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Exceptionalism… April 17, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Read about this in comments below a Fintan O’Toole article, a quote from an English person a day or two before the referendum last year made in comment to Patrick Freyne of the IT.

[Joseph] Guard exhibits a confident brand of British exceptionalism that I’ve come across a lot this week. “Look,” he says, “the Remain side say that we’re ‘stronger together’, but that’s missing the point. Gazelles are stronger together. Zebras are stronger together. Britain’s not a gazelle. Britain’s a lion. Lions don’t need to keep together. Lions can go it alone.”

Depressingly Guard’s mother is erm… Irish. Ah. Irish you ask? What does he think about us so?

I observe that the Irish are more pro-European than the British. “No offence,” Guard says, “I have Irish heritage, but Ireland has a reputation of being slightly dependent.”
“Careful,” says his mother.


But that level of delusion about Britain is deeply concerning. Freyne characterises it as exceptionalism, and it is too.

As someone who is half English myself – in the sense of having an English parent and being born there (though being kidnapped back to this island at the age of six months or so) it’s not entirely a surprise. I’ve heard that from some there, though most would not – at least in my experience – share that. But another thought strikes. It would be curious to hear Irish nationalism framed in such a way. Indeed it would make little sense. He’s wrong about the dependency, but our historical perspective is shaped by an understanding, often intuitive, of the forces around us. The idea Ireland was a ‘lion’ (even putting aside the absurdity of the mischaracterisation of the supposed biological dynamics at work) going it ‘alone’, that it could be in what is clearly believed to be a superior position over others, isn’t something even the most ‘ourselves alone’ proponent would quite believe. Sure there are traces of that in some thinking – Ireland as exceptional due to spirituality, or isolation or language and culture. But the simple reality of our position makes so much of that so immediately self-evidently incorrect that its explanatory power is limited.


1. 6to5against - April 17, 2017

I think much of this nonsense has to do with media-sharing.

Ireland is a state like most others, and we are inclined towards our own forms of exceptionalism at times: in the past, the belief that we were uniquely virtuous, and in the present that we are uniquely useless. But generally I think we have learned a lot about our place in the world by sharing media and culture with Britain and other English speaking countries, while Europe has always played a key role in our own media coverage.

Britain is really not like that. It is quite possible to live there with minimal exposure to viewpoints outside your own. To listen to local radio or national radio stations, to watch UK based news channels, to read only UK based papers and in each case be exposed only to locally produced content. In a media-world dominated by the likes of the Mail and Sky news, its not difficult to believe in whatever brand of nationalist nonsense takes your fancy.

Its even more extreme in the US, where even foreign news coverage – when it exists – amounts to little more than what the US is doing in or to those foreign countries.

Liked by 1 person

2. An Sionnach Fionn - April 17, 2017

I was speaking to a British guy a few weeks ago who was over to run a training course I was doing (Irish-based course with UK certification because IRL doesn’t do its own certs!). Brexit came up and nationalism. He was against both. He asked us about Irish nationalism and we replied it different for us because our nationalism is shaped by anti-colonial tradition which somewhat negates the more obviouy toxic racist/xenophobic stuff. He was genuinely puzzled. How could IRL be anti-colonial when we were White Europeans? Who were we colonised by?

This guy was late 30s, a trained chemist, expert in international/UN transport law, etc. Genuinely nice bloke. However even though he was liberal Remain voter Irish history was a complete mystery to him beyond IRA bombs on the “mainland”. (He was equally puzzled by one of the girls objecting to that term. Funny how some easy-going Irish people can be triggered by certain words.)

He was very much of the “good empire” frame of mind viz Britain’s history. He probably thought we were a terrible group of people. 😉


WorldbyStorm - April 17, 2017

Yeah, I hate the mainland line too. That’s very telling ASF re that mindset. Actually every time I hear this sort of story it strikes me how understandable the rise and rise of the SNP and Scottish independence as a cause is. It’s what you on your site and us here have long argued, there’s so little sense of any self-reflection about a lot of people on the island of Britain in relation to their imperial past and what it means (and isn’t it laughable given the North alone, and how relatively recent the struggle for independence on the rest of this island that he couldn’t see the colonial aspect of the relationship with Britain?).

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benmadigan - April 17, 2017

“that mindset” – precludes comprehension of another point of view, of same events/circumstances viewed from different standpoints.
Tunnel vision and one track mind are synonyms
The interesting question – as far as regards the UK – is what underlies it
Which leads us into speculation about the UK deep State


Lamentreat - April 18, 2017

I think it’s possible to hate the “mainland” crap, and all the blinkered little-British nationalism that goes with it…

…while also being a just a bit skeptical of the cozy double-game in Ireland. Safely inside a privileged European club and a largely white identity, but also enjoying the narcissistic pleasure of the whole “We’re all grand anti-colonialists all the same though. Sure what about Nehru and Castro, didn’t those guys look up to Michael Collins? etc.” That whole schtick.

I’m not questioning the anti-colonial position of people on this site, but in wider Irish culture, it just seems to come way too easily. Basically no different than: “and aren’t the Irish the blacks of Europe?”


WorldbyStorm - April 18, 2017

There’s an element of truth in that too. Of course, one can also bring it right back to class as well in this in relation to classes in Irish society and their self-perceptions and so on.


Ivorthorne - April 18, 2017

In what sense is it useful to describe Ireland as having a largely white Identity? That’s a non-rhetorical question. I mean there’s not exactly as though we’re going to identify as Asian but it isn’t as though we’d identify a whole lot more with the Hungarians or Russians than the Cubans.


WorldbyStorm - April 18, 2017

Is it that some and not all could piggyback as it were on it? Or could think they had it? But taking your point IT entirely I’m also conscious of how we weren’t ‘white’ in the British consciousness (and in the US too) for a very long time, or at least not precisely. Catholicism was a part of that (think of Kennedy and the Irish in the US in the 19th century) – but the No dogs, no Irish phenomenon in the UK was real, and the caricatures in cartoon of the Irish as subhuman in the 19th century were too. And the times I heard people in England say ‘that’s a bit Irish’ entirely unselfconsciously around me (was I ‘passing’ as English in their eyes?). Yeah, it’s mixed.


ivorthorne - April 18, 2017

I’d agree with a lot of that WBS but what sometimes puzzles me is when you see Irish liberal types online using white as an adjective when describing an Irish person to an Irish person within the context of discussions around privilege etc. in Irish society.

The number of times it is actually useful to use that label or category when discussing things in Ireland is because it is not an identity Irish people, within Ireland, find useful. We are not diverse enough for it to have a function. We might identify as Irish but the average white, native-born Irish person does not identify any more with a Polish person than with a Nigerian – they’re all foreigners! The relationship with English or Scottish people is stranger still. A black Scotsman is probably considered more similar to native white Irish people than the average Romanian who has pale skin. All of these foreigners are – of course – probably considered preferable to white Irish travellers.

Whatever the potential benefits of using terms like “white” within the context of the US or perhaps the UK, I think we should be careful about adopting terminology from conversations held in other societies. We are different – not better or worse, just different – and we should probably find our own way of talking about our society and it’s problems.


WorldbyStorm - April 18, 2017

I could not agree more… It really troubles me to see for example the way narratives about race and culture are mapped wholesale from the US to the UK or Europe or in ways to Ireland when the historical experiences are so different. A small example in the late 80s working in NYC for a summer I knew no interracial couples despite working in places with a wide variety. In London a year later I knew a good number. None of which is to deny racism etc in one or over emphasise it in another but very different histories led to very different approaches attitudes etc.


Occasional Lurker - April 18, 2017

You can’t know what it’s like to be colonised you have white identity/privilege.
The continued Americanisation of political discussion.

China is busy economically colonising Africa and using it’s own workers to keep the gains and skills in house. About 1 million workers from the home country are there.
Oh and they don’t seem to view the locals positively.

So exploiting, bringing in own people to keep the profits, derisive of the locals. Big power Colonialism. If Ireland can’t be colonised because it’s white and the English were white and privilege cannot oppress privilege then is China not guilty of Colonialism because they are not white?

But it’s not about a theory of Colonialism is it. It’s more about shoe horning a single idea into a discussion with the benefit of sounding like one is socially enlightened.”You don’t see your privilege but I see it for you (kudos me)” stuff.

That’s of great use when your talking to someone about MABS
or when Africa is trying to shake off the new colonisers.



Lamentreat - April 18, 2017

The “white” in what I wrote above is kind of a red herring and a distraction. I totally agree with disagreeing (if that makes sense) with the way American versions of those categories are increasingly superimposed onto debates elsewhere, and I am more than dubious about the way “hey check your white privilege” often functions as a form of spurious holier-than-thou righteousness. In that much, I regret using it.

Substitute “first world” or “global north” for that, maybe that is less loaded, but the point more or less stands.

I was alluding to the existence of a fairly widespread sense of “Irish exceptionalism.” This is somehow taken to grant a historical pass to people in Ireland, largely absolving them from their general position in the world by virtue of a sense of something deep-down different and exceptional about their identity. Different to the bad English, different to the racist Americans, different to the various amoralisms of the continent and beyond.

Think of a viewpoint on the kind of double game I described, not from an American or British point of view, but from a present-day Mozambiqan or a Bangladeshi or a Honduran one. Viewed from one of those vantage points, does that sense of Irish exceptionalism really stand up as plausible? Or even as all that very different, as an identity and a position in the world, from other forms of exceptionalism that proliferate around the world?

I am not saying “oh well, everywhere is the same” or that all forms of British and Irish small-n nationalism are the same. And I am not trying to act like I have eked out moral superiority through greater enlightenment. I haven’t.

I was just pointing out an element in common Irish self-understanding – in a lot of different places on the political spectrum – that makes me uneasy. There’s something not right about it.


EWI - April 17, 2017

It’s like their popular ‘heroic’ accounts of WWI; no mention of the rebellions during the war in places like Ireland; no mention of the Bolshevik’ discovery of the Triple Entente’s schemes to carve up the Ottoman Empire, which was goaded into the war; and certainly no mention of the post-war invasions of both Turkey and Russia.


crocodileshoes - April 18, 2017

Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah at the moment: her two central characters leave Nigeria for the US and the UK and we follow their experiences over a couple of decades. She’s especially good on liberal Americans’ condescension about ‘Africa’ – stylish dinner parties at which they eat off plates made in third world villages, plates that Nigerian hosts would be embarrassed to offer their guests.


3. roddy - April 17, 2017

a UUP MLA recently spoke at a “veterans rally” in Belfast to protest at the idea of British soldiers ever being held to account for troubles killings.The MLA (Doug Beattie) who served in Iraq claimed his Iraqui adventure was so that a handful of Belfast counter demonstrators would have the right to protest!


4. EWI - April 17, 2017

The idea Ireland was a ‘lion’ (even putting aside the absurdity of the mischaracterisation of the supposed biological dynamics at work) going it ‘alone’, that it could be in what is clearly believed to be a superior position over others, isn’t something even the most ‘ourselves alone’ proponent would quite believe.

Someone needs to tell the Celtic Tiger cultists in FF/FG/LAB this, maybe. They outdo even the original Sinn Féiners (a movement inspired by the ‘Irish-Irelander’ philosophies of William Rooney, who deserves to be remembered more than Griffith).


Lamentreat - April 18, 2017

Seems like any kind of prolonged economic boom gets the ruling class convinced it’s a sign of inherent moral superiority. It was true in Celtic Tiger Ireland, it’s true in Germany today.


5. fence - April 17, 2017

Never mind the politics, he has the biology all wrong. Lions need a pride to thrive. They rarely go out on on their own, and that is part of the reason more male lions fail to make live as long as females, they’re weaker on their own and males are forced out of the pride when they approach adulthood. And often they don’t make it.

Liked by 3 people

RosencrantzisDead - April 18, 2017

And on top of that, are there not three lions on the England jersey?

Liked by 1 person

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