tree logo

Irish Association

for cultural, economic and social relations

The Cultural Process

Edna Longley

Based on a talk given to the Annual Conference of the Irish Association,
Carrickfergus, 12-14 November 1999

More attention should be paid to the cultural dimension of the "peace process". The thirty years war over Northern Ireland cannot be separated from a longer-term Irish Kulturkampf or culture-war. The culture-war has been ugly too. It includes the desire to erase the cultural presence and cultural memory of the perceived "Other" - a desire dramatised by both sides of the parades issue and by violated memorials and holy places, as at Enniskillen, or in attacks on Catholic churches and Orange halls. A true peace process requires the decommissioning of culture throughout the island.

Shots are fired in the culture-war whenever northern nationalists say that Protestants/unionists "have no culture"; or whenever unionists disparage "Irish" culture and celebrate an abstract "British" cultural realm unmarked by local differences. Neither faction wants to admit the commonalties of their cultural location in Irish, British Isles and European dynamics. Sectarian mindset resist the potentially liberating flow of culture.

The difference between culture and cultural ideology is that the latter selects, from among the available materials, the cultural flags and emblems that best serve a particular cause. Cultural ideologues have, for instance, singled out the Irish language, Ulster Scots dialect, religious denomination, industrial military, artistic, or scientific achievement. They have highlighted historical moments like the Bony, 1798, the Somme, the shadowy Celtic or Picnic advent. The have boasted successful diaspora - Ulster-America, Irish-America. They have enshrined iconic figures such as Cuchalain, Carson, Pearse, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the Gael, the Celt, the Ulster Scot, the Ulsterman, the shipyard-worker, the independent farmer etc.

At the turn of the century there was a struggle within cultural nationalism, and between cultural nationalism and cultural unionism, about the concept of "Ireland": about which symbols and markers of identity should prevail. The Northern Irish question re-ignited this struggle, though it was never really dominant. In his 1989 lecture "Varieties of Irishness" Roy Foster recalled how "round 1900 [there was] an inclusive, energetic cultural debate between brokers of the different cultural traditions in Ireland". I have just read several doctoral theses on the Literary Revival. All of them complicated the cultural politics of 1890 to 1920 by showing the range of positions that the debaters took. That so many academics are revisiting this period is itself indicative. We are uncannily repeating themes from the last fin de siecle.

Ireland is doomed to repeat history because after 1921-22, and because of events since 1912, "energetic debate" ceased. Like players of musical chairs when the music stops, the cultural ideologies that won out froze in that posture, and proceeded to dictate cultural and educational policy in both jurisdictions. Sean Farren's excellent comparative study The Politics of Irish Education 1920-65 confirms the indoctrinating role of the churches.

Farren says: "The direct church influence over the schools attended by the overwhelming majority of Irish pupils was probably unparalleled elsewhere in the western world."

He notes that "church control and influence served to sustain and reinforce divisions and antagonisms between Christians in both parts of the country, but especially in the North where religion overlapped so much with politics policies were devised and implemented which had the effect of widening existing communal divisions by, on the one hand, the attempted Gaelic 'cultural revolution' in the south, and, on the other, the emphasis on Britishness and loyalty to the crown". Farren adds: "The particular cultural emphases cannot be seemed invalid in the themselves."

Here I disagree. I deem them not only invalid but disastrous. They prevented cultural debate and cultural self-understanding. And, by promoting deeply internalised prejudices, they cost lives.

Frozen cultural ideology also promoted a Protestant/unionist tendency to opt out of Irish debates even if these had vigorously continued. Yet there is another sense in which the unionist North worked - at a distance - on the concept of "Ireland". That is, they concentrated on unionist Ireland, British Ireland. Gillian McIntosh, in her fine book The Force of Culture: Unionist Identities in Twentieth-Century Ireland, analyses unionist cultural propaganda after 1921. This issued partly form Stormont as defensive legitimation, partly from campaigning cultural unionists like St John Ervine.

McIntosh concludes: "The unionist political culture and literature which emerged in this period focused on the unique identity of unionists in Ulster, their historic separateness from the rest of Ireland, and their bond with Britain rooted in the plantations and reinforced through two world wars. In the stereotypes which they rehearsed, unionists argued for their separateness and were critical of both the southern state and the British." McIntosh sums up the underlying problems thus: "Officially Northern Ireland was a united and homogeneous protestant state; unofficially, it was a diverse state, made up of catholics as well as a variety of protestant sects, and full of tension and disharmony."

When Stormont fell, it left a cultural as well as a political vacuum. Although this allowed other perspectives to emerge, unionists became bad at explaining themselves to the world - and perhaps equally bad at explaining themselves to themselves. One reason for their confusion is that the wider Britannic context had so radically altered. Ulster Protestants retained, past their sell-by date, ideas that cemented the UK as a whole during the nineteenth century.

Linda Colley argues (in Britons) that Protestantism underpinned a "British" ethos augmented by industry and empire. According to Colley, "Protestantism meant more in this society than just bombast, intolerance and chauvinism. It gave the majority of men and women a sense of their place in history and a sense of worth. I t allowed them to feel pride in such advantages as they genuinely did enjoy, and helped them endure when danger and hardship threatened. It gave them identity."

It is symptomatic that Brian Ervine's shipyards play should open in Belfast as the yard itself could close, and the Republic's economy booms. Other parts of the UK (such as South Wales) have also suffered de-industrialisation and demoralising loss of cultural identity associated with the old "Britishness". But history has made Ulster Protestants more vulnerable. Besides losing former identifications and self-images (unless they shrink back, as Paisleyism does, to the religious base), they have experienced a renewed push to secure what can objectively be seen as a historical retreat of Protestant Ireland to the north-east coast and across the sea. John Dunlop has written of the "depression" associated with Protestant decline.

Northern nationalists are also attached to outdated nineteenth-century ideas. They usually dislike the lapsing of old identifications in the Republic. Nevertheless, residual traces of pan-cultural-nationalism render them slightly less unfashionable in Dublin than unionists in London. They can live with the Republic's new "soft" cultural nationalism, its inclinations towards a self-congratulatory Irishness. Southern, like northern, liberals may be a little anxious at the moment. Yet one reason for Sinn Fein's change of political tack was the sense that they had lost the changing Republic. The latter could be more aware, too, that northern Protestants have cultural opinions about "Ireland".

Not only unionists are challenged to renounce old exclusionary habits. Yet it takes time to break down defences in a context where integrated education remains hostage to culture-war. The "cultural traditions" philosophy in the North has done good work - and the work has spread the school curriculum, North and South, is now atoning for past sins. More and more people are conscious of cultural strands excluded form the dominant ideologies. There is a growing movement towards what might be called history-sharing, warts and all. The World Wards are a case in point - and this includes the role of Ulster Catholics therein.

To think about Ireland and the World Wars means pain for everybody - pain that reflects back on the last thirty years. But there is always pain (as in eastern Germany) when obsolete cultural ideologies face changed historical realities or awkward facts. Even pro-Agreement unionism is prone to cultural fear. As for anti-Agreement unionism: DUP politician Gregory Campbell wrote in this newspaper of "a people so vilified and so misrepresented that they must seek a refuge that will not betray them". Yet such fear, such negative introspection, such escapism, harbours a disquieting cultural death-wish. Similarly, Ian Paisley carries the apocalyptic doom against which he warns.

And, without apocalypse, Ulster Protestants may simply get tired, yield to cultural pressures, leave the country. Tim Pat Coogan shows the ugly face of the Irish culture-war - or is he just more honest than others who wage it? - when he stresses demography, and reminds Ulster Protestants of their bright young people migrating to British universities. I spent my own youth among southern Protestants: then, at least, a fairly dispiriting place to be.

Yet there are many ways in which Protestants/unionists can practice positive introspection and energetic debate; many ways in which they can embrace a cultural as well as a political life-wish. For example, they should face into the devolutionary reality that is creating a different kind of Britishness: one with overlapping affiliations rather than unitary imperatives. The East-West strand of the Agreement recognises that potential. Nor, given Scotland's comparable and religious make-up, does this strand exclude Ulster Catholics. I would love Belfast to have the current buzz of Edinburgh.

One obstacle to renewed work on the concept of "Ireland", however, is that the Republic may think itself fully formed already. But perhaps the concept of "Northern Ireland", and how it might evolve, is where the really interesting prospects lie.

Edna Longley is Professor of Modern British and Irish Literature, at Queen's University, Belfast. She is a distinguished academic critic of literature, particularly of poetry, and a commentator on broader issues of Irish and British culture.


Some navigational notes:

In most browsers, if you click on the 'Back' button, it will bring to to the point of departure in the document from which you came. Navigation options are given at the foot of each page, thus:
[Top of Page] [1999 Conference] [Home Page]


This page has been re-edited for the Web by Dr Roy Johnston on November 13 2000