Monday, March 16, 2009

Objections to Ulster-Scots: Part Two

because the media makes Ulster-Scots look stupid and controversial

There is no doubt that this is generally true, and no doubt that this then makes the job of convincing people of the merits of Ulster-Scots far more difficult. The media does not simply reflect public opinion and interests - it shapes public opinion and interests. In the case of Ulster-Scots, the sheer volume of the media's scorn and mockery is colossal. And, if we're going to be honest about it, the quality of how Ulster-Scots presents its own message is often sorely lacking, and is often put forward by people who don't know much about it in the first place (now if that statement doesn't get me into bother, what will? :-) )

If you're familiar with this blog you'll know that the media and its influence are regular topics. But that's a story that's far too big a subject for this wee post. If you want to look at it in detail I'd recommend you start with Neil Postman's writings.

The focus of this post is to show that today's hostility and scorn is a recent phenomenon.


"Ulster Speaks", BBC Radio Ulster, 1935 - a series of six programmes presented by Rev W F Marshall, "The Bard of Tyrone". In 1936 they were published in a booklet. One of the talks was entitled "The Brand of the Thistle": He said:

"...Tonight we'll look at Scottish speech in Ulster... Lowland Scots is a language. It's far more than that, it's a literary language..."

Marshall went on to compare the speech of Comber with the Ards, then with Ahoghill and the Braid, then over to Claudy and the north of Co Londonderry. A simple, well presented, interesting and respectful series of programmes.

Ulster Links with the White House, Belfast Telegraph, 1945 - this was a series of articles about the Ulster-American Presidents, published at the end of WW2 and after General Eisenhower's visit to Belfast. These were also published later that year in a booklet. Its mission was to set the record stright - its preface begins:

"Time and again the Irish-American link is stressed, while the contribution of the Ulster Scots to the foundation and development of the United States is forgotten..."

Lays of an Ulster Paradise, Irish News, 1960 - this book published hundreds of poems which had appeared in the Irish News from 1938 onwards. Most are satirical commentaries from (as you might expect) an Irish nationalist point of view. There are some interesting insights:

A poem from 1945 begins:
"Repeat I may, my Loyal tots
How foes decay, dear Ulster Scots"

An another, from 1952, when the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs visited Stormont:
"Nights with Burns are all the fashion"
Said the host, "our Province o'er
Bonnie Scotland is our passion
Ulster Scots we, to the core"

The examples above show that, at various points during the first half of the 20th century, the mainstream broadcast and print media were at ease in talking about Ulster Scots, indicating that their readers and listeners had an existing awareness. And as this recent post shows, Ulster-Scots was even invoked during the Civil Rights marches of 1968.

2. 1960s - 1980s
As the world knows, life in Northern Ireland in the first half of 20th century was very different to the second. The slaughter and terrorism of the "Troubles" fostered a generation of NI media channels, journalists and a general public who were each day fed a dual diet of politics and violence - which reinforced the two-tribes British/Irish narrative. The historical Scottish connection was hardly mentioned at all.

And so a generation grew up who were more detached from their Ulster-Scots roots than any previous generation. These roots were neglected by the media, the schools, and (in my case, as touched on in the first post of this series) even parents too, who failed to pass on aspects of Ulster-Scots heritage to those of us who grew up during these dark years in Northern Ireland.

3. THE LATE 80s AND 90s
Thankfully there were a few wee flickers of Ulster-Scots life in the media in the late 80s and early 90s. Rory Fitzpatrick's acclaimed book and four part series God's Frontiersmen - The Scots-irish Epic was broadcast on UTV in 1989. In the same year Billy Kay presented a six part radio series on The Scots of Ulster which won a silver medal at the New York Radio Festival. Six years later in December 1995 Wendy Austin presented the excellent Pioneers and Presidents six part series for BBC Radio Five and Radio Ulster. A further four years passed with nothing on air until Helen Mark's Radio Ulster six part series in 1999 entitled The Ulster Scots. One obscure gem from this era was filmed for RTE up in the hills of County Antrim, an intimate portrait of two elderly brothers which had to be subtitled in English, such was the density of the language they spoke (I've only seen this once - let me know if you can get me a copy).

All of these were solid, informative, respectful broadcasts. No hostility or mockery - just sensible treatments of the subject. But four short series in a decade is still little more than crumbs from the table.

Ulster-Scots traditions continued to exist quietly throughout the whole period of the Troubles, far from the airwaves and the opinion columns, far from the urban violence and urbanised political reporting - in peaceful, rural Ulster. In a sense Ulster-Scots had retreated, perhaps Ulster-Scots was dwindling - but at the same time the low profile of Ulster-Scots probably preserved it.

Then suddenly, out of thin air, Ulster-Scots was thrust centre stage following the political trade-offs which brought about the Belfast Agreement, one of the outworkings of which was the formation of the Ulster-Scots Agency in 1999. The urban/suburban Northern Ireland media went into cynical overdrive about this new-fangled thing called Ulster-Scots which they had never heard of before, and which they immediately selected as the whipping boy of the post-Agreement period.

In the main, a patronising, sometimes vicious, smugness characterised how the modern media in Northern Ireland has treated Ulster-Scots from that point to the present day. The very few Ulster-Scots programmes - either on tv or radio - can't even begin to counterbalance the relentless negative prime-time output.

With a general public who were largely unaware of the authenticity of Ulster-Scots, the media set the agenda, and created an environment of ridicule. This made the task of convincing what you might call "middle Ulster", the folk who had lost their roots, even more difficult. A few high-profile scandals and controversies (which I'll not give oxygen by describing here) did further damage and handed the hostile elements in the media yet more juicy ammunition. And as everyone knows, controversy sells newspapers...

But, believe it or not, there are good reasons to be optimistic! There have been a few positive moments through the gloom. The viewing figures which have been published prove the huge appetite that persists for Ulster-Scots - for example the only Ulster-Scots programme broadcast in 2000 was BBC NI's "A Nicht O Ulster Scotch", and attracted the third highest viewing figures of the entire year. You might think that this would encourage the broadcasters to produce more, and quickly? Nope. It was four years until another Ulster-Scots television programme was made and broadcast. Sadly for the viewing public, I was in it...

The mainstream media is facing huge challenges right now. The economic downturn, the hundreds of competing channels and the dominance of the internet all threaten the existence of television, radio and newspapers as we know them. It's very likely that the MSM's impact is reducing by the day, and that it increasingly merely feeds itself. So perhaps the impact of the traditional media is declining and we shouldn't worry overmuch about it.

In the media's defence, I'll acknowledge one other issue - a glimmer of sympathy for those who may well want to produce quality Ulster-Scots material for tv, radio, print or online. Producers and editors can only work with what's available. In my own world of graphic design, over the years I've had starry-eyed prospective clients show up with big ideas - but without the content (eg the quality of concept, the depth of information, the creativity of image, the relevance of message) never mind the budget - to achieve what they have in mind. This is absolutely critical point for the Ulster-Scots community to grasp. Sow's ear and silk purse.

Personally, I do believe that the quality of material is available - if the media have a willingness to present Ulster-Scots to the standard that it deserves.

Overall, the presentation of Ulster-Scots heritage across every media platform needs to move up about 5 gears - from being presented as stupid and controversial, or trashy throwaway kitsch, or (as a good friend often says) akin to a "pigs in the parlour" low-grade cliché - to a new quality-focussed, knowledge-rich approach.

The range of output needs to be broad, from light entertainment to solid factual stuff, from animation to documentaries, from huge epics to wee 5 minute "Days Like This" style personal insights. Half an hour on radio once a week and a very limited freesheet 9 times a year is quite simply not enough.

That kind of broad mix will interest the public, convince the skeptics and maybe repair some of the harm that's been done over the past number of years. And it's what we all deserve.

Further Reading: What exactly is Ulster-Scots?


Charlie Reynolds said...

I totally agree with your comments and I am heartened to see a young man standing up to the Ulster Scots critics. I am proud of my Ulster Scots Heritage.
Lang mae yer lum reek.
Tha Poocher Rannals

Mark Thompson said...

Many thanks - I must admit I was unsure of whether I should post that article at all, and was wavering all weekend. Knowing that you're in agreement means a whole lot. Plus, I'm getting used to fowk rinnin roon tha kintra tellin lies aboot me, claimin A daen yin thing an anither whun A daen naethin o the soart - so A thocht A micht as weel gie them somethin tae get their teeth intae!

Hoo's the granwean daein?


Ulsterscot said...

Perhaps one of the most fundamental problems is that when we say "Ulster-Scots", it can be hard to be sure what we mean.

The general media reaction (and, sadly a reaction which seems prevalent amongst the general "chattering classes") is to immediately affect an accent somewhere between Ballymena and Glasgow and launch into a sub-Billy Connolly routine. Generally, the greatest bile seems reserved for the language.

Setting aside the obvious intellectual weakness in the attacks on the hamely tongue, it should be pointed out that Ulster Scots is not JUST the language. Sometimes I wonder if we lose out by not reinforcing that Ulster Scots is also the identity of a huge swathe of the people in this place (and abroad). Personally, I find the local history angle fascinating and it is through that CULTURAL Ulster-Scots that I have gained a firmer understanding of my own identity (and hopefully have been able to give more coherent voice to it).

However, the notion that this media snobbery/bilious twaddle is actually an attack on my whole core identity makes it even harder to take.

The light at the end of the tunnel seems to me to be the fact that the message from Ulster Scots has professionalised in recent times (in no small measure thanks to the efforts of Mark and others) meaning that the media types find it harder to write the whole thing off as nonsense. That is not to say that only graphic designers should be taken seriously. It's just that they can be handy boys to have on board!!