Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Culture Matters (8)


Identity - who do you think you are?

It has been said that Protestants in Ulster are suffering from an ‘identity crisis’ or a confusion about identity. This point was made many years ago by the poet and critic John Hewitt (1907-1987) who said: 'In my experience, people of Planter stock often suffer from some crisis of identity, of not knowing where they belong. Among us you will find some who call themselves British, some Irish, some Ulstermen, usually with a degree of hesitation or mental fumbling.'

And Hewitt was certainly not the last person to say this.  A personal perspective by one Presbyterian in the Presbyterian Herald of April 1999 was entitled 'Have you got an Identity Crisis?'  In this the contributor said, 'People in the North of our fair green isle are nothing if not fanatical about identity. For those in the Roman Catholic community this usually means a clear declaration of Irishness, manifest in school, music, sport, art and literature. There are of course variations or degrees of Irishness within the Roman Catholic community but it’s a statistical fact that most Catholics see themselves as Irish.For us Prods, of course, things are a tad more confusing. British, Northern Irish, Irish, Ulsterish or even the ambiguous title ‘European’ are all terms we use in the struggle to define a national (or should that be provincial?) self.  Recent talk of an Ulster Scottish identity has added to this maelstrom of ethnic confusion.'

The question of identity has been around a long time and two hundred years ago the weaver poet Samuel Thomson (1766-1816), the Bard of Carngranny, wrote: 'I love my native land, no doubt, Attach’d to her thro’ thick and thin, Yet tho’ I’m Irish all without, I’m every item Scotch within.'

Who then are we?  Are we Protestants, or are we British or are we Irish or are we unionists or are we Ulster folk or Ulster-Scots?  Which one are we?  The answer is that we can be some or all of these – we do not have to pick one – because identity is complex and it is multi-layered or multi-faceted. 

For example, the Labour peer Baroness Valerie Amos, speaking at a seminar on 12 October 2000, said: 'My identity is defined in a number of different ways – I am British – have lived in this country for most of my life. (I also say it is what I know and understand as my home) but I am also Guyanese (that is where I was born), I am a product of the Caribbean and of Africa and I also see myself as a European. All these influences have shaped who I am, how I see myself.'  Baroness Amos was quite comfortable with her identity and the elements that contributed to its complexity. 

We can see therefore that Ulster Protestants are not unique in in having multi-layered identities.  They are not abnormal and indeed their experience is perfectly normal because identity is multi-layered.

Gregory Campbell made that point when he addressed a meeting in the Bogside in Londonderry in August 2010.  He said, 'I have inherited my identity and I have kept it by conscious choice.  I am an Ulster Protestant who was born, reared and lived my entire life in Londonderry.  I am British.  I am an Ulster-Scot.  I am a Unionist.  I am a member of the Apprentice Boys.'

My own experience is that I have a national identity and I am British.  I also have a regional identity in that I live in Northern Ireland and am an Ulsterman.  My cultural identity is Ulster-Scots, my political identity is unionist and I have a religious identity as an evangelical Protestant, who adheres to Wesleyan theology.  I also have a local identity as a Belfast man and I am an Orangeman.  All of these aspects of identity and indeed others contribute to what I am.'

But not every unionist will share that set of identities.  A person can be a unionist and also a Presbyterian or Roman Catholic.  A person can even be British by nationality and have an Irish cultural identity.  The important thing is to recognise that identity is important, that it is multi-layered or multi-faceted and that one of those layers or facets is a cultural identity.


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