Set apart from the European mainland, largely unaffected by geopolitical upheavals on the continent (Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler), and locked in a painful embrace with its "Significant Other" Britain, Ireland presents one of the most interesting European test cases for the historical analysis of cultural conflict and national identity. Questions of memory, identity and cultural articulation are multiscalar, in that the intra-Irish complexities (regional, linguistic, ethnic, religious) are enmeshed with the forcelines between Ireland and other countries, principally the neighbouring isle and the Irish diaspora.
In addition, the role of the literary and historical imagination in the articulation and negotiation of political identities has been deeply important and has been documented over a very long uninterrupted period in a variety of languages. How these linguistic traditions interact and whether they form part of a single cultural/mnemonic system or separate ones, is a comparatist crux par excellence, and all this within the ambit of one island.
From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, Irish culture has been drastically reframed as part of a “Celtic” family complex, and the Gaelic language, in decline as regards its social usage, gained prestige as the country’s primal, senior language – an outlook even adopted by Irish inhabitants from a non-Gaelic background, and/or unfamiliar with the language. This ethnic self-revision – the transfer of a Gaelic cultural self-framing from the native peasantry to the English-speaking urban populations and middle classes, including the collective memory but not including a cradle-acquired command of the language – is a highly unusual phenomenon in European history. In addition, it is exemplary for the growth of Celticism, one of the macronationalisms of 19th-century Europe alongside Pan-Slavism, Turanism etc. These larger comparative aspects above all are what makes Irish cultural history significant and intriguing.