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Kevin Barry (Caoimhín De Barra)

  • Ph.D. Program, European History
  • email

Kevin Barry

University College Cork, B.A., 2005; University College Cork, Post Graduate Diploma, Education, 2006; University of Delaware, M.Ed, 2008; University of Delaware, M.A., History, 2010.

Research Interests
European nationalism, modern Irish political and cultural history, modern British culture and society.

John Montaño

“Celtic Nationalism, Identity, and Ethnicity in Wales and Ireland, 1870 – 1925.”

The inspiration for this project lay with two seemingly unconnected events in 1916, namely the Easter Rising in Dublin, and the ascension of David Lloyd George to the office of British Prime Minister in December.

Yet the juxtaposition of these two developments highlights the complex interplay between national, ethnic and imperial identities in Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Easter Rising was led by Patrick Pearse, an Irish nationalist who had learned the Irish language, and whose desire for Irish independence from Britain stemmed from the existence of a distinct Irish language and culture. David Lloyd George, meanwhile, was a native Welsh speaker, a one-time advocate of Welsh Home Rule, and the only Prime Minister of Britain whose first language was not English. Both Pearse and Lloyd George self-identified as Celts, both were passionate defenders of their native culture and nationality, and yet they arrived at very different conclusions about what position their respective nations should hold within the United Kingdom.

Broadening my scope, I became particularly curious about what role the shared Celtic heritage of the Welsh and Irish played in how nationalists defined the parameters of their individual nationhood. A number of scholars have highlighted how nationalists construct a national identity by emphasizing the nation’s distinctness from the national ‘Other’ – a country which is shown to embody different values and characteristics from those of the people who are members of their own nation. For both Welsh and Irish nationalists, England filled this role. In Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd writes that England served as a political and psychological double for Ireland, a foil against which Irish identity could be created. Similarly Gwyn A. Williams, in his essay, “When Was Wales,” argues that Wales cannot be defined without England. While it cannot be argued that national identity in Ireland and Wales was partially formed through juxtaposition with England, it seems inevitable that Irish and Welsh nationalists would also have made comparisons with their fellow Celts. After all, the Irish and Welsh lived in the same state, shared linguistic ties and (supposedly) a biological and historical connection.

Of course, when discussing Celtic nationality within the British Isles, one would expect Scotland to figure prominently, but I have decided to largely exclude Scotland from this study for a number of reasons. Firstly a number of works have already explored the relationship between nationalism in Ireland and Scotland, while Welsh and Scottish nationalism during the twentieth century has also been compared, but there is little literature exploring the connection between Ireland and Wales. Secondly, to a degree different from both Ireland and Wales, the notion of Scotland as a ‘Celtic’ nation was contested, owing to the fact that many people living outside the Scottish Highlands rejected their alleged ‘Celtic’ ancestry and instead saw themselves as descended from Anglo-Saxon stock. Scottish nationality also differed from that of Wales or Ireland in that it was based in part on Scotland’s history as a nation-state, whereas Irish and Welsh nationalists focused on their cultural differences from England to accentuate their own identity. For the most part the Scottish middle class could (and did) see themselves as partners within the British Empire, whereas many Irish and Welsh subjects did not see themselves as full participants within the imperial project.

There are a couple of other reasons why I decided to focus exclusively on Ireland and Wales. In terms of their ‘Celtic’ background, the connection between Ireland and Wales is more tenuous than either country’s connection to Scotland. Irish nationalists viewed the Scottish Highlands as an overflow of Gaelic Ireland and acknowledged the linguistic and cultural bond between the two countries. Welsh nationalists believed that a similar bond existed between themselves and the Bretons in France, owing to the similarity of their languages. It is precisely because the supposed bond of the Celtic nations was weakest between Ireland and Wales that I believe their relationship merits further study. Scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson have commented on how communities are created through ‘invention’ or ‘imagination’. Therefore in terms of exploring how nationalist (or pan-nationalist) communities were created in the public imagination, I believe that the connection between Ireland and Wales is a particularly fertile area for research.

My dissertation explores how nationalists in Ireland and Wales understood and employed their identity as a 'Celtic' people, especially in relation to how they viewed their ethnic kin across the Irish Sea. I highlight how nationalists in both countries were both inspired by, but also cautious of, comparisons made between their respective nations. I adopt both comparative and transnational approaches in my dissertation; comparative in that I compare how nationalists in both countries understood the term 'Celtic' in relation to their identity, and transnational in that I trace the flow and exchange of ideas on nationhood between Wales and Ireland. I demonstrate that the example of Wales formed an important, and often ignored, influence on the shaping of modern Irish nationalism. I argue that the cultural renaissance in late nineteenth century Ireland was driven by the belief that the Welsh language and culture had experienced a similar rebirth, offering proof that committed Celtic nationalists could resist encroaching Anglicization. While Irish cultural nationalists received their inspiration from Wales, the example of the Irish Home Rule party helped create a sense of Welsh political consciousness that previously had not existed. I argue that Welsh political figures like David Lloyd George struggled to perform a balancing act in mimicking Irish demands for political autonomy while avoiding unsavory comparisons between 'civilized' Wales and 'violent' Ireland. Lloyd George’s bid for Welsh Home Rule failed, but Ireland remained a powerful influence on Welsh political thinkers, inspiring the creation of a Welsh political party, Plaid Cymru, and eventually Welsh devolution within the United Kingdom.

Despite the flow of ideas across the Irish Sea, nationalists in both countries, I argue, struggled to reconcile their common Celtic identity with their innate sense of national superiority. Irish nationalists rejected efforts to create a Pan-Celtic organization because they viewed the Welsh element of the movement to be committed to farcical, antiquated ceremony rather than addressing contemporary socio-economic issues. Welsh commentators frequently depicted the Irish as a violent and barbarous people, using this image as a counterpoint to the view of the Welsh as civilized and loyal Celtic supporters of the Union. While the supra-national Celtic identity shared by Ireland and Wales was an important factor in the transmission of nationalist ideas between both countries, ultimately I argue that the term 'Celtic' was a superficial label that nationalists were content to employ when convenient, but quick to discard when association with their Celtic 'other' created a negative association with the idealized view of their own nation.