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September 2008 Archive

Inventing The Nation - The Quest for Authenticity

09 September 2008, 00:11

Blame it on Maureen O'Hara
I take as a starting point an article that appeared in The Irish Times on 27th of December 1999 entitled “The shawl makes a comeback thanks to Galway designer”. The article concerns itself with a West of Ireland designer, Mary Flaherty, and her most recent creation, an “authentic reproduction” of the Galway shawl. To the discerning reader encountering semantics such as the words ‘authentic’ and ‘reproduction’ being used to describe any one item at first jars the sensibilities causing a pause to re-read the offending sentence. The description then surely provokes some humour at the sheer irony of the impossibility of anything being an “authentic reproduction”. Further on in the article, however, when we learn that Ms. Flaherty’s shawls retailed at IEP £175.00 [€169.00], as opposed to their original 1930s price of IEP £3.00 one could not blame the reader if they were to experience some feelings of anger, however minor, and to ask of themselves, just who is fooling who?

The irony of this ‘authentic reproduction’ does, unfortunately, run a lot deeper. Ms. Flaherty found inspiration for the shawl whilst engaging in conversation with former Hollywood actress, Maureen O’Hara, who is a native neither of Claddagh nor Galway but of Renealgh, a very Dublin suburb, and has been an American citizen since 1947. Ms. O’Hara, during a visit to Ireland in 1995, was reminiscing on her time spent in the West whilst filming The Quiet Man in 1952. She “recalled how the wardrobe department working on the film had offered £25.00 to Galway people who were prepared to part with their shawls and so dress the cast on the production. She bemoaned the fact that the shawl had become almost “extinct” after hundreds were taken back to the US by the Hollywood cast and crew.”
And so it transpires that Mary Flaherty’s artistic stimulation did not arise from the bogs and fields of Claddagh, Galway, Connemara or even County Clare, but from an idealised, stereotyped and essentialist “Technicolor glorification of Irishness”, in the form of a Hollywood movie. Her ‘authentic reproduction’ turns out to be, in itself, a reproduction copied from a reproduction. Nonetheless, Mary Flaherty was clearly saddened enough by the gaping hole left in “Galway’s heritage” caused by the “extinction” of several hundred shawls to create two thousand “authentic reproductions” of her own. Which she then sold at nearly two hundred pounds apiece. Her shawl is, of course, a “limited edition”, worked on a jacquard loom, and “is intricately woven with symbols of the heart and hands, harp intertwined with shamrock, and is bordered by Celtic knot-work depicting interlocking birds.”

Before pondering the possibility of any Irish nineteenth century peasant owning such an expensive, large and cumbersome piece of hardware as a jacquard loom one must firstly speculate how women in Western Irish agrarian communities, particularly during periods of famine, found the time or inclination to weave such intricate and deliciously Celtic designs. One can again only speculate as to how Ms. Flaherty’s quiet chuckles on the way to the bank probably turned to loud, long and raucous belly laughs when she received the news that the Irish Government saw fit to buy up a consignment of these shawls to present to visiting dignitaries and diplomats. This was, of course, in commemoration of the passing of the twentieth century. For Ms. Flaherty had the foresight to name this particular version of her “limited” and authentically reproduced shawl the “Millennium Edition”. Lest any of these overseas dignitaries and diplomats should forget just how fortunate they are to be in possession of such a glorious piece of Irish heritage, each shawl is individually numbered and comes with an accompanying “explanatory booklet”.

My analysis of Mary Flaherty’s Galway shawl is rather culturally iconoclastic. Many would applaud her entrepreneurial acumen and congratulate both her capitalism and contribution to Irish industry and design. We should, however, pause in our praise when it comes to the government’s decision to buy a consignment of these shawls and reflect on what is, in the final analysis, the invention of yet another tradition in the name of a cultural revival, that of the ‘Galway Shawl’. For the shawl has been worn by women and men the world over since its original incarnation as part of the male courtier’s costume in the Achaemenid Persian Empire [550-330 BCE]. It was gradually assimilated into Western European culture over many centuries and reached its peak as a fashion accessory during the nineteenth century with the second age of the European imperialism. But the fact remains that many people from both Ireland and other nations parted with relatively large sums of money for the purpose of proudly wearing a tradition that never really existed but was, to all intents and purposes, invented.


The invention of tradition, particularly in terms of being constituent of a cultural revival, is no new notion. Indeed it has a long, varied and well-documented history. Within the academy it has been the concern of historical, anthropological and cultural scholars, particularly since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Recent works have moved beyond the realm of historical surveys and opened new lines of enquiry into invented traditions. Their findings uncover many interesting and enlightening nexus, both cultural and political. The scope of this blog then, lies not just in illustrating examples of invented traditions that emerged in the quest for cultural revival but also in exploring the underlying ideological forces behind such inventions. By firstly examining two Scottish and Irish cultural revivals and their accompanying invented traditions and then by marrying these examples to the findings of current historical research around invented traditions mentioned above, I hope to draw both historical and ideological conclusions around both past and modern cultural revivals and the invented traditions they have concerned themselves with.

Inventing the Irish Writer
The Irish Literary Revival is certainly a case in point. During the closing decade of the nineteenth century and the opening of the twentieth, certain public figures of political and literary circles, often with intertwining interests, sought to promote notions of an essentialist Celtic literature. Upon closer analysis these works seem to have their creative inspirations not so much in the distant mists of an ancient Ireland (although this is the bulk of the subject matter) but in deeply entrenched Irish Nationalism and the struggle for independence. Several historians locate the main starting point of the Irish literary revival as the demise of Charles Stuart Parnell in 1890 and his death the following year. Certainly “by the end of the decade, the burgeoning of cultural and associational life, and in particular the literary revival, was already being explained as a response to the post-Parnell political vacuum.” For many contemporary Irish nationalists the fight for home rule seemed to die alongside Parnell. Lionel Pilkington finds the roots of this when he cites Lady Augusta Gregory, who alongside William Butler Yeats was a primary instigator of the revival and, again with Yeats, a co-founder of the Irish National theatre:
“Parnell’s death. That was the unloosing of forces, the disbanding of an army. In the quarrels that followed and the breaking of hopes, the imagination of Ireland had been set free, and it looked for a homing place.”

Colin Graham neatly reiterates this point when he quotes cultural theorist Jacob Golomb’s maxim that the “birth of authenticity is rooted in revolution” and continues, in his own words, to state:
“Authenticity and claims to authenticity underlie the conceptual and cultural denial of dominance. … In the Irish context, claims for [cultural] authenticity move from the ‘revolutionary’ (in all its aspects) to the dominant, following the path of the nation to the nation state.”

A seat in Yeats’ and Lady Gregory’s revivalist ‘homing place’ be it literary or dramatic, was fiercely contested and much sought after. Renowned, successful and established writers such as Wilde, Congreve, Sheridan, Shaw and Stoker were relegated to the alterity of being labelled ‘Anglo-Irish’ or often just ‘English’ authors. And within the accepted parameters of this newly invented canon there lay a definite bifurcation between literatures written in Irish and English. Previous literary endeavours were either conveniently ignored or dismissed as being simply not Irish enough. Nationalist literary critics and writers were keen to put forth the notion that Irish literary history, especially previous nineteenth century works up until the point of the revival, had been a blank page. Irish literary scholar Margaret Kelleher would surely disagree having traced the history of Irish Literature, in both Irish and English, back to the sixth century with the fruits of her labour currently running at 1286 pages and two weighty volumes. R.V. Comerford, through shrewd historiography, offers a neat survey of major Irish literary endeavours from the advent of print in the fifteenth century. Most interestingly, both Kelleher and Comerford uncover a wealth of Irish writing in the years immediately prior to the revival. Indeed, as early as 1754, writer Paul Hiffarnan had proposed the idea of a literature that was English in language but made distinctly Irish by drawing on Gaelic sources. Irish literary societies sprang up both at home and abroad, most notably the Southwark Irish Literary club in 1883. The club, founded by Thomas Davis, primarily concerned itself with new works and guest lecturers. William Butler Yeats first attended the Southwark meetings in March 1888 and was quick to appropriate the club’s work and members to his own self-promotional ends. In 1891 he “reconstitut[ed] the Southwark club as the Irish Literary Society, returning to Dublin in 1892 to found the National Literary Society there.” Yeats’ mission was taken up by Standish James O’Grady [1846-1928] who himself drew heavily on the work of Samuel Ferguson [1810-86]. Both O’Grady and Ferguson were Gaelic scholars who, having good access to recondite ancient literature, “served up this material in exciting, highly charged and above all accessible form”. Publications such as "History of Ireland: The heroic period" [1878] and "History of Ireland: Cuchulain and his contemporaries" [1880] have oft been cited as the birth of the Irish literary revival. Yeats was keen to focus on the Celtic mythological side of things whilst ignoring any new modern writing, his purpose being the invention of an ancient Irish literature. It seemed to matter not that this “involved the putting aside of much that Thomas Davis and the original members of the Southwark group regarded as Irish literature” primarily because it did not fit in with the Nationalist agenda.

Scotsmen and their Kilts
Anyone planning a holiday in Scotland could be surely be lured by the section on the Scottish Tourist Board’s website advertising the “Clan Tartan Centre” in West Leith. The centre invites guests to “find out if your name is linked to a Scottish clan, or tartan.” The Scottish tartan system however, as researched and revealed by Hugh Trevor-Roper, is yet another invented tradition. The Scots tartan system found its first inception relatively recently with the formation of the Highland regiments during the middle years of the eighteenth century. The invention of the Scots tartan goes hand in hand with many other created traditions in Scotland. “Indeed, the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention.” Trevor-Roper traces the original occupants of the Highlands as a disparate and non-homogenous group with the majority of their roots in Ulster. Until the resurgence of a strong Scottish nationalistic struggle in the late seventeenth century, which saw the invention of the Highlands as a cultural entity; “racially and culturally, it was a colony of Ireland.” He identifies a tri-stadial process in which the Highlands gained cultural capital as a supposed ancient nation with ancient traditions and dress. Firstly, there was cultural revolt against Ireland that resulted in “the usurpation of Irish culture and the re-writing of early Scottish history”. This achieved its desired effect of claiming Celtic Scotland as the ‘mother nation’ and Ireland as her cultural descendant. The second stage was the creation and invention of Highland traditions that were “presented as ancient, original and distinctive.” The last of these three stages saw the assimilation of these traditions into all of Scottish culture, primarily and specifically the Lowlands. Literature was invented by “acts of bold forgery” as were poetry and songs. But perhaps the most ostentatious invention was that of the kilt, that bastion of Scottish identity that is nowadays regarded as an ancient Scots tradition.
The kilt, as we know it, has only been extant since the seventeenth century when the Highlands broke its link with Ireland and declared itself a cultural entity. Up until then there had been little difference in the traditional dress of the Scottish or Irish peasantry. The common attire of the Highlanders was a long shirt or shift-like garment known as the Leine. As Trevor-Roper informs us: “The name ‘kilt’ first appears twenty years after the Union [in 1707].” Originally termed ‘quelt’ it referred to the manner in which the dress of the Highlanders was folded. Trevor-Roper continues:
“Unknown in 1726, it suddenly appeared a few years later; and by 1746 it was sufficiently established to be explicitly named in the act of parliament, which then forbade the Highland dress. Its inventor was an English Quaker from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson.”

The kilt, invented by an Englishman, was then taken up as a fashionable and somewhat rebellious mode of dress, not by the Highland peasantry as one might expect, but by Scottish aristocracy. As the kilt became more and more assimilated into the culture a new invented tradition emerged, that of different tartans for different clans. The earliest evidence for any differentiation in the patterning of kilts or leines was in the sixteenth century; however it was a mark of status not family, with Clan chieftains wearing colours while their subjects wore a plain brown. Trevor-Roper records two sets of Highland family portraits painted by Richard Waitt in the eighteenth century, those of the Grant and the Macdonald families, each displaying up to as many as six different types of tartan. Indeed “the only way only way in which a Highlander’s loyalty could be discerned was not by his tartan but by the cockade in his bonnet.” Thus the tartan and the kilt can be seen as recently invented traditions that were assimilated into popular culture and then mythologized, firstly in the name of nationalism and more recently in the name of commercial enterprise.

Why invent traditions?
What conclusions are to be drawn around invented traditions in Scotland and Ireland? That they are relatively recent phenomena, in both historical and historiographical terms, there is no doubt. Both Comerford and Hobsbawm trace their beginnings to the advent of the enlightenment and more specifically with the rise of European nationalism after the French revolution. “Collectives imagine nothing as readily as common ancestry”. In common with Hobsbawm’s introductory analysis, invented traditions can establish themselves with “great rapidity … and where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.” Indeed, both the Irish Literary Revival and traditional Highland culture, as outlined above, were definitely engendered by struggles for autonomous rule and both traditions experienced a swift rise to cultural prominence.

But, aside from Nationalist roots and any given collective striving for authenticity and identity, there is also, I suggest, a strong nexus between the modern-day invention of traditions and the weakening or collapse of many societal grand-structures and meta-narratives. We live in what many social theorists now term the ‘post-modern’ era. At the heart of the postmodern condition there lies the disruption of a number of societal meta-narratives or communal structures and systems. Some of these would be the decline of the belief in Christian Godhead and the ensuing rise of secularism; the fall of imperial and colonial systems; the loosening of class boundaries, and, the patriarchal confidence in men as a dominant and ruling entity. And whilst the collapse of these systems can be regarded as no bad thing in most (or even perhaps all) cases, it seems to leave a gap in human lives that cultural revival and invented traditions can fill, albeit temporarily. As Hobsbawm points out “it seems clear that, in spite of much invention, new traditions have not filled more than a small part of the space left by the secular decline of both old tradition and custom”.
Communities appear to nostalgically reach back into a fondly yet selectively remembered past, revive the culture that went with it as a means of mythologizing it, and then invent accompanying traditions. Capitalism and commercial ventures too will surely play their part, as we have seen with Ms. Flaherty’s Galway shawl. It is then the combination of several factors, namely; a secular void; the abandonment of the belief in a teleological movement of humankind towards societal perfection; an inherent need for some form of belief system, and pure commercial gain that drives today’s society to revive cultural pasts and thus invent traditions. But, as we have seen with the Galway shawl, so many invented traditions of today stand as poor representations or mere tropes of the rich cultures they seek to rekindle.
Perhaps cultural purists can take some solace in the fact that whilst Scottish Highland traditions and the Irish Literary revival will remain in the annals of history forever that, according to recent business listings, Mary Flaherty is no longer in business.











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