Nailing their colours to the mast
Ulster, Irish, British or European? In Mark Carruthers’s new book about identity in Northern Ireland, artists’ insights are richer than politicians’
It’s complicated: ‘It would be a lovely thing, just forgetting for a minute Britishness or Irishness and just being proud to be Northern Irish,’ says Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol
As a young boy, the Belfast pianist Barry Douglas regularly came face to face with the bewildering issue of identity. He recalls instances in south Belfast of being confronted by local hoods. “They would say, ‘Are you Protestant?’ Or they’d say, ‘Are you Catholic?’ And no matter what you answered you still got beaten up.” That was until he learned judo, as he recounts in the BBC broadcaster Mark Carruthers’s book Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity.
One of the indisputable differences between artists on different sides of the Border is about this issue. Generally writers, musicians and painters from the Republic can say, “I’m Irish,” and press on with their art. In the North it’s much more intricate, as Carruthers, who was born in Derry, explores in his series of fascinating interviews with well-known figures who have a Northern Ireland background, or who live or have lived in the place.
At an Irish Times symposium in 1974 on the clash of identities, the Belfast poet John Hewitt dealt with the conundrum by saying: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago, and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European.”
Ulster, Irish, British and European takes in a lot, but there’s more: the strengthening sense of Northern Irishness, for example, and even those who, from time to time, adopt the Ulster-Scots tag. Religion comes into it, as Douglas experienced, and then there are permutations of all of these identities with some solidly and singly plumping for Irish or British.
Politicians interviewed in the book, among them Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, provide good value on the subject, but it’s the artists who appear to struggle most with identity. Gary Lightbody of the band Snow Patrol, who comes from Bangor, Co Down, has a pithy take on the issue. “How about a united Northern Ireland?” he asks. “That would be a lovely thing, just forgetting for a minute Britishness or Irishness and just being proud to be Northern Irish.”
For most it’s not so simple. It certainly wasn’t for the late Seamus Heaney, who gave one of his last major interviews to Carruthers. Heaney, from rural Co Derry, turned down the English poet laureateship and objected to being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry with the well-known lines “be advised / My passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen”.
Heaney tells Carruthers, “I think the Northern writers, the poets of my own generation, weren’t satisfied to live in a divided society; they wanted something better. And we thought the ironies and the generosities of art would help.”