Thursday, 8 February 2007

Well Worth Reading (the link I mean, not this...)

Hat tip to Iain Sharpe over at Eaten by Missionaries for pointing me to this article by Ruth Dudley Edwards, contemplating the differences between Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants.

While I often find myself at odds with Dudley Edwards, this article is interesting and thought-provoking, (although I take odds with section IV, about Irish immigrants in Ireland; Ruth Dudley Edwards may have never experienced any prejudice against the Irish in her 40 years in England, but it is certainly not a typical experience. I, for example, came up against it on literally my first day here. One suspects that Edwards' anti-Catholicism, of which there is still a vain that runs through the English establishment, caused her to be welcomed into the inner-sanctum as 'one of us', despite her being Irish. And by her own admission, playing by the house-rules of her English hosts she has become, to turn the phrase describing the Anglo-Irish nobility on its head, "more English than the English.")

But anyway, back to the article. While RDE is somewhat ambiguous on the differences between 'Irish Catholics' and 'Ulster Catholics' (paraphrase: 'they are the same but different' [which is actually a reasonable enough description, if lacking somewhat in intellectual robustness]), she effectively makes a point that is often overlooked by 'outsiders' (by which I do not mean the Ulster Protestants of the title). Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants are not the same people (not in the literal sense you understand). They are two peoples who share the same wee spot of land in the north-east Atlantic. (We shall not get into the question of the ownership of the land, which is still, in effect, the nub of the issue today. In most of rural Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic farmers, even if neighbours, will not sell farmland to each other).

Commentary and journalistic labels, mimicking the Ulsterfolk themselves, use 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' as short-hand for an understanding of much more profound national and cultural differences.

Outsiders to Ulster often scoff at the notion that one can tell the difference between Catholics and Protestants from appearance; they too are misguided by the religious labels. It is not always that one can tell someone in Northern Ireland's 'religion' from looking at them; in fact, I'd say it is not even often. But sometimes you can - in the same way that I see someone on the bus in London and can occasionally tell that they are Irish/Polish/Italian or whatever.

The labels 'Ulster-Scots Protestants' and 'Irish Gaelic Catholics' do not make for easy conversation, or good journalistic type. But these are essentially the labels we are talking about. And, of course, while neither of these two peoples are 'pure' - they have intermarried down generations with English, and Normans, and Vikings, and Highland Scots, this cannot override the cultural norms, not just religious and 'national' ones, that each buys into and that are separate from the other's.

As Ruth Dudley Edwards points out, Catholics have reveled in celebrating their culture, while Protestants have been reluctant to even respond to the challenge that they have none.

Part of this is, I think, that they are slightly caught on the hook of 'Britishness', which is a topic I shall return to later.

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