A Question of Culture By Jason Burke

Culture in Northern Ireland has been a contested topic for many years. Not a week goes by without a public debate on culture, normally fuelled by sectarianism and usually amplified by ignorance. Having recently emerged from a period of violence we have now entered a new era of what appears to be ‘cultural rivalry’. This rivalry involves a fierce protecting and laying claim to anything that comes close to an agenda for either side of the divide. Where will this ‘rivalry’ lead both communities? It is hard to say, however, an entrenchment of cultures is a far cry from the ‘shared future’ that most of us agreed to in 1998 and again at St. Andrews more recently.
A look at both cultures will flag up many contrasts, but it is important to look at the history of these cultural traditions to establish the reasons they exist in the way they do. Irish nationalist culture is something that evolved during the great cultural revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Gaelic Athletic Association and Gaelic League emerged. Cynics would say that this was a desperate attempt to create, build and revive a culture which was weak at best until the era of the Protestant Home Ruler Charles Stewart Parnell. Nationalists, it could be argued, lacked a cultural ’Irish’ identity, especially in Ulster where they formed a substantial minority, but mainly in Belfast where they had migrated to find work during the industrial boom. For that minority living in Planted areas of Ulster an Irish cultural identity would have been difficult to maintain, for others it simply did not put food on the table. (ie. You cant eat flags…) Irish nationalist culture today focuses mainly on Gaelic Games, Language, Music, and Republican/Nationalist historical folklore, all of which are very recent in terms of the dates they can be traced back to. Crucially Irish nationalist culture appears to thrive today and is popular across the globe as a result of the scattered Irish diaspora.
In the past Sinn Fein have posed a question to the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community; “What is your culture?”. The PUL response over the years has been far from convincing. Within the nationalist community a perception exists that unionism/Protestantism is void of any substantial cultural heritage, and this belief has led many to ask a similar question of themselves; “What is our culture?”. To the extent that northern unionists have almost brainwashed themselves into believing that they own no substantial or credible culture, and this continues to this day as PUL’s will readily tell anyone who will listen that they lack a cultural identity. The PUL community can be assured that an identity is within their grasp, they merely have to be brave enough to embrace it.
Today it appears that PUL culture can be narrowed down to Ulster-Scots, Orangeism, loyalist marching bands, and historical achievement/sacrifice. The four strands are inextricably linked which can hamper any potential diversity. It is important to note that not every unionist has an Ulster-Scots background, nor is he/she a member of the Orange Order, or has sufficient free time to play in one of the 500+ marching bands in the province. Does that mean that these people do not have a cultural identity? Surely not…
Politicisation of the languages by Republicans and mainstream unionists has created an entrenched form of culturalism, whereby unionists are being laced with Ulster-Scots as ‘their’ culture and being scaremongered into believing that Irish/Gaelic is something to be resented and feared. These same unionists need to be aware of their history when it comes to the Irish language movement, as it was Ulster Protestants who were the main movers and shapers of Irish until the movement was infiltrated and hijacked by revolutionary republicans, namely the IRB. (Irish Republican Brotherhood). It could even be said of the 18th and 19th centuries that the Irish language belonged to the educated Protestant people, as it was they who comforted it in it’s hour of need. Ironically, Catholics in those days were forced by some churches to say their confessions and mass in English as Gaelic Irish was not acceptable.
In terms of music the PUL community will forever be associated with it’s marching bands fraternity, where without doubt the talent is above and beyond what outsiders can ever imagine. The myth that these bands simply ’kick the Pope’ and exist to intimidate Catholics is well wide of the mark, and if anything quite the opposite is true as many scores of music have crossed the divide to be taken up by Loyalist bands. Why can’t loyalists identify with Christy Moore, or the Dubliners, or other forms of traditional Irish music? Again there is a stigma attached which the PUL community refuse to buy into, but they should certainly try. There is no shame in admiring music that belongs to a shared island, that music is as much yours as mine.
Imagine loyalists combining the language movement (Irish and/or Ulster-Scots), with music (traditional Irish and/or marching bands), Orangeism, Faith, History, and the various strands of Ulster-Scots/Irish culture, the result is a new redefined culture with undoubted substance for the PUL community to buy into. Ulster Protestants are in a remarkably fortunate position, for they are able to label themselves both British AND Irish. Some folk from around the world would give anything in order to be able to label themselves one or the other but Ulster Protestants have turned their noses up at the chance to embrace both identities thus far.
Open mindedness is an essential trait for anyone hoping to engage in shared cultures, it also requires the virtue of patience and understanding of one’s community – we cannot afford nor accept people being afraid to engage in Irish culture. Republicans will continue to apprehend those cultures which are not ’rightfully’ theirs, Saint Patrick is an important example, the 1798 rebellion is another, but that should not scare off anyone wishing to engage in associated events.
It leads me to believe that the PUL community has a wealth of culture in it’s midst while accusations that this community is void of culture is nothing short of psychological belittlement. It is vital that we clamber out of the trenches and into no-man’s land to strive to build a shared future in this country. By using culture we can break down barriers that have existed for centuries, but perhaps more importantly, we don’t need our political masters to do this for us…

One Response to A Question of Culture By Jason Burke

  1. Charlie Freel

    Well done Jason, good to see one of our young people having the courage to genuinely explore and express a sincere opinion about our past and how it shapes our future. ( your turn next Davy Whiteside.) We, the old Volunteers of the early seventies who became politically astute the hard way are a fast dying breed. If we fail to leave the present generation of young Working class Loyalists aware of our failings, as well as our victories then the sacrifice has been in vain. Our young people need to realise that, KING BILLYS ON THE WALL, KING BILLYS ON THE WALL,
    might raise the spirits on a drunken Saturday night, but its absolutely worthless on a cold jobless and futureless Monday morning.
    Charlie Freel.