Sunday, October 25, 2020

"100 years from this day, will the people still feel this way?"

Anniversaries are a big deal; centenaries more so; multi-centenaries even more again. Back in June 2005 when I started my four year term as Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency, I was fortunate that the following year, 2006, was the 400th anniversary of the arrival into County Down of James Hamilton, Hugh Montgomery, and thousands of Lowland Scottish families onto 2/3 of the Con O'Neill estate. It's both a great story (should be dramatised) and an important history.

So, with the help of many other people who I am forever grateful for, we launched a project and despite short notice it was really good - a mix of the scholarly and the popular. A BBC TV programme 'The Dawn of the Ulster Scots', presented by actress and descendant Flora Montgomery, was made and broadcast (you can still find it on YouTube). 


As we put it at the time,"H&M400" wasn't the first connection between Ulster and Scotland, but it was when "the trickle became a flood", the year when a permanent Ulster-Scots community was established. The centuries of connection before are important, but May 1606 was the big moment when the boats began to fill up the coastline of Donaghadee, and the famous harbour was soon built. 

During 2006 we recovered a big almost-forgotten story, we built relationships, and by the end we understood far more than before. It was ripe for still more to be done. But then towards the end of 2006 one person, in a fairly high position, said to me in sincere tone "well that's that out of the way for another hundred years. What's on for the year after?". 

Anniversaries are certainly an opportunity. But those remarks from late 2006 have stuck with me ever since, as they shine a light on the problems that anniversaries bring. They soak up far too much energy and significance for a blast of just 12 months – but then people get bored, and so precious little more is done in between. The key is to use them for the longer term, to put down a marker from which you build, reiterate, reinforce, explore, challenge, reflect, adjust, go deeper, get better, and develop people.  

There is a marketing rule of thumb about long-term advertising campaigns – "when the marketing department is getting bored of it, the audience is just starting to understand it". The marketing department sees every little thing that is produced and done. The audience doesn't. So consistent repetition is key. Or, as Martin Luther said in the 1500s:

“This truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine…Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.”

Since 2012 we have been marking a 'Decade of Centenaries' here in Northern Ireland, and next year is the centennial of the formation of Northern Ireland itself. But the longer term is where the focus truly needs to be. Whatever 2021 brings, the wrong perspective will be to get to the end of the year and think "Well that's that out of the way for another hundred years. What's on for the year after?". 

The mighty Quo have the answer – "Again, again, again, again, again, again, again, again – why don't you do it, why don't you do it again?"

(ps for the 2007 story we went further back in time, and marked the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's refuge on Rathlin Island which took place in winter 1306-7)