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A View North Patriotism loves, but Nationalism distorts

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

I must have been about 12 years old, attending St. Thomas’s Secondary School in Ballymurphy, when our headmaster, Michael McLaverty, shocked our English literature class one day. We were reading one of his favorite poets, Rupert Brooke, who died during World War I en route to Gallipoli.

McLaverty read Brooke’s most famous sonnet, which begins:

"If I should die think only this of me:

There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England."

McLaverty looked at the class and declared that this proved Englishmen could be just as patriotic about their country as the Irish were about theirs.

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McLaverty was a renowned short story writer and novelist, but to us he was merely a rather eccentric lover of geometry problems and of the work of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins. He was very Catholic, and very pious, and I found as I grew older and became familiar with his work that these commitments narrowed his horizons. However, he was an extremely civilized man, and in his own way obviously a tolerant one.

He had written movingly in his first novel, "Call My Brother Back," about the Troubles in Belfast in the early 1920s. In it, the main character’s brother, an IRA man, is murdered during the sectarian strife which shook the city and claimed hundreds of lives. I suppose one could say it was written very much from the perspective of a Belfast Irish nationalist, and a very Catholic one at that.

However, this did not affect McLaverty’s appreciation of English writers. His remark about Brooke and patriotism impressed one schoolboy who had just come through the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers. They had had their grip on me for five long years. To them, the idea of a patriotic Englishman would have seemed heretical. The impression given by Brother Leopold, in whose class I spent the better part of those years, was that the Irish had a monopoly on patriotism. They were the ones, after all, who produced all the martyrs, with the possible exception of the early Christians who were fed to the lions in the Rome.

The list was a long one, and included Blessed Oliver Plunkett, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Patrick Pearse, and Kevin Barry — the only martyrs of whom any of us had ever heard. They were all "martyrs for old Ireland." We had never heard of a martyr for old England, until McLaverty’s remark.

The class was not amused. I remember that it was felt to be some kind of strange intrusion on the natural order of things, almost as if we had been told that the English were better at playing Gaelic football than the Irish. Brother Leopold would have been furious that his years of relentless indoctrination about Ireland’s suffering at the hands of the English could be thus qualified, however mildly, by the suggestion that some Englishmen had died for their country too.

The problem for us was that dying for your country and dying for your religion were usually confused in Ireland. In Brooke’s martyrdom, there was no religious dimension — his poem expresses just a simple and poignant love of his country, its fields, flowers, soil and skies. Our martyrs, on the other hand, were identified not only with Mother Ireland but the Virgin Mother as well. That seemed to elevate us to a somewhat higher level, or at least so we were led to believe.

However, McLaverty’s remark had put things in a new perspective, at least for me. It was perhaps the first time that I ever really understood the difference between patriotism and nationalism. The two are often confused, or thought to be equivalent, especially in Ireland, where saying "I am an Irish patriot" and "I am an Irish nationalist" amount to the same thing.

In fact, patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing at all, though at some points they may overlap. Patriotism is the love of one’s country. Nationalism is the desire, or the aspiration, to advance the interests of one’s country, usually against some other nation or country. Patriotism, such as expressed in Brooke’s poem, usually contains within it a feeling of intense attachment to the place where one was reared. It is not necessarily based on the premise that that place is superior to everywhere else.

On the other hand, within nationalism there is the sense that your unit is in some way superior to others. I say "unit" because the kind of feeling that characterizes nationalism does not have to be associated with a nation or country. As the English writer George Orwell pointed out, it can be aroused by class, or color, or religion. It can even be associated with a football team.

"A nationalist is one who thinks in terms of competitive prestige," wrote Orwell.

He is always trying to prove that his side is better, stronger, more successful, better looking, more progressive, braver, more intelligent, than his opponent’s, because for this kind of feeling to exist it must have an enemy.

In contrast, a patriot’s love of his country does not depend on his need to prove that it is better or superior than another country.

There is nothing inconsistent with loving one’s country and at the same time happily admitting that like everywhere else it has a lot of faults. But for a real nationalist, this is inconceivable. In some deep, personal way, his view of himself depends on proving that his side is always right and the other side wrong. When facts emerge to challenge this, they are ignored, or explained away as aberrations or — if politics is involved, as it usually is — the product of enemy propaganda.

The recent history of nationalism (in its Irish and British, i.e. loyalist, varieties) in Northern Ireland is full of examples.

What member of the republican movement can admit that it has been responsible for the deaths of more Catholics (who it was supposed to be "protecting") than its enemy, the British?

What loyalist can admit that his form of British nationalism (for that’s what it is) is regarded as completely loony and abhorrent by the average Englishman?

Atrocities are what the other side commits. Yours, when they have to be admitted, are "regrettable" consequences of war.

In other words, nationalism needs to distort, or lie, to exist, but patriotism, being a form of love, does not.

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