In search of Our Friends in the North is great craic

Kevin McAleer
Kevin McAleer

Have you seen the TV programme with Kevin McAleer travelling from Tyrone to visit Ulster/Scots folk in Antrim, Derry and Donegal? It’s called, Our Friends in the North.

It’s great craic. On learning that the Ulster/Scots word for rhubarb is rhubarb, he’s relieved. “That’s one less to remember,” he says. Kevin’s deadpan style is the perfect foil to the enthusiasm of the Ulster/Scots. On being press-ganged into singing Aul Lang’s Syne after a “few pints of tea”, Kevin laconically says, “I was beside myself”.

(I had a nasty flashback to similar and repeated embarrassment. I was cajoled into cringe-inducing ‘games’ at Sunday school parties.

That was over 50 years ago but the trauma has left its mental scar. The Sunday School leaders were well-intentioned but they were causing psychological damage. Even as a child of seven or eight I was urbane and sophisticated!

That’s probably why I still hate come-all-ye dances like ‘The variously sexually orientated Gordons’. You know the sort of thing that hosts inflict on misfortunate guests at some weddings.)

Yet it’s perfectly obvious in the TV show that Kevin McAleer warms to his genial hosts. He may have come to gently mock but he stays on to be impressed. He finds the Ulster/Scots cognoscenti to be both articulate and friendly. In short, he likes them and their quaint ways.

It’s funny but it’s also troubling. This is a picture of Ulster/Scots folk as we always knew they were. They’re perfectly ordinary and down-to-earth, even if their entertainment seems infra dig to us, more pretensions and sophisticated ‘wans’.

Regular readers will know that I’ve often mocked the notion that there’s an Ulster/Scots language. The claim is obviously absurd. However, it’s equally obvious that there is a rich local dialect. It should be encouraged. Why not? Linguistic colour and richness are to be treasured.

Why then, do I say presenting Ulster/Scots enthusiasts as they actually are is troubling?

It’s because Kevin McAleer finds a community that’s living in Ireland but doesn’t (in the North, anyway) feel itself to be Irish. It’s a community in denial. This is sad.

In the long story of this island one wave of settlers after another has been absorbed into the Irish Nation. It has often been said, for instance, that the Normans became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. Yet here we have a community that after 300 years on the island, still resolutely feels different. That marks a failure by the community itself and by the rest of us.

The other disturbing thing about this community is its very ordinariness. Here we have people celebrating their sense of identity while enjoying a bit of the old ceol agus craic. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that.

This isn’t a community pushing a separate language for political reasons. They’re not trying to be divisive. Their political representatives can be relied on to do that. They’re the ones who latched onto the idea of an Ulster/Scots language.

They dreamed it up as a clever device to stymie the development of Irish. Their divisive little manoeuvrings are utterly contemptible. They’re just as contemptible as similar efforts were a few years ago to politicise the Irish language.

Incidentally, the first of Mr McAleer’s programmes depicted the area around Ballymoney as a hot-bed of revolution in 1798 by the Presbyterian element of the United Irishmen. It was. However, a local man interviewed by Kevin put a misleading gloss on things, no doubt with concern for the sensitivities or ignorance of contemporary ears.

At that time Ireland was already united, he said, and so the Presbyterian rebels weren’t trying to unite Ireland, they were merely trying to address a few wrongs. That isn’t so. Under the leadership of Wolfe Tone, by the time it came to 1798, the United Irishmen were a dedicated band of committed revolutionaries determined to break the political link with England at all costs.