A Different Four Nations Approach? Celtic Nationalism in the Period of the Great War

A Different Four Nations Approach? Celtic Nationalism in the Period of the Great War

This week, Professor Justin Dolan Stover considers how ‘less conventional’ four nations approaches can inform our understanding of Celtic nationalism. 

In the autumn of 2012 I presented a working paper to the annual Harvard Celtic Colloquium that attempted to highlight underlying connections amongst political devolution and cultural revival movements in nations of the “Celtic periphery” prior to the Great War, namely Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. I suggested that while Ireland had undergone significant political transformation throughout its revolutionary decade, 1913-1923, some of its preceding experiences were not unique. The Gaelic League, Young Scots Society, Young Wales, and the Breton Regionalist Union all show that Celtic cultural revival was prevalent throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Endeavors to create an integrated literary movement were also present, with the Pan-Celtic Congress, Celtic Association, and Celtic Literary Society featuring delegates and works from a variety of self-identifying Celts. On a broader, national scale, the political question of Home Rule was one being addressed in Ireland, Scotland and Wales prior to the war, while the French equivalent, regionalism, was bolstered by the establishment of the Fédération Régionaliste de Bretagne and the Breton Nationalist Party, both founded in 1911.

The outbreak of the Great War confirmed this sense of uniformity, but in a way that reflected longstanding influence of internal colonization in Britain as well as France. In short, the apparent rising trajectory of autonomy movements within nations of the Celtic fringe was stymied by the war. The Welsh Church Act, retracting the Church of England from Wales, and the Irish Home Rule Bill were both suspended on the same day they received royal assent (18 September 1914). Scottish Home Rule remained unsecured despite its continued debate in the Commons, and, though it continued to exert political pressure, the Breton Nationalist Party briefly disbanded in 1914 to honor the Union Sacrée in French politics.

My paper was well attended (thanks mainly to the fact that I immediately preceded the keynote address) but I left Boston dissatisfied with what I had presented. I had identified obvious parallels informed by conventional source material found within well-trodden files series housed in London and Paris, and to a lesser extent Dublin. The war had certainly facilitated a radical turn in Irish nationalism, evident in the erosion of support for the conciliatory politics of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, but to what extent did this occur within a broader Celtic spectrum? Were advanced nationalist movements in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany integrated, and if so to what degree?

These questions have driven portions of my research over the past year. While a modified Four Nations approach that collectively examines radical nationalism in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany is neither innovative nor fully inclusive (the Isle of Man and Cornwall are excluded, as are other Celtic concentrations in Europe), it does facilitate a transnational approach. However, it is becoming clear that due to the impact of the 1916 Easter Rising, the reinvention of Sinn Féin in its aftermath and popularized accounts of the I.R.A.’s war against British forces, Irish republicanism established itself as the benchmark of rebellion within the Celtic periphery. This was aided in no small part by Sinn Féin’s unceasing efforts to gain recognition for the Irish republic throughout Europe and the world following the Great War, and its propaganda campaign that transformed national heroes into international martyrs.

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Professor Stover’s collection

These events were not only recognized as assertions of defiance, they acted to stimulate radical nationalism abroad. For instance, the Scottish Home Rule movement and the Scots National Movement were both influenced by the political philosophy of Sinn Féin. One vocal adherent, Robert Erskine Marr, kept a steady correspondence with Art Ó Briain, who organized the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain from London. His encouragement of Irish-Scottish collaboration was often overt, as in this letter from October 1920:

The tragic death of Mac Suibhne [MacSwiney] renders distasteful to one any mere expression of honor, indignation and sympathy, as words are quite inadequate upon an occasion so infinitely distressing, that I felt sure I am but voicing the sentiments of all Scottish Nationalists when I say that we feel his death as poignantly as you yourselves do. Let us mourne today, but tomorrow for revenge! And I have long thought that the best revenge we can concert for all such atrocities (and the record of English rule in Ireland and Scotland is full of them) is for Irish and Scots to stand together, and shoulder to shoulder to fight to free their usurped countries from the cause of more atrocities. I am firmly persuaded that Ireland and Scotland are strong enough to destroy English rule in both those countries; but I think that neither is, nor ever can be, strong enough to effect that object unless the two combine to achieve it.

In Brittany, the newspaper Breizh Atao (Brittany Forever) was first published in January 1919 as the organ of the Breton Autonomist Movement, and as a medium for pan-Celtic policy. The following year, attempts to organize Sinn Féin branches in Rennes, Brest and Angers were undertaken in the aim of pressuring the French government to recognize the Irish Republic. Welsh nationalism was also inspired by Ireland’s struggle. Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, was founded in 1925 following the amalgamation of the Home Rule Army of Wales and the Welsh Movement. It exhibited wider Celtic integration by using Breizh Atao as its party press.

Breiz (2)

(C) Daniel Leach, ‘Bezen Perrot: The Breton nationalist unit of the SS, 1943-5’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Celtic Studies, 4 (http://goo.gl/vIh5kv)

However, similar to observations of wider solidarity prior to the Great War, it would be improper to categorize Celtic nationalism as integrated or even “Celtic” after it. Many nationalist movements remained insular despite the concentrated efforts of a select few to establish a broader base of cooperation. Additional research is required to establish the network of correspondence and influence amongst these dedicated few, and to determine whether the impact of their efforts was reciprocal. A less conventional Four Nations approach may help to facilitate this.

 Justin Dolan Stover was conferred with a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin in 2011. He is currently Assistant Professor of nationalism, war and conflict in the Department of History at Idaho State University. Follow him on Twitter @stoverjd or visit his Academia.edu page.

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