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The nineteenth century saw the rise of modern nations in Europe, the ‘imagined communities’ of those who shared the same culture and recognised each other as fellow members. When cultural conceptions of the nation merged with the liberal idea of representative government, nationalism became one of the most important mobilising forces in European politics. Nationalists strove to establish states for their nations, or, if these existed already, to turn them into true nation states. In order to achieve this goal they tried to bring about an awakening of the national idea among the masses. However, formulating the precise contents of the nationalist message – of what it meant to be Italian, or Polish or Irish – was a controversial affair, and different rivals competed for the right to define national identity.
In many parts of Europe, the Catholic church was a formidable contender for this task. Catholicism had emerged from its skirmishes with ancien regime monarchs and its life-or-death combat with revolution to undergo a remoulding that was very similar to modern nation building. As Peter Raedts has observed, the transformation of the church in the nineteenth century ‘can be described in exactly the same terms as the transformation from traditional states into nation states’, involving as it did ‘bureaucratisation, mass mobilisation and cultural homogenisation’. The ultramontane church that was the result of this process staked a strong claim to its members’ loyalty, very similar to the demands made by the nation and the nation state.
Even though Europeans were capable of dividing their allegiances according to the different spheres of modern life, there was the risk of a clash. Not content with being relegated to the domain of private religious conviction, Catholicism dealt with the challenge by ‘writing itself into the script’ of nationalism. This strategy had varying degrees of success, depending on the level and nature of the opposition it encountered in each particular nation. Urs Altermatt has distinguished a number of ways in which Catholic identity interacted with European nationalities, ranging from ‘traditional opposition’ to ‘cultural symbiosis’. He has contended that Ireland was an example of the latter model, Catholicism having become, in Sean Connolly’s words, ‘the basis of a communal identity opposed to the state’. The validity of this interpretation is not negated by the enduring existence of a minority tradition that imagined the Irish nation in purely secular terms.
The opposition to the state sponsored by the Catholic church was of the constitutional type. When it took the form of republicanism, with secret societies plotting armed rebellion, it was firmly repudiated by bishops and priests alike. Whatever common bonds tied Irish separatists to the church, the violent means they used from time to time were never endorsed by the majority of the clergy. On the contrary, violence was the most important bone of contention between republicans and Catholic churchmen, forcefully summarised in 1867 by the bishop of Kerry’s famous dictum that hell was not hot enough, nor eternity long enough to punish the Fenian leaders. This antagonism arose from the church’s instinctive distrust of secret movements that conspired to undermine order in society and were impervious to elite control. As David Miller has pointed out, it also gave the bishops bargaining power vis-a-vis the British government. The church’s opposition helped to contain the ‘physical force’ tradition of Irish republicanism throughout much of the nineteenth century, with home rule remaining the dominant nationalist aspiration. In the meantime, Catholicism continued to shape Irish national identity, with Catholic themes featuring very strongly in the discourse of Gaelic revivalists. Moreover, clerical influence loomed large over the organisations of the Gaelic revival and over the Irish Parliamentary Party.