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Pravda spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Pravda - The Ulster-Scot
by Neal Alexander
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'CHRIST-YIN. Whut's this aa aboot?' This fragment from a translation of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (Alang tha Pilgrim's Pad) by Dr Philip Robinson currently being serialised in that august journal, The Ulster-Scot, which serves as chief newsletter of the Ulster-Scots Agency (Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch). It's also, perhaps, an appropriate response when perusing the crisply-printed pages of this smartly-presented free publication. The immediate answer to such a naive enquiry is, of course, that it is about 'celebrating' the rich and unique cultural heritage of the many people living here who wish to make a fuss about their Scottish ancestry. Which is fair enough. Too little has been made of the socio-cultural and historical connections between Scotland and Ireland, in favour of highlighting Irish-English antagonisms or complicities. But the notion of 'celebrating' any culture should give us pause for thought. Glistering with marketing potential and the lucrative magnetism of tourist curiosity, this vacuous phrase also seems to suggest that mere practice is somehow deficient; that the experience of culture (whatever that may be, and of whichever variety) is not deemed to be valuable in and of itself, but must be translated into the universal language of display, fanfare, extravaganza. We must present our culture to ourselves and to the world - but most importantly to the world.
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Hence, 'On Eagle's Wing: The Scots-Irish Journey', an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular with unabashedly epic ambitions and frankly plagiaristic means which is profiled at length in The Ulster-Scot. For this is the 'Protestant' Riverdance, telling the story of how thousands of 'Scots-Irish' exiles (note the nomenclative shift here) settled in the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and went on to spawn no less than 17 Presidents and countless dungaree-clad banjo-players. There's one in the eye for Boston and the Bronx. With perhaps a touch of over-exuberance, one cast-member describes the show as 'Braveheart meets Britney Spears meets the Matrix'. This car-crash of incongruous comparisons seems somewhat improbable given the material available, but full marks should be awarded for promotional gusto. And that, it seems, is the main thing where the 'Scots-Irish'-American interface is concerned: feverish promotion bordering on delusion. There is, nonetheless, an important story to be told under all of this, one that would correct the strongly ingrained perception that any and all Irish-Americans will be Catholics from Cork and Connemara. In fact, a 1989 Gallup poll found that 54% were Protestants, mostly Methodists and Baptists, and mostly concentrated in the Southern states. Many of the salient points that should emerge from this redressal are, however, likely to be lost in the obstreperous (and largely one-sided) game of one-up-manship with which Ulster-Scots cultural groups and agencies can often seem preoccupied. Essentially, this takes the form of an oppositional dualism that frequently manifests itself in demonstrably puerile ways. If the 'Irish' have Riverdance, then we'll have On Eagle's Wing; if 'they' have Irish dancing, then we'll have Scottish country dancing; if Irish is to be spoken in Ireland, then we too can speak in tongues outside of the mission hall.
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And what appears to drive this perverse carry-on is, at bottom, a dispute over funding. If money is to be doled out by the State to Gaelscoils and Irish cultural initiatives with addresses in Andersonstown and the Falls, then Ulster Protestants aren't going to be behind in getting themselves some culture of their own and learning the argot of 'heritage', 'celebration' and 'parity of esteem'. And it is this language, rather than Ullans, Ulster-Scots (with or without a hyphen?) or whatever your care to call our culchie patois these days, that is most in evidence in the pages of The Ulster-Scot. Indeed, the centre-page story of the April 2004 Issue (with which I have been kindly provided by our kindly editors) announces in giant letters: 'ULSTER-SCOTS IS AN EXPANDING CULTURE'. Further to this, Lord Laird of Artigarvan, head of the Ulster-Scots Agency, is quoted as saying: 'We have shown that we exist, with a totally valid identity. It would be staggering to think what could be possible if funding matched demand'. Ah now, there's the rub. Loud Lord continues: 'As Ulster-Scots we do not offer offence to anyone, we only want to celebrate our culture, language, history and identity'. This, it has to be said, makes our loquacious peer sound very like an Orangeman intent upon marching down the Garvaghey Road and 'celebrating' his cultural identity on the doorsteps of Catholic residents. Indeed, the impartial reader might also observe that DUP politicians (Big Ian, wee Jeffrey, and the ubiquitous Nelson McCausland) are particularly conspicuous in the pages of The Ulster-Scot, as are Lambeg drums - very often in the same picture.
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Much of the heady optimism expressed in The Ulster-Scot's triumphal centre-page story has, however, suffered several high-profile disappointments in recent months. First, the American premiere of On Eagle's Wing had to be cancelled when investors pulled out at the last minute, then Lard Lout of Artgarfunkel took a hissy fit and resigned as head of the Ulster-Scots Agency, accusing the British and Irish governments of 'fascist bigotry' and attempting to airbrush the Ulster Scots (Scots-Irish?) out of history. It looks as if the expanding culture may have burst its cumberbund.
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