Book Review: Jim Mac Laughlin, Reimagining the Nation-State. The Contested Terrains of Nation-building. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2001

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Subject: Book Review: Jim Mac Laughlin, Reimagining the Nation-State. The Contested Terrains of Nation-building. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2001

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Book Review: Jim Mac Laughlin, Reimagining the Nation-State.
The Contested Terrains of Nation-building. London 

Jim Mac Laughlin, Reimagining the Nation-State. The Contested Terrains
of Nation-building. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2001. 289
pp., bibliography, index. ISBN 0 7453 1364 7 (pbk.), 15.99; ISBN 0
7453 1369 8 (hbk.), 45.00
Reviewed by Stefan Wolff (, University of Bath,
England, UK
In this day and age, a search in an online catalogue of virtually any
university library for works on nationalism would produce at least
several dozen hits covering theoretical works from Ernest Gellner to
Anthony D. Smith and the practical applications of their and others
theories to historical and contemporary processes of nation-building
and ethnonational conflict, leaving hardly any place or time
uncovered. Admittedly, the quality of the works one would discover
this way varies; however, the question remains whether there is indeed
a need for yet another monograph on the history of nation-building in
Mac Laughlins book provides a relatively easy answer to this question
yes. For what he delivers is not merely another history of the
emergence of modern Ireland (both north and south), but at the same
time a critical historiography of theories of nationalism.
Concentrating on pre-partition Ireland, Mac Laughlin challenges many
of their broad assumptions and conclusions about the origins, nature,
and consequences of nationalism, particularly their failure to
incorporate in their theories the rootedness of nationalism and
political regionalisms in the ethnic geographies and divided
communities of nation-building societies (p. 4). While he accepts that
nations  were historical happenings and geographical constructs, Mac
Laughlin rejects a broad range of theories (Smith, Anderson, Bhabha,
Hobsbawm, Wallerstein, Nairn) as too limited to explain properly the
quite different and frequently contentious processes of
nation-building that emerged in Ireland over the course of four
centuries or more (p. 6). This in itself makes for an intellectually
stimulating read. While the reader may not agree with every single
point Mac Laughlin makes in showing the limitations of existing
theories of nationalism as applied to Ireland, the argument overall is
so richly illustrated and comprehensive in its integration of
intellectual, social, economic and political drivers of
nation-building in Ireland that it would be hard to accuse Mac
Laughlin of the intellectual narcissism of exaggerating minor points
into a pseudo-critique of existing theories of nationalism and
The first three chapters of the book examine the Anglo-centric view of
Ireland roughly up to the eighteenth century, arguing that Ireland, in
may ways, was not treated differently than other English colonies in
theory (racist discourses about barbarous natives) and practice
(implanting settlers to civilise this territory). Chapter four is a
critique of Anderson, Hobsbawm, and Wallerstein, pointing out that the
two different traditions of nationalism in Ireland  Irish separatist
nationalism and Ulster Unionism  were rational expressions of
political regionalism rather than merely political ideologies (p. 92).
Mac Laughlin thus implicitly traces some of todays dynamics of
inter-ethnic relations in Northern Ireland back to the time when two
different manifestations of national consciousness were constructed in
two different parts of Ireland Ulster and the rest of the island  that
expressed the material and cultural interests of groups who were
intent of realising the political potential of peoplehood and
nationhood in nation-state and national form, united different social
classes across broad cultural fields in two different parts of the
country, forged new organic relationships with territory and created
social blocs whose leaders insisted that the people had a right to
their own nationhood and their own nation-state (pp. 94-5). This is
the core thesis of Mac Laughlin's book and chapters 5-10 provide the
evidence in support of it.
Chapter 5 looks at how Ireland's past was nationalised and by whom.
Chapter 6 examines the role of the Catholic church and national
schools (rather than universities) in the emergence of Irish
nationalism and national separatism. Chapter 7, although being a
classical study of the part played by communication in forging a
national consciousness, makes an important contribution to the debate
in that it focuses on the provincial rather than national press as one
of the most important  agent[s] of nation-building in
nineteenth-century Ireland (p. 187). Chapter 8 follows a similar
approach, but concentrates on the Protestant parts of Ulster, i.e.,
todays six counties of Northern Ireland, and the way in which the
ideological contours of Protestant Ulster in Catholic nation-building
Ireland were mapped out in provincial papers (p. 211). Chapter nine
provides an interesting case study of the role of geography and
map-making as loci of competing and conflicting images of Ireland and
Irishness in that it enabled cartographers from either side of the by
now obvious communal divide to name and claim places (p. 229).
Finally, chapter 10 looks at the nexus of local politics and
nation-building in county Donegal, showing how, over a considerable
period of time, a social bloc of bourgeois and petty bourgeois
interest groups was formed that was capable of exerting hegemonic
control over the political and economic life of the county and the
country (p. 270).
Although I missed a concluding chapter bringing together the findings
of this impressive and well-written study of the emergence of two
different expressions of nationalism in Ireland, Mac Laughlins work
can be strongly recommended to advanced undergraduates, postgraduates
and academics with an interest in processes of nation-building and
Irish history. The particular value of the book being its integration
of specifically territorial, political, economic and cultural
constructs of place with ideological explanations of (ethno-)
nationalism, this book is as much about the history of Ireland as it
is about the recent and present developments in Northern Ireland where
many of the historic struggles between Irish Nationalism and Ulster
Unionism analysed by Mac Laughlin continue to be fought out in
politics and on the streets. It may no longer be primarily about
nation-building, yet, the terrain of the struggle remains contested
there as well as elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

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