Trading on up: exploring class and cultural capital

Belfast author Sharon Dempsey on class and culture in Milkman, Trespasses and her own life

Watching Paul McCartney headlining at Glastonbury this summer reminded me that somehow longevity is considered an important marker of cultural worth. We value that which is timeless and perhaps therein lies the problem, for working-class culture has often been seen as a throwaway commodity. McCartney, the working-class hero, offers proof that this is not necessarily the case.

Growing up in working-class Belfast, during the 1970s and ‘80s, diversion in the form of entertainment was a coping strategy of sorts, a gateway to other lives, imagined and real, as played out in the pages of books or on our television screens. For my family music offered respite from the political violence. The Beatles (my father’s favourite band), Elvis and Adam Faith (my mother’s preferences), were the soundtrack of my childhood. If the radio wasn’t playing, records were spinning on the turntable, first a Dansette record player and later a hi-fi record system with its gleaming, stacked, plastic sections. Often the television was on too, in another room.

We never sat in silence, except perhaps for mealtimes. Then we’d gather around the four-seated, mock-mahogany dining table, eating an array of my mother’s limited culinary repertoire: mince and onions, fried liver, boiled potatoes and tinned carrots, and silverside beef on Sundays, that had as much taste and the same texture as the sole of an old, wet slipper. Eating out was a luxury we couldn’t afford. The Skandia restaurant in Belfast city centre was not for us. Food was fuel to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Apart from The Beatles, my father’s other great love was boxing. Muhammad Ali felt as familiar to me as a close relative. When I’d asked why he changed his name from Cassius Clay, my father explained to me that he considered his former name to be a slave name. I knew about slavery from watching Roots. Ali felt like a poet in boxing shorts, dancing to the rhythm of his own brash, vainglorious banter. The working-class hero who danced his way around the boxing ring out of poverty to victory.


Cultural capital, a concept coined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, refers to social assets in the form of education, access to books, language and all of the trappings that make moving through society easier. It is “familiarity with the legitimate culture within a society”, in other words, it is what provides access to power and legitimacy.

Working-class people have long been creating their own cultural capital. Sure, it doesn’t provide legitimacy, nor guarantee access to social mobility, but what it does do is to nourish that part of us that craves connection, diversion, fulfilment and creativity. The Catholic working-class aspirations that I experienced seem to challenge Bourdieu’s theory that social inequalities are reproduced, mainly due to individuals in subordinate groups being reluctant or unable to acquire cultural capital.

Education and knowledge were considered valuable in their own right, not just as a way to access greater social status. Yet, this educational attainment, often achieved through the rigorous process of academic selection at the tender age of 11, risked stigmatising those who passed and those who didn’t. Those like me, who benefited from a grammar school education, had further choices open up in the form of third-level education. This was not without its complications, as one way of living is replaced by the new.

For Mick Nolan, writing in The 32, an anthology of Irish working-class writers, edited by Paul McVeigh, the new life of possibilities, achieved through education, felt like “a fantasy world, where nothing exists but the brochure-like landscape, where real life is played out elsewhere, beyond the façade,” making him feel nostalgic and homesick for the life he appeared to have moved beyond.

My father grew up in the Catholic working-class Markets enclave and my mother grew up on the edge of the Markets. It was a hive of industry with the various markets, a blacksmith, Inglis’s bakery, pubs and shops. There was always work and the people worked hard but these were jobs that didn’t pay well and the housing conditions were poor. Life could have been grim if it weren’t for weekend dances in the Plaza or the Trocadero bar and night club. In Smithfield market you could buy the latest records and pick up second-hand books, too.

I grew up on the lower Ormeau Road which isn’t a million miles away, but it did feel like a place a part. By the time I was 12 we had moved further up the Ormeau Road (always preceded by ‘the,’ something to do with the fact that it was built in 1815 to replace New Ballynafeigh Road; one road replacing the other with the use of ‘the’ denoting its newness). Our new home felt like a middle-class utopia. Semi-detached houses with driveways, garages and gardens, formed in a cul-de-sac, offered an alternative landscape to the red brick terraces with concrete entry ways and scraps of waste ground to play on.

Life seemed to take on an expansive quality: we were mixing with lower middle-class kids, some of whom were Protestant, and had access to their cultural references. Reading books was part of the course, something to be shared and discussed, not a secretive and lonely pastime. It was the Eighties of Monty Python, MTV, Jaws. Life seemed to be opening up.

Travel, that other much-prized cultural activity, happened in the form of a one-week holiday to a rented cottage in Donegal. But aunts and uncles were heading further afield to campsites in Spain, coming back with stories of having to pay for bottled water, the intense heat and a souvenir of an amber glass porrón, a traditional glass wine pitcher, with its woven chain decoration, seemingly both exotic and decadent.

Reading Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses brought back the memories of trading cultural capital. In the novel ,when protagonist Cushla falls for the older, married and protestant, Michael Agnew she straddles his middle-class world of suppers in the warming drawer of the Aga, bone-handled knives and forks, linen napkins and political conversations considered while drinking a decent bottle of wine. Cushla has capital of her own to trade in the form of her ability to speak Irish. She is recruited to help Michael’s friends, who “played at being Irish”, learn how to speak the language at their fortnightly gatherings.

Working-class people have a history of challenging notions that culture belongs to the bourgeoisie. Two of the best novels to come out of Northern Ireland, namely Milkman by Anna Burns and Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, show what it is like to navigate class, sectarian and cultural divides. Michael Magee’s (formerly Nolan) forthcoming work, Close to Home, has been described as a “gripping auto-fictional exploration of masculinity, class and trauma”. It seems that class is intrinsic to how we experience and view the world, but it also determines how the rest of the society views us. I may have left the terrace houses of lower Ormeau Road and acquired some cultural capital of my own, but I still feel at heart staunchly working-class.

Sharon Dempsey’s latest novel is The Midnight Killing (Avon)