The concept of tradition is the passing down from one generation to another of certain actions and beliefs; a valuable connection with the past which forms an identity. Therefore the idea that it can be reinvented by certain groups to ‘establish continuity with a suitable historic past’ suggests that traditions handed down depend on the perspective of the people at the time and consequently: which aspects they wish to remember and equally, those they choose to forget in order to preserve a history that suits their cause.
Through repetition, certain practices, customs, rules and rituals, often of a symbolic nature, which endeavour to indoctrinate specific beliefs ‘automatically implies continuity with the past. ’ (Hobsbawm, p. 176). This cycle of cause and effect is clearly apparent in Irish history, both preceding and following independence in 1922, indicating their tradition is carefully crafted, as a result of radical change, to acknowledge only the past they wish to align themselves with.
Incensed at hundreds of years of oppressive English rule (an unsuitable past they chose to forget), Irish nationalists sought to reinvent the past to suit the needs of the present and ‘a potent set of sentiments and symbols surfaced. ’ (12:10, Ireland, 2008). Long before the Easter Rising, ‘nationalists shared one common goal: to establish that the peoples of Ireland had a rich and ancient culture which justified their sense of nationhood. ’ (Laurence, 2008, p. 160).
Long forgotten visual symbols from ancient Ireland were celebrated as national emblems; the shamrock, harp, Irish wolf hound and the round tower, which ‘represented a brand of Irish Christianity that predated the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century. ’ (17:13, Ireland, 2008). These old images incited nostalgia for a romantic Ireland before the British occupation, unifying the attitude of the nationalists during the 17th century who wanted to stir their fellow countrymen to embrace an Ireland rich in ancient heritage and resolute in spirit to join them in their fight for independence.
When Daniel O’Connell, the leader of the campaign in Ireland for Catholic emancipation, held a meeting to repeal the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland at Tara, the ancient seat of the high kings, over 500,000 people were present waving banners featuring these symbols, much like football shirts in the present day they represented unity, patriotism and pride. ‘The spread of these cultural symbols coincided with the growth in the rhetoric of self determination. ’ (12:56, Ireland, 2008).
The revival of the Irish language was another significant connection to Ireland’s own culture and a link to a more suitable past. Nationalists exalted ‘an immemorial Irish past…. which emphasised the…. independent, culturally distinct Irish in contrast to the exploitative foreignness of the English who had governed Ireland for centuries. ’ (Laurence, 2008, p. 151). The Gaelic League was founded by Douglas Hyde to promote ‘language as one of a set of essential and distinctive cultural characteristics…. in order to support the claims to political independence.’ (Laurence, 2008, p. 161).
The number of people still speaking the native language was declining due to death and emigration caused by famine but also as a result ofall schools teaching in the English language. ‘Many ordinary people who regarded themselves as Irish spoke no Irish…. so the past that the educators of the Irish Free State wanted to promote was selective. ’ (Laurence, 2008, p. 171). This deliberately engineered resurrection of their dwindling mother tongue was instrumental in their successful bid for an Irish Free State.
‘His campaign to revive the Irish language and its traditions had helped to galvanise the movement for a complete separation of Ireland from Britain. ’ (Laurence, 2008, p. 163). Although establishing continuity with a suitable historic past was fundamental to the nationalists before independence in 1922, it was still meticulously cultivated afterwards but for different reasons. Before, it was a call to arms, to instil a sense of national pride and brotherhood, whereas afterwards it was a new beginning and to only recall a purely Irish past.
During the revolution from 1916 to 1923, roughly 300 country houses built for the English settlers were burned down by the IRA, ‘condemned by a deep antagonism towards the regime that built them. ’ (18:40, Ireland 2008). This was to drive the landlords out so the land could be redistributed to the famers. When England’s conquest of Ireland began, between 1536 and 1691, land was confiscated from the Irish Catholics and granted to English and Scots Protestant settlers, this taking back of the land was long sought after justice as well as to erase Anglo-Norman buildings from a country they were endeavouring to erase a shared heritage from.
Following independence, many buildings were badly damaged, short on funds; the government sanctioned two key doctrines in rebuilding: only Irish materials could be used in restoration and certain buildings were abandoned. ‘Nations give away a good deal about their attitude to their own past by how they choose to preserve or ignore their built heritage. ’ (1:41, Ireland, 2008).
The Custom House which had been burned down during the war was restored but the original English Portland stone in the dome was replaced with Irish Ardbraccan limestone, not only to promote Irish resources but to sever ties with its British past. The General Post Office in Sackville Street was lavishly restored as it was of great significance to the nationalists, being the seat of the Easter Rising of 1916. All links to British rule were eliminated, after independence Sackville Street, named after Lionel Sackville, the 1st Duke of Dorset, was renamed O’Connell Street to commemorate Daniel O’Connell.
Two buildings that were left ‘to decay over time’ (Brian Murphy, speaking in Ireland, 2008), were the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and Dublin Castle: both had colonial associations that the new free state were eager to forget. ‘Ireland had little interest in preserving the architecture of its British oppressors. ’ (1:35, Ireland, 2008). When Eamon de Valera became president in the early 30’s, his supporters ‘wanted Dublin Castle razed to the ground and simply to obliterate the memory of the English rule. ’ (5:13, Ireland, 2008).
Ancient sites such as Newgrange (a huge Neolithic tomb) and the Hill of Tara were protected under the National Monuments Act, which ‘reflected a strand of Irish nationalism that looked for inspiration in ancient glories. ’ (11:56, Ireland, 2008). These historic sites were vastly important to Irish nationalists who regarded them as having patriotic significance. In 1929 during parliamentary debates in the Dail, one politician was moved to state, ‘Everybody should be interested in the ancient things of this country and I believe that every Irishman is.
I don’t know anything that stimulates more quickly a sense of nationality than a sight of one of these monuments. ’ (6:57, Ireland, 2008). They were seen as emblematic landmarks of an ancient Ireland that the nationalists were keen to promote. Only buildings that were built before the 17th century were protected, the significance being no buildings built during British rule were. Invented traditions most often occur ‘when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new ones to which they were not applicable.’ (Hobsbawm, p. 177).
The ‘alien government’ of the English, oppression and civil wars which eventually led to Ireland’s independence meant politically and culturally Ireland changed so much that the old traditions didn’t suffice. Selectively chosen traditions were recycled or born, used to impart into the mind of new generations the specifically forged history of an Ireland free of English dictatorship and rich in a unique heritage, so a sense of nationhood and a past they could be proud of was created.