Is Nationalism Nostalgic?

The accusation is made that nationalism is nostalgic; that it is merely a reactionary longing for an idealised past. But this misrepresents both nationalism and nostalgia. The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek “nostos” which evokes homecoming. Nationalism too comes from a Greek root meaning to be born of the same origin. So in one sense they are related, in that both imply a sense of homeland, a sense of collective origin, a sense of something rooted in an otherwise shifting world. But in modern everyday usage, nostalgia is a very limited term with little application to the project of nationalism.

For most young nationalists, the goal is not to return to some lost homeland but rather to forge a new one from the ruins of the present. Nationalism is not about looking at the past with vague longing. Nationalism is the project of the nation, and is therefore a living contract between the past, the present and the future. Conservatives, who are guiltiest of all when it comes playing up nostalgia, have always spoken of this contract between the dead, the living and the unborn. But they have failed to make it a living truth. Conservatism failed because its contract was written in ink instead of blood.

Three Types of Nostalgia

It is interesting to see the different ways in which nostalgia expresses itself in Liberal Ireland. In Internet culture we see a certain hipsterish nostalgia for the 1990s, which is arguably just nihilism posturing as nostalgia. It is a case of rootless people commodifying rootedness for transient cultural capital. Likes, upvotes, comments etc. There is always a shallow market for this kind of posturing because everyone remembers their childhood and many have a certain curious fondness for the era just prior to their own birth; the world in which their parents met, a world which they will never know or experience.

There is another kind of nostalgia, which is perhaps more prevalent among some nationalists. It is the wish to return to a simpler time. The idea that we need to wind back the clock; we need to get back to 1972 before Ireland joined the EEC; we need to get back to a time when “men were men”; we need to get back to the days of Italia 90 or the Pope’s Visit, when everyone was poor but happy. Or when everyone was poor and unhappy but at least Ireland was Ireland. This is a nostalgia which, if anything, is too lacking in cynicism or at least in critical thought. It is exactly the type of nostalgia that nationalists get accused of. And where merited it is a legitimate criticism, because we cannot wind back the clock, nor should we want to. We cannot have our childhoods back, nor should we want to. This kind of political idea might be somewhat salable in other countries but not in Ireland. Irish freedom was never achieved in the modern world and therefore lies in the future rather than the past. The project of nationhood and the Republic declared on Easter Monday 1916 remains to be fulfilled.

Finally, there is the State Broadcaster’s slickly-packaged “Everything’s grand now” Reeling in the Years nostalgia. For RTÉ, the past is merely the bumpy road to the present, and their job is to retrofit the past to represent a slow inevitable progress towards a specific brand of modernity and enlightenment. The highlights of the past are, in this presentation form, stepping stones to Liberal Ireland as we now know it. Nostalgia as fatalism.

The False Dilemma

Nostalgia is a trap into which nationalism falls when it fails to envision a worthy future. The past must be faced for what it was. And what it is. With all its mistakes and misfortunes. The Ireland of Cosgrave or de Valera or Ahern led directly to the Ireland of today. That in itself is enough not to recommend it. Why would we want to return to an era that led directly to this one. Why would we want to relive the same mistakes?

What’s more, Liberal Ireland is umbilically linked to the Ireland it claims to have replaced. In an odd way it cannot let de Valera’s Ireland die. We must be constantly reminded of it. Because everything that is wrong with Ireland today is justified with the sentiment: “Sure, remember how bad things used to be.” The entire Arts scene in Ireland is basically the State paying people to represent how miserable Ireland was in the past and what a relief it is to be here in the present. But the truth is that it’s the same Ireland. It’s the same trajectory. It’s the same corruption. It’s the same people in power. It’s an Ireland in which everything is done to keep nationalists out of power.

We see a recent trope in our culture which is a certain ironic or not-so-ironic nostalgia for the ’90s as the period of “transition”. The period between one Ireland and another, or so it’s presented. But why would we want to go back to the ’90s? Like any other era, there are things that linger fondly in the memory. The ’90s were perhaps the last time where shared cultural experiences played out predominantly in analogue form. It was the last decade of the century. It was the end of the pre-Internet age. Ireland was a little less sophisticated. The fringe and neglected and rural parts of Irish society were still relatively wild and had not been fully exposed to globalism. So the country was full of strange, interesting vignettes of lost ways of life. But within a few years, people got money and started buying houses in Spain and employing Poles to push wheelbarrows. It was a stone’s throw from what we are today.

If any word properly summed up that fateful decade, it was the word “complacency”. It was the decade that softened Ireland up for post-nationalism. Think the fall of the Berlin Wall, Clintonism, Blairism, the Celtic Tiger, “the end of history”. And not least of all, the Good Friday Agreement. What was the Good Friday Agreement, after all? It was an agreement between Washington, London and Dublin to assimilate the six counties into the liberal world order. It was a truce made on the promise of universality guaranteed by airstrike. It was the acceptance that all sides, all conflicts, all divisions could be reconciled under liberalism.

That is to say, there is one answer to all questions. There is one ideology, one world, one religion. And if you reject it you will be wiped from the face of the earth. This is the nature of power in the modern world, never so triumphant as it was at the turn of the last millennium. Nostalgia can itself be a form of complacency, so natural then that it linger over memories of complacent times.

Fighting for the Future

P.H. Pearse wrote that, “We are too fond of clapping ourselves upon the back because we live in modern times, and we preen ourselves quite ridiculously (and unnecessarily) on our modern progress.” But Pearse was not being nostalgic when he said this. He was merely pointing out that much that is true and right has been lost in the hustle for modernity. So to reject nostalgia of the modern kind is not to reject the past, anymore than it is to reject the present or the future. It is merely to reject the sentimental. And lest we forget, it was sentimentality and utilitarianism that Pearse warned were the sure signs of modern decadence.

We must reject the false binary that comes in the guise of nostalgia. If all we have to offer the world is comfort food then we have nothing worthy to offer. The real choice is not between what Ireland was and what Ireland is, it is the choice between national revival and national dissolution. What we look to is what is eternal and everlasting in the Irish spirit.

A hundred years ago, the Gaelic revival opened the way to a resurgence of nationalist feeling. And without doubt, those revivalists looked to a heroic past to remake the Ireland of the day. But it was not a politics of nostalgia as we would see it. It was a politics of rebirth and reawakening. It was a project of imagination and intellect. It looked to what was best in the Irish character.

We must face the world for what it is. Nationalism is about going forward, not about going backwards. It is about surviving. It is about progeny. It is about the future. It is a war against the forces of dissolution. It is about changing society for the better, not reverting to mediocrity. It is about envisioning an Ireland that works. And creating a social, cultural and economic model that underpins that goal.

The present is a bridge between the past and the future. We must take what was heroic and admirable from our history and march forward towards something worthy of heroes and worthy of admiration. This is not about seeking solace in memory or finding false comfort in mediocrity. Nationalism is about lifting a people to the heights of what they are capable of achieving. We have seen the heights, in flashes of brilliance, in the great heroes and champions of Irish nationhood, and we must make of those flashes one brilliant light guiding us into the future.

This article was submitted by a National Party member. If you would like to submit an article for publication on the National Party website, follow this link.