Discussion and debate about culture and identity has come more and more to the fore within the Unionist community in recent years. For many of us ‘older generation’ Unionists, who do not see ‘culture’ merely in terms of politics and religion, the discussion has been fairly comfortable to handle. For many of the younger generations of Unionists, who have grown up in an era where politics and religion are the defining elements of culture, the debate appears to be less straightforward.
As I see it there are four spheres of cultural identity operating in the Province today: – The Indigenous Irish Gaelic culture, The Anglo-Irish culture, The Ulster-Scots culture, and, the cultures of those ethnic groups from other nations who have settled in the Province in more recent times.
Each of these cultures have their own particular modes of expression and celebration – language, literature, drama, dance, music, ritual, symbols and emblems. Very often these modes of expression and celebration are integral to the value and worth of the culture itself. To deny the mode of expression or celebration is to deny the validity of the culture and the authenticity of the people who cherish that culture.
Each citizen of Northern Ireland has an inalienable right to watch over, promote, protect and enjoy the cultural tradition with which he or she chooses to identify. It is incumbent upon all of us to validate each of these cultures, together with the modes of expression and celebration associated with them.
Both the Anglo-Irish and the Ulster-Scots cultures have been in Ireland long enough to have assimilated elements of the Irish-Gaelic culture and of each other’s culture. The same is true for the Irish-Gaelic culture. It has embraced elements of both the Anglo-Irish and the Ulster-Scots cultures. For many of us within the Unionist community the terms Anglo-Irish and Ulster-Scots have been replaced by the term British and it is in this sense that we regard ourselves as the British presence in Ireland. We have been in Ireland long enough to have acknowledged our Irishness but without rejecting our inherited British cultural traits or our inherent sense of Britishness.
All of us who enjoy cultural activity ought to acknowledge that each separate culture has been enriched through its interaction with the others and that the development and enjoyment of ones own culture should not be pursued at the expense of, or to the detriment of, another culture. Given a neutral political environment, where culture is not used as a political weapon, there is a rich pool of cultural tradition from which we could all draw.
Those of Anglo-Irish and Ulster-Scots descent have as much right to embrace the term Irish as those who claim to be of pure Irish-Gaelic stock. Nationalists have no difficulty in accepting the validity of the term Irish-American yet they ridicule those of us who wish to define our Irishness in terms of our inherited Anglo or Scottish culture and our ongoing sense of Britishness. Sadly, there are many Unionists who have rejected the Irish component of their shared culture and who ridicule those of us who wish to retain it.
The United Irishmen whom republicans repeatedly point to as the inspiration behind the republican ideal were proud of the term Scotch-Irish. Likewise the Presbyterians who emigrated in their thousands to settle along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States of America were proud to be classed as the Scotch-Irish. If Unionists are serious about reviving their Ulster-Scots heritage and identity they must not cherry-pick that heritage and cast out its Irish component.
Samuel Thompson, the Bard of Carngranny, expressed the position of eighteenth century Irish Presbyterians in the following verse: –
“I love my native land, no doubt,
Attach’d to her thro’ thick and thin
Yet tho’ I’m Irish all without
I’m every item Scotch within.”
If Nationalists are genuine in their commitment to parity of esteem they should have no hesitation in validating the right of those Unionists who so desire it to lay claim to the name Irish. They ought, too, to acknowledge that the terms Irish and Irishness transcend religion and the party politics of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
Samuel Neilson, a Scots-Irish contemporary of Thompson and a founding father of the United Irishmen, remarked just prior to the Act of Union, “I see a union is determined on between Great Britain and Ireland. I am glad of it.” Neilson accepted the Act of Union without shedding his sense of Irishness. He, like many other members of the Society of United Irishmen, became Irish Unionists because they saw in the union an end to the corrupt Ascendancy-based Dublin Government. Indeed this was the position of Sir Edward Carson, who was at heart an Irish Unionist. It is significant that at that time the Orange Order and the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy were bitterly anti-unionist.
There is therefore nothing contradictory in a Unionist enjoying Irish culture or in accepting the term Irish. Yet I am sure that a survey of young Unionists and Loyalists would show that few of them would share that sentiment.
Prior to the current conflict most Unionists of my generation had few problems with the designation “Irish”. Our main Protestant religious denominations have had no problem with the designations Ireland as in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland and the Baptist Union of Ireland. Our Protestant church leaders do not appear to have set political or cultural barriers when defining their organisational structures.
The supreme body of the Orange Order is still called the Grand Lodge of Ireland and that there is a local lodge named after St. Patrick. I have personal knowledge of Irish Dancing being taught and practised in Orange Halls and Protestant Halls. Indeed in East Antrim, the heartland of Scottish Presbyterianism, many of the Schools of Irish Dancing have a predominantly Unionist membership.
Many Unionists were proud to serve with the Irish Guards and other regiments having the designation Irish, and to muster on St. Patrick’s Day to receive their traditional sprig of shamrock. The full title of the junior wing of Carson’s UVF, was “The Young Citizen’s Volunteers of Ireland”. Their emblem was, and remains, the Red Hand centred within a Green Shamrock. Ulster Unionists have played for, or cheered on, the Irish Rugby and Irish Hockey teams without fearing that this posed any threat to their political identity.
However, thirty years of violent conflict have caused most Unionists to either reject the designation Irish or to become extremely wary of it. They feel that the term has been so politicised by Nationalists and Republicans that it has become synonymous with the Republican Movement’s “Brits out” programme to eradicate the practice and memory of the Ulster-Scots and Anglo-Irish culture from the Province.
Sinn Fein and SDLP spokespersons regularly use the terms “nationalist community” and “Catholic community” interchangeably to identify the Irish community to the exclusion of the Unionist community. Those with a Scottish Presbyterian heritage or an English Anglican background are clearly not, and cannot be, true Irish in the eyes of the Republican Movement. Consequently more and more Unionists are seeking to revive the Scottish heritage and culture of their forbears.
The feeling that the term Irish and all things Irish belong to “them” and not to “us” is strongest amongst the younger generation of Unionists, particularly those born during the current conflict. Their only experience of the Irish identity has been the experience of aggressive Irish nationalism with the IRA as its cutting edge. Irish culture is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a tool, like the Armalite and the Ballot Box, to further the political objectives of the Republican Movement, thus it is not something that many Unionists can identify with. It is extremely difficult for one group of people to embrace what they perceive to be a weapon that has been forged against them politically and religiously.
Those who genuinely cherish their Irish culture ought to acknowledge and validate the culture of their Unionist fellow citizens. Yet Nationalists constantly tell me, and visiting journalists, that Unionists have no culture other that the Bowler Hat and the Lambeg Drum. The traditions that I grew up with in East Antrim – Piping and Drumming, Scottish Country Dancing, Scottish Pipe Band Championships, the Weaver Poets and the broad Scotch tongue. All these are rejected by many Nationalists, as of having no cultural value, as are the proliferation of church drama groups, art clubs, Burn’s Clubs and the traditional Burn’s Nights.
When they ridicule braid scotch as bad English they ridicule the spoken tongue of my grandparents and preceding generations, and insult the language of the hearth and home that has been so dear to the hearts of the Presbyterian community. That is offensive to me. It is the great cultural put down, reminiscent of the same cultural snobbery that racists employ to ridicule the tongue and literature of the Jamaican dub poets.
The more Nationalists ridicule and demean the culture and traditions of the Ulster-Scots and Anglo-Irish community, and wield their own culture as a political weapon, the further apart will both Nationalists and Unionists drift from seeking to share and to enjoy the richness of their cultural diversity. Likewise the more Unionists ridicule the historic Irish component of their cultural heritage the more they collaborate with those who are engaged in the politicisation of Irish culture and the legitimisation of the false notion that, even after three hundred years, we have no right to be here.
Surely the time has come for both Unionists and Nationalists to recognise the validity and importance of each others culture and to use creatively what is best in them, and in the cultures of our ethnic communities, as a force for change within our divided society.