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Irish/ness Is All Around Us: Language Revivalism and the Culture of Ethnic Identity in Northern Ireland

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Volume 6

Integration and Conflict Studies

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Irish/ness Is All Around Us

Language Revivalism and the Culture of Ethnic Identity in Northern Ireland

Olaf Zenker

320 pages, 7 figures & tables, 2 maps, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-0-85745-913-8 $135.00/£99.00 Hb Published (April 2013)

ISBN  978-1-78533-206-7 $34.95/£27.95 Pb Published (April 2016)

eISBN 978-0-85745-914-5 eBook

Hb Pb   Buy the eBook! $34.95 Request a Review or Examination Copy (in Digital Format) Recommend to your Library Available in GOBI®


“While the structure of the book is sometimes heavy, it remains rich in insights and shows theoretical flair. It will be of interest to people who want to know how Irish revitalists navigate ethnicity in Northern Ireland. The methodology is thorough, placing the experiences of the participants in conversation with social structures. Certainly, the theoretical contributions will be of interest to scholars of nationalism and ethnicity.” · Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

“This book will be of interest to linguistic anthropologists, cultural anthropologists, as well as sociologists, political scientists, and historians of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also be valuable to those interested in cultural identity formation within politically charged contexts, including postcolonial contexts. It complements and extends the existing research on political identities in Northern Ireland.” · American Ethnologist

“This is a thoroughly well-written, thought-provoking, and fascinating work which should appeal to ethnographers and linguistic anthropologists as well as to scholars working on language revival movements, particularly those of marginalised, minority languages. Zenker does well to contribute to debates about the politics of language and identity and to notions of place, nationhood, personhood, and autochthony… He writes with zeal and passion about a topic he is not only interested in and obviously fascinated by, but has experienced himself: learning Irish culture through learning the language.” · Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology

“Zenker’s prisme théorique allows him to present … individualized and collectivized autochthony as new framework for understanding Irish identity in Catholic West Belfast. In ‘making sense of it all’ in this way, and in his repudiation of ‘narrow constructivism’ …, Zenker effectively takes up the cudgels of [Richard] Jenkins … and [Thomas Hylland] Eriksen… in relocating the stuff of culture in the anthropology of ethnic identity. In short, this book is a valuable study of an important and highly politicized issue.” · Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

“This is a beautifully nuanced, richly detailed ethnography of Irish-speaking, and Irish-speakers, in contemporary West Belfast. ... As an exploration of the ‘cultural stuff’, rather than group boundary maintenance, it makes an important contribution to post-Barthian ethnicity studies. ... It is one of the very best ethnographies of Belfast that I have read. Superb.” · Richard Jenkins, University of Sheffield

“This is a well-researched and engaging text which sheds new light on the issues attending language revivalism in Ireland and its intersection with historic conflict in N. Ireland. The author explains his methodology clearly throughout in a way that allows theoretical issues to be integrated comfortably within the central narrative.” · Fionntán de Brún, University of Ulster


Focusing on Irish speakers in Catholic West Belfast, this ethnography on Irish language and identity explores the complexities of changing, and contradictory, senses of Irishness and shifting practices of 'Irish culture' in the domains of language, music, dance and sports. The author’s theoretical approach to ethnicity and ethnic revivals presents an expanded explanatory framework for the social (re)production of ethnicity, theorizing the mutual interrelations between representations and cultural practices regarding their combined capacity to engender ethnic revivals. Relevant not only to readers with an interest in the intricacies of the Northern Irish situation, this book also appeals to a broader readership in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, history and political science concerned with the mechanisms behind ethnonational conflict and the politics of culture and identity in general.

Olaf Zenker is Junior Professor at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin. He received his PhD from the Martin Luther University and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany, and obtained his habilitation from the University of Bern, Switzerland. His publications include the co-edited volume Beyond Writing Culture: Current Intersections of Epistemologies and Representational Practices (Berghahn Books, 2010).

Subject: Anthropology (General) Peace and Conflict Studies Cultural Studies (General)
Area: Europe


List of Tables, Figures, Maps


Chapter 1. A Walk of Life: Entering Catholic West Belfast

Chapter 2. Framing the Research: Analytical Approach and Methodology

  • The Analytical Framework for the Study of Ethnic Identity (and the Irish Language)
  • On Methodology


Chapter 3. Fáilte isteach – Welcome In
Chapter 4. Becoming a Gaeilgeoir

  • Roibeárd, age 63
  • Rónán, age 61
  • Mairéad, age 58
  • Micheál, age 55
  • Dónal, age 49
  • Fíona, age 47
  • Pól, age 47
  • Pádraigín, age 40
  • Sinéad, age 33
  • Caoimhín, age 17
  • Preliminary observations

Chapter 5. On Prophets, Godfathers, Rebels and Prostitutes:a Contemporary History of the Irish language in Catholic West Belfast

  • Emerging structural contexts for the Irish language in the 1950s: a prehistory
  • Prophets on the moral ‘High Meadow’: the Cumann Ċluain Árd
  • From a hedge(d) school to Irish language industries: godfathers of the Irish language
  • Rebels with/out a political cause: the Jailtacht and beyond
  • Prostitutes of the Irish language?
  • Conclusions

Chapter 6. ‘Our own native language’: Local Representations and Practices of the Irish language

  • Between purism and pragmatism: the micro-dynamics of Irish language usage
  • The political hijacking of the Irish language revival: the meso-dynamics of supply and demand
  • ‘Our own native language?’ The macro-dynamics of rights activism, ethnicism and nationalism
  • Conclusions


Chapter 7. ‘It’s part of what we are’ – Identifying Identity
Chapter 8. Becoming (Aware of) Who You Are: Irish

  • Roibeárd, age 63
  • Rónán, age 61
  • Mairéad, age 58
  • Micheál, age 55
  • Dónal, age 49
  • Fíona, age 47
  • Pól, age 47
  • Pádraigín, age 40
  • Sinéad, age 33
  • Caoimhín, age 17
  • Preliminary observations

Chapter 9. Casting Nets of Identity: a Contemporary History of Irishness in Catholic West Belfast

  • ‘A constant counter-narrative to the dominant narrative of the society’: emerging structural contexts for/eclosing Irishness in Northern Ireland
  • No games, just sports? Gaelic games and the playground of Catholic West Belfast
  • ‘If you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song’: Irish music in Catholic West Belfast
  • Knowing how to do your sevens: dancing to the tune of Irishness in Catholic West Belfast
  • Conclusions

Chapter 10. ‘Something inside so strong’: Local Representations and Practices of Irishness

  • What it takes to be Irish
  • The Irishness of Protestants and the politics of a classificatory anomaly
  • Autochthony as the causal logic behind ethnicity
  • Conclusions


Chapter 11. ‘Trying to make sense of it all’: Identity Matters in Catholic West Belfast



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