Cultural divisions in Northern Ireland – Myth or Reality.

“Cultural divisions in Northern Ireland – Myth or Reality” are notes for a Radio Interview I gave in Paris at 10.30 am on Friday 29th April 1983 .It also formed the basis of a talk given there to 23 Young people from the Farset Youth Project, under the leadership of Jackie Hewitt, Ann Brown and Fred Proctor

Culture is total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group. 

I was born in Bangor and reared in Conlig a village between Bangor and Newtownards.  From the hills of Conlig you can see Galloway on a clear day.  I was descended from the Sloans of Kinelarty through my two grandmothers who were sisters.  One grandfather Robert Kerr from Lanarkshire in Scotland was a devotee of James Keir Hardie and fought for the flame of idealism, and working for socialism and the unemployed.  I travelled extensively in my youth through the Highlands of Scotland with my grandfather, to the Isle of Skye were I was taught the legend of Cuchulainn, to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and to Galloway where he taught me about the Covenanters, whom he loved.

I learned that Catholic and Protestant Gaelic speakers on the Scottish Highlands and Islands were in the majority Protestant.  The first book printed in Irish Gaelic was the Book of Common Order commonly called John Knox’s Liturgy, published in Edinburgh in 1567 for the use of Presbyterians.  Scottish Gaelic was not a literary language until the early 17th Century.  Old British was displaced in Ireland by Gaelic just as English Literature displaced Gaelic.  When Gaelic was planted on the British mainland its verbal system was on along the lines of the old British language.  Scottish Gaelic was to preserve archaic features now lost in Irish Gaelic.

The division of Ulster Gaelic from that of the rest of Ireland developed well before the arrival of English in the 17th century and there was an increasing influence of Scottish Gaelic on Ulster.  TF O’Rahilly in 1932 outlined the features which distinguished the two languages and regarded the position of word stress as the most important of these. The southern language of Gaelic stretches from south County Meath running through West Meath to Longford in Co Galway.  This is more than homogenous than the Ulster dialects. Modern Irish Gaelic was basically developed from Munster and Connaught dialects.

In 1770 Ulster Lallans was used by Rhyming Weaver poets until about 1870.  My ancestor Edward Sloan of Conlig was one of these.  Allan Ramsay was a member of the Easy Club along with the Jacobite leader Dr Archibald Pitcairn and had strong Jacobite sympathies following the 1715 rising.  During the occupation of Edinburgh in 1745 he was a highly respected figure but probably disapproved of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s policy of invading England.  He supported the aims of the French moderate Cardinal Fleury who died shortly before the 1745 Rising was embarked on.

Ramsay lived to influence the Whig “Pacifiers” following defeat at Culloden Moor.  “The Gentle Shepherd” deals with the Restoration of the Stuarts following the Cromwellian interregnum. It contains Jenny an early advocate of Women’s Liberation.   He stands midway between the Scots renaissance poets Henryson, Gawain Douglas and Dunbar and the later Romantic group, of which Burns personifies the French Revolution, Scott is the product of imperial compromise and MacDiarmid adheres to the Russian Revolution.  At first Ramsay appears the least conspicuous but he is the still small voice between the two storms, right at the beginning of the Scottish Enlightenment.

In 555 AD Bangor Monastery was founded on Ulidian territory by Comgal and became the centre of literature both sacred and secular in the 6th and 7th Centuries.  The original Chronicles of Ireland and the poetry The Voyage of Bran were written there.  In the area the old traditions were preserved which were remoulded in to the Ulster Gaelic masterpiece “The Tain”.  The Bangor Antiphonary in Latin is an important relic of the Bangor monks.  The peregrinations of Columbanus and Gall are well known in the re-evangelisation of Europe.

In 637 Congal, Prince of the ancient British Cruthin attempted to regain the soverainty of the whole North  with help of mainland British allies but was defeated and killed at the Battle of Moira in 637 AD.  Samuel Ferguson the Unionist Post has said that this was the greatest battle ever fought within the bounds of Ireland.

In Conlig  I learned from my Grandmothers the story of Archibald Wilson, the Carpenter of Conlig, who was hanged for his part in the United Irish rebellion on 26th  June 1798.   On his grave slab is the poem:

Morn not dear friends, tho’ I’m no more,

Tho’ I was martyred your eyes before

I am not dead but do sleep here.

Yet once more I will appear. 


That is when time will be no more

When thel be judged who falsely swore

And them that judged will judged will be

Whether just or onjust then thel see.


Purpere, dear friends, for that grate day

When death dis sumances you away.

I will await you all with due care

In Heaven with joy to meet you there.

History is primarily a record of human relationship with a vast network of variation in the manner of its evolution.  Now is the time to widen its perspective beyond the religious and political divide.  People do not change their minds rather their horizons are widened.  We begin to comprehend that what we thought was the whole of reality is but a small part and that a representation.  Nobody can claim to own reality just as nobody can legitimately claim that theirs is the only view of history.

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