The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics: trying to capture a community on the move

A collection of wildly different essays of equally varied quality, with memorable findings

A view of the interior of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh in  2016. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A view of the interior of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh in 2016. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mon, Sep 16, 2019, 06:11


Book Title:
The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics


Thomas Paul Burgess

Palgrave Macmillan

Guideline Price:

The back cover of The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics says “the book will appeal to students and scholars across the fields of Politics, Cultural Studies, Sociology, Irish Studies and Peace Studies”. It will attract some, no doubt. A collection of wildly different essays of equally varied quality, it contains memorable findings. But the title is as much of a poser as the Sacred Heart image on the front.

Identities “contested” by whom? Glimpses of two disputatious contributors also invite question about the “Ulster” in the title, since there is scant reference to the three Republic counties, no more than name-checked in the editor’s recipe for a federal Ireland.

He and his co-editor of the “sister publication” on Protestant identity might usefully have checked each other. So Thomas Paul Burgess would have reined in Gareth Mulvenna, who suggests in a way devoid of academic rigour that Sinn Féin fanned objections to loyalist paramilitary flags, in housing intended to be mixed Catholic/Protestant. Mulvenna might have persuaded Burgess, perhaps straining for topicality at a fluid moment, against swipes at Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

Burgess in this book’s first essay begins: “Leo Varadkar’s recent ‘bullish’ promise to Northern nationalists might have been unthinkable under an earlier Enda Kenny-led Fine Gael administration.” A few pages on, just ahead of his federal Ireland pitch, Burgess writes that declarations of their “aspirational nationalism” by the Taoiseach and Tanáiste, in a context of potential border polls and the “demographic inevitability theory”, have been “vapid and opportunistic”.

From the very different perspective of political journalism, the thinking behind this self-consciously post-conflict collection seems tinged with unresolved antagonisms. But John Coakley, Brian Hanley and Tommy McKearney are a pleasure to read, and thought-provoking. Niall Gilmartin on Gender, Republicanism and the Peace Process poses questions about the place of women in IRA memorialism and modern republicanism that Sinn Féin in time will presumably be pushed to answer by their own members. Claire Pierson on Catholic women and Abortion Access is dispiriting in her scholarly thoroughness on the reach of international anti-choice agitation.

Aimee Smith, the only other female out of the 15 contributors, gets to finish the book on young Catholics, and is sure-footed in the teeth of the unknowable post-Brexit.

Academic jargon – “dissemination” for “scattered”? – is redeemed by a keen ear. Ambivalence towards the other community, she decides, may be an inevitable part of growing up northern.

The Coakley chapter treats demographics dispassionately as the raw material for political and sociological forecasts. He finds it probable that even on “very conservative assumptions about the rate of natural increase of Catholics, effective parity in the size of the two communities will be recorded in the next census in 2021”.

Between footnotes on methodology he writes “For a contemporary example of the traditional view that does not take account of the extent of change, see remarks by former Ulster Unionist minister Lord Kilclooney (John Taylor) implying that the nationalist community is a political minority; Irish News, 31 August 2017”.

In the nearest the collection comes to acknowledging the impact of John Hume, Coakley says the “robustness of northern nationalism’s international alliances” has dictated “the pace of political change” even more than Sinn Féin’s growing electoral power. Whether the reversal of northern Catholics’ longtime subordinate status “will result in a geopolitical transformation of Northern Ireland or further (Catholic) absorption within it, is likely to depend on greater external forces” such as Brexit, “longer-term dynamics on the island of Ireland” and within these islands.

Hard work by Brian Hanley on contemporary testimonies, reports, comment then and later reads like a noisy documentary on northerners fleeing south over the period 1969-75, the reactions they evoked and attitudes they accelerated. He heads his chapter with the quote “Tough, Violent and Virtually Ungovernable”, from a 1974 Conor Cruise O’Brien prophecy of what such an element in a huge influx of refugees could mean for the south. The text leaps off the page; early sentimentality, swift disillusionment, both mutual.

“On arrival the Northerns cried with joy and relief ...Before long they had been taken into Mullingar hearts and homes,” said the Westmeath Examiner, September 1969.

Whereas Micheál MacGreil’s 1972-73 study found 55 per cent of his Dublin respondents agreed that “Northerners on all sides tend to be extreme and unreasonable”, Hanly notes the terror of the fleeing, mostly urban working-class unlike much of the “officialdom dealing with them”. Amid fears of violence spilling across the border, he concludes, the south increasingly saw all the north as complicit in conflict in some way. This “only intensified misunderstandings and prejudices which had existed for decades”.

McKearney, self-described socialist republican, former IRA hunger striker but no lover of today’s mainstream republicanism, is perhaps the best informed of the writers who try to characterise today’s Catholics. He also deals with the collapse of Stormont and the destabilising effects of impending Brexit more directly and fully than the academic essayists. He chooses the group name of Catholics to signify common experience in spite of difference in social status.

“After almost a century living within the partitioned state of Northern Ireland, most Catholics share not only folk memories but other more durable connections.”

To win a considerable percentage of Catholics, pragmatic politics for unionism should include “charm as well as legislative concessions”. The DUP had instead opted to antagonise, which raised questions about the sustainability “of the Belfast Agreement and indeed the entire Project Northern Ireland”.

What this collection lacks, for me, is a sense of how the cover-up of sexual and other abuse by clergy has affected northern Catholics. A major frustration of producing a book on Northern Catholic identity in 1993 (yes, with a gruesome cover) was that it came out just before both the peace process and abuse scandal became public knowledge. The book won awards but I missed the story.

Selfishly, I hoped for an essay on how the serial unmasking changed relationships with church and faith.

This is not that book. But then why should it be?