Friday, June 30, 2017

A sense of identity: Ulster-Scots is not 'national'.

I should probably stop listening to local radio phone-in shows. The drama and outrage and the pitting of two views against each other is very tiresome. There has been much talk about a potential Irish Language Act here over the past week. I am supportive of Irish being conserved and available to folk who are interested and enthusiastic about it. I have seen it described this week as ‘an expression of the Irish national identity’. That may be the case for some, but in general as I get older I am nervous of local variations being ironed away in pursuit of a national anything, in any region or country. As some ‘foodies’ now insist, national is just the best of local.

Ulster-Scots (heritage, literature, migration, settlement, etc) is definitely not uniformly national – there are hints of it in most places, it is very strong and visible in particular localities of the province of Ulster, but pretty much non-existent in others. We talk of Antrim and Down and east Donegal a lot, but county boundaries are in a sense false cultural lines.

Topography and market towns and old roads reveal natural settlement patterns, and culture thrives where people are. It is more authentic to look at, for example, the Foyle Valley, the Bann Valley, the Sixmilewater Valley, the Braid Valley, etc. In County Down, the Ards is a natural shape all of its own, but further inland you really have to look towards the market towns like Comber, Saintfield, Dromore, Lisburn, Ballynahinch, Kilkeel, etc. In former times even Newry had a sizeable Presbyterian / Ulster-Scots population; books such as Alexander Peden's biography were printed there, and WG Lyttle’s famous stories were first printed in the Newry Telegraph. Newry's catchment area reaches far into Armagh and Louth, it's not restricted to County Down. All of Ulster should be re-imagined in this way.

The map below shows the road network of County Down in the mid 1800s. These are like the nervous system, the lifeblood circulation system, the veins and arteries and sinews of the communities where people would meet and trade and worship and marry and live and die and mourn and hope and yearn and leave … and return to. This is how to look at tradition and culture.

Co Down Map

Below is an image I made for a 2015 'Shared Heritage' presentation I gave at the Europa Hotel. This is what I believe Ulster to truly be like, a warp and weft of varieties, a patchwork quilt of different influences. Overlaying a national anything over this is I think fraught with pitfalls. I have no easy answers. There probably are none. It's all about conveying the complexity again. Ulster Quilt