Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity (Mark Carruthers)

Mark Carruthers describes his new book Alternative Ulsters as a “collection of conversations” and “an attempt to take the notional temperature of a place where identity tends to inform a great deal of the day-to-day civic debate”.

Mark Carruthers Alternative UlstersThe book has a simple structure: three and a half pages of introduction followed by thirty six interviews, arranged in alphabetical order, with public figures connected with Ulster from the world of arts, journalism, politics and sport. Each is quizzed on their connection to Ulster, how their identity has developed, and how it has influenced their life and outlook. Having started with a long list of 120 names, Mark Carruthers has ended up with a tight bunch of people who frequently refer to each other, building up (as ex-Irish President Mary McAleese suggests) a “patchwork” of identities and creating unexpected narrative threads.

I spoke to Mark Carruthers about the book just prior to its launch in late October.

Like identity, the term Ulster is ambiguous – nine or six counties? – and subject to interpretation. One of the book’s strengths is that it allows the reader to delve beyond the public persona and our identity shortcuts for many of these figures.

Some people’s identity turns out to be embedded in their very names: Paddy Ashdown is really a Jeremy, but his school nickname carried over into the Royal Marines and he is “content” and “proud to be associated with his Irish roots”.

Baroness Blood and Glenn Patterson both shy away from the standard John Hewitt “ladder” identity (Northern Irish, British / Irish, European) placing Belfast before all other regions. Derry Journal editor Martin McGinley refers to “the attitude in Dublin towards ‘Nordies’” no matter “whether you’re from Donegal, Tyrone, Down or Antrim”. Born in Hong Kong, Anna Lo has lived and worked in Northern Ireland for nearly forty years.

[Lo] My passport is a British passport, but I don’t see myself as British. I still feel very strongly that I’m ethnically Chinese.

Some interviewees agree that “it’s generally easier to say what you’re not” and express a qualified identity. Glenn Patterson is not alone – though perhaps the clearest – in associating the word “Ulster” with “the first word in all the paramilitary organisations around where I lived”. For many, “Ulster” is a tainted word with immediate negative connotations.

The development of the working relationships between Ian Paisley (Lord Bannside), Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams is explored in their interviews.

[McGuinness] It certainly struck a chord with me the day Ian Paisley described himself, in front of me, as an Ulsterman and an Irishman … Of course, I didn’t ask was he a six-county Ulsterman or a nine-county Ulsterman. It didn’t matter …

McGuinness opined on how Ian Paisley’s ill health that led him “to see a doctor who sorted out his problem in either Edinburgh or Glasgow on the way back from Leeds Castle” had shaped his political decision to go into government with Sinn Féin.

On Peter Robinson:

[McGuinness] … Peter’s allegiance is to the United Kingdom and my allegiance is to Ireland – but I believe he’s as committed to the success of the peace process as I am. I’m not sure that everybody in the DUP is as committed as he and I are …

The interviews show up misunderstandings and minor contradictions too.

[McGuinness] The people that I associate with, like Gerry Adams and all our leading figures in Sinn Féin, never have any difficulty in describing themselves as Ulstermen and Irishmen.

Party president Gerry Adams – interviewed before his brother’s trial – disagrees!

[Adams] I wouldn’t say I was an Ulsterman …

Though he adds:

[Adams] I have a greater hang up about Northern Ireland; it’s still a term that doesn’t resonate with me, even all these years later.

There are surprises. Eamonn McCann calls himself “Northern Irish”. While feeling that the Irish Government have “[taken] over possession of the title ‘Irish’”, Peter Robinson says he “wouldn’t be uncomfortable” if someone ignorant of the identity “nuances” described him as Irish. It all depends on the context.

[Robinson] Whenever I’m in the United States I would often be referred to as somebody who’s from Ireland, or Irish, and I don’t take offence at that … nor would I correct anybody if they were to make those kinds of comments.

Though the DUP leader did add that if it happened at a political gathering he “might, during the course of conversation, explain some of the intricacies of Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom”.

Lots of random comments thrown in by the interviewees add to the richness of their normal stereotypes and abbreviated public sense of identity:

  • A young Gerry Adams left his job in the Catholic-owned The Ark bar “because they wouldn’t pay me the union rate for working on the Twelfth of July!”
  • Ian Paisley Snr described Martin McGuinness as “a different Sinn Féiner from the old Sinn Féin”. “We must give them credit for where they are. I mean, they have come a long way, so they have.”

Despite the Biblical and Christian beliefs often used to justify political policies on ethical issues, faith was almost entirely absent from people’s explanations of their identity. Maybe Baroness Blood has one explanation:

[Blood] The church pulled away during the Troubles. The church didn’t want to know on the Shankill and you only saw a church leader when there was a paramilitary funeral. And now the church wonders why they’re sitting empty? We have a number of really vibrant churches beginning to try to make an impact but it’s almost too late.

Describing his switch from being a Presbyterian minister to a full-time journalist, William Crawley says:

[Crawley] I made a decision that the next stage of my journey would be better lived out in the context of a journalistic career rather than one within a denomination that I was struggling to find my own place in.

The lack of clerics (other than Lord Bannside) on the list was odd. Lord Eames, Denis Bradley, or Harold Good would have been great additions to broaden the perspectives.

Women are notably light on the ground: perhaps it’s a reflection on the undervalued position of women in the public eye, but the 29 male interviews certainly overwhelmed the seven female contributions.

Former Irish President Mary McAleese is very eloquent and measured in how she perceives identity. She notes that Northern Ireland “produces strong identities”. She was brought up in a Protestant area.

[McAleese] … I wasn’t particularly exercised about the fact that I went to a different church from the friends I played in the street with – actually if the truth be told, in those days, they came to my church and I went to their churches. I was a frequent visitor in churches on the Shankill Road. The Reverend Sydney Callaghan [Methodist] knew me as well and probably better than some of his own parishioners and he told that [story] at a wedding that took place where one of my best friends married a British soldier.

The success of the Queen’s visit to Ireland wasn’t just down to politics but also due to the personal relationship between the two heads of state.

[McAleese] … two women of faith, two women of determination and two women who set that goal a very long time before and were determined to work towards it and to bring it about in whatever way they could.

The former president – now studying in Rome – regards her constant criticism of “being a very ‘Protestant’ Catholic” as a “badge of honour’: her great, great grandfather (“a good Scottish Presbyterian”) might have approved!

[McAleese] Most of us are a mixture of identies … This search for a purity of identity is ultimately a fallacious way and place to go because for most of us, identity is a patchwork.

Using the example of Ulster-Irish, Ulster-British and British-Irish all cheering for the Ireland rugby team in the Triple Crown …

[McAleese] They’re cheering for Ireland and if we were to put all the pieces of our patchwork quilt of identity together, they’ll have squares that are the very same, but they’ll have squares that are different – but there’s enough in that patchwork to cover us all. I like that. We are not clones and we must constantly challenge the push to make clones of us and to be people who are obedient to an image of pure identity. I think that has not served us terribly well.

… the best way for us to approach identity is with a real curiosity about other people’s identities. A welcoming, respectful curiosity is by far the healthier way for human beings to live. In places where you don’t get that, you get misery. A lot of people’s lives could be lost or damaged where identity becomes too rigid a coffin.

Alternative Ulsters coverAlternative Ulsters finishes without any conclusions or parting thoughts from the man who conducted the interviews. While Mark Carruthers’ contact book, power of persuasion and interviewing skills are all admirable, I felt cheated that he was leaving the readers to draw all their own conclusions. Though the lack of analysis may well enhance the longevity of the book.

The interviews certainly meet Mary McAleese’s desire for a “respectful curiosity”. They’re qualitative rather than quantitative so they can’t prove anything conclusive about shifting demographics and any upsurge in Northern Irishness. However, through their anecdotes, the public figures do show chinks in their expression of identity and sometimes their lack of defensiveness when their preferred identity is challenged. Political leaders more at ease with their identity can’t be a bad thing. The “notional temperature” may be rising a little, thawing previous icy patches.

Published by Liberties Press, Alternative Ulsters is available in “all good bookshops” as well as online through Amazon. It’s an interesting read, particularly as the interviews layer on top of each other and cross-refer. A good book to read in front of the fire on a winter’s night, but one that will leave you with wider questions unanswered.

– – –

Other snippets from interviews that may interest of Slugger readers …

Leading loyalist Jackie McDonald spoke about his friendship with Mary McAleese and her husband Martin. He also linked Ian Paisley’s “blood-and-thunder speeches” with loyalist paramilitary action.

[McDonald] I’ve a great lot of respect for Paisley now because he eventually said ‘Yes’ – but going back, an awful lot of friends of mine and other people within the loyalist paramilitary organisations ended up in prison because of his blood-and-thunder speeches … He was getting them all hyped up and wound up and they were going out and doing things about it … It was all about getting people on the streets.

Ian Paisley disputed this analysis.

[Paisley] … that charge is absolutely totally false. I mean, I was always very strong against any talk of killing people because I realised that when you read the history of Ireland, that’s what wrecked the country. [During the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council Strike] the UDA, at that time, were all for what we did. And I mean, I kept them on the straight and narrow as well as I could – and then it deteriorated. There was other people who wanted trouble and they looked at me as a great enemy because they felt that I had the majority Protestant people saying ‘Amen’ to what I was doing. There was a lot of bad boys on both sides and the bad boys on the Roman Catholic side terrorised their part but there was terrorism on our own side.

For all Sinn Féin’s bluster about pushing for a United Ireland referendum, Martin McGuinness is very laid back about the timescale. He repeats the phrase “at some stage in the future” twice in his interview.

[McGuinness] I’m here on the basis of equality in the most powerful position that any republican or nationalist politician has been in since Ireland was partitioned. I’m quite content to work with these institutions in my firm belief that at some stage in the future it will lead to Irish unity – but it can only happen by purely peaceful and democratic means.

Asked about his continued claim that he wasn’t a member of the IRA, Gerry Adams responded:

[Adams] … the vast majority of people will say, ‘Ok, so he wasn’t in the IRA’. Or people will say, ‘Well, I don’t beliee that but, you know, he’s saying what he’s saying for whatever reason he’s saying it’, and they go on about their business.

Challenged further about Martin McGuinness’s willingness to speak about his role in the IRA:

[Adams] Well, Martin and I have different positions on this and if I was to have the power to choose a different life journey, I wouldn’t choose a different life journey … But I do regret many of the things that happened, you know.

Adams noted that “Martin was always respectful for an older man” and while “Ian Paisley might have been referring to him, his deputy, in a slightly ironic way … Martin took that with a certain degree of grace”. He also recalls spending an hour talking to “Mrs Paisley” about “growing vegetables, about grandchildren, about faith and about dogs”.

[Adams] My wife was sick not long after that and she sent her over a lovely little note.

Alternative Ulsters publishes the first posthumous interview with Seamus Heaney. The poet was uncomfortable with the moniker of plain ‘Ulster’ preferring to keep his options open with “Ulster-Irish or Irish-Ulster”.

In his interview, Seamus Heaney cleared up any confusion around his line “no glass of ours was ever raised to the Queen”. The poet reckoned his household was similar to “manys a one in the other tradition” in not doing a lot of actual toasting of the Queen. He felt that standing and toasting was “the courteous thing to do” at a formal event or dinner, and cited examples of meeting royalty in London and Dublin. The “nifty couplet” was “meant to have a bit of merriment in it”.

Actor Liam Neeson took the opportunity to challenge a quote in an America magazine saying that he felt he’d grown up “like a second-class citizen in Ballymena” saying “that just wasn’t the case … because there were never any real doors closed to me”.

It tickled Ian Paisley to hear that he was the inspiration for Liam Neeson becoming an actor. As a boy Liam Neeson had slipped into Paisley’s Ballymena church to hear him preach.

[Neeson] He was a great actor. He was in the moment quite a few times. He was preaching hellfire and damnation … I was watching a great performer. I just thought that guy is giving it the bollocks, you know.

Fellow actor James Nesbitt sees Ulster as a “massive contradiction”.

[Nesbitt] Funnily enough, it’s not dissimilar in a way to the dwarves in The Hobbit, now that I think of it – that slightly tribal sense of great in-fighting and huge bickering but when challenged as a unit, very loyal and together. I think that’s Ulster’s great secret.

As a child he was uncomfortable with the “rather ugly political/violent associations” when the Ballygekky Accordian Band went to Glasgow, so he left and joined the Ballymena Young Conquerors (“a concert C flute band that wasn’t attached to an Orange lodge”). He challenges the stereotype of “dour Presbyterians, you know, the fun-sucking, immovable, very serious people”. Nowadays he loves “Ulster”.

[Nesbitt] I call the university ‘Ulster’, and sometimes it’s funny when I come back to do press and I say I’m very keen on promoting ‘Ulster’ and people think I’m talking about the province …

Brian Kennedy’s interview is one of the most fascinating. In West Belfast aged eleven he witnessed a man being chased and then shot in the back by a soldier. He was paid 50p by a reporter to throw bricks at a burnt out car for a staged photograph. He met the Queen when she visited the Lyric Theatre (scene of her handshake with Martin McGuinness) and then went to sing for the “twenty two thousand people waving red, white and blue flags” at Stormont.

[Kennedy] The cool thing about it is, they know that I’m from the Falls Road, they know I’m gay, they know all these things that would have been absolutely the reason why I wouldn’t have been invited. And all of a sudden, it’s actually the reason that I am invited. What I love about what’s happened with identity in our culture is that it’s absolutely flipped on it’s head; it has done a complete U-turn.

Asked to describe his identity, Brian Kennedy remembers an essay he wrote about “Being Irish in the Year 2000” and concludes:

[Kennedy] I don’t think [your] identity is really ever complete until you get to the end of your life and only at the moment can you look back and say, ‘Ok, my identity is now this …’ and boom, you’re dead. So I think it’s ever evolving. It’s ‘Ir-ish’. It’s ‘Brit-ish’. I’m ‘ish’, I would say. Yeah, I’ll settle for ‘ish’.

Joe Brolly is rarely out of the back and front pages of newspapers these days. The barrister and sports pundit’s father was interned for three years. He describes his time at Trinity College Dublin as “the big turning point” in his identity.

[Brolly] Opinions that went without question in the Dungiven changing room were held up to ridicule [in Trinity]. I soon realised that “Prods bad, Fenians good” was not going to cut the mustard in the real world.

His inherited views from the world of Dungiven Gaelic football that “the police were black bastards … Prods were a different breed” were “erased” at Trinity because “you could see, once you were being challenged, that those views were extremely silly”.

Joe Brolly’s son plays rugby for Malone and goes the Cubs (coming home recently with a drawing of the Queen).

[Brolly] If I’d announced thirty years ago I was intending to play rugby and arrived home from school with a drawing of the Queen, they would have been sending for the men in white coats.

Nowadays, Joe finds himself standing for the [British] national anthem if he’s at a Cubs service to pick up his son. How times have changed.

News Letter and Belfast Telegraph articles.

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