28th Sep 2007

Belfast: own your Irishness!

Growing up protestant in Belfast, we’re constantly impressed with the assertion that “Ulster is British” – and most definitely not Irish. I remember going on “camp” with the BB (we actually slept in a church hall) in the Isle of Man, and having an altercation with the girl in the chip shop over this very issue. “I’ll have a chip, please,” said one of the BB lads. Don’t remember his real name. We called him Pastie. “Are you Irish?” says the girl. “I hate the way you Irish people say ‘a chip’ instead of ‘a portion of chips’.” “I’m not Irish,” says Pastie. “I’m Northern Irish.” Took me to go away and study in England before I realised how ridiculous that sounds.

How can you live in a country (or a failed statelet, if you’re a Republican) called “Northern Ireland” and not be, in any sense, Irish? Even if you’re politically British, you’re at least geographically Irish. And why should the Republic of Ireland get to define and monopolise the term? I’m Northern Irish. I’m not Republic-of-Irish. But I’m still Irish.

I think we have more right to call ourselves Irish than anybody. Republican murals look like political cartoons, stylistically completely international. Loyalist murals look like Celtic folk art. There’s a loyalist mural on the Newtownards Road known as “Ulster’s Freedom Corner”. It’s not on a corner. It’s on a straight stretch of road. How much more Irish do you want?

That’s the other thing. As well as not being Irish, the typical protestant attitude is that we’re not, unlike that uncivilised rabble down south or those treacherous fenians in our midst, Celts. There’s a school of thought that says, because Cú Chulainn, the hero of the Ulster Cycle, is described as “small and dark” in some stories, and the Romans described the Celts as tall and fair, Ulster people were never Celtic and always ethnically distinct from the rest of Ireland. Frankly, we’re more Celtic than anyone. The Romans rolled over the Celts because they could always divide and rule – there’d always be the odd tribe that’d much rather side with the imperialist invaders than be nice to that lot down the road. Sound familiar? The other thing the Romans agreed on was that the Celts wore moustaches – and there’s more moustaches per head of population among Ulster prods than any other country in the world. If you’re at Heathrow looking for the departure gate to Belfast, just look for a group of guys in dark suits with moustaches and follow them.

Anyway, all of this is merely a prelude for a link to a piece on another blog, in which an Egyptian girl called Super-S tells of how she fell in love with Ireland from afar, was disappointed by Dublin when she finally visited, but found that Belfast delivered every Irish cliché she could have hoped for. QED.

9 Responses to “Belfast: own your Irishness!”

  1. Super-S Says:

    I hope my characterization was not offensive? It was honestly just my gut reaction. I felt that in Belfast/Antrim (I traveled a bit in the county) I found what I’d been looking for when I set off from Egypt in search of my idealized Ireland.

    What you discuss here is an issue that my boyfriend (who is half-English) and I have discussed at some length: how would our classmates like to be referred to? Northern Irish? Can we be “lazy” and just say Irish? UKers? What’s your anecdotal opinion?

    In any case, thanks for the link and I like the idea for your webcomic. I’ll be sure to check it out in full!

  2. paddybrown Says:

    Not offensive at all – I was amused to find my own feelings as an “insider” confirmed by an “outsider”, and I’m very glad you liked what we call “this part of the world” or just “here”.

    What you call people is horribly complicated. Many protestants will object to being called “Irish”, and many catholics will object to being called anything else! I try to avoid any kind of national terminology unless I know the person I’m talking to very well.

  3. Crommán mac Nessa Says:

    Apparently there were different cultural groupings within Ireland in the Iron Age (Cruithni/Pretani, Érainn/Iuerni, Laigin, and Féni/Goídil), but all of them were Celts, of one sort or another. Of course, the DNA research in recent years has provided strong evidence that the people of Ireland were non-Indo-European, of the same stock as the aboriginal pre-Indo-European people of western Europe such as the Basques, but “Celtic” has never been a “racial” epithet. The people of Iron Age Ireland were Celtic because they had adopted a Celtic language, and various other aspects of Celtic culture (including divinities). And if there’s any doubt about the Ulaid, one has only to read the Ulster Cycle and compare it with other Celtic literature. Even the oaths reveal a cultural continuity with the Continental Celts (swearing by Sea, Land, and Sky, as T.W. Rolleston pointed out in _The Celts in Ancient History_, is found not only in several tales of the Ulster Cycle, but was also “The national oath by which the Celts bound themselves to the observance of their covenant with Alexander”).

  4. Gavin Burrows Says:

    I remember a series on the TV not so long ago that claimed ‘Celtic’ was never really much of a meaningful definition, more a kind of generic term like ‘foreigner’ that lumped a whole load of people together. I guess it would be like the way our standard names for Native American tribes were used as a catch-all for different people who saw themselves as quite distinct. Of course the question is complicated because ‘locals’ might see cultural differences outsiders don’t. The English are pretty adamant they’re not like Germans, but often non-Europeans can’t really tell the difference.

    I genuinely hadn’t heard the stuff about the tribes being non-Indo-European, that’s interesting. Can you trace any linguistic connection between Celtic and Basque or Finnish?

  5. paddybrown Says:

    Hi Gavin. Happy new year. Frustrating subject, so possible rant warning…

    There’s a hell of a lot of misunderstanding about what “Celtic” means. It’s a perfectly valid term for a group of related languages and the cultures associated with those languages, but it’s a retrospective term that’s only been used in that sense since the late 18th century, and most of the people we now refer to as “Celts” would not have identified themselves as such (one group, in central and southern Gaul and northern Italy, certainly did). I don’t see why this is a problem – history is full of such useful retrospective terms, like “Neolithic” or “Middle Ages” or “Byzantine Empire” – but since Simon James there’s been a veritable industry of “Celt-debunking”, and it’s just doubled the amount of misinformation out there. We already had all the romantic nonsense about the Celts as a race of matriarchal tree-huggers, and now we have a new lot of nonsense about the Celts being made up.

    Anyway, Crommán’s comment was that the people of Ireland are genetically related to non-Indo-European people, rather than linguistically related to them, so I think you’ve misunderstood that bit. It’s another thing I don’t understand why people are surprised about, especially here in Ireland where we all speak English, despite most of us having no English ancestry. Language isn’t genetic, it’s learned, and when a population changes language it usually doesn’t involve extermination and mass population replacement, so we’ll all have ancestors from before the change. So of course Celtic-speaking peoples of early Ireland are descended from non-Celtic speakers from earlier Ireland. The number of ancestors you have doubles every generation you go back, so I’ve no idea how anyone ever thought “racial purity” was even mathematically possible, but there you go.

  6. Gavin Burrows Says:

    No rant warning necessary – it’s interesting stuff! (And Happy New Year to you!) I suffer from only getting this sort of stuff from watching the telly, or titbits from the Guardian, which of course means I sometimes only get a patchy picture. Given the choice, I would prefer to be seen as made up rather than as a matriarchal tree-hugger, but maybe that’s just me.

    Of course I agree a term doesn’t stop being useful just because it’s retrospective. In a time when people only saw their near neighbours they might not see underlying similarities the way an outsider would. Geordies and Maccas are historic enemies, but as an ignorant Southerner I can’t tell the two accents apart to save my life.As another example I doubt many people today see themselves as Indo-European very much, but that doesn’t stop it being a meaningful term.

    I saw another thing on the telly (there I go again!) which theorised that all languages in Europe were originally related to Finno-Ugric, and that it was the Hittite empire that brought in Indo-European. (Where the ‘Indo’ came into that wasn’t discussed really). Hence my question, sorry if it was a dumb one! Of course I agree language is cultural rather than genetic.

    ‘Racial purity’ is only possible through very close inbreeding, the results of which aren’t normally described as ‘pure’.

  7. paddybrown Says:

    The “Indo” comes in because there are a lot of languages in the Indian sub-continent, as well as in Europe, that are part of the same group.

    You’ve got a good point on the Geordies/Mackems thing. I tend to avoid the word “Celtic” when writing about something that’s specifically Irish, because there is a tendency to mix things up and assume that anything that’s true for one Celtic group at one time is true for all Celts at all times. It’s one thing Simon James was absolutely right about – as well as the ways the ancient Britons and Irish were similar to other Celtic peoples on the continent, there were also ways they were distinctive, and seeing everything through a “Celtic” lens can obscure that. But when you find a Greek poem from the 2nd century BC that says the Celts of the Rhine test paternity by floating their babies in the river, and then read a 12th century Irish story where a putative father does exactly that, or find Alexander the Great’s Gaulish mercenaries swearing almost exactly the same oath as the Ulster heroes in the Táin, you’ve got to think there’s something in it.

  8. Gavin Burrows Says:

    Sorry, think I wasn’t clear in one thing I said. It’s certainly true that Hindi and some other Indian languages are part of an overall Indo-European language cluster, I was just doubting how the Hittites could be said to have caused all that when their empire never stretched that far.

    But of course it’s dodgy to assume innovation is always tied to imperialism. It’s notable how such theories have diminished in British academia after Britain effectively stopped having an empire of it’s own. Reading Wikipedia in a vain bid to sound well-informed, I found one counter-theory which suggested Indo-European spread across trade routes. This seems to me at least as likely if not more so, after all trade routes usually stretch further than empires.

    You’re right that people sometimes have odd ideas about culture; because culture is something unifying they assume it must be uniform. It makes more sense to talk about culture in terms of underlying shared assumptions. Added to which, cultures would have been more diffuse and less homogenous before automated transport and the mass media. The Sun likes to talk about ‘Englishness’ stretching back for a thousand years, but if you went back then few people would even have known what they were talking about!

    Being somewhat left-leaning I used to be quite definitely internationalist in outlook. But these days our culture has become so homogenised, with the same few brand names seemingly reappearing wherever you go, that local distinctiveness has started to seem to me something of a good thing.

  9. Andrew Luke Says:

    “Brits out ! Brits Out ! But You Scottish Can Hang About, You’re Alright….We Don’t Mind You, And Parts of England Were the Deprived Working Classes Are We Have Solidarity With You, Brother…Welsh, Can Take Yi Or Leave Yi Really ! so um, marker ?”

    Sorry Patrick, I guess I’m having a Ed Izzard moment. Happy new year to yourself and others.

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