Are you Ulster, Irish, British or European?

Pianist Barry Douglas is among NI personalities featured in BBC journalist, Mark Carruthers' book, 'Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity'.
Pianist Barry Douglas is among NI personalities featured in BBC journalist, Mark Carruthers' book, 'Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity'.

It’s a wonder us “Nordies” as we’re known to Southerners, aren’t bent double.

We have to slouch around with an awful weight on our shoulders. It’s all that angst about our national identity. Protestants are particularly afflicted by the condition.

Fortunately, it’s not incurable. Along with a minority of other Prods, I’ve had the cure. It wasn’t difficult to find. Many more could discover it but it’s so obvious it can be hard to see. It hides in plain sight, so to speak.

The only downside is that those Protestants who’ve taken the antidote to confusion about their national identity are regarded by some of their co-religionists as lower than snakes.

We have to accept a dose of opprobrium. We might as well get “Lundy” tattooed on our foreheads.

BBC journalist, Mark Carruthers has written a book on the subject. (Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity is published by Liberties Press.)

It has many interviews with politicians and artists on the subject. For example, Pianist Barry Douglas recalls incidents while he was growing up in Belfast. Several times he was confronted by young people who would demand, “Are you a Protestant?” or, “Are you a Catholic?” It’s a tricky question. No matter how Douglas answered, he a lways got beaten up.

In other towns the odds on coming up with the ‘right’ answer would have been shorter. In Coleraine they were smart enough to change the question. One evening on my way home when I was about 12, I was stopped by the local lads. “Who founded the Ulster Volunteer Force?” they demanded. The aggressive tone told me they weren’t consulting a clever friend as you do on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Still, they were willing to give me a second chance. “Which harbour did they bring guns into in 1912?” the ringleader asked. I could tell it wasn’t just the neighbourhood quiz night. When I didn’t get the second answer they got angry.

They throttled me with my tie and pushed me to the ground. “That’s the trouble with boys like you – you don’t know your history,” the lads’ leader said with a snarl before leaving me in disgust.

That was part of growing up in Coleraine around 1960 and I thought little more of it.

Only recently, I happened to see the ‘gang’ leader. He went to my Primary School so I always knew who he was. Of course, he’s a pensioner now.

I wonder what he’d think if he knew I’d studied history at Trinity College and it didn’t produce the desired result, from his point of view. “That’s the trouble with boys like you – you know too much history,” he might say!

The poet, John Hewitt once said, “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’m British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European”.

That’s it, summed up. It’s ridiculous, even bringing “archipelagos” into it! Ulster, Irish, British, European and whatever you’re having yourself.

“The English are proud of their Englishness, the Scots are proud of their Scottishness, so we’re proud of our Ulsterness,” as the MP for Coleraine and Limavady once memorably put it! (Gregory The Planters who arrived in Ireland 400 years ago were just one wave in the many waves of settlers who came to this island.

Every previous wave had been absorbed into the Irish Nation.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. You’ve got to give some allegiance to the concept of the Irish Nation. I can recommend it.

It abolishes all the angst and confusion at a stroke. Actually, it’s a lot better than that.

As I set out in this column a couple of weeks ago, being Irish also means having so much to be proud of.