Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

This was on Slugger O'Toole yesterday. For 24 hours now people have been sending me stories of Protestant cultural diversity. Free Presbyterian tracts being handed out in Dublin as Gaeilge; unmarked dissenter graves of blacksmiths and ordinary workers; a Gaeilgeoir film-maker who made a doc for TG4 about Ulster Scots; The Wolfe Tones song 'Protestant Men' which confused the life out of drinkers in a Dundalk pub; stories about openness and generosity between communities. 

I love every single one of stories. We need to keep talking like this. Closing the gaps. With every story we chip away at the power of the DUP and Sinn Féin to define us. Or, put more positively, we offer them a different way to understand us.


Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

A friend of mine was sacked from the civil service for saying that Ulster-Scots was a made up language. Unfortunately he said it in the newspaper. But lots of us have said it in private, right? LOLed at the dafties whilst railing against the DUP. Or for unionists, awkwardly pushed it forward as a political issue.

I’ve been thinking recently about how radical the Scottish legacy in Northern Ireland is. And how uncomfortably this sits beside our understandings of Ulster-Scots today.

There’s so much anti-establishment Protestant history to digest. The Protestant Irish, the non-sectarian Presbyterians, the weaver poets, Labour Protestants, socialist loyalists, the evangelical reconciliation movement. Histories very far removed from British and unionist elites. We’re talking communists on the Shankill Road – like my husband’s grandad. Manual workers at the big house – like my own forebears.

But we seem to have developed amnesia about all of this. Conflict has polarised our interpretations of the past. It’s painted Protestants into a corner, which many are struggling to step out of.


All of this started a few weeks ago when I visited a a little exhibition about the Plantation in Bangor museum, with its many Ulster-Scots Agency booklets.

The usual bristling happened first. Montgomery and Hamilton “acquired” the land, did they? Those are the rent books, are they? The feckers. And so on.

I texted my friend, whose sister had helped put the exhibition together, and told her that it was very good, but that Planters were feckers. She texted back to say that there was a bit of Scots in us all, and not to self-hate. I’d had a few beers at that point and was half way through a Billy Connolly documentary, so I was open to the suggestion.

The Plantation of Ulster was a brutal colonial act. A subsidised land grab by a British elite. All of us in Northern Ireland still live with its scars.

But, a test:

a) who did the grabbing?

b) who was swept along by the tide of colonial history?

c) who rebelled against the unfairness of it all?

The answer to all of these questions is Protestants.

And obviously Catholics for the being swept along and rebelling bits.

Today though, Protestants often get tarred by a) whilst c) has been forgotten.


The first thing that made me challenge my instinctual ‘feckers’ narrative was, strangely, an Ulster-Scots language test. In one little booklet it asked if I knew these ‘hunner words’? Usually any mention of Ulster-Scots makes me do an elaborate eye roll any tween would be proud of. Frank Mitchell’s recent challenge to Roy, a caller to his radio show, to speak Ulster-Scots for sixty seconds, whereupon Roy simply switched into a Ballymena accent and culchied it up, is a Northern Irish comedy classic. No question.

But the hunner words were lovely. All eejits and oxters and things that are footery. Blethering and guldering. Being scunnered because you’re a mingin slabber who boked when you were steamin. Words that make me feel rooted to this piece of our island.  Ordinary people words. Words that reflect our black humour and grit.

These words aren’t ours or theirs (whoever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are). They’re pretty universal in the north. Like veda bread. Or frostbit boy (aka Ruarí McSorley, who isn’t far off speaking Ulster-Scots himself).

I don’t think I ever appreciated the richness of Ulster-Scots before. Not that it is a language, or even a distinct cultural tradition. But it’s a gorgeous part of our heritage in an increasingly MacDonaldised world. It’s been hauled into a bitter political argument, to score points against Irishness. Which is weird because it overlaps with Irishness. A fact which even the Ulster-Scots Agency underlines. It’s almost too ironic to bear.


Another rock and roll hobby of mine is trying to find United Irishmen’s graves. The United Irishmen were mainly Presbyterians of Scottish descent who made common cause with Catholics against the Anglican elite. They rebelled against Britain in 1798. And mostly got executed for it. I haven’t had a huge amount of luck finding their gravestones. Partly because 1798 was a long time ago and they’ve eroded or been destroyed. Partly because a small child is usually dragging me away for an urgent wee. And, crucially, because only a handful of dissenters, mostly Presbyterian ministers and the occasional doctor, were important enough to be commemorated in any style. History is written by the victors. Or the vicars in our case.

This history of the victors is reflected in the Ulster-Scots Agency’s booklets. It’s Viscount this and Laird that. It’s enough to make the blood of any good socialist, never mind Gael, boil.

But when I come to trace my own (mostly Protestant) family tree, I don’t find any Lords. Just lackeys and peasants and lumpen proles. Catching fish, sewing britches and digging up spuds for their betters. A yachtsman for a Lord, on the posh side of the family. People who came, or were brought over, from Scotland with the promise of a better life. To work for the 1%. Grappling with it in these terms, I start to redefine who I am annoyed with and why I am annoyed.


Modern unionism is still heavy with this tension. There’s an affinity with the common people, mixed with a paradoxical loyalty to a remote English elite. Which explains how Sammy Wilson and Boris Johnston can sit on the same Westminster benches, but understand little of each other’s lives. It’s an uneasy relationship. And to steal a line from a wise friend (who I won’t tar by association), the ‘iconoclastic edge still simmers in the unionist unconscious. It feeds into the sheer “no” of even the DUP’.

Outside of unionism, anti-establishment strains of Protestantism have expanded and contracted over time, in relation to sectarian conflict. Despite our current polarisation, I see them everywhere. Like the Irish identifying born-again Christians, of which I used to be one. Like Rev. Steve Stockman who runs Paddy’s day céilis in his Presbyterian church and writes articles on reconciliation for An Phoblacht. Like the loyalist councillor who is helping sort out parking for our local Catholic school. Like the Irish language speakers of the East Belfast Mission.

Conal Parr sets some of these alternative Protestant histories out beautifully in his new book, Inventing the Myth, which examines Protestant playwrights and thinkers over the last century. Protestants who disrupted traditional unionist narratives. Regularly emphasising social class over tribe. And who often paid the price for it. Because conflict pulled people into sectarian binaries, and suffocated alternative voices.


And the greatest irony of all? Present day Scotland. It’s the only place on these two islands that now pulls towards left of centre politics. From healthcare to welfare to tuition fees to renewables, where Scotland has devolved authority, it makes more forward thinking decisions than the rest of us.

It’s also the part of the UK that could provide northern nationalism with the best template for the future, with their imaginative, inclusive imagining of independence. Upon which any future Irish unity movement would do well to draw. Putting civic, not ethnic, ideals at the core. And, whatever happens with independence, Dublin and Edinburgh will be surely close allies in any future configuration of post-Brexit relationships.


Piecing all of this together – the gritty, funny humility of the Ulster-Scots vernacular, the lesser-recorded Protestant histories of dissent and radicalism, the progressive pulse of contemporary Scotland… it feels like, as usual, we’ve been missing a trick. We’ve allowed our political troubles to commandeer our Protestant heritage – a lot of which we have selectively misremembered. It’s not simply the conservative unionist monolith it feels like today.

All culture is invented. A Gaeilgeoir baby and and an Ulster-Scots baby, if abandoned at birth in a chicken coop, would not be able to distinguish Liam Clancy from Willie Drennan, or a hurley from a hockey stick. They would peck like chickens in equal measure. Which is to say that Ulster-Scots culture is socially transmitted, not genetic. It’s stories we tell about the past to make sense of the present. We’ve let the present binary frame our understanding of the past. And shape our desires for the future.

So I have a suggestion. Let’s tell a different story. Let’s take back control of the Ulster-Scots layers of our identities. By thinking, writing and talking about them more. By separating out Protestantism from unionism. By appreciating the variety of Protestant culture in Ireland. Its paradoxical anti-elitism. How evangelical religion has informed reconciliation as well as conflict. To appreciate our radical secularist parts. The Irishness that overlaps with Britishness. The positive ways that Scottishness has shaped our northernness, for Catholics as well as Protestants. 

And while we wait for segments of unionism to adjust to new realities, maybe the rest of us Protestants and ex-Protestants can elbow our way into the debate. To shout loudly. We exist. We are ready and waiting to help shape the new Ireland. Whatever that might be.

There's a Bishop in My Bedroom, Review

Review of Richard O'Leary's stunning one person play, There's a Bishop in my Bedroom, published HERE on The Last Round yesterday. Produced by Tinderbox as part of the Outburst Queer Arts festival.

Richard is a friend, so I knew this would be good. But I didn't realise it going to be one of the best bits of theatre I'd ever seen. An hilarious, visceral but tender play about love in a divided Ireland and a homophobic church. If attendance was compulsory for all clergy and politicians, we would go far.


I've Got a Message

'I've got a message' is a true story about my misadventures as a teenage evangelist, told at Tenx9 a few weeks ago.

My son, age 4: 'what would happen if you thought your story on the podcast was good, but the people thought it was bad, and they threw fruit at you? Haha. Fruit-face'.

Not sure what to say about that. In any case, you can check it out here or on itunes (episode 014).

Check Your (unionist) Privilege

This article, posted on Slugger O'Toole last week, is being translated into Turkish. The translator asked me what does 'break some Northern Irish eggs' mean. I tried to explain that it means we must say some uncomfortable things before our politics can move forward. This is one of those uncomfortable things...


Check Your (unionist) Privilege

Northern Ireland has been such a pasty white place until recently. So much so, that in my teens I worried that I’d accidentally be a racist when I finally met some brown people. Thankfully there was a website for this - a university had set up a test, flashing images of white and brown people on the screen, asking quick-fire questions to test for unconscious bias. I passed. Not a racist. I thought I was off the hook.

But as the years passed, and debates around white privilege deepened, it became clear to me that I have lots of it. I didn’t discover that I was actually a racist. I just came to recognise that I have a lightness and ease of moving through the world because I’m white. From negotiating airports to finding hairdressers, my skin colour makes my life less complicated.

Sometimes you hear people say that the debate has swung too far the other way. That it’s about giving white people a kicking. It’s not their fault they were born white/male/insert privilege. Which is true. But then you look at political leaders and boardrooms and you see that this is of course the way it needs to swing, to begin to grasp at an equilibrium. Which to be honest, still feels like a distant horizon.

So, to break some Northern Irish eggs... Who is privileged, and by how much? Well, unionists, historically, by a lot. Unionists in contemporary Northern Ireland, by a significant degree. No shit Sherlock, say nationalists everywhere. But it’s clear that many unionists don’t agree, and in fact feel under attack, so let’s try to untangle it a bit. 

We could start with the Plantation. But let’s not. Battering people over the head with the past doesn’t usually get us very far.

Let’s start with St. Patrick’s day 2018. The Nolan Show focused on this the other day. Unionist representatives and callers were complaining that the St. Patrick’s day celebrations in Belfast did not feel inclusive, that people were liable to break into republican song at any given moment. I sat there slack-jawed, listening to the parade’s organisers having to insist that it was inclusive and that, whilst they can’t micro-manage everyone, it was a day for all. I have heard the same said about the Twelfth, and I admire all moves towards outreach from both events. But I have also heard a lot more insistence from unionists and loyalists on the right to march and wave flags and burn things. Most people have given up pretending that it’s simply a day for cross-community family fun. 

A few weeks ago I was at a gig at the Mandela Hall where the crowd (spurred on by a terrible warm up act) sang ‘Ooh ah up the RA’. Somehow, in 22 years of dedicated pint drinking across Ireland, north and south, this was the first time I’d heard it sung. I was there with Catholic friends, who were fabulously uncomfortable. I didn’t like it much myself, but I was also feeling quite anthropological about the whole thing. I kept thinking of how many more times I had heard the Sash or ‘do you want a fish supper Bobby Sands’ sung around Catholics. How every summer of the fourteen summers since I moved back to Northern Ireland, I’ve heard loyalist band tunes carried by the wind up to my house - six different houses in fact - and walked the dog through the charred remains of the park the next day. 

It’s quite taken for granted that most of Northern Ireland will lie low on the Twelfth, get their groceries in beforehand, won’t go out in the car, get out of town. Nobody is asking for marching season to stop. But it’s worth reflecting how we rearrange our summers around unionist and loyalist traditions, when thinking of how to respond to nationalists’ and republicans’ cultural requests.

But hang on. Loyalists living in neglected estates across Northern Ireland - are we saying they are privileged? As Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s brilliant article ‘Explaining white privilege to a broke white person’ explains, you can be privileged in some ways (e.g. white or male) whilst not at all privileged in others (e.g. social class). Academics call this intersectionality. Loyalists have largely been screwed over in the class structure of Northern Ireland. But they have been able to offset this with a range of cultural privileges. So it’s possible to appreciate their pain as well as their advantage.

But back to unionism as a whole. Let’s think about the Britishness of our built heritage in Northern Ireland, and how this forms another hugely taken for granted imbalance. Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan said it well when speaking on the View recently (about 11 minutes in), exploring whether the ‘curry my yoghurt’ days were over or not. When challenged about nationalists trying to assert their own cultural supremacy with an Irish Language Act, he said,

“The issue of cultural supremacy is laughable. I can walk down through my constituency past the Royal Victoria hospital down to the Sinn Féin office at the bottom of Sevastopol Street, maybe over to Queen’s University down to the City Hall and see the monuments of the British monarchy or the British military. [In West Belfast] Crimea Street, the Kashmir Road, Lucknow Street, scenes of British army battles in their imperial past, and there’s not a word about it”. 

I do wonder if unionists ever think about this when they think about bilingual road signs? 

There are too many examples of the institutional and cultural privileges of unionism in Northern Ireland to note here. The Queen on our money, royal insignia on our tax bills, Carson’s statue up at Stormont etc. You can extrapolate. 

And I have some of this unionist privilege too. I’m a ‘no religion’ political ‘other’ of Protestant descent. I have an Irish passport, lived in Dublin for 10 years, and consider myself somewhat literate in Irish nationalism. But I only learned how to type a fada last year. It takes a micro-second. If we start the clock as an 18 year old undergraduate, that’s 21 years writing about politics without being arsed to type Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil properly. That’s shocking. It’s not the end of the world. But it does speak to a laziness, even a casual disrespect, that I would never have considered myself to have had. It assumes a neutrality of the English language that is not real.

This is what Irish language activists are trying to tell us. It’s not about domination or humiliation. It is a request for unionists to reflect on how taken for granted their cultural expressions are. And a request for some redress, to institutionalise and protect, and yes, fund, Irish cultural expressions too. This request, polite at the beginning, has become noisy and insistent. Because, well, it’s fair dos. And it’s not an Ulster-Scots Act that is needed to ‘even things up’ with an Irish Language Act. It’s an Irish Language Act that is needed to even things up with the pervasive Britishness of our institutional culture. 

The fact that unionists seem to have a cloth ear about their still favoured cultural position is worrying. They say that ‘neutral’ issues like the cost of an Irish Language Act, or the higher priority of health-care are the stumbling blocks. Or that it’s just republican agitation. All worth discussion. But these are the veneer, not the root, of the impasse. I wonder if the root is many unionists’ inability to even conceive of their continuing privilege, never mind being willing to concede some of it.

I understand completely that Sinn Féin and the DUP are having a parallel conversation right now. One about power and strategy. That they are playing the Irish language in a wider poker hand. But they don’t own this debate. We need to talk about it too. Whether it’s deal or no deal. And we get to talk about it in our own terms.

These are my terms: Nobody is saying that unionists are bad, or that they need to be sorry for being unionists. White privilege is not the same as racism. And unionist privilege is not the same as bigotry. In both cases it’s often very nice people simply assuming that the world they move through is neutral. When it’s just not.

I think it’s probably too much to ask for unionists to become radical intersectionalists overnight. But I do think it’s reasonable to suggest that more unionists might consider choosing not to be offended. To question their humiliation. To give an inch, because they have more inches squirrelled away.

We are all Mongrels

I popped this article on Slugger O'Toole the other day. 377 comments so far, some of which would make you weep into your cornflakes, but many more of which show a real willingness to talk about the difficult stuff. Only one person said it was 'the biggest load of shite [he'd] ever read in [his] life', so I'm considering that a win.


We are all Mongrels

We are all mongrels, to a greater or lesser degree. British-Irish-Northern Irish cross-breeds. Not to mention the fact that if we did ancestry DNA tests we’d probably be 20% African. We live in a divided society and in a contested state.

So to hear Foster and O’Neill playing Punch and Judy at the Tory party conference this week was frustrating. ‘Northern Ireland is British’, ‘Oh no it’s not’. etc. etc.

I was studying and teaching Northern Irish politics in University College Dublin when the 1998 Agreement was negotiated and ratified. An academic industrial complex soon emerged around it. There were the consociationalist writers who said (I paraphrase) ‘hooray for power-sharing, it’s the only way to get from a to b’. And the sceptics who said ‘hang on a minute, this just institutionalises sectarianism’.

They were both right.

And nearly 20 years on, we’re still living with this duality. Staggering political progress. And   a groundhog day of stagnation and polarisation.

But what our politicians seem to have forgotten is that the rest of us live with our mongrel identities every day. And that most of us have worked out pretty good ways of negotiating the British, Irish and Northern Irish bits of our lives, and the Catholic, Protestant and secular dimensions of our relationships.

Take me - unionist family tree, Irish passport, ex-Protestant evangelical, agnostic, kids in Catholic school. Today I feel 50% Irish, 40% Northern Irish, 10% British. But these ratios change on a regular basis. Despite feeling only a little bit British, I spend a ridiculous amount of time pondering British politics and am utterly invested in its outcomes. More than this, I’m a left, green feminist. I’m a ma, and nail-biting member of the gig economy. I’m a muddle of complicated identities. And I’m utterly at ease with this. 

But maybe the binary fits for everyone else?

Well, not really. Identity for a lot of people isn’t clean cut. Have a look at this, from the 2016 Northern Life and Times Survey. Only 53% of Catholics say they feel Irish with no sense of Britishness and 41% of Protestants feel British with no Irishness. Combined with the no religions who are even less willing to categorise themselves as exclusively one or the other, that’s the majority of people in Northern Ireland having some kind of hybrid national identity.

And consider that this question simply asks about Irishness and Britishness, without even getting into Northern Irishness, which overlaps with both, and complicates things further (and which about a quarter of people actually choose as their top national identity when it’s included in the question). 

Also consider that this question doesn’t ask people to explain what kind of way they feel Irish if they struggle to articulate the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Or to ask how does it feel to be British if you suspect that your love for the mainland is unrequited. I think most people here have a keen sense of their northern strangeness. And that the simple words ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ mask a wealth of complexity and contradictions for us all.

And I see this glorious melding every day in the town where I live. I see a generosity between traditions at the school gate (yes, at Catholic school). I see it in my friends’ relationships and marriages, many of which are mixed. I see it in the way our kids dip in and out of different traditions, Brownies at the Church of Ireland on Tuesdays, every third Wednesday at mass with school. I see it in some older unionist family members who love Gaelic history and place-names. I see it in nationalists who sit under the Union Jack at their Protestant neighbour’s church funeral. I see it in workmates who take care how they speak to one another. Or better still, who have learned the art of cross-community banter in the pub (an advanced skill). Most of us don’t talk to each other as if we’re on the Nolan show. And this civility does not make us feel humiliated. Or backed into cultural corners. It makes us feel human.

I know this is not everybody’s experience of Northern Ireland. I don’t live in the shadow of a peace wall. I haven’t been threatened out of a shared housing project. I know that there is still much resistance to integration. And I’m not saying that this melding is easy, or without anxiety at times.

But look at it another way. Here is a question from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2001 (the last time it was asked). People were given a load of identity options, including Irish and British, but also other categories such as woman/man, working/middle class, mother/father, wife/husband. And using this wider frame of reference, so many more people chose gender (19%), family relationships (28%) and social class (22%) to define themselves than chose a national (9%) or religious identity (8%). We are so much more than British and Irish.

None of this will be news to you. Because this is how most of us, even the most passionately British and most passionately Irish, live our lives. We quietly negotiate the complexity and move, sometimes fluidly, sometimes awkwardly, through Catholic, Protestant and neutral, Irish, British and Northern Irish spaces. 

But when it comes to politics, we’ve begun to lose sight of these nuances. We’ve started to believe that we need to vote in big ethnic blocs to keep the other side in line. In one sense this is the logical conclusion of power-sharing. It reduced violence and brought the extremes together. But we have institutionalised and incentivised being orange and green. Austerity and the resource competition of late capitalism more generally have left us fighting over crumbs from the table, closely monitoring how much themmuns are getting, without questioning why there is not more to go around. Polarisation also feeds on the stagnant, uncreative leadership of the big parties. At some point we seem to have stopped trying to imagine something better.

Our politics doesn’t have to be like this though. We have a huge playbook to draw upon. The long tradition of Protestant Dissent, not to mention the unionists and loyalists, from Ian Paisley to David Ervine, who have appreciated the Irish parts of their identity. Brian John Spencer has some interesting pieces on this site about this. Linda Ervine and the Protestant Irish language speakers keep this fire aflame. And there is a long tradition of Irish nationalists acknowledging how they are shaped with and by Britishness. From the Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in the wars, to the creative nationalism of John Hume. Never-mind that niggling affection for the NHS.

But current political arrangements have squeezed the space in which these conversations can happen. And we desperately need to start having them again. Is it time to replace mandatory power-sharing with voluntary coalition in Stormont? Probably. But there are pros and cons. Domination via the back door, in the form of the Petition of Concern, certainly needs to be revised. Because I do know that no good can come from this gaping political vacuum. Or this hardening of the culture war. It is a false binary upon which fear and hostility feed. And it doesn’t reflect the messy tumble of identities that make up most of our lives and relationships. Nor does it reflect our national identities, which are way more nuanced than our politics. 

Any future for Northern Ireland, in the context of the UK or Irish unity, will need to make space for both Irish and British identities. But maybe we can learn from the consequences of institutionalised sectarianism, and can perhaps now begin to find ways to amplify our hybridity. For us to learn to live well in this more open and interesting space, we must be able to talk about it. We must go out of our way to mix and meld. Swipe right on people you wouldn’t usually. Take your kid to a youth club in a church you don’t go to. Switch to RTE or BBC news for the day. Tune in to Radio Fáilte even if you don’t have a word of Irish. Go and see the Red Arrows even if it makes you feel weird. Pick an event in the West Belfast Féile if you live in the East. Check out the Newtownards Road if you live in the West. Maybe write a different kind of comment on a blog. All of this will involve putting our foot in it and sometimes feeling uncomfortable. But that’s ok. It’s surely better than what we have now.

Oh, and one last thing. We need to stop voting like eejits. Because it’s the big parties which benefit from polarisation who have the least incentive to change the record.

Beginning again

Kid no. 2 starts school today. It feels like time to decide what to be when I grow up. 

So I sat down and wrote these lines. And I made a website to put them on.

I used to be a writer. I never stopped really. In private. But I’m going to try to write in the world again. Maybe about politics in Northern Ireland. Maybe about myself. Hopefully other people will tell me their stories and I can write about those too.

I’ll update this with something fabulous, should anything fabulous happen.