Friday, December 19, 2008

Is Ulster-Scots a class issue?

Over the years I have found that the greatest objection to Ulster-Scots is neither political nor religious. It is in fact demographic. The toughest group to get the cultural message through to are "middle class Prods", the people who like to think of themselves as sophisticated and upwardly mobile. The type who have a weekend holiday home in North Antrim but who avoid any contact with the locals. They probably never eat egg & onion sandwiches any more - their developed palates prefer couscous and skinny latt├ęs.*

This is not unique to Northern Ireland. The urban and suburban media, worldwide, loves to mock and patronise rural people and our ways.

Two examples: Sarah Palin was savaged by the oh-so-smart media who loved to characterise her as an Alaskan throwback. Her apparent lack of knowledge of international affairs was wrapped up with her rural roots. Google "Sarah Palin" with "hillbilly" and you'll get over 240,000 returns.

"Hillbilly" is a classic term of abuse used by the media to demean rural people. A quick visit to GoogleNews will bring up this story, of yet another American author who has chosen the Scotch-Irish folks of Appalachian Kentucky as his target.

So does this apply to Northern Ireland? I believe it does. For example, in David Adams' (ex-UDP) recent piece about identity in the Irish Times, he reverts to the unthinking stereotype of "...The recent invention of the deliberate - and deliberately exclusive - misnomer "Ulster Scots" is a laughably pathetic late attempt to fill this self-created vacuum..."

Many people who have cushy columnist jobs in the print and broadcast media have now reached a self-congratulatory pompous stage where cynicism is analysis, and where sarcasm is humour. And the only remaining group that it's socially acceptable to be prejudiced towards and to pour scorn upon is the rural people - in America the hillbillies, in Northern Ireland the Ulster-Scots.

Sure Ulster-Scots is just Ballymena people who can't speak properly - there is no 400 year Ulster-Scots literary tradition, is there?

Dear help these folk if they ever dare to venture further south than Newtownards. As the Chief Exec of a major public organisation who was reared in Ards told me just last week "when we were wee, we were told we should never go beyond the flood gates"!. The flood gates mark the edge of the town, and are the last glimpse of civilisation before entering the Low Country. There is an unspoken cultural Maginot Line that runs from the flood gates up to Six Road Ends, and down the Cottown Road into Donaghadee. South of that line... beyonde this pointe thar be dragons and country folk.

Finally, a story was told to me a few years ago by another civil servant, who in a previous job with the Housing Executive had to visit an elderly couple in their wee house in Portavogie. He was cautiously welcomed into their home, set down on the wee sofa, and the man and his wife then retreated to the kitchen. He overheard the wife whispering to her nearly-deaf husband "Noo Albert, you watch thon boyo - he's fae Bangor!"

Of course there are many fine, committed, Ulster-Scots enthusiasts in the towns and cities of Ulster. Ulster-Scots is not limited to rural life. My point is one of media portrayal, and of the attitudes that pervade their world. Comments would be welcome as thousands read this blog but hardly anyone posts!

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* forget fancy grub. There is no culinary joy that can compare with the mouth-watering saliva surge of biting into the heel of a plain loaf, folded in half, with country butter and homemade blackcorn (blackcurrant) jam in the middle!

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4 comments:

Matthew Warwick said...

Media portrayal has a lot to answer for! On my first day of uni at Coleraine, I introduced myself in me ain tongue as "Matt fae Ballymena" to some lads on my course. The two gents in question were from Mullingar and Garrison. They looked at each other, smiled, then burst out laughing and rhymed in unison "Fairhill-Big shopping centre in Ballymena, Hiy!" I was never as happy as the day the aforementioned retail outlet dropped that particular advertising campaign!!

the watchmen said...

Profoundly true Mark. Very sad. But those in the leafy glades and media easy chairs must be given the fools pardon .The same worthies would no doubt be unaware of setting sunset or the dynamic appearance of Venus in the southern sky on Tuesday evening. But that doesn't deny the phenomenem any more than their childish chatter would seek to diminish the Ulster-Scots ethos.

Willie D. said...

This was brought home to me a few years ago when I carried out a series of recordings of Ulster Scots speakers in my home district (the Braid Valley, nr Broughshane). A near neighbour speaks as broad Scots as I do and we always communicate in that medium, but when I asked him to record a tape, he was horrified, denied he could speak in that manner and did not want to be lumped in with those I had recorded already. I may say, he has a professional job, golf club member, etc. His ambivalence was complete, it was if he had separate personalities and wished to deny his original identity.
T o go off of at a tangent, it would be interesting to draw up a definitive list of Irish words which have passed into Ulster-Scots, clabber, scragh (a rough sod), carry (a weir) and erick (a young hen) are some that come immediately to mind. It would also be a good project to record all local Scots placenames, most of which appear on no map and will soon be lost.

Willie D. said...

This was brought home to me some years age when I was recording some Ulster-Scots speakers in my home district (the Braid Valley nr Buckna). A near neighbour is a broad Scots speaker and we always communiucate in that medium. When I asked him to record a tape, he was horrified, denied he could speak that way and did not want to be lumped in with the other people I had recorded. I may say he has a professional job, golf club member, etc. His ambivalence was complete, it was as if he had separate personas and wished to deny his original identity.
To go off at a tangent, it would be good to compile a definitive list of Irish words which have passed into Ulster-Scots, clabber, scragh (rough sod), carry (weir) and eirick (young hen) are a few that come immediately to mind. Another important and timely project would be to record local Scots placenames, most of which appear on no map and are in danger of being lost forever. A lot of money is spent on ephemera, this would be of lasting cultural value