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Irish Identities and the Great War in Drama and Fiction


Martin Decker

The era of the First World War represents one of the most turbulent and divisive periods in twentieth-century Irish history. The war is closely connected to the violent path to Irish independence from Britain and, for more than a century, it has brought the complexity of the issue of Irish identity into sharp focus. This study shows how the disparate literary responses of Irish authors to the war and its problematic legacy offer intriguing insights into different concepts of Irish identity, specifically those long buried within Irish national and historical consciousness. The late re-discovery of these identities in Irish writing reveals a modern nation trying to come to terms with its polarised past, seeking a more integrative sense of national self for the twenty-first century.

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II. Contexts


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II.  Contexts

II.1  Theoretical Context

As Nuala Johnson observes, in “Ireland the [Great] [W]ar […] became part of the vehicle through which disparate voices of identity politics found expression” (Johnson 2003, 12). This disparateness is related to the different contexts within which Irish identities have emerged and have been negotiated and challenged, yet, it also highlights the fact that the very notion of ‘identity’ is in itself highly ambiguous, complex, changeable, and a subject of discourses of politics and power. The cultural critic Kobena Mercer notes how “identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty” (quoted in Hall 1995, 597) – war evidently represents a context in which such a crisis is provoked. War is an arena in which identities are constructed and deconstructed, thereby paradoxically highlighting two basic aspects of identity: On the one hand, there is the communal dimension of identity, which in war has various facets, from an overarching sense of a national identity to group identities within the general military system, down to collective microcosms such as the emblematic trench communities of the Great War. On the other hand, there is the personal dimension of identity and self-perception, the sense of (pre-war) individuality that might clash with or be transformed by group identities (cf. Korte and Schneider 2002, 2f.) and by the experience of war itself. A further complication...

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