Irish identity and the Irish language in discourse and practice in Catholic West Belfast

This project focused on the workings behind ethnicity through empirically investigating the intricate relationship between the Irish language and Irishness as unfolding throughout the Northern Irish conflict during the second half of the 20th century. It thereby aimed for the parallel development of both a novel argument on ethnicity and ethnic revivals and an ethnographic case study on Northern Ireland during a period of terror.

Since the late 1960s, the North of Ireland has been the site of violent conflict between local Catholics, Protestants and the British government over the political status of Northern Ireland. The so-called Troubles further dichotomised local society into two entrenched and segregated blocs defined by divergent religious, ethnic and political identifications, thereby bringing people’s ethnicities to the fore. At the same time, these developments coincided on the Catholic side with a quite remarkable revival of the by then locally extinct Irish language – a revival strongly concentrated in the Irish-Republican heartland of Catholic West Belfast. Focussing on the community of Irish speakers in this part of Belfast, the study showed, how these Catholic people of different ages, genders, classes and political commitments managed to live through the hardships of civil unrest, war and terror, in what ways their notions and behaviour related to being ‘Irish’ changed and how these developments variously related to their growing personal engagements with the Irish language. The project thus opened up the complexities of and internal controversies surrounding changing senses of Irishness and actual cultural practices – as exemplified in the language – during a ghastly period of contemporary Northern Irish history, tracing the multiple interconnections and tensions between both phenomena, while also showing where Irishness and the Irish language have independently developed social lives of their own.

In order to explain the dynamics within this empirical case study, the project both drew on and conceptually expanded the dominant paradigm of constructivism in ethnicity studies. Over the past decades, ethnographic studies within the constructivist paradigm have been legion, focussing on the social construction of ethnic identities on the discursive level, while dismissing the level of therein represented cultural practices as irrelevant, and an interest in the latter as ‘essentialist’ or ‘primordialist.’ Building on the work of scholars such as Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Richard Jenkins, who have forcefully argued for a reintroduction of culture into ethnicity theory, the project developed a theoretical framework for the social reproduction of ethnicity through explicitly theorising the mutual interrelations between representations and therein represented cultural practices regarding their combined capacity to engender collective action in the form of ethnic revivals. Such an approach allowed explaining both the existence and the limits of flexibilities within ethnic revivals of actual cultural practices, as observed for the Irish language in Catholic West Belfast. This new model of ethnicity and ethnic revivals thus expanded conventional constructivism, given that the latter simply does not offer a theoretically founded answer to the question as to why and how actors should bother to change their actual cultural practices (as in learning their ‘own native language’) rather than merely modifying their representations within ethnicity discourses. In contrast, the new model allows explaining in detail, why and under which circumstances ethnic revivals are likely to happen, how they possibly develop and which potentials and limitations for strategic manipulation they offer to political elites.

Besides several articles, this project also led to the ethnographic book "Irish/ness is All Around Us: Language Revivalism and the Culture of Ethnic Identity in Northern Ireland", published by Berghahn Books.

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