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The Geographical Imaginary of Irish Identities: Nation, Diapsora and Cosmopolis

The Geographical Imaginary of Irish Identities: Nation, Diapsora and Cosmopolis

This project (supported in part with a grant from the ESRC) examines the geographical imaginaries at the heart of Irish identities. It explores three distinct geographical models around which an Irish identity could shape itself. These three models combine in quite different the three elements that can be seen at the heart of identity: people, place and past. The nation is a geographical imaginary that connects people with a past and a present in a single place over which they claim exclusive rights. Diaspora connects a people to a past in one place despite current residence outside that place. Cosmopolis is a way of drawing upon the traditions of a people to address in distinctive ways questions of universal significance. In the virtual place of the cosmopolis one might imagine being an Irish citizen of the world. The project, then, is in three sections.


  • 'Ireland after theory', Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal 6 (2002) 107-114.
  • 'Dublin, modernity and the postcolonial fix,' Irish Geography 39 (2006) 177-183
  • 'Taking theory for a walk in Ireland,' in Elizabeth Gagen, Hayden Lorimer and Alex Vasudevan (eds), Practicing the archive: reflections on methods and practice in historical geography (London: Historical Geography Research Group, 2008) 9-22
  • 'Forging early-modern colonial Ireland,' Journal of Historical Geography 34 (2008) 138-144

1. Anti-colonial Nationalism: the legacy of Young Ireland

This discussion of the nation as a model of Irish identity centres upon the Young Ireland movement. This was a group of nationalists who were associated with the rebellion of 1848 and whose writings have been taken ever since as embodying a strong sense of Irish nationality. This movement was distinctively modern in two ways. First, in the way it interpellated its audience through mass communications. In the second place, its modernity resided in its ways of addressing what it meant to be Irish.

The project first looks at the geography of Young Ireland stressing the role of discourse in building a movement at a number of levels: first a geography of activists, then of supporters and then of sympathisers. The discursive community works both through the circulation of texts but also through acting out exemplary moments that are reported beyond the circle of sympathisers. Newspapers, reading groups and petitions can all be taken as the supports of this discursive community. We also look at the activism of rebels and consider both the membership of the secret conspiratorial society that planned the 1848 rising and the rebels who turned out to fight. The legacy of Young Ireland is in part these ways of organising a discursive community.

In describing Irish identities, Young Ireland had to deal with the issue of constructing citizenship against the legacy of colonialism. In its anti-colonialism, Young Ireland was in many ways the forerunner of a whole series of later nationalist movements that grew out of the anti-colonial struggle. The connections between Irish and later Egyptian and Indian nationalisms were direct. However, the essential modernity of Irish nationalism has not received sufficient attention since its anti-colonialism was often presented as a form of archaism: the recovery of a romanticised pre-colonial past. Yet, while this was true of much Irish nationalism in the late nineteenth century, it was less true of Young Ireland and by examining the works of Thomas Davis, John Mitchel, James Fintan Lalor and James Clarence Mangan The research makes a case for the modernity of their conceptions of postcolonial citizenship.


  • 'Time and some citizenship: nationalism and Thomas Davis,' Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal 5 (2001) 23-54.
  • '"Educate that holy hatred": place, trauma and identity in the Irish nationalism of John Mitchel,' Political Geography 20 (2001) 885-911.
  • 'Young Ireland: Colonialism, Violence, Nationalism' (Manchester: Manchester University Press, in preparation, manuscript to be delivered December 2010).

2. Diasporic nationalism: the geography of Fenianism

During the Great Famine of 1847-53, over a million Irish people died while a million more emigrated. Repression of Irish nationalist movements in Britain and in Ireland meant that much of the support for nationalism came from the relative freedom of the United States. Henceforth Irish identities would always be articulated as part of this network. The project considers how this new geography changed the nature of Irish identities. We look at the conspiratorial movement that saw itself as the direct inheritor of the Young Ireland tradition: Fenianism, or the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Again, the focus of the research is upon how it organised itself logistically and discursively.

Logistically, police files and subscription lists are examined to build up a picture of the geography of support for Fenianism. Discursively, our focus is upon what we term diapsoric political theatre. The exemplary actions of Young Ireland were repeated in further failed rebellions. However, more effective was the staging of diasporic funerals where a dead man was taken across the spaces of Irish settlement accumulating funeral masses along the way and culminating in the only sort of political demonstration still legal at all times in Ireland: the funeral procession. We also examine how the British state and the Catholic Church responded to this diasporic organisation with trans-national political calculations of their own. What is striking is the essential modernity of Irish identities here with their trans-national dimensions.


  • 'Bare life, political violence and the territorial structure of Britain and Ireland', in Derek Gregory and Allan Pred (eds), Violent geographies: fear, terror and political violence (New York: Routledge, 2006) 9-34.
  • Details of ESRC Research Project, 'The Geography of Fenianism' can be viewed online.

3. Cosmopolitan nationalism: the local roots of universalism

Commentators have seen the 1890s as important in the development of a cultural nationalism in Ireland. This nationalism was in many ways the cultural basis of the official culture of the Irish Free State established in 1922. In many ways, the parochial and archaic dimensions of this cultural nationalism prevailed. However, these were heavily contested. Irish socialists, feminists and modernists insisted that cosmopolitanism was compatible with Irishness. They rejected the anti-modernity of the Catholic Church and of the more bourgeois of nationalists. Yet, the Irish state was built around conservative rather than progressive readings of Irish traditions. We examine here the debates about the meaning of the local and the universal in Irish debates over nationalism, socialism, feminism and literary modernism.


  • 'Nation, empire, cosmopolis: Ireland and the break with Britain,' in David Gilbert, Dave Matless and Brian Short (eds), Geographies of British modernity: space and society in the twentieth century, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003) 204-228.
  • 'Mother Ireland and the revolutionary sisters,' Cultural Geographies 11 (2004) 459-483.
  • 'The spatial poetics of James Joyce,' New Formations 57 (2006) 107-125.