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"Relocating Nationalism:" Dr. Guy Beiner Discusses Ireland as a Case Study in Nationalism

Dr. Guy Beiner, the 2019-2020 Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies, presented the annual Scholar’s Lecture at Boston College on Tuesday evening. His lecture was entitled “Relocating Nationalism between the Regional and the Transnational: Unexpected Lessons from the Lives and Works of Amateur Historians.”

Beiner is a historian himself, teaching history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel.

Recently, he published his newest book, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster. The book has won several prizes for Irish History, including the Irish Historical Research Prize.

The lecture began by looking at the present-day situation in Ireland, with Brexit threatening the stability of the region. Ideas about nationalism and how to locate it are once again being questioned as the region braces for the consequences of leaving the European Union.

“What do we do with this term nationalism? For years we’ve been accustomed to looking at the world through the prism of the nation as a major category,” he stated.

Nationalism, while still being looked at, is beginning to be contested by individuals who do not see themselves as belonging to the nation in any substantial way. These individuals refuse to allow for a single narrative about the nation to completely dominate, emphasizing pushes for independence.

“Scholarship is looking at frameworks of transnationalism: where nations meet each other, where people move in and out,” Beiner explained.

The challenge is to locate the nation between the conflict between regions, between other countries. Studying nationalism means acknowledging a porous quality to the ideas and self-contained regions of a state.

“Ireland itself [is] constantly engaged in a dialogue between localism and regionalism and has to, by definition because of Northern Ireland,” he argued.

Beiner then went on to explain the professionalization of history in the 1930s, which created a transition away from antiquarians and a firm break from the way history had previously been done.

“The notion of antiquarianism comes with baggage,” he explained. “This obsession with looking at old paper and material artifacts. It’s fascinating but at the same time ridiculous.”

Despite this professional disregard of antiquarianism as amateur history, Beiner began his research there, operating under the assumption that these amateur historians had a lot to say about the past and the discipline of history.

“What I’d like to do today is introduce you to two…to talk about two people whose names wouldn’t be the first mentioned when we chose the important figures to deal with these larger political issues of Irish history,” Beiner began, setting up the second part of his lecture.

Instead of studying the biography of one man, or even two contemporary figures, Beiner wanted to examine Irish history through the lens of two people whose lives only overlapped briefly.

Richard Robert Madden was a Catholic from Dublin who spent much of his life traveling and working in government posts that pushed for the abolition of slavery. He was a man of the first half of the 19th century.

Francis Joseph Bigger was a Protestant born Belfast-man who spent much of his life believing that a United Ireland was possible and attempting to revive traditional Irish culture. Bigger was a man of the late 19th century.

The two men only overlapped for a period of 23 years and each had a different view of how to unite the country through a transnational or a regional structure.

Madden, during his extensive period of traveling, where he visited Turkey, the Middle East, Palestine, and Africa, found himself becoming an internationalist.

In 1833, Madden was appointed as a special minister to the West Indies with the explicit mission of ending British slavery there. Within nine months he was forced to resign, due to staunch opposition from slave owners, some of whom were Irish.

“He’s not just an antiquarian, he’s an Irish antiquarian,” said Beiner.

What Madden is most known for is his 11-volume history of the United Irishmen, a society of Irish republicans, where he collected oral interviews from those men and everyone who had known them. He published, republished, and revised this project continuously.

He became so dedicated to this project that he invented an identity that connected him to the United Irishmen and would spend the last years of his life finding and revitalizing the graves and monuments to these men.

“The only biography of Madden written to date, is written in Irish,” Beiner concluded, ending his story of a transnational nationalist.  

It was then that Beiner transitioned to his second figure, Bigger.

Bigger was the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son, connecting him deeply to Irish folklore and sparking his imagination. He was also deeply connected to Belfast, ensuring that anything he produced was created there.

Trained as a lawyer, Bigger was more famous for the sort of salons he held in his home, Ardrigh, which means High King. These salons brought people on both sides of the Ireland question together.

He continuously tried to reconnect to the Irish history of old, connecting and revitalizing traditions that had stopped being practiced or remembered. Through Bigger’s influence, traditional piping began to experience a renaissance.

“This is all part of a revival in it’s Northern Axis,” Beiner stated, speaking of Bigger’s promotion of a de-Anglicized Ireland.

The connection between the two men lies in the United Irishmen. Bigger spent most of his life following in Madden’s footsteps, though Bigger focused specifically on the Northern United Irishmen.

Like Madden, Bigger constructed or rescued from oblivion the graves and monuments of these men. Like Madden, Bigger believed in a united Ireland.

“He still believes in an undivided Ireland after the statue of partition has happened,” Beiner ended Bigger’s biography.

“What we see here are two very different approaches. Madden was a nationalist…and yet he’s not a typical nationalist. He’s a transnationalist,” he said. “He doesn’t see a contradiction between that form of nationalism and international cosmopolitanism.

“Bigger is a nationalist regionalist. The region falls within a larger pattern,” Beiner finished.

 With Brexit changing the conversation around Ireland and Northern Ireland, either of these approaches might be “back on the table.”