On Citizenship and Belonging
by Professor Nicholas Grene

Introduction to the 2019 Prize Essay

Hubert Butler would have appreciated the subject of this year’s essay awarded in his name.  He was a convinced internationalist, travelling extensively throughout his life, bringing to bear on all that he saw and experienced, at home and abroad, the same sense of committed interest and moral engagement. Yet he rooted himself in the family home of Maidenhall, Co. Kilkenny, and unquestionably felt that was where he belonged.  Now, twenty-nine years after his death, nearly a hundred and twenty after his birth, is it still possible to combine such a globally concerned perspective with an assured sense of localized identity?  Where, if anywhere, does a citizen of the world now belong? 

One of the great pleasures of acting as a judge for this prize – in my case now for a second time – has been seeing the sheer diversity of the responses to the question: tightly packed philosophical analyses, autobiographical memoirs, parables and political arguments.  Many challenged Theresa May’s statement that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere”, though some pointed out that technically there could be no such thing – citizenship had to be of a given state or states, not of the world.  Climate change, refugees displaced by war or poverty and the resurgent populism that shut borders against them, figured prominently as the most urgent crises that needed to be addressed globally.  But it was the individuality of the best essayists that was most striking and most appropriately reflected the work of Butler himself.

Butler, an Irish nationalist from an Anglo-Irish Protestant family, someone who refused to follow any established professional career, was from early on a dissenter, if not a contrarian.  In cultivating the essay form of which he became such a master, he wrote always from a personal viewpoint.  He would start from an anecdote, an individual experience or perception.  But the essay habitually opened out into a broad-ranging set of reflections that were hauntingly atmospheric (Peter’s Window, On Riga’s Strand) or deeply disturbing (The Children of Drancy, The Invader Wore Slippers).  It is no part of the design of the Hubert Butler Essay Prize to seek imitations of his essays; they are in any case inimitable.  But it is intended to encourage his sort of vigilant intelligence, the use of the essay to give voice to a sharply distinctive, a nay-saying point of view, where necessary.

Andrew Hammond’s winning essay is a fine example of just this.  He contends that whatever the ideals or aspirations behind it, the idea of global citizenship is ‘naïve’, ‘impractical’, perhaps even ‘wrongheaded’.  He makes a distinction between what he calls ‘good’ and ‘bad’ belonging.  The desire for a universal citizenship, he argues, is based on flight from conflicts within individual communities – ‘bad belonging’ – but they can only be solved within such communities by ‘good belonging’.  He cites the example of the Northern Irish peace process which worked because people from both sides, without giving up their own culture or beliefs, were willing to reach out to one another.  Taking illustrations from situations as disparate as interethnic relations in the late Ottoman Empire and young gay people in 1990s New York, he advances a principle of ‘benign pragmatism’.  ‘Our values may transcend the local’, he concludes, ‘but living them out is for actual people in actual places’.  Hubert Butler would surely have assented.