Alternative Ulsters

Mark Carruthers asks Seamus Heaney, James Nesbitt and others what Ulster means to them

In 1979, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Belfast punk rock band, Stiff Little Fingers, called for an ‘Alternative Ulster’ with their passionate plea: 'Alter your native Ulster, Alter your native land.'

In his book, Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity, broadcaster and journalist Mark Carruthers sets out to discover just what has changed over the past four decades by asking 36 prominent Ulster men and women the same question: What does Ulster mean to you?

In 2013, while the Peace Process continues, a lasting resolution has not yet been fully won – and yet, behind the scenes, many individuals and groups are still seeking to reconcile the two main communities.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the politicians included in Carruthers' book – such as Mary McAleese, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness – are keen to articulate the enormous progress that has been made since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

But it is the ultimately writers, poets, actors and musicians who express most cogently and colourfully their attachment to Northern Ireland and what make and shapes their cultural identities.

Most of those interviewed were born within the six counties that remained in the union with Great Britain when in, 1922, Partition and a new border divided the ancient Irish province of Ulster.

Dr Ian Paisley admits that the unionist leader, James Carson, lost the remaining three counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan and, in his view, 'that was what started the whole row'.

The book is prefaced by a quote from John Hewitt’s poem 'An Ulsterman', written in 1938, which even then recognised ‘creed-crazed zealots and the ignorant crowd’, but proudly defends an identity rooted in history.

Former Ireland correspondent with the BBC Dennis Murray analyses the problem of identity thus: 'The really big thing is whether you regard yourself as Irish and look towards Dublin or British and look towards London. Recent research shows that an increasing slice of the Catholic population now would look to London rather than Dublin.'

Then there is the problem of semantics. For many, because of its associations with the past, the word 'Ulster' conjures up Protestant extremism and partisan slogans such as 'Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right', or 'Ulster says no!'. For that reason, they prefer to call their homeland Northern Ireland.

The Belfast writer Glenn Patterson puts it this way: 'Ulster doesn’t have any kind of useful meaning for me. It exists purely in the symbols – hands and flags… I didn’t see me in the U (Ulster).' As a boy growing up in Finaghy, Patterson built bonfires on the eve of the Twelfth of July, but he could never accept that the Protestant paramilitary UDA or UVF represented him in any way.

Yet he recalls how in 1973, when the electorate was asked to vote in a border poll, that he felt petrified and thought the bottom would fall out of his Protestant east Belfast world. He describes 'that feeling that you were vulnerable, that who you were could be written out of existence'.

Journalist William Crawley describes himself as an Ulsterman in the sense that John Hewitt or CS Lewis was an Ulsterman, but he believes that Protestants and Catholics have more in common with each other than they or others realise. Like playwright Marie Jones, Crawley has learned to speak Gaelic.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is a Derry man who, according to the journalist and socialist activist Eamon McCann, is incapable of saying 'Londonderry', but he is an Ulsterman and an Irishman, through and through.

McGuinness talks about the touching relationship between his father, who was a foreman at Brown’s foundry, and his co-worker and best friend, Willie McNeill, a Protestant: 'My father used to leave our house in Elmwood Street and he would walk up through the Fountain and Willie McNeill would step out his front door and they would walk down to work together, they were like two brothers all their lives...'

Gary Lightbody, lead singer and songwriter with the alternative rock band Snow Patrol, now lives in LA, but he was born in Bangor and remains fiercely attached to the land of his birth. 'It is a very unique place to be,' he says. 'I’ve never found anywhere else like it in the world in terms of how great we are as poets and how bad we are at moving forward. The word yes is a really important word in the new Northern Ireland.'

The coterie of exceptionally gifted poets who are often referred to as the ‘Ulster Poets’ are here represented by the late Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Frank Ormsby. Longley, who lives in Belfast, describes himself as a pan Irishman with an Ulster accent, while Nobel Laureat Seamus Heaney identifies an Ulster speech, an Ulster idiom and an Ulster sense of humour.

Actor James Nesbitt recalls growing up in rural County Antrim, a headmaster’s son steeped in the Protestant culture. Nesbitt was a member of Ballygelly Accordion Band and Ballymena Young Conquerors flute band, yet he learned to play the piano at the local convent. When he moved to London, he felt quite defensive about being a Protestant Ulsterman.

'I felt we weren’t the ones who were allowed to be cultured,' he tells Carruthers. 'We were tired of being dour whereas the Catholics got away with having a copy of Yeats in one hand and a rifle slung over the other shoulder, you know, marching off into this kind of cultural utopia where they had right on their side.'

For Nesbitt, Ulster is full of anomalies and contradictions just like him. Northern Irish people remind him of the dwarves in The Hobbit, the Peter Jackson film in which he stars: 'There’s that slightly tribal sense of great in fighting and huge bickering, but when challenged as a unit, they are very loyal and together.'

Fellow actor, Liam Neeson, lived in Corlea Gardens in Ballymena opposite Nesbitt’s grand mother. As a boy he would sneak into Ian Paisley’s church to hear him preach, attracted by the power of his oratory. When, in 2013, Neeson received the freedom of Ballymena, he invited Paisley and told him 'you inspired me to be an actor'.

The singer and novelist Brian Kennedy was born in 1966 in the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast, where he experienced the worst of the sectarian violence. Yet he ended up singing at George Best’s funeral and for the Queen at Stormont.

His account of a performance at a leisure centre in the mainly Protestant Shankill Road again illustrates the similarities rather than differences in Ulster people, and sums up the overriding sense of optimism that one is left with after reading this book:

'I am upstairs and I meet all these wee women and wee men and they’re exactly the same as all the wee women and the wee men I grew up with. All the same craic, the same boldness, the same kind of warmth, a bit of suspicion, whatever, exactly the same.'

Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity is out now, published by Liberties Press.