Discourses of visibility and self-determination in the Irish Free State

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This paper explores the significance of visibility in the political culture of the Irish Free State between 1922-39. It argues that visibility played a deeply significant role in the political culture of the Irish Free State, at a time when visual culture played an increasingly important role in political life internationally. Most importantly, the language of visibility played a crucial role in debates and discourses over political legitimacy, and thus in advancing the cause of the Free State’s self-determination. Political actors who were perceived as being ‘visible’ were deemed respectable, and therefore, legitimate; whereas those who were perceived as ‘invisible,’ ‘dark’ or ‘shadowy’ were deemed to be disreputable, and therefore illegitimate.

This paper examines this process through three case studies. First, in the aftermath the Irish Civil War, supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty constructed their republican opponents as sinister and invisible figures. Desmond FitzGerald (Dáil Debates, 1 March, 1934) remarked that while the Blueshirts could be seen wearing a uniform which made them recognisable in the day-light, the only type of uniform that the members of the IRA ‘indulge in is the mask in order to conceal the images of the men ... [as] they have always wanted to avoid the light of day.’ In response, de Valera’s government used invisibility as a means of delegitimising and weakening the office of Governor-General, and thus advancing the cause of Irish self-determination. In 1932 De Valera appointed Domhnall Ua Buachalla to the post and demanded that he not perform any visible public duties, effectively confining him to a modest suburban residence. The Strabane Chronicle (23 June 1934) remarked that ‘the Governor-General was marooned in Monkstown, and the most important feature of his duty was that he was to remain invisible.’ Lastly, visibility was seen as a vital part of the state’s Catholic identity. This may be seen in the political discourse surrounding the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. During the proceedings, publications such as the Columban magazine (July 1932) referred to Dublin ‘as a light shining within the darkness.’

By examining visibility, this paper explores the deepest anxieties of the political culture of the Irish Free State, around legitimacy, respectability, morality, and indeed, the question of Irish freedom itself.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Nov 2022
EventIrish Museum of Modern Art International Research Conference : 100 Years of Self Determination - Hybrid- Lighthouse Cinema/Zoom, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 9 Nov 202212 Nov 2022


ConferenceIrish Museum of Modern Art International Research Conference


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