While the prominent part played by Ireland’s pre-Celtic inhabitants within our historical and cultural heritage is slowly being acknowledged (or re-asserted), in some quarters such an admission is a non-starter. A well-known television presenter, appearing on the BBC (Northern Ireland) programme The Show, was quite adamant in his belief that the Irish were “all Celts”. And one prominent local academic, Richard Warner, who was formerly of the Ulster Museum, described recently by a fellow archaeologist as the “Rock Star” of Northern Irish archaeology, endeavoured to belittle the contribution the Cruthin have made to Ulster’s history. Speaking on the BBC Radio programme The Cruthin – A Common Culture? in July, 1989, he asserted that the Cruthin “are rather minor and they are rather unimportant and they made very little influence on Irish power or politics.” When we consider the contribution just one of these Cruthin made to not only Irish but European history, the abbot Comgall with his Bangor foundation, and the Cenel Conaill of ancient Venniconia (Donegal), this forthright assertion is astonishingly inaccurate.
And even if the Cruthin has thrown up no great historical personages such as Comgall or Congal Cláen, but had only become known to us as those ordinary people who had once formed the bulk of the Ulster population, then his assertion would still be pure élitist. For to claim that the majority of the population are “rather unimportant” indicates a strong bias against those who in real terms make up any people’s history – the Common People. It has also been said that some Loyalists have tried to use my work in their efforts to justify a sectarian position, in the hope that it might give a new credibility to the idea of a ‘Protestant Ascendancy’, only this time in cultural terms – a ‘we were here first’ mentality. How a proper reading of my work could lead to the supposition that the descendants of the Cruthin are somehow now exclusively Ulster Protestants is hard to fathom. Actually many individuals within the Protestant section of the community, including the Dalaradia organisation, are showing great interest in the Common Identity theme I have promoted for so many years and are not only feeling a new confidence in their Ulster identity, but have a desire to share this identity with the Roman Catholic section of the community.
Sectarian use of culture and history has never been one-sided, of course. Republicans and Nationalists have long been experts at this, only it has been accomplished with much more subtlety, is therefore less visible and has raised less comment. At times, however, Republican use of culture as a political weapon is explicit; as the Sinn Fein discussion booklet Learning Irish stated: “Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in a freedom struggle. Make no mistake about it, either you speak Irish or you speak English. Every minute you are speaking English you are contributing to the sum total of English culture/language in this island. There is no in between.” This ‘Irish’ language is supposed to be the heritage of all our people, yet when a group of young Nationalists were recently informed that over two dozen working-class Protestants had put their names down for a proposed class in Gaelic, they became most annoyed. Rather than being pleased to hear that the Protestant community was at last awakening to its ‘true’ heritage, their feeling was: “how dare they try to steal our language!”.
Yet at the same time, many individuals from the nationalist section of the community have readily admitted that the whole idea of a common identity has not only given them hope for the future, but has contributed more positively to their own historical appreciation than the dead weight of outdated and retrogressive Republican Nationalist ideology ever could.
Ironically, while protagonists in Northern Ireland still continue to argue over past history, their cultural heritage is even now being absorbed and enriched by new citizens coming from abroad, the latest coming from the West Indies, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia and Eastern Europe. And our lives have been continually enriched by the Jewish Community, whose contribution to our development has been so great. Reinforcement of our identity has also come from the large Ulster communities in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.
In many ways a cultural battle is now on, in which interpretations of history are right to the forefront. It is a battle in which narrow and exclusive interpretations, which served to consolidate each section of the community’s supposed hegemony of righteousness, are under attack from a much broader and inclusive interpretation of all the facets which go to make up our identity. A positive outcome of this battle might just help to drag the Ulster people away from their obsessions with distorted history and the divisive attitudes of the past. But what of the academic élite in all of this?
To be continued