October 06, 2015

Northern Ireland's Dance

By Ian Knox
I remain very confused about Belfast and Northern Ireland. So much of it is progressive, cultured and astonishingly metropolitan. Yet the politics is feudal and tribal and certain estates are ominous and intimidating.

A majority ballot for the extreme parties, so perhaps we are just sectarian and bigoted. Perhaps my world is just a bourgeois bubble.

My theory is that at the basest level we are all very sectarian but that we put up a very civilised front. As Heaney said below, we are outwardly very decorous but inwardly passions and tribal instincts pulse at high voltage. Most people in Northern Ireland continue to engage in an anachronistic ritual, what I call "the Dance", when we snoop and snipe to identify the constitutional fealty of the person we are engaged in conversation with. Let me look across a few quotes and observations to back this up.

Terence O'Neill said:
"[Northern Ireland is] a country where you can tell whether a person is a 'Gael' or a 'planter' by his name."
When Derek Mahon would say "I think I’ll go call for Sean," a grown-up would say, "No, go and see Cecil." It was during his TCD years that he "kicked the habit" of automatically segregating people, on sight, into Prods and Taigs.

Alex Kane wrote:
"I arrived at the Church of Ireland Centre on Elmwood Avenue (across the road from Queen’s University Students’ Union) on the first Sunday of October 1974…

The following day, the beginning of Freshers’ Week, was an eye-opener for me, because I found myself surrounded by people with strange sounding names like Fionnuala, Malachi, Deirdre and Sean.

I had met Catholics before, but only at inter-schools events, and there wasn’t one I could describe as a friend. Yet, here I was at the stalls for The Gown student newspaper and the 16 Club (student film society) signing up for membership on the same form as people who I had been led to believe were my "enemies”."
David Trimble said in his 2015 interview with Alex Kane:
"[It] was quite sobering to see was how deep the feelings of sectarianism are amongst some of the middle class. Some of them give a very different impression, but when push comes to shove there are some very embittered people there… there are deeper pools of bigotry in this country and of political prejudice here than I had taken account of."
ATQ Steward wrote:
"The Ulsterman carries the map of… religious geography in his mind almost from birth."
Seamus Heaney said in conversation with Paul Muldoon:
"The ground in which we were working in 1968 in Belfast, Irish versus British, Catholic cersus protestant; all those underground energies. Very decorous people were with each other, even though there was a very high voltage under the decorousness."
Paul Muldoon said in his interview with the Paris Review:
"The guy who was supposedly my supervisor [at Queen’s University Belfast] said, You know what? I think scholastic philosophy would be the thing for you. Which meant, of course, he recognized that I was a Catholic. That was part of the unspoken, highly coded, language in which we all operated and operate in that part of the world. Where you can find out within about two seconds flat all you need to know about somebody, if that’s all you’re interested in."
Michael Longley said:
"The North of Ireland is a place where you have to be on your toes, you have to be alert. Definitely though the Troubles you’d be reading people’s eyes and their tones of voice just to know where you were - at a very shallow level, to avoid embarrassment. At a more crucial level, to avoid being beaten up of murdered."
Seamus Heaney said:
"My own household was completely without any sectarian energy… Nevertheless the sense of difference was deeply there, it was extremely subtle, I mean it was just a gram of psychological difference in the weighting of the way people behaved with each other. When shall we say a Protestant neighbour came to the door to collect milk, a just be a fid delicacy of decorum, more decorum observed. And yet that mellow-drama ties us at even."
Heaney wrote in 1975 about doing the dance in his poem ‘Whatever You Say,
Say Nothing’:
'Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing

Where to be saved you only must save face

And whatever you say, you say nothing. 
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:

Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,

Subtle discrimination by addresses

With hardly an exception to the rule 
That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod

And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.

O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,

Of open minds as open as a trap' 
Ciaran Carson wrote, "Taig's written on my face." Aida Eedemariam said about Carson:
"Ciaran Carson’s very name may embody a cross-cultural project (Ciaran is Catholic, Carson is Protestant; an ancestor enthusiastically converted), but when he was growing up there was no such mixing."
 Eamonn Mallie said:
"Historically people here were the victims of a malaise which amounts to the following: interfacing with unfamiliar company, habitually led to what I would call "the dance.” Finding one’s bearings, establishing what was safe to say and what wasn’t safe to say. Geography, schools, occupations were decisive. In loosening the latch on one’s tongue and ten once you’ve established the space in which you find yourself, a meaningful conversation then begins. If you go south there’s no inhibition, no reticence. This is all about survival, as prevalent in the middle-class as the working-class. If you walked on the UTV side of the road the perception historically was you were a Protestant. On the other side you were heading to the marked, and therefore a Catholic."
David McWilliams wrote:
"It’s just the way it is up here. Things break down religiously. Billy says black, Seamie says white. Alison says bacon, Mairead says rashers. There are all sorts of little tells that give you away. 
Sigmund Freud - a man who thought that psychology was wasted on the Irish - described this tribal search for bizarre, infinitesimal micro-distinctions as the “narcissism of small differences”. When the differences between two groups are so small to the untrained eye, those tiny ones that exist are elevated by either side as evidence of a profound distinction. When you come up North, the narcissism of small differences is flamboyantly on display. You see the same sort of thing in the Balkans."
Newton Emerson wrote in the Irish News, March 17 2016:
"Apart from such existential and very personal dread, what problems does a mixed couple face in Northern Ireland? In my experience, none whatsoever. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister - shall we call them Kevin and Sadie? - has declined to give ‘shared future’ funding to the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA). My first reaction on hearing this was surprise that such a 1970s organisation still exists. Most people today would see the letters NIMMA and assume they referred to mixed martial arts. 
Who goes to this mixed marital arts association and what on earth do they expect it to do? A perusal of its literature suggests a focus on Christian doctrine that concerns only the faithful amongst themselves and seems absurdly trivial in a multi-cultural age. 
My wife has a name as Catholic as mine is Protestant, revealing us to be a mixed couple the moment we are introduced. In the 14 years we have been together, during which we have mainly introduced ourselves in north Belfast and Portadown, I have never detected anyone so much as batting an eyelid upon receipt of this information. Nobody cares. I am slightly self-conscious even to be raising the subject here, in case you think I am boasting about my across-the-barricades relationship. My marriage features only the usual barricades and our different backgrounds are a complete domestic non-issue, apart from the cliché about keeping the house clean, which turns out to be absolutely bang on. 
I am sure other mixed couples are the same. How long would any marriage last if you approached each day as a miserable 800th anniversary? 
The issue of where to live did arise when we bought our first house but our desire to live in a classically mixed neighbourhood was an obstacle of our own choosing. Statistically, mixed couples are safe everywhere. Research is a little scant but it all confirms that problems for owner-occupiers are virtually unheard of, while even in segregated social housing problems are rare and often follow a falling-out with neighbours for other reasons. 
'Ah, but how do you raise the kids?’ people might ask, to which the only appropriate response is ‘we tie them up in the garden and feed them scraps.’ 
Again, the obstacles here are of your own choosing. There is no need to fight over Irish or English names, for example, as the options are hardly as binary as ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘Saoirse’."
Tony Parker wrote a book about Norhern Ireland and explained the protestant-catholic dance:
"I soon and quickly started to learn what first and most mattered in Northern Ireland today - which is that no relationship can proceed unless certain basics are clarified to begin with
The first you need to know about someone as soon as you meet them - and they equally need to know about you - is whether each or both of you is Protestant or Catholic. To be "neither” is not sufficient. You can be “neither” now but in that case what matters is “where do you begin?” Or in other words, what were your parents, what were your grandparents or failing that what were your great grandparents? What is your origin? This must be, and almost always unfailingly is, established within the first minute, or at the most, two."
He continued:
"The need for knowledge of someone’s present faith r antecedents isn’t for the purpose of expressing empathy or antagonism, but purely so that any following conversation can continue with greater ease. Once you know whether you share common background, or you do not, thereafter you can avoid saying the wrong thing, or wrong word, to unwittingly cause offence. 
Anyone born and brought up in Northern Ireland can do this effortlessly, practised since birth: almost by an extra-sensory perception, it seems at times. More than one person told me casually and in passing, making nothing of it because it seemed quite normal, that they could usually tell at first glance merely by looking at someone what they were. I found this incredible - until, before long, I became aware I was trying to do it myself: and, when I sometimes got it right, was coming to regard it as a skill. Then, even more incredibly, came the discovery after a while, that I was beginning to want to know, and bothering to try and find out. I started to ask myself why I cared. Curiosity of course, was the answer, no more than that. But what happened then to its all being "irrelevant and unimportant?” No really it was just curiosity, that’s all. Honestly, no more than that. But tell yourself whatever you like: you do wonder, you do listen, you do notice, and you want to find out. Insidiously it pervades you, it corrodes you. It really does. Because of such things as these. If your are Protestant and 'British’, you’ll always call the second biggest city in Northern Ireland 'Londonderry’: if you’re Catholic and/or Nationalist, you’ll only refer to it as 'Derry’. Nationalists and Catholics speak of 'the North’, 'Ireland’ or, intentionally aggressive, 'the Six Counties’. 'Northern Ireland’ and 'Ulster’ are Protestant terminology: and to speak of 'the Province’ in front of a Nationalist is provocative, even if it wasn’t intended. This was the point of Breidge’s admonition: Catholics, and particularly Republicans, never talk about 'the Troubles’ - they use the blunter 'the war’ or 'the struggle’. Even in the minutiae of pronunciation there are giveaways: the Department of Health and Social Security’s intitals are pronounced 'DHSS’ by Protestants, but by Catholics ’D Haitch SS’. So too with the IRA: more correctly 'The Provisional IRA’, its members are only calls 'Provos’ by Protestants: to Republicans, Nationalists and Catholics they’re 'the Provies’, the slightly-charged sound with its more moderating softness perhaps revealing something else as well. These are only some of the more obvious pointers. But in every conversation there’ll come the faintest of suppressed grimaces, or the slightest flicker in an eye, if a 'wrong’ word is used revealing you to be one of the 'others’. 
Nearly everything that was said to me within the first two or three days of my arriving contained a myriad of clues. At the time though I was oblivious to it all."
Michael Dibdin wrote about Tony's book and the "complex semiotics" of everyday conversation in Northern Ireland, in the Independent:
"In [Northern Ireland,] a land whose slogan is ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’, Tony Parker has been remarkably successful in getting people to talk. The result is by no means transparent, though. One of the best things in the book ['May The Lord in his Mercy Be Kind to Belfast’] is the opening chapter, an analysis of the complex semiotics involved in even the simplest exchange. Parker soon learnt such elementary rules as not to refer to 'Ulster’ when addressing a Catholic, or to ask a Protestant if he lived in 'Derry’, but he could not disguise his own origins, and this conditioned the responses of the interviewees."
Christopher Hitchens, a fellow journalist who spent time in Belfast and Northern Ireland, said:
"At first I couldn’t tell by looking whether someone was Catholic or Protestant. After a while, I thought I could guess with a fair degree of accuracy, but most of the inhabitants of Belfast seemed able to do it by some kind of instinct… It’s just that it’s the dominant question locally."
Hitchens said on another occasion:
"There is a theory of Sigmund Freud’s, it’s called the narcissism of the small differences. Differences between people that are practically impalpable to you and me are all they really know about and care about… I lived in Northern Ireland for a while, after a bit I thought I could tell a Protestant from a Catholic by looking. They know immediately, it’s all that matters to them." 
Willie Frazer said:
"We know who is snaking about. You are that obvious and that stupid and that Fenian-looking that you can’t be hid when you are in the area… 
If you put an ordinary Catholic and a republican in a room, you could tell the difference. My mother could have told the difference between an ordinary decent Catholic and a republican."
Via Ed Moloney, someone wrote:
"Eamon also said that William McGuinness [brother of Martin] had joked about his own Christian name, not one usually given to Catholic children in Northern Ireland, where ‘William’ is the archetypal Protestant forename, passed down the generations in memory of King William of Orange, who defeated the Catholics at the still-celebrated (among Ulster Loyalists, at least) battle of the Boyne in 1690. 
William said his mother had so christened him in order to give him a good start in life. She had felt that, in a Protestant-dominated society rife with anti-Catholic discrimination, her little boy would fare best if his name could help him pass as a Protestant. 
This was because ‘McGuinness’ was potentially a neutral surname, one shared by Catholics and Protestants. Usually only their forenames marked McGuinnesses unmistakeably out as being from the one or the other tradition."
Brian F., a Catholic from Southern Ireland living in Belfast, said to Michael Viney of the Irish Times in 1964:
"I was never made to Catholic until I came to work here [Belfast, Northern Ireland]. I mean that in Britain it simply didn’t come up. 
Here there’s all this sidling around in the conversation to find out what foot you dig with. 
I put up with that for a while, but now I say: ‘Look, you want to now if I’m a Teague or a Prod - Well I’m a Teague’."
 Bob McCartney said:
"In Northern Ireland... Your caste was denoted by the games you played."
As the name Sean indicates a catholic and john a protestant, Iraqi death squads target Sunni victims by name, Omar for example is a Sunni name. See more here. In an episode of Captain Planet, ‘Captain Planet Saves Belfast’, Captain Planet inveighs:
"You guys got’a be kidding, you beat each other up because of your names!?"

Orange order notes and Irish news reported names of new Orange members as a signal event.

John Giuffo wrote an article in Forbes on the state of Northern Ireland. He looked at the “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” question that so dominates life in the north of Ireland. John wrote:
"But back to the original question: Was our gregarious taxi guide, Jackie, Unionist or Republican, Protestant or Catholic? 
I guessed Catholic, hoping that my family’s backstory might prove sympathetic. 
Of course, I guessed wrong. 
Who could tell the difference? As an outsider, as a tourist, the differences between Catholic and Protestant seemed to me almost imperceptible. Maybe a Belfast native would pick up on cues more easily, but if so, surely as a result of a lifetime of different schools, pubs, churches, and lives."

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