The ‘Gaelic Irish’ versus the ‘Ulster Scots’ is a dangerous illusion…

The following is a guest post from freelance journalist Jason Walsh. In part it comes off the back a review of Robert Ramsey’s Ringside Seats: An Insider’s View of the Crisis in Northern Ireland. It also contains a quote from an email correspondence I had with him on the same book. Of which, more from me in a later post…

With all of the recent ink spilled about 1969 and the eruption of the conflict, including the excellent current issue of History Ireland, I find it instructive that few commentators took the opportunity to ask how a political conflict came to be seen as a cultural matter.

As I recently wrote at the Guardian (off the back of a forthcoming review of Robert Ramsay’s book ‘Ringside Seats: An Insider’s View of the Crisis in Northern Ireland‘), if unionism continues to lurch toward a kind of nativist ‘Ulsterish’ identity it is actively damaging the political legitimacy of the union:

For a start, it would be a tacit admission that the union was, as a political force, completely moribund. Creating a backward-looking, cod-aboriginal Ulsterish identity is a long way from Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 declaration that “Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley,” or, indeed, the Ulster Unionist party’s former campaign slogan, “Simply British.”

From my own personal perspective I don’t have a problem with this – except that I find the entire Ulster Scots project bizarre. I’m not a unionist, after all.

In a recent conversation with a representative of political loyalism I was told: “There is a tendency to see [physical force] unionism as having [had] no ideology.” Putting aside the (important) question of what loyalist ideology was, is or should be, surely it can’t just be the creation of ‘Ulster Scots’ which, apart from questions of legitimacy, is more Irish than British anyway.

Slugger editor Mick Fealty wrote in an email about the Guardian piece: “I think you’re right about unionism being in danger of turning inward, but Ramsay’s wrong on the cultural question. Politics is moving to the cultural questions because the occupants of the Castle as stuck in a double headlock. So, there is nothing else to talk about. I read that as fear of the future. But, for me, it’s nationalism that is in bigger trouble.”

I agree with Mick’s analysis of the symptoms, but not necessarily the underlying disease. Certainly nationalism/republicanism has taken a cultural turn – in fact, it moved before unionism – and this has had a devastating effect on how the dialogue has played-out.

For me, the problem – and it’s a problem that is magnified by the workings of the Assembly – is that a cultural battle, better known as identity politics, can never actually resolve the situation in the North. Whatever the future holds, whether likely or not, – the Assembly continuing, joint sovereignty, independence, a federal republic, integration with the rest of Ireland in a unitary republic, repartition – dividing the population of such a small area into discrete groups is unlikely to have a unifying effect in the long-term and, as such, is a recipe for future conflict, whether open fighting or the kind off proxy battles we see in the Assembly.

?Prods and taigs knocking the stuffing out of one another is not a good enough analysis of the conflict and it offers no way forward. Likewise, the ‘Gaelic Irish’ versus the ‘Ulster Scots’ is a dangerous illusion.

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  • fair_deal

    Ramsay’s proposal is a non-starter plain and simple. There is no need to waste anymore ink on it or reproduce yet more superficial analysis of Ulster-Scots on the back of it.

  • J Walsh

    OK FD, but why is it a non-starter? I’m not a unionist but I suspect that if I were I’d be arguing for a Britishness that was associated with the modern British polity. Is this the issue or is it something else?

  • jamesorr1798

    Any sensible understanding of Ulster-Scots history will tell you that (certainly in Antrim and Down) there was a significant degree of co-operation among the Gaelic Irish and lowland Scots settlers in the early 1600s. So the “versus” stereotype breaks down from the year dot.

    “…to ask how a political conflict came to be seen as a cultural matter…” – I suggest you need to turn that on its head. Cultural identity in NI has been, over many decades or even centuries, subsumed into political identity. If that unnatural, warped, situation is switching back then that’s something to welcome.

  • jamesorr1798

    Meant to add ; do not equate Ulster-Scots with Unionism. Ulster-Scots as a term first appears in written documentation in 1640, used to describe a people that the Crown was terrified of. Ulster-Scots identity predates the Union, has at times opposed the Union, today in the main supports the Union – but if at some point the United Kingdom breaks up – Ulster-Scots cultural identity will continue to exist post-Union.

  • Rab M

    “‘Ulster Scots’ which, apart from questions of legitimacy, is more Irish than British anyway.”

    The first part of this sentence I find slightly offensive. The second part I find woefully ignorant.

    Scots is entirely genuine in Northern Ireland – anyone who tries to claim otherwise has probably only stayed in Belfast, and never spent any time with families in East/North Antrim or Strangford. Having grown up in East Antrim I can say that my own grandfather spoke pure Scots. When I was a child I assumed this was just English, but only when I got older, and travelled to other areas, I realised that it was not. If I were to use many of the sentences that my grandfather used today in Belfast, then I doubt much of it would be understood. I don’t claim Scots is a language, rather it is a dialect of English, but at that a very legitimate one.

    I also have no idea how he claims that Ulster Scots is “more Irish than British anyway” – the Scots spoken in Ulster is virtually identical to that in Scotland – it’s merely prefixed with the word “Ulster” because we aren’t part of Scotland (well, not since the days of Dalriada).

    I agree, however, that Scots and Gaelic should not be mutually exclusive. It’s just that I have more recent relatives that spoke Scots, and the Gaelic that would have been spoken in the area that I’m from would have been closer to Scots Gaelic than the so-called standard “Irish Language” (Irish Gaelic).

    I also do not, however, agree that promoting an Ulster identity is incompatible with a strong Union. The whole point is that it is a Union of different Anglo-Celtic cultures, each part with its own unique contributions can only make the Union stronger. Nationalists, when attacking the union, often try and turn Maggie Thatcher’s quote on its head by claiming that “Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley” – what they really mean to say is that “Northern Ireland is not as English as Finchley, but every bit as British”. In fact, if everyone in Northern Ireland had an increased focus on Ulster, rather tan simply the UK or Ireland, then we might be further towards a long-term peace and prosperous future.

  • Quagmire

    To what Ulster do you refer to Rab M? The ancient province of Ulster (9 counties) or the reformist makey uppy one (a bit like ulster scots) artificial 6 county one?

  • Guest

    Rab M,

    you think if you read back over your last paragraph
    you will see that you have rationalized the cause for Irish home rule in the 1800’s but that of course did not suit the English at the time and how can it now that they still have no parliament themselves?How can their be a union of each part an equal member when it would then require Westminister to make decisions on an agreed only basisie; it becomes a mirror image of North-south bodies for each of the parts relation to the “UK”.I think you’ll find that could be good diplomatic relations.I personally would not mind the hearing the queen of the uk’s christmas speech in Ulster-scots and welsh;but we all know that the English will never make the concessions necessary to save the union.

  • OC

    Quagmire: Are you also advocating the resurrection of the ancient cúige of Mide?

  • fair_deal

    JW

    “2.OK FD, but why is it a non-starter?”

    1. Ulster-Scots is only relevant to a section of the Unionist community not all of it (neither is it restricted to it.)
    2. Ramsay’s book is a mixed bag with one of the weaknesses is at times he skates over issues. His section on US is just that he just throws out the idea without any rigorous examination of its validity or practicality.
    3. His liking for the idea is that it is an entree to his own Europhile position. A Europhilia that is not shared broadly in the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland.
    4. None of the Unionist political parties has shown any interest in it as a political idea nor are they likely too because of the reasons above.
    5. Most involved in US activities wouldn’t want it taken down that route neither.

    “I’d be arguing for a Britishness that was associated with the modern British polity. Is this the issue or is it something else?”

    1. That shows a misunderstanding of the British state and its unitary nature. Its perfectly capable of diverse identities and a over-arching identity. The Ulster-Scots revival does not necessitate any rejection or dilution of Britishness.
    2. Which is? There isn’t a ‘Britishness’ associated with the modern British polity. Significant sections of the Unionist community still hold to the more traditional definition of Britishness that has taken a battering post-WWII but no new/modern alternative one was developed or certainly not gained the degree of buy-in the old one had. (See the abolition of britain for the detailing of this process).
    This issue has begun to get some attention at a political level with the trevor philips questioning of multi-culturalism the developing issues around community cohesion and both the Tories and Labour talking about the issue (but not doing anything particularly tangible about it.)
    Classically Irish nationalism thought this was a Unionist/Northern Ireland crisis in identity because of their island centric analysis – other parts of Britain reject the older definition of Britishness so your identity is in crisis. When in fact the crisis actually existed on the mainland because it hadn’t developed anything to replace the old one with. As a historian commented in a documentary a while back politicians only realised the usefulness of Britishness when there wasn’t very much left.
    When Ulster-Scots came along nationalism just pushed that round peg into their square hole to fit their preconceived analysis.

  • J Walsh

    Rab M., no offence intended. Busy right now but will respond later today.

    FD: “This issue has begun to get some attention at a political level with the trevor philips questioning of multi-culturalism the developing issues around community cohesion”

    I know and Philips is rather late to the game on that count. As ardently anti-racist as I am, I think multiculturalism is a waste of time. Kenan Malik is good on this stuff. Again, more later.

  • J Walsh

    Here’s a more explicit exposition of my question:

    Why should we focus on cultural genealogy? For example, I have no interest in defining myself using ‘Gaelic’ Irish or Norman Irish terms. For me anyway, it simply has no relevance – certainly not politically. While this doesn’t mean I’m antagonistic to, for example, the Irish language it does mean that I have a rather limited interest in it and no interest in using it as, or seeing it used as, a cat’s paw for politics.

    What I’m driving at in both the piece about unionism and the SF piece is that it occurs to me that a preoccupation with necessarily divisive identity politics is not something I can see in positive terms. Obviously my orientation is to the Republic but I think the same argument can be made from a unionist standpoint.

    I’ve occasionally read comments on Slugger from putatively nationalist/republican posters harking back to the Flight of the Earls or the Plantation. Likewise, I’ve read self-described unionists talking about how the Romans viewed the Irish as Britons. My response to all of these is: “Yeah? So what?”

    That’s not to dismiss the study of history, just to say that I am not convinced that there is an unbroken line from the distant past to today – at least not in simple terms.

  • J Walsh

    FD, some really excellent stuff in your post. Allow me to try and give you my initial thoughts on some of it:

    “Ulster-Scots is only relevant to a section of the Unionist community not all of it (neither is it restricted to it.)”

    OK, I certainly don’t disagree with this. I’m not sure about the demographic breakdown of it, but is it relevant to a majority? This is what struck me as odd about Ramsay: he seemed to be arguing for the application of the US identity to all unionists.

    “His liking for the idea is that it is an entree to his own Europhile position. A Europhilia that is not shared broadly in the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland.”

    Very true. Hence my argument in the Guardian piece that, I think, for unionists pushing US at EU level is a waste of time. The argument about the union or the republic exists at national level in the British and Irish polities. The EU may well enforce various laws from ‘above’ and I’ve seen it done in terms of things like various building regulations but that doesn’t mean that avoiding the national political process and going to the EU is the right thing to do.

    “None of the Unionist political parties has shown any interest in it as a political idea nor are they likely too because of the reasons above.”

    Is that really true? I’m not being sarcastic – it’s a genuine question. Do you mean the US project or pursuing it within the EU?

    “That shows a misunderstanding of the British state and its unitary nature. Its perfectly capable of diverse identities and a over-arching identity.”

    No, my point is that that unitary nature in under threat from within and without: multiculturalism has dissolved a lot of Britishness and Gordon Brown’s incoherent ideas about what it means today are pretty flimsy. Also, the Scottish situation and, of course, the EU.

    “There isn’t a ‘Britishness’ associated with the modern British polity”

    I agree. See above.

    “Classically Irish nationalism thought this was a Unionist/Northern Ireland crisis in identity because of their island centric analysis – other parts of Britain reject the older definition of Britishness so your identity is in crisis. When in fact the crisis actually existed on the mainland because it hadn’t developed anything to replace the old one with. As a historian commented in a documentary a while back politicians only realised the usefulness of Britishness when there wasn’t very much left. ”

    I don’t speak for Irish nationalism. I don’t speak for anyone but myself (obviously) but what I mean is I’ve never been comfortable with that term as it is has a conservative ring to my ears. I know it became shorthand for ‘non-violent support for a UI’, but still… Anyway, no disagreement with: “When in fact the crisis actually existed on the mainland because it hadn’t developed anything to replace the old one with.”

    I am trying to locate any moves toward a ‘Gaelic revival’ and the Ulster Scots movement precisely in the same development.

  • fair_deal

    “Why should we focus on cultural genealogy?”

    It is relevant for some. It is by no means the sole focus of debate nor relevant to all. It is worth noting that when the US revival began it pushed a three traditions model for Northern Ireland – english scottish and irish – to counter the two traditions model we operate in. Unfortunately a price for greater official acceptance was US being crammed into the straitjacket of the two traditions model.

    “is it relevant to a majority?”

    Potentially yes but the lack of interest in cultural issues among Unionists means it probably won’t and even if it did then a majority of the Unionist community is still a significant minority in NI terms.

    “the US identity to all unionists.”

    It doesn’t and more importantly can’t thus a fundamental flaw in his argument.

    “Do you mean the US project or pursuing it within the EU?”

    I meant pursuing Ramsay’s idea. For the US project itself political interest is varying both in the level of support and genuineness of the interest from Unionist political parties. You have to understand that despite the conspiracy theories the US stuff did not come out of a political party. It was only when it started to showed itself having a certain degree of popularity did the unionist parties get interested. The US bandwagon was not of their making but once it got going they wanted to hop on.

    “unitary nature in under threat from within and without”

    Yes it is but US is not one of the threats. yes the work around Britishness is pretty flimsy but at least the issue has been recognised. That said Unionists here have not been engaging with that debate to anywhere near the degree they should.

  • Coll Ciotach

    There is indeed much confusion about identity, both political and cultural here as all sides struggle to get a grip on who is who and what is what.

    To my understanding there are at least three religious identities. Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, which would traditionally be mapped to Irish, Scottish and English.

    However this is just a simplistic mapping – you can of course be English and Presbyterian for example – but it served a purpose as generality to express an aspiration.

    Again Irish is also open to interpretation, at one time the gael of the Western Isles were also called Irish yet today they are called Scots, which has been traditionally been the name for those south of the highlands.

    (personally I still aspire to this identity to re-establish itself – I am an old romantic at heart)

    So at the heels of the hunt you are what you believe you are – others may try to pigeon hole you to suit their agendas but that is were they fall down, the complexity of political, cultural and religious identity here is such you can have a Protestant (Anglican) Ulser Scot who is a united irelander for example. Have fun with the matrix of possibilities. No doubt those who wish to define you will anyway.

  • DerTer

    I’ve always found the claim of the Ulster-Scots movement to cultural dominion over the unionist people of Ulster (9 counties!) a bit much. Does anyone know what proportion of the ‘planters’ were English, and from what parts of England they came? And does anyone know whether any of the Scots planters were Gallic (gaelic) speaking?

  • jamesorr1798

    DerTer: “the claim of the Ulster-Scots movement to cultural dominion over the unionist people of Ulster (9 counties!) a bit much”

    The US “movement” has never claimed this, but has rightly pointed out that people of lowland Scottish extraction are dispersed across the nine counties, and have been for about 400 years. To use a crude measurement, a map/count of Presbyterian churches will demonstrate this very easily.

    There are many greatly inflated claims of the no. of Scots planters who spoke Gaelic, but next to no primary evidence. As the majority were from Ayrshire, Galloway and the Borders any Gaelic speakers among them would have been in extremely small numbers.

    FD has done a fine job above. Walsh’s article shows an unfortunate lack of understanding of the subject.

    CC – I know at least one Anglican Ulster Scot who is pro-UI.

  • Big Maggie

    Coll Ciotach,

    “There is indeed much confusion about identity, both political and cultural here as all sides struggle to get a grip on who is who and what is what.”

    Well, thank heavens I have a life is all I can say to this. I’m so glad I regard myself as a unique human being unattached to any identity.

    I do have leanings of course: I tend to take the side of the downtrodden, but that’s simply my maternal, caring, side coming to the fore.

  • Joe

    A large percentage of the Ulster Plantations settlers were English. So Ulster Scots [s]=[/s] Unionist.

  • Danny

    jamesorr1798,

    Define ‘primary evidence’. Have you read ‘A History of Protestant Irish Speakers’. Certainly Gaelic speakers were never a majority of the settlers or their immediate descendents, but their number wasn’t ‘extremely small’, either.

    Just a few quotes from the essay above:

    “The Irish of Antrim shared many features with Scottish Gaelic, and the Gaelic of Kintyre and Argyll was very similar to Antrim Irish. Robert MacAdam wrote the following in 1873:

    ‘Even yet the Glensmen of Antrim go regularly to Highland fairs, and communicate without the slightest difficulty with the Highlanders. Having myself conversed with both Glensmen and Arranmen, I can testify to the absolute identity of their speech’ ”

    “In 1711 a correspondent of Richardson, J. Maguire, noted the following:

    I met many of the inhabitants, especially of the baronies of Glenarm, Dunluce and Kilconaway, who could not speak the English tongue, and asking them in Irish what religion they professed they answered they were Presbyterians … I had the curiosity to go to their meeting on the Sunday following, where I heard their minister preach to them in Irish at which (though I think he did not do it well,) they expressed great devotion … His audience, (as I understand) was composed of native Irish and Highlanders (Richardson 1711: 16).”

    “In the Northern Parts of the County of Antrim, which being also deserted by the Irish, upon the landing of the English army near Carrickfergus in 1689, many families from the Western Isles of Scotland, who understood no other language but Irish, settled there. At their first going over, they went to church; but not understanding the divine service celebrated there, they soon went over to the communion of the Church of Rome, only for the benefit of such exhortations, as the Popish priests usually give their congregations in Irish. And when they were asked the reason, why they did so? They said, ‘It was better to be of their religion, than none at all’ (Richardson 1711: 28-9).”

  • Danny

    Apologies. Link to the essay:

    http://www.ultach.dsl.pipex.com/resources/A history of Protestant Irish speakers.doc

  • Danny
  • jamesorr1798

    Danny,

    Scots from the Western Isles or Highlands who came to the Glens and pockets of North Antrim tended, and still tend, not to view themselves as “Ulster Scots”. The reason is that “Ulster Scots” has always been associated with the culture and identity of their ancestors, the Lowland Scots.

    They also (quite rightly) see themselves as predating the 1600s and the Plantation period, so can’t be described as “planters” either.

    Lowland Scottish literature of the 1500s and 1600s turns it all the other way around, and often describes Gaelic speaking Highlanders as “Irish”.

    One of the major objections – from both community and academia – has been that the somewhat plastic version of Ulster Scots that is promoted nowadays has imported various non-authentic Highland elements, leading to charges of “recent invention”.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Also do not forget the existence of Gaelic in Galloway which existed until the 1800s I believe. I recall being told that the Earl of Antrim sent for a Presbyterian minister from the Islands as the flock in Glenarm could not speak English

  • Cheshire Exile

    Galloway Irish – is still well known in Galloway itself today as the dialect spoken there.

    Gaelic was predominant in Galloway in the medieval period. The links with the northern Irish coastal counties strong.

  • Gréagoir O Frainclín

    This ‘Gaelic Irish’ versus the ‘Ulster Scots’ is a rediculous conflict of languages that has come about. Both languages/dialects unique to this island should be equally respected and protected, else we will end up with one big mono pop culture influenced by just America and Britain.

    Gréagóir O Frainclín

  • jamesorr1798

    CE: “Galloway Irish” is a reference to the Ulster-influenced Scots that is spoken in Galloway, not to Gaelic. In this context “Irish” is used in its geographical sense, not its linguistic sense.

    “Galloway Irish” has been well studied in many journals, eg “Some Connections Between Galloway and Ulster Speech” by James Milroy, published in Scottish Language, Autumn 1982 edition.

    G O’F – agreed.

  • OC

    Maybe we should, at this point, throw in the Picts of Galloway for good measure…

  • GGN

    “The ‘Gaelic Irish’ versus the ‘Ulster Scots’ is a dangerous illusion…”

    And is one being carefully fostered by powerful elements in society … and being carried on here I see.

    Don’t fall for it folks.

  • Coll Ciotach

    I see that you are trying to claim a phrase – galloway irish – to suit your own particular bias. When I am in Galloway shooting or working the people define themselves jokingly as Galloway Irish, I have yet to hear them describe their accent in such terms.

    Although I would also accept that if you want to go along with Galloway Irish as a description of the people perhaps naming their accent Galloway Irish also is not unreasonable, but I would expect it to be significantly different from the accent in the rest of the Ayr/Dumfries region to add credibility.

    Also, bearing in mind that the Gaelic language was universally called Irish, it is perfectly reasonable to describe the contemporous dialect of gaelic spoken in the galloway region of the time Galloway Irish.