Thia article first appeared on www.jasonburkehistory.com
Republicans (specifically Sinn Fein) have continually 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 some individuals to ask a similar question of themselves; “What is our culture?”. This has occurred to such an extent that northern unionists have almost brainwashed themselves into believing that they possess no tangible culture, and it continues to this day as PUL’s will readily tell anyone who will listen that they are in some way lacking a cultural identity. The PUL community can be assured that an identity is within their grasp, if only they could 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. These four strands are at times inextricably linked which can hamper any potential exploration of diversity and in turn cements the pigeon holes in which we are placed. 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 700+ marching bands in the province. Does this mean that these people do not have a cultural identity? Surely not.
Politicisation of the languages (amongst other things) by Republicans, and also by mainstream unionists, has created an entrenchment of cultures in Northern Ireland, whereby unionists are almost being force-fed Ulster-Scots as ‘their’ culture and being scaremongered into believing that everything Irish and Gaelic is to be resented and feared. These same unionists need to be aware of their own history when it comes to the Irish language, as it was in fact Ulster Protestants who were the principal custodians of this language until the movement was infiltrated and hijacked by revolutionary republicans, namely the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It could 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 during 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. Today the East Belfast Mission are providing Irish language lessons on the Newtownards Road. Linda Ervine (wife of former PUP leader Brian Ervine) is the Irish Language Development Officer at EBM and deserves immense credit for her foresight and bravery in ensuring that this programme continues.
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 any outsider can ever imagine. The myth that these bands simply ’kick the Pope’ and exist to intimidate Catholics could not be further from the truth. I recently conversed with a Catholic school teacher who plays a flute in Loyalist band, this individual was happy to endorse my argument that the marching bands do not exist simply to offend others, and if anything quite the opposite is true. Many scores of music have crossed the political divide and are used by Loyalist bands, recently I have heard bands play Rakes of Kildare, Dear Old Donegall. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Lough Erin’s Shore, and The Gael amongst many others. It leads me to assume that a process has already begun whereby Irish traditional music can be more widely accepted into Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist culture, whether knowingly or unknowingly this is a progressive step which will only add further ingredients to the PUL culture. There is no shame in admiring music that belongs to a shared island, that music is as much yours as mine.
It is often mentioned that Northern Ireland is working towards a shared future, but it must also be remembered that we come from a shared past and unfortunately some have taken a greater share than they are entitled to. Republicans will continue to apprehend particular elements of the past 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. Saint Patrick’s day tends to be met with some hostility from unionist quarters due to the flag waving antics of those who participate, but the only way this can be changed is by taking part and actively re-claiming a share of the Patron Saint who was nether Protestant, Catholic, or even Irish. Imagine a St. Patrick’s day parade where the magnificent Dunloy Accordion Band could lead the procession through Belfast… Why not?
With regards to the 1798 rebellion Belfast Protestants honoring Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown in 1934 were attacked by nationalist Tipperary IRA men who seized their banners. One of these proclaimed “Wolfe Tone Commemoration 1934 – Shankill Road Belfast Branch – Break the link with Capitalism”. The resulting melee was described as “A Day of Shame”. Two men carrying the banner, William Tumilson and Jim Stranney, later died in the Spanish Civil War. Fifty years later in 1984, socialists, including some from the Shankill Road, returned to re-enact the parade. Protestants/Unionists/Loyalists should seek to re-engage with those episodes of the past which have eluded them more recently.
Imagine loyalists combining the language movement (Irish and/or Ulster-Scots), with music (traditional Irish and/or marching bands), Orangeism, Protestant faith, shared history (including British History), and the various strands of Ulster-Scots/Irish culture, the result is a new redefined culture with an undoubted substance for the PUL community to buy into. Ulster Protestants are in a remarkably fortunate position, for they are able to identify themselves as 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.
It leads me to believe that the PUL community has a wealth of cultural attributes in it’s midst while accusations that this community is void of culture is nothing short of psychological belittlement. It is my belief that the unionist people can successfully set about a process of redefinition and reclamation which will lead to a healthy, confident future for PUL culture.