Strange Country – Ireland in politics and culture, 1998-2020

SOFEIR conference, 16-18 March 2021, Université Paris Nanterre

1998 was a momentous year for Ireland, north and south. The Good Friday Agreement finally unlocked the Northern Ireland peace process and radically altered the relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and between the Republic and the UK. The acknowledgement that people born in Northern Ireland could identify both with the UK and with the Republic and hold both citizenships, as well as the repeal of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act symbolically ushered in a new vision of the island, just as the Republic was hitting its Celtic Tiger stride.

The Ireland entering the new millennium turned away from the bitter strife of the Troubles, and left behind the economic underdevelopment and social and religious conservatism that had suffocated the independent Republic until the onset of Celtic Tiger growth in the early 1990s. That decidedly transitional decade laid bare a profound shift in the Irish cultural and moral psyche, starting with the exposure of the Catholic Church abuse scandal and the 1995 divorce referendum, and culminating today with the legalisation of same-sex civil partnership (2010), same-sex marriage (2015), and the partial legalisation of abortion (Health Act 2018).

21st century secularized Ireland presents to the world the image of an open society in terms of individual freedoms. In parallel, the Republic has become the poster child for the hegemonic discourse of global free market economy and neoliberal worldviews: a tax-haven for GAFAs and US-based multinational companies, the Republic came out of the 2008 economic collapse not with a critical appraisal of the policies that had led to the crisis but with a deliberate subservience to the EU-IMF bailout plan, putting forward an even more neoliberal agenda of austerity in the face of growing economic inequalities and a dire housing and unemployment crisis. In this respect, Ireland is now a typical example of late capitalist post-modernity within the so-called Global North. It is this seemingly paradoxical situation for a self-proclaimed post-colonial nation that we wish to interrogate.

Our inspiration for this conference is Seamus Deane’s Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790, published in 1999, a reflection on the persisting shadow cast over a possible modernity or normalisation of the country by an Irish gothic or undead.  During the first two decades of the new century, the strange country has at times seemed stranger and stranger: an island of cosmopolitan global adaptation, a place from which the pall of clerical authority has miraculously lifted. A society of enlightened debate and constitutional renewal, as with the milestone referendums carried out in the Republic in 2015 and 2018, the first an extension of the constitutional rights relative to marriage, the second a Repeal of the 1983 8th amendment. A beacon of Europhile sanity and integration, in the context of Brexit Europhobia and xenophobia.

Such a tableau is no doubt a pious simplification. As always, the country is stranger than we might think, stranger than we might imagine or wish it to be. The unanticipated surge in support for Sinn Féin, from 2.5% in the 1997 election to 24,5% in that of February 2020, is evidence that the present and the future of Ireland are surprising and strange. This unpredictable strangeness of the present is certainly not particular or unique to Ireland.  And perhaps to speak in terms of strangeness of what is really a case of the banal inequality of the intergenerational distribution of wealth and opportunity is an unnecessary confusion of the issues that are now on the agenda. 

The period 1998-2020 characterised by the extension of commodification and consumption, and a climate initially euphoric, that would later become more ambivalent, angrier and more jaundiced, the growing sense of the severe challenges of climate crisis, the ongoing confrontation with a historical and cultural heritage or memory, is thus one worth examining, in relation to the politics, art, the culture of ordinary life of Ireland, north and south, as both the spectacular and instructive manifestation of a more general predicament and as the ongoing working out of the agencies specific to a particular territory. This strange country insofar as it is a small and peripheral country, is “readable”, an interesting site for the exploration of a present political and cultural condition of our common world.

Several issues may be examined through the prism of political and economic discourse as well as that of literary and artistic creation (the following list is not exhaustive):

  • Contemporary Irish literature and the arts today (including cinema and television series), between a renewed appeal to regionalism and the lure of global English-speaking internationalism.
  • Ireland and Brexit Britain, Ireland’s place within the EU, Ireland’s positioning among the other former peripheries of the British Empire, Ireland’s relationship with American imperialism.
  • The Irish relationship to the normalizing discourse of neoliberalism, as a global “non-ideological”, commonsense worldview and as distinct from British Thatcherism.
  • Ireland’s stance on today’s environmental crisis and the global refugee crisis.

Please send your proposals to,,

before November 15th 2020 (notification of acceptance by December 10th).