Sunday, 1 November 2009

An old Ulster Sabbath

As I was reading A Salute from the Banderol - the sected writings of Sam Hanna Bell, I came across this description of an Ulster Sabbath back in the middle of the 20th century.  It was part of the script for This is Northern Ireland: An Ulster Journey, which was broadcast on the Northern Ireland Home Service in 1949 to mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of bradcasting in Ulster.

But in every Ulster village a stone finger points to the Sabbath, and under the quick of each finger hang bells.  They ring out, not so much calling the people to church as as acknowledging their presence, for we are a dogmatic churchgoing people, knowing not only why we go to our place of worship but why we don't go to that of our neighbours, though it may be only the thickness of a page of Indian paper that divides us.
There are other and graver differences than that, of course, where a man's persuasion is the weft on which he warps his loyalties.  But for those you lay up the Bible and take down the history book.
So, on Sunday morning, city pavements ring to the hurried chatter of heels, and across the Province, quiet roads groiw populous with country folk travelling to church, chapel and meeting-house.

Several things struck me about this short extract.  First of all it certainly reminds us that sixty years later Ulster is a much more secular society and church attendance has diminished from those days when it was the norm for most families.

However I was also struck by the reference to 'church, chapel and meeting-house'.  The 'church' is a reference to the Chruch of Ireland, the chapel to the Roman Catholic Church and the 'meeting-house' to the Presbyterians.  Of course there are Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and Pentercostals but the three main historic traditions, dating back to the 17th century, are Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian.

Those three religious traditions reflect the three historic cultural tradtions that shaped modern Ulster and are a reminder that a two-traditions model of Ulster is a flawed and failed model.

I see that Mark Thompson, the former chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency, has been pursuing that point on his blog and you might want to see what he has to say.

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