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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The Great War and its Irish history and contested legacy represent an intriguing arena in which the complicated and disparate processes and pressures of Irish identity politics have become visible for more than a century. The multiple and changing ways in which Ireland and Northern Ireland have responded to the Great War and its legacy – official and unofficial, public and private, collective and individual – have magnified the fraught interrelations between Irishness and Englishness and between the defining forces of nationalism and unionism in Ireland. Furthermore, they have highlighted the sense of an overall instability of Irish identity and nationhood, ‘nation’ remaining a source of identification that necessitates constant re-confirmation, re-interpretation and re-appropriation. Apart from these concerns of national belonging and national self-conceptions, the Great War also brought about various related transformations considering more personal dimensions of identity, such as masculinity and femininity, mental and physical integrity, familial relations and traditions, and the adoption of militaristic and belligerent attitudes – changes that have affected not only those who actively participated in the war, but also those at the home front and those who had to or, perhaps, in some way, still have to live with the heritage of the war.
All of these conditions are reflected extensively in Irish literary responses to the Great War, from the outbreak of the conflict to the present. Altogether, these texts form only a fairly small and heterogeneous collection, which is mostly the outcome of the...
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