Irish and Loyalist

Loyal Irishman

In my first post in this series – looking at what it is to be Irish (as an adjoint to my blog ‘The New Irishman’) – I sought to show that Ian Paisley was 100% Irish. Ian Paisley’s Irishness was stated unequivocally by the man himself; and third party observers have testified to his quintessential Irishness.

In my second post I sought to show that the protestant in Ireland has historically, and in Northern Ireland presently, been considered as illegitimate and as an inauthentic outsider – “imperialistic blood-suckers” as southern Protestant Hubert Butler put it. This sense of being improperly Irish, the latent expectation that Protestants should recant for historical wrongs, and the republican expectancy that they come to their senses and see Britain for the unspeakably hideous entity that it is, has accompanied me for as long as I can remember. The position for many remains – Catholic and nationalist is Erin and virtue, Protestant is Saxon and guilt. However history is not and cannot be as simple as that. I’ve started to ask: if we can have great length to Irish history (800 years), why can we not have great width to Irish history (the whole European theatre, where man slaughtered then took reprisal, oppressed then counter-oppressed)? In Europe we can invert the Catholic-Protestant formulation – So often Catholicism been oppresion and guilt, while Protestantism has been suffering and virtue. Repeatedly the Pope has apologised to Protestants here in January 2016 and here in June 2015.

As well as being improperly Irish and expected to recant, there seems to be a belief that Unionist’s are English. Except this couldn’t be more absurd, as I wanted to demonstrate in my third post. Try to tell a loyalist that he is English, and he will punch you. In fact, loyalists and unionists can despise the Englishman as much, if not more, than any Green Book republican – Unionism’s anglophobia as I call it. Englishmen such as Churchill and Welshman Lloyd George wanted all-Ireland Home Rule, but loyal Ulstermen and Irishmen implacably opposed any such settlement. Yet Irish republicans say that all blame and responsibility lies with England. I’m not saying England hasn’t been troublesome and meddling; but the fight for republicans is not with England but with fellow Irishmen who happen (entirely legitimately) to hold allegiance to the Crown and not to the Republic of Easter Week.

In this fourth post I simply want to show that loyalism and Irishness is not a contradiction, but entirely compatible. Many leading loyalists have self-described as Irish. Gusty Spence said:

“It’s sad today whenever you see a kind of an anti-Irishness. I suppose maybe it’s understandable because of the Provisionals campaign. Whatever little bit of Irishness people felt or some people felt – I feel greatly Irish – it was kind of driven out of them by these people who purported to be absolute Irish, and dogmatic, by bombing and shooting them.”

David Ervine said he was “profoundly both British and Irish”:

“The first time I ever went to the United States, someone in the audience in the dialogue we were having thought it was ludicrous that I could be British and Irish. Then we asked how many in this room are Irish American and 95% of the people in the room put their hands up. So it is OK to live 3000 miles apart and be Irish American and but is not alright to be British Irish. There is no purity these days. We are long past the concept that we are a purity of the Scots or the English or the Welsh or the Irish, rather we are an amalgam of many things. I am profoundly both British and Irish and those who have to deal with me have to take me on those terms. Why should I be ashamed of that? Why should there be some sense of me being less of a human being because I advocate a political process that can incorporate all aspects of my life?”

Linda Ervine explained to William Crawley on the BBC programme It’s a Blas (which followed William’s journey to learn Irish) how she viewed Irish identity and the language. She said:

“I feel I’m British, but I’m Irish. I feel that as Protestants from Northern Ireland we are the other Irish. We are the ignored, forgotten Irish that have been over looked. Because when people think of Irish identity they think of catholic, they think of nationalist and they think of republican. And that’s not who I am. That’s not my identity. So I think that is why people from my community have rejected that idea of an Irish identity and what goes along with that – Irish dancing, Irish language. So for them that is something that is alien to them. Yet for me I see actually now that that identity is mine as well.”

The well known loyalist and Protestant from Northern Ireland Billy Mitchell explained in an interview how he held himself as Irish and further regarded being Irish and British as wholly compatible. He said:

“Identity transcends the boxes, you know? For instance in cultural stuff I was brought up in an era where Irish culture had absolutely no problems for me – I would regard myself in that respect as an Irish unionist. I’ve no problems with Irish culture; I’ve problems with the provisionalisation of it. I have some affinity with spoken Ulster Scots but I have very little time for the politicisation of it. We grew up with the hamely tongue or the language of the hearth – it was bate out of us at school. My musical taste…I have no problem with Irish music whether its ‘diddly-dee’ music or traditional Scottish music. Basically if you’re talking about culture, my culture in music is blues! Blues, and strangely enough classics – the like of Katherine Jenkins. I have a problem with people talking about your cultural identity…I have problems with people trying to piegeonhole me; because I’m as comfortable playing the bodhran…as I am playing ‘The Sash’.”

When Billy Mitchell talks about an “an era where Irish culture had absolutely no problems for me” I think he is referring to the pre-Provisional IRA era when Irishness wasn’t associated with the armalite and “Brits Out”. I showed here that IRA violence wiped out Protestant self-identification as Irish, and here that violence strengthened partition.

William Ennis, PUP activist and apostle of David Ervine, explained his Irishness in 2016:

“Having grown up in an environment which led me to recoil in discomfort from anything of Irish flavour or association the comfort I now feel with the Irish strand of my identity is something I have gained with age. It’s clearly not a Sinn Fein kind of Irish, not an ourselves alone kind of ultra nationalist Irish; but it is a welcome splash of colour which I find in no way inconsistent with my Unionism or my Loyalism, for my Irishness is not politically charged. Why shouldn’t Ireland have its representation, Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom? As Ervine once exclaimed, “Why can’t I be an Irish citizen of the UK?” So why give in to a certain strand of nationalism and surrender the Irish identity to those who oppose Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK? They don’t own it. My Irishness is not the same as that of Gerry Adams, but who is to say that his is the true type? Who is to say there is a true type? So I prefer W. B. Yeats to Roger Casement, I’m more Tony Novosell than Tim Pat Coogan, more William Mitchell than Bobby Sands, more Siege of Derry than Easter Rising – my Ireland has room for all of the above, and this is true while Northern Ireland remains in union with our brothers and sisters (often literally) in England , Scotland and Wales.”

Sam McAughtry, born and raised in loyalist Tiger’s Bay in Belfast, said:

“[I’m] a hybrid unionist… happy to live in the United Kingdom but I am happier still to be Irish and to proclaim my Irishness.”

He also said on February 28 1996 in the Irish Senate after being welcomed as a rare northern Protestant representative:

“As I stated on the day of my election, it is my dearest wish to see this island inhabited by five million Irish people, living in two jurisdictions with consent, but with institutions established to emphasise their Irishness.”

Billy Hutchinson of the PUP said in 1997:

“I feel that we shouldn’t exclude things that are Irish because they are Irish, and I think that is what we tend to do.”

In 1995 a group of Protestants including loyalists issued a statement, ‘A New Beginning’, saying:

“We challenge loyalists and republicans to acknowledge that over the centuries each community has imbued many of the other’s attributes, to the extent that the heritage of both traditions has increasingly become a shared one. We challenge loyalists to acknowledge the “Irish” component of their heritage, and nationalists to acknowledge the “British” component of theirs.”

loyal Irish

Yet, the simple observation from the Simpsons below is perhaps more powerful than the words of all those loyalists above combined. We can fight about who the True Irishman is and who the infidels are, but to the outsider we’re all Paddies – even the Red White and Blue Irishman!

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  • Dassa

    Really enjoyable read. I have recently warmed a lot to my sense of Irishness. The problem has been that in Northern Ireland SF want you to be Irish, but their type of Irishness only and The DUP want you to be British but only their type of Britishness only. There needs to be a realisation that its not that simple.

  • Zig70

    Poor Sam, mixed in with these lot.

  • Gingray

    Was Lloyd George not Welsh?

  • murdockp

    the Anglo Irish of the Republic have a great life and kept thier rights and freedoms.

    there is everything to gain and nothing to fear.

    I would moot that the burning of the Irish flag on bonfires suggests Irish affinity does not extend to the wider loyalist community.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Is this evidence that the never-ending existentialist crisis is finally coming to an end? I sincerely hope so.

  • Jollyraj

    I think Sinn Fein have for decades tried to manufacture an ‘existentialist crisis’ of identity. Having failed to achieve that, it’s all hands to the Republican pump of proclaiming that there is one. And that hasn’t worked either. What next, one wonders.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Weren’t many unionists involved in their search for an identity about 20 years ago? I remember some friends of mine were invited to various symposia up the Shankill at the time. Here’s one publication of the period:

  • Muskerry

    Here in the republic, the Irish identity is undergoing profound change. My kids are in schools with kids whose parents come from Poland, Lithuania, France, Italy, Nigeria, Jordan, Brazil and the Philippines – to name many. And we don’t live in a city.

    So the old narrow white Catholic Irish identity is being well stretched to reflect the new reality. Identity is not static, nor should it be. It moves and changes – how many signatories of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 were descendants of United Irishmen?

    The Irish identity is there for anyone that wants it. As is the language. And if you can be Nigerian-Irish or Philippine-Irish, can you not be British-Irish or Irish-British?

  • SDLP supporter

    BJS, some of your recent posts have been really thought-provoking to a democratic Irish social democrat like myself, and I hope to comment soon.

  • John Collins

    ‘Poor Sam’
    Poor Sam once said when his father met a stranger in the pub and they had a few drinks together, the stranger and his dad were friends after one drink and, more alarmingly, friends for life after two.

  • patrick23

    I guess it wasn’t the intention of the piece, but in quoting liberally from loyalists, I still feel no more enlightened as to “Britishness”, beyond the mentioned Scottish dancing

  • Alan N/Ards

    “I would moot that the burning of the Irish flag on bonfires suggests Irish affinity does not extend to the wider loyalist community.”

    Unfortunately, you are right about the burning of the Tricolour on bonfires and It’s not something that I condone. They really need to wise up. Maybe, the way the football fans from this island are getting on in France will help to change things. Who knows. BTW, have you ever seen any Bodhran’s, shillelaghs, Irish rugby shirts and flags, celtic crosses ( there is one on the NI football shirt) going up in smoke on bonfires?

    Personally, I know at least a dozen unionists who play the Bodhran. I know many who wear the Irish rugby jersey with pride and sing Irelands Call with gusto. But I have to admit that I don’t know any who would say that the Tricolour is their flag.

    When you say the Irish flag, do you believe that this flag is the legitimate flag of this island and no other flag can be used to represent Irishness? Many people (on this island) see the Cross of St. Patrick as their all Ireland flag (and I count myself in that group) and maybe rather than rejecting all things Irish, the flag burners are just rejecting Irish republicanism.

    Yes, I know things have moved on but some people can’t let go of the past. I know the union flag (which includes the Cross of St. Patrick) and the NI flag ( which NI fans use) still go up in smoke at certain times of the year in republican areas in NI. In fact, I can remember a Union flag burning at last St. Patrick’s parade in Belfast city centre.

    Maybe, there will be a day when unionists can find find a place in an Ireland that gives equality to their way of being Irish. If you believe that the republican Tricolour is the only flag that can represent what it means to be Irish, then there will never be a place for unionists in the Irish nation?

    Do you believe that by rejecting the Tricolour unionists are rejecting their Irishness? If you do, would you define Irishness for me?