost respect for those whose company and diversity i have been allowed to enjoy.
    Have a nice day.

  • BogExile

    ‘…people are free to feel whatever they like about their nationality.’

    ‘The people of the north are mostly Irish.’

    So lets see, Joe: What you must mean is:

    1. I’m allowed to think I am Bristish
    2. But you’re telling me I’m actually Irish!

    Allow me to not play the man and respectfully suggest that your argument is a Moose.

  • George

    ‘are you nostalgic for some lost unity in Ireland that Longley thinks might never have existed.’

    I think an implication of what Longley says is that it is narrow-minded to think that you need a thick national unity to achieve political unity. Vague categories of ‘Irishness’ and ‘Britishness’ can co-exist in the same state so long as neither is felt to be exclusive or threatened. Given the basis of partition is the (ulster) nationalist argument that they can’t co-exist, perhaps advocates of unification need to embrace a more expansive definition of ‘Irishness’. It seems this hasn’t been done out of a fear that this would finally sunder NI from the national fold. But given indifference across the water,perhaps it would have the opposite effect.

  • Joe

    You can feel Bristish if you want.
    I’ve no problem with that. As I simply stated, by the title of your country, you’re either british or northern Irish. You are free to take your pick.

  • Joe

    It seems to me that one of the main problems in Ireland has been the view of some people in the republican movement that the nation consists of the land and islands. A nation is a group of people with a shared view of how their society should work.
    That hasn’t existed in Ireland for a long long time (if ever). There will never be a united Ireland unless the majority of people in the North are convinced that it is the right thing for them.
    I agree with Crataegus that it is individuals who matter. A nation is simply a large group of individuals who agree to co-habit peacefully for the common good.

  • Joe

    ‘A nation is a group of people with a shared view of how their society should work.’

    While it is true that this can’t be said about the island of Ireland, it would also exclude both Northern Ireland and the UK from your definition. None of the three can be constructed as typical nation-states where majorities have the final say, and a looser conception of all of them would have equivalent merits as a political entity.

    A problem that has plagued Northern Ireland is the view that it is the property of the majority

  • Joe


    I don’t disagree at all. However, it seems to me that in the U.K., although a great number of the people see themselves as 3 distinct nations, they have agreed how to govern themselves as a confederation, even though it was initially imposed on two of the groups by, essentially, conquest. (Yes i do know about James VI/James I).
    As to your last point, I again totally agree. There are some people who think that the definition of democracy is the ability of 50% + 1 of the population to do whatever they like to the 50% – 1.
    That just doesn’t work, particularly when it is the 50% + 1 who are always in power; there has to be a broad consenus that the system is fair to everyone. Otherwise conflict, unfortunately, seems inevitable.

  • woodkerne

    Am I wrong to suppose that if you are from the North of Ireland you are Irish- just as Scots are Scots, English are English and Welsh are Welsh; we are British through being citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The irony of the situation as regards our perceptions of ourselves in the north is that to many, if not most ‘British’ people, we are Irish whether loyalist or nationalist in outlook.
    As long as the spokespeople of sectarian division, whom we all (should) know make a well paid career out of retaining the status quo, have their way we will remain a laughing stock territory and people.
    My point is that there are more sane pragmatic people in the north than the traditional narrators of this benighted statelet would admit.

  • Ziznivy

    I’d say the first part of your post is indisputable woodkerne. It reminds me of the phrase David Trimble was fond of quoting (I believe a 19th century Belfast MP first coined it) “we wish do add to the privilege of being British the distinction of being Irish”.

    I’ve never subscribed to the type of unionism that rejects its Irishness. I believe that such a point of view cedes Irishness to nationalism and Roman Catholicism.

    Unlike nationalism unionism is (or should be) a poltical creed which admits all ethnicities and cultures.

  • Yoda

    For the love of jeebus, unionism IS nationalism.

  • Biffo

    “For the love of jeebus, unionism IS nationalism”

    True, Yoda. But unlike nationalism it is British nationalism.

  • Joe – seems we’re agreed.

    Biffo – shouldn’t that read ‘unlike Irish nationalism it is British nationalism’? I’ve always understood unionism to be more like ulster nationalism ie the people of ulster have the right to self-determination. The relationship with the rest of Britain is viewed more like a form of contract – ‘we give our loyalty in return for the protection of liberties etc’. This seems to capture particularly Paisley’s anti-Englishness.
    Also on the point of nationalism, I think it’s an underplayed point that unionism asserts that 2 nations = 2 states, while Irish nationalists tend to get accused blood and soil mythology, just because of the ‘nationalist’ label. Of course separating nation and state undercuts the argument for unification, but I still think that unionists are the more typically ‘nationalist’.

  • G2

    “I have worked with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people from the U.K. over the past 40 years and have yet to hear them describe themselves as anything other than English, Scottish or Welsh. The only people I have met who call themselves British are people from the protestant background in N.I. ”

    Joe, You haven’t been reading the UK national newspapers recently.

    Read what this scottish MP who is Tony Blair’s right hand man.has to say about Britishness.

    Brown calls for UK ‘national day’

    “Rally round the flag for queen and country – that was the patriotic message from British Finance minister, Gordon Brown. Tony Blair’s presumed heir has suggested the UK should have a ‘national day