Anthony  D  Buckley

“Daring us to laugh”

Creativity and Power in Northern Irish Symbols.

by Anthony D Buckley

(ed.) A D Buckley Symbols in Northern Ireland, Institute of Irish Studies,

The Queen’s University of Belfast, Belfast 1-21.


George Orwell is supposed to have made a joke about Hitler and Stalin. Hitler and Stalin, he said, had something in common. They both had funny moustaches. This was not, he claimed, an accident. On the contrary, he said, Hitler and Stalin were "daring us to laugh".

This interdisciplinary collection of essays had its origin in an exhibition called Symbols[1], put together by Rhonda Paisley in 1994, which displayed some of the symbols found in Northern Ireland. Inevitably, the exhibition included many of the political and religious symbols which have had so much impact in Ulster's troubles. There were banners and sashes and policemen's helmets and holy statues and so forth. However, the exhibition also contained other kinds of symbols whose political impact and local significance was less obvious, from a picture of Jimi Hendrix to a housewife's apron.

The essays in this volume are similarly concerned with the symbols found in Northern Ireland. Some are to do directly or indirectly with the troubles of Northern Ireland, and with matters relating to ethnic or religious or national identity. Dominic Bryan and Ciro de Rosa look at the vexed question of parades, the one looking at the evocation of meaning in press coverage, the other more directly at the use of parades in the social construction of social boundaries.Camille O'Reilly examines the symbolic significance of the Irish language. Neil Jarman discusses murals. And Mary Kenney looks more eclectically at republican symbolism.

Other chapters are much less directly concerned with Ulster's celebrated social division. Thus, Linda Ballard looks at the symbolic costumes of motor cyclists; Jack Santino examines Halloween customs; Roger Sawyer discusses the symbolic images of womanhood in Irish literature; and Michael McCaughanconsiders the Titanic.

Significantly enough, however, even with the latter essays, it proved difficult to omit matters relating to ethnicity. Ballard's motor cyclists, for example, are not concerned centrally with sectarian issues, yet their clubs and associations tend to recruit only from one side. Sawyer's viragos are found in a literature which long predates modern conflicts, yet they are ripe to be used as models for modern women engaged, for example, in the politics of feminism or in sectarian strife. And Santino's essay on Halloween, though it is concerned with one of the least sectarian of Ulster's festivals, is nevertheless able to identify important sectarian undercurrents.

Symbolism in Northern Ireland is often a serious business. Many of the symbols discussed in this collection of essays are a focus for passionate loyalties. Some have been the occasion for self-sacrifice or murder. Anyone who approaches the question of symbolism inUlster soon feels on his neck the hot breath of these passions.

As the Symbols exhibition was being constructed, it became obvious to the organisers that many of the symbols on display were powerful and dangerous. In displaying them, one had to employ great care and caution. If the exhibition contained a hint of irony or disrespect, then one felt that some huge foot might come out of the sky and squash the organisers flat.

In this introductory essay, I want to explore some of the reasons why symbols are so powerful and dangerous; why one should treat them with caution: why the organisers of the Symbols exhibition, but also politicians and quite ordinary people, are right to be afraid of them.

I want, however, to look at another aspect of symbolism which many of the contributors to this book identify. This is that there is much more to symbolism than just politics and power. Symbols are also a means though which people clarify the world.

Seldom does any symbol have a single meaning. Symbols are therefore a means through which individuals grasp and express new and significant truths about their individual identities and about the world. Symbols, however, may not to be taken lightly, since they bring both order and disorder. If they arise out of human creativity and spontaneity, they are also about power. If one were foolish enough to be disrespectful about symbols, then someone could take quite serious offence, the symbol becoming the focus for anger, tears, violence and the exercise of control.

Symbols have a life of their own. They beckon to us, tempting us to treat them with disrespect. Symbols are like Hitler's moustache.They are "daring us to laugh".

Symbols and the Clarification of the World

The first part of this essay will be concerned not with power, but with the intellectual aspects of symbolism. Looked at like this, the main purpose of a symbol is to throw light on some aspect of the world that would otherwise be neglected or confused. Then I shall consider the other side of symbolism, that which deals with symbolism as a matter of the relations between people, and this involves questions of power.

According to Dan Sperber, a symbol is an object or a piece of knowledge which is "in quotes" (1975, 99). We see a picture of King William or Cú Chullainn on a wall, and we know that it is quite different from (say) a picture in a passport photograph. In the same way, we know that "Free Derry Corner" is not "just another wall" nor the Titanic just another ship. We know too that a wedding ring is quite different from (say) a curtain ring. But we also know that, in the right circumstances, a curtain ring can become a wedding ring, full of the same meaning as its gold counterpart. The symbolic picture, the symbolic wall, the symbolic ship, the symbolic ring gain their meaning through having been set aside. Symbolic objects have been bracketed off from ordinary objects. They have been highlighted, elevated, put in quotes. And so we look at them and know they are symbolic.

More that this, a symbol evokes some other idea beyond itself. A symbol is like coloured glass. We look through it and see the world beyond. But as we look through the glass, our vision of the world is altered. A symbol draws our attention to certain structures, certain patterns in the world. But at the same time, it hides away other structures, other patterns. Any given symbol, therefore, is partial. It reveals a real or a possible pattern in the world, but it also hides away other possible patterns, other realities.

The first thing to say about symbols then is that they clarify some aspect of the world. A symbol draws attention either to the way the world is or to the way it should be, or perhaps to both. A symbol defines some segment of the world, so we can see that this strip of events (Goffman 1975) has a recognisable structure (see also Buckley and Kenney 1995, 25ff).

Take times and occasions. Many people in Northern Ireland's past (and of course some people today), want Sunday to be a special day. The problem with having such special days, however, is that they are in constant danger of not remaining special. A special day is always in danger of becoming "just another day". The only way to keep Sunday special, therefore, is to mark it out symbolically.

So, in the past, certain activities were forbidden. Work especially was forbidden. But also people could not play cards or use a skipping rope or play football. They had to sit quietly and read uplifting books. Just within living memory, elderly Presbyterian farmers used never to shave on a Sunday. Shaving, for them, was a form of work. Instead, they would shave late on Saturday night (see Buckley 1982). Symbolic acts like this were what made Sunday special.

In a different way, Christmas is kept special by filling it up with presents, trees, crackers and drink. Without this symbolism, the distinctiveness of Christmas too would disappear. Every day would be equal.

Days have a tendency towards equality, they tend to become undifferentiated. So when we want to keep them special, we must deck them out with symbolic markers.

Sunday, of course, is already losing its specialness. But the dangers of not using symbolic markers can be found in any standard work on seasonal customs. How many people, for example, took note of last Michaelmas Day? Buchanan tells us that, once upon a time, people might have killed a goose or a lamb and have a small feast at Michaelmas (1962, 34). But with the disappearance of its symbolic markers, Michaelmas has disappeared from all but the diary. The same is true of Chalk Sunday, the second Sunday in Lent. On Chalk Sunday, single people were marked with chalk to signal their failure to get married (Ó Danachair 1964; Danaher 1972 47-48. Hardly anybody, nowadays, has heard of Chalk Sunday.

And the process occurs in reverse. People continually invent new festivals and new ways of symbolising special occasions. For example, in comparatively recent times, people have started to give Father's Day cards. Even more recently, Catholicism has discovered a new seasonal custom, that of commemorating the dead at Cemetery Sunday.

The point is, however, that special occasions are always in danger of disappearing, in danger of becoming undifferentiated, equal to other occasions, if they are not symbolised.

Symbols and the definition of Identity

Importantly, symbols are also used to clarify, to define and give structure to identity, to who a person is. The problem each person faces is that although they may be a Buddhist, or a housewife, or a bus driver or a splendid fellow, these different definitions of a self tend to slide away (Goffman 1959).

Famously, in Northern Ireland there are quite a range of items of information which function as symbolic devices allowing people to tell who is a Catholic and who a Protestant. These include what school you went to, what your name is, what area you live in, and how you say your alphabet, as well as such things as whether you have an interest in certain kinds of music, sport, politics and so forth (Burton 1978, 37ff). Some of these identifying markers have now acquired legal force in, for example, the enforcement of fair employment legislation.

But it is not always clear who any person may be at any given moment. We all occupy different social statuses. We all of us have a social class, and a gender and perhaps an occupation, and a marital status. But once we get away from these broad categories, our identity is much more subtle.

So we all devotes much energy to dramatising who we are. The rites of passage are only the most obvious of these symbolic dramas. Rites of passage allow us to step clearly from one status to another. But on a more casual basis, we engage in symbolic social dramas (Burke 1957; Turner 1982) all the time. We kiss our children, we telephone our mothers, we have coffee with our friends. And we choose not to do these things with other people whom we prefer to keep more distant (Buckley and Kenney 1995,passim).

All these little dramas - some of which we call "rituals" or "ceremonies" - are symbolic of the broader relationships that we have with these people - they make them clearer. Particularly where a relationship or identity is not grounded in legal or some other institutional arrangement, there is a danger that, without the symbolic drama, the relationships (and the identities which the relationships define) might disappear altogether.

Thus a man who neglects to greet his friend will soon find that their friendship has sunk into a generalised mass of undifferentiated acquaintanceships. He will find himself demoted so he is one among equals, none of whom is very special. Conversely, if he makes love to very many of his female acquaintances, he will soon discover that the symbolic meaning of his act has become devalued, and that, for him, no one woman is special. As Don Alhambra remarks to the Gondoliers, “When every one is somebodee, then no one's anybody" (Gilbert 1889,543)[2].

And of course, if people take part in social dramas to define themselves, they must also dress for the part. Acting is all very well, but an actor needs to have props.

Ballard (below) shows how, for Northern Irish bikers, the black jacket (combined with accoutrements such as tattoos, badges helmets etc.) has quite a complex symbolic content. But more generally, nearly all the things a person owns or purchases can symbolise his or her identity. Hats, houses, clothes, cars: all these things tell us about the person who owns them. We all buy goods knowing that other people will use these objects to find out about us.

It is impossible to be innocent in these matters. Whatever we buy, it allows someone to label us.

One cannot buy a newspaper innocently. If I buy The Guardian, you will guess I hold liberal opinions. You may guess I am, perhaps, a social worker, or a teacher, or in one of the creative professions. If I buy The Sun, you will make other guesses. Lord Salisbury remarked that The Daily Mail was written "by office boys for office boys". This is no longer true, but we can nevertheless infer something about someone who reads The Daily Mail. Just by carrying a newspaper, I begin to define myself, because I thereby allow you to define me.

In the past, a top hat or a bowler could make a man appear more posh or more respectable than he might otherwise seem to be. Even today, no one buys a hat innocently. A hat will turn someone into a countryman, or a yachtsman, or a best man, or a toff. Or, if he is not careful, as when one misuses any symbol, it can turn somebody into a fraud, or, if he is caught, into a fool.

Symbolising boundaries

It is well known that symbols are found at boundaries. Most obviously these boundaries are physical and to do with territory. In Northern Ireland, murals, graffiti, processions, bonfires are ways of marking off an area as either Protestant or Catholic. Several of the essays in this volume are concerned with this potent issue. Camille O’Reilly discusses the use of the Irish language in a nationalist area of Belfast considering especially the use of street signs. Ciro de Rosa looks at the role of processions in defining social and territorial boundaries, an issue touched on by both Bryan and Kenney. And Jarman examines the spatial significance of murals.

Territorial boundaries are a matter of much more general importance. Most suburban gardens, for example, have a fence to show that this land is "ours" and not "theirs"; and in the inner cities, the Housing Executive now provides neighbourhoods and dwellings with largely symbolic "defensible spaces" to ward off vandals (Brett 1986, 102).

Sometimes the symbolic definition of boundaries can be quite complex. I once did fieldwork in an area where there were quite a lot of loyalist sectarian graffiti. In fact, the graffiti were only partly to define the area as Protestant. They were mainly intended as a symbolic assault on a respectable middle-class area by working class youths (Buckley and Kenney 1995, 107-108; 204-206 see also Jarman below).

Sometimes, the boundaries marked by symbols are not territorial. There are social boundaries between one status and another. The symbolic dramas called "rites of passage" (Van Gennep 1960) - are concerned with moving across some conceptualised social boundary. Ceremonies at birth, marriage and death, but also first communion, confirmation, adult baptism, and degree ceremonies all have this character.

The activities of many brotherhoods (societies with secrets) found in Northern Ireland - Freemasons, Orangemen, Buffaloes etc. - consist quite centrally in initiating their members through different degrees of membership by means of often highly symbolic rituals. And in the past, other brotherhoods, the Hibernians, National Foresters and Knights of St Columbanus had directly comparable initiation rituals, with transition from one status to another across an elaborate symbolic boundary (Buckley and Anderson 1988).

Seasonal customs often contain the idea of transition. New Year is the most obvious of these. Again, Buchanan has suggested that the four quarter days of Halloween, St Brigid's Day, May Day and Lammas once marked changes in the Irish agricultural seasons (Buchanan 1962, 1963). In all cases, their function of these days as boundary-markers has virtually disappeared. Where the festivals still exist, as with Christmas or Halloween, they have a different significance (see Santino below).

Symbols and Narrative

In Ireland, many quite important symbols are associated with narrative, and especially with myth and history[3]. We see this even in advertising. An important advertising technique is to place the product in the framework of a story. The hope is that the prospective customer will see himself or herself as similar to one of the characters in the narrative and therefore buy the product.

Take the advertising of beer. Tenants lager, for example, is comparatively cheap. Its advertisements for many years, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, showed it being consumed by members of a lively, intelligent, fun-loving family of working class people. These were the sort of decent, honourable folk that many people might hope to resemble. The advertisers undoubtedly hoped that their working class customers would use Tenants beer symbolically to label themselves as lively, sensible, fun-loving family members. Tenants lager could, therefore, become one of the quasi-theatrical props that sustained this identity.

Carlsberg lager, however, is quite different. It is, indeed, "probably the finest beer you can buy". Its advertisements for several years in Northern Ireland showed that this fact (that it is "probably the finest beer") is well-known by well-dressed, well-educated young Englishmen who travel first class on trains, and who solve impressively cryptic crosswords. The beer is also shown as the chosen drink of a Church of England clergyman, (perhaps a bishop) who also knows that this is "probably" the best beer.

Carlsberg, therefore, is the beer of the old fogy. It is also the beer of the young fogy. It is the beer for the intelligent and knowledgeable; for the man at home in the higher reaches of society; and for one who can imagine himself similar to a member of the English upper middle class[4].

Many symbols often belong in this way first of all in a narrative.Sometimes, as in the beer advertisements, the narrative associated with a symbol is a fictional story. Quite commonly, however, the symbol points to "true" stories, to events that are supposed actually to have happened. In other words, symbols are often items taken out of a myth or a history.

A good example of a symbol taken out of an historical narrative is the picture, well-known in Northern Ireland, of King William crossing the Boyne (a picture whose presence echoes around several of the essays in this book). On its own, this picture does not signify a great deal. Its importance lies in the way the picture draws attention to a narrative. It is not the symbol so much as the historical narrative which is relevant to present realities. The symbol evokes the narrative, and it is the narrative which has significance for the present.

An even better example is the cross. The symbolism of the cross is entirely due to its place in the story of the crucifixion. It is the events of the crucifixion (rather than the cross itself) which have significance for people in the present. The symbol of the cross has significance only insofar as it evokes the narrative.

A final example of this kind of symbolism is found in the collarette emblems of the Orange and Black Institutions (Buckley and Kenney 1995, ch 11). Each emblem of the Black Institution, members told me, signifies the fact that the wearer has been initiated into a particular degree of that institution. A badge showing a pair of scales, for example, shows that its wearer has been through the rituals of the Link and Chain degree. A slingshot emblem will show he has been through the Royal White degree.And so forth.

On its own, a symbol on a Black collar has some significance, but this significance is limited. It is a badge of membership of a degree, and little more. The balance or the slingshot, do not, in themselves relate to the concerns of everyday life.

When one discovers, however, that each badge is associated with a Bible story, the symbolic significance blossoms. The balance (associated with the Link and Chain degree) refers to a text in the story of Belshazzar's feast: "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting" (Daniel 5, 27). The slingshot (found in the Royal White degree) features in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Each of the degree ceremonies involves recounting - even sometimes partially enacting - the Bible story to which the emblem points. Armed with this knowledge, therefore, one can look at the Bible story and ponder what the narrative might signify to people in the present.

It is easy to draw a strong metaphorical link between the Bible stories to which Black Institution emblems and rituals refer. To oversimplify the matter, the Ancient Israelites and Jews in these Bible stories are confronted with opponents - usually, peoples whose religion they do not share. The symbol therefore encourages the Blackman to see himself as a Daniel amidst the might of Babylon, or as a David facing a Goliath. As such the historical situations of the Bible can be seen as similar to those of Ulster Protestants in the present day (Buckley and Kenney 1995, ch 11).

Structure and Anti-Structure

I have suggested that the function of a symbol is to highlight a particular definition of the way the world is, and often symbolism does this with little difficulty since the meaning of a symbol can be very clear. But this is not the whole story.

The realities to which symbols point can sometimes be very fragile. First, as I shall show, the meaning of a given symbol can be highly equivocal. And second, (and given the fact that every symbol only symbolises a partial truth about the world) there are plenty of alternative symbols which have alternative meanings. Every conjured-up world is pregnant with its opposite.

Almost all of the essays in this collection lay particular emphasis on the creativity, the borrowing and the innovation involved in symbolism. Kenney's article makes this point most strongly. She argues that the symbolic articulations of republicanism draw upon ideas and images from all over the world. In one particularly good example, she tells of how a visit of Native Americans provided a source of symbols first for republicans, and then for loyalists. The republicans could readily identify with the Native Americans since they each believed themselves to have been invaded. But loyalists too sought images of themselves which defined them as the "natives" of Ulster whose territory has been invaded and not as invading "settlers".

The same emphasis on creativity is found in the other essays. For example, Bryan looks at the conscious manipulation of the symbolic meanings of the Twelfth of July by press and participants alike. Sawyer describes the creative use of feminine images drawn from Irish literature. For McCaughan, the Titanic is a complex symbol, available to define the hubris, vulnerability and folly in countless real life situations. And Santino looks at the variety of different meanings found in Halloween customs, a fluidity which allows a potentially sectarian set of symbols to be used to symbolise a non-sectarian harmony.

Kenney argues below that the torrent of different symbolic images and meanings available in Northern Ireland arises out of the fragmented nature of post-modern society. Certainly it is the case that developments in the late twentieth century have made this complexity more obvious. However, it seems likely that the ability to choose between images, and the ability to choose between different meanings for the same image is something which seems to be inherent in the practice of symbolism itself.

I have said, somewhat glibly, that to drink one kind of beer can help define a person as an educated upholder of upper middle class values, an old fogy or a young fogy. Or that to drink another beer can assist another person define themselves as a fun-loving exemplar of a working class family. I have also suggested that to carry one newspaper defines someone as a liberal, while to carry another defines them as a businessman. I have further suggested that a Blackman who wears a slingshot emblem on his collarette, may suppose himself to be a David opposed to the Philistines. The problem which arises, however, is that any given symbol may symbolise any number of things.

When Simon Charsley (1987) began to study the symbolism of weddings in the British Isles, he assumed that, for example, the wedding cake was a fairly straightforward symbol. It was clear enough what it symbolised. But when he took the trouble to ask a range of different people what it symbolised for them, he found a wide range of disagreements. To some people, it signified virginity; to others, it signified male domination of women; to others it signified the sexual act. There seemed to be an astonishing array of different meanings for the wedding cake.

More obviously, a lot of mainstream art is like this. Paintings, operas, dramas, sculptures are, in Turner's words, "polysemic" or "multivocal" (Turner 1969, 41-42). They are, as Sperber said, put “in quotes" (Sperber 1975, 99), set aside so the audience or customer feels disposed to find meaning in them. It is not, however, always very clear what meaning the artist intended to convey. The possible meanings of any given work of art are, of course, limited, but they are also sufficiently wide to allow each person to discover his or her own meaning. The art work can become, therefore, a sort of mirror for the observer's own prejudices and fantasies.

Because symbols point to a particular view of the world, there is a tendency for groups of people to use symbols as a focus for their allegiance. The symbol - a flag, an anthem, a religious symbol - expresses their unity. It suggests that they have something in common. But this idea is often a misconception.

Take, for example, religion. If several people attend a particular congregation, they will, effectively, gather around a set of symbolic actions and objects, acquiescing in the value of those symbols. The symbolism may suggest that everybody agrees in the significance of these symbols. If, however, an investigator were to look, so to speak, "backstage" (Goffman 1959) and ask the individuals in the congregation what they actually think or believe - or what the different symbols mean to them - one will find their opinions differ quite sharply.

I have myself interviewed the members of different congregations, but in almost any congregation, there will be different views. The bigger churches, for example, are all divided broadly between conservatives, who cling to the traditions of their church, and liberals, who are more willing to test doctrine against experience and the "common sense" of the day.

Thus some Catholics long to return to the Tridentine Mass, while others fiercely support the Vatican Council reforms; there are also charismatic Catholics and even born again, Bible-believing Catholics. Yet all turn up to the same liturgies and ceremonies affirming a unity which scarcely exists apart from the liturgy.

And there are divisions within the Protestant churches too. Some Presbyterians, for example, insist on being baptised by total immersion; most do not; some insist on being born again; others are more sceptical, and so forth. Yet somehow, all share in the same ceremonies, and listen to the same sermons.

In fact, in most organizations, individuals acquiesce in the symbolic forms they share with others, while they tacitly disagree with each other about what the symbols signify. Almost any symbol will evoke a wide range of possible meanings. And this allows symbolism to explore the recesses of our imaginations, discovering new truths about the world.

There is, in this, a contrary impulse from the one I identified at first. I said that the main function of the symbol was to clarify or define a state of affairs that otherwise would remain unclear or undefined.

This second function of the symbol is to provide alternative visions, to subvert such given states of understanding. Symbols, on the one hand, can reduce real life to a cliché. But, on the other, they can also help us overcome clichéd predigested, versions of the world, so we may grasp the world in all its immediacy and complexity.

Symbols and the search for the real

If a prime function of a symbol is to point to realities beyond itself, there is also a tendency for all symbols to become clichés, to cease to point to the real world.

This idea has been explored by Rudolf Otto. Echoing in some ways Max Weber, Otto claimed that that the religious impulse tended to become "rationalised". Otto said that we experience the divine directly as a half-horrific, half-attractive sense of awe, a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a burning bush kind of experience. To confront such an experience - to avoid being burned by it - we use reason, theory, symbolism. But in the process, we can let the rational, the symbolic, get in the way of the raw Numen (Otto 1959).

This aspect of symbolism is not especially confined to religion. We are all full of formulas which, when they were conceived, enabled somebody somewhere to grasp a reality in all its freshness, but which have become old and stale. "Window of opportunity", "doing your own thing", "small is beautiful": these phrases once resonated with excitement, but are now dead and ready to be buried in the dictionary.

There is, therefore, in many spheres of life, a passion for the new.One reason that fashions in clothing change so fast is so they may express the same old things in a new and fresh way. Rebellious youth, female attractiveness, pompous authority, all of these are much the same as they always were. But in each generation, even each year, we give them fresh symbolic expression. We need to stop the old idea getting stale. There is, therefore, a tendency to rebel against the symbol. There is an urge constantly to look through the symbol in search of the reality beyond.

This search for the real goes in different directions. One tendency is to proliferate symbols. Catholicism, over the centuries, has tended to accumulate symbols, to pile symbol upon symbol. The Church has had, therefore, all sorts of backwaters and eddies off its mainstream, many of them represented in orders and societies and fraternities. In these nooks and crannies, there are doctrines, disciplines, symbolic structures. Through them, each individual can discover a new and vital truth which for him is not tired and worn, but which speaks to him directly.

The same pattern is also found in Protestantism. Here the tendency has been to schism, with different religious tendencies being represented in separate, often warring institutions. Religious movements, therefore, come and they go. When I did my own fieldwork into religion in Ulster, Pentecostalism and charisma were all the rage. Despite the arrival of the Toronto Blessing, I sense that this is already becoming tired. Perhaps some other more vital form will come along to replace it.

Another tendency has been to mistrust symbols completely. This ancient view, which flowered in the Protestant Reformation, emphasises the fact that symbols are not the reality itself but only point to reality. The problem here, as Mary Douglas (1966) pointed out, is that the absence of symbolic forms is itself a symbolic means of pointing to reality. As with any other symbol, the symbolic practice of "doing without symbols" can also become dry and clichéd.

This is indeed a universal tendency. In different ways, all societies have individuals who specialise in cutting through the symbolic clichés. Such individuals bring us face to face with those realities of life which a particular set of symbols is in danger of hiding.They do so usually by means of other symbols.

Sometimes this is done by serious means, sometimes by the comic. Japanese Zen Buddhists (who incidentally have a presence in Ireland) are renowned for using symbolic sayings and actions to evoke the unstructured nature of the world and the mind. Zen discovers that thought and action arise out of emptiness. So its symbols seem strange and paradoxical. "What is the sound of one hand?" Buddhism is "that tree in the garden". And, "in the beginning not a thing is". The aim in these cases is "to shift one's attention from the abstract to the concrete, from the symbolic self to one's true nature" (Watts 1975, 146). Asian or American shamans, for example, find a symbolism in their visions, trances and dreams, evoking new interpretations of the world.Pentecostalists in Belfast sometimes do much the same (Buckley and Kenney 1995, 129ff). But clowns and comedians also have this role. Every school, every workplace, probably everywhere in the world, has its comedians casting doubt on that institution's dominant symbols.

The main point, however, is that there are two uses of symbolism.One is conservative. It expresses a structured definition of some part of the world. The other is subversive. It subverts those symbols which have become ossified and clichéd. It grasps the world afresh, presenting new, vital aspects of the world, undreamed of in existing philosophy.

The politics of symbolism

I want now to relate this discussion of symbolism to politics. My suggestion is that it is the very fluidity of symbolism that links its intellectual and creative aspects to questions of power. For against the fluidity, it is social control that sustains a symbol and its significance.

The nub of the question is this. Symbolism is mainly used to give definition to a slice of reality. However, left to itself, symbolism can be remarkably flexible. As Cohen puts it, "Symbols do not carry meaning inherently. They give us the capacity to make meaning" (1987, 16).

There are so many symbols from which one can choose; each symbol can be interpreted differently; a symbol can become ossified and can fail this year to evoke a reality which it evoked last year; and the realities to which any symbol refers are themselves subject to change. And above all, each social group and each individual is likely to shape reality in a different way, bending the symbolism to their particular desires.

It follows that the question of which symbols will define any given situation will largely be determined by the practical question of which people and whose interests predominate. Symbolism, therefore, is closely related to politics.

I once went to a huge art conference in Dublin, and at the end, we all went to a reception. I arrived, and found myself in an endless queue of people. We all shuffled forward. There, at the door, stood a small figure. He hardly moved. He grasped my hand and squeezed it. Then, looking straight through me, like a waxwork, he said "So glad you could come". And then he grabbed some other hand. It was the then Taoiseach of Ireland, Mr Charles Haughey.

Without thinking, I turned to the man standing next to me. "You would think he would have something more important to do", I said. "You'd think he'd be governing the country." Later, I thought better of it. Politics is like much else in social life. A central feature of it consists in performing ceremonies. I felt that perhaps Mr Haughey's advisors had made a mistake in getting him to shake hands with four hundred delegates to an art conference. Nevertheless, the principle holds good. Governing the country consists to a remarkable extent in dramatising that you govern the country. It consists of a succession of ceremonial acts.

Anthropologists are familiar with this concept from studying other countries. The great Meyer Fortes wrote of the Tallensi of Northern Ghana. The Tallensi social order he found consisted almost entirely of sacrificial rituals. Their kinship, their politics, their system of justice: all came together around rituals attended by representatives of lineages and clans. All disputes had to be settled before the rituals could take place. So in a very real way, the rituals dramatised that all was well in the society at large (Fortes 1945).

Symbols, therefore, cannot be taken lightly. They show that a state of affairs is the case. But sometimes too, they provide a focus for the enforcement of that state of affairs.

Every world, I suggested, is pregnant with its opposite. It is continually being challenged or opposed by other symbols or other interpretations expressing other visions of the world. And, as those who live in Northern Ireland know well, a conflict of symbols is not just a clash of ideas and intellects. It is not just a matter of human creativity questioning old assumptions (though this is, of course, important). There are often times when the practical ideas of one person or one group actively threaten the practical ideas of another. In such a case, one person's symbolism can bring the vital world of another person crashing down. It is because symbols represent the genuine political interests of real people that they so often have their force.

Teenage children, for example, may challenge the authority of their parents and impose some social order of their own. So they do this symbolically. They put music on the radio which differs from the sort their parents enjoy; they decorate their room or leave it untidy; they wear distinctive clothes; they become vegetarian. I once knew a Communist whose daughter became a Seventh Day Adventist. And by so doing, teenagers demur from the authority of their parents.

Employers want to dramatise that they are have control over their workforce. Unfortunately for them, people have a tendency to become equal, undifferentiated. Bosses can, therefore, get sucked into an easy-going community of equals. To avoid this, the boss may decide to eat separately, perhaps with the typists who are no threat; he may decide to have a distinctive office with a modern oil painting; to have a separate toilet. All of these things - and more - have symbolic value. They maintain or transform a social order.

Language is regulated in all sorts of contexts to make symbolic statements. Individuals sometimes insist that others use particular words (and avoid others) when referring to their ethnic or other group. Sometimes, the words to be avoided are unambiguously offensive (“nigger”, “poof” etc.) Notoriously, however, when people at large have altered their vocabulary to accommodate such groups, the group in question will change the rules. Thus people of African descent have at different times opposed the use of epithets such as “black” or “coloured” to describe their race, and at other times, they have insisted on these same words. For example, too, the word “handicapped” has been successively replaced by “people with disability” and “disabled people”. In Northern Ireland, where questions of territory are a preoccupation, the symbolic regulation of language attaches itself less to the names of the ethnic groups and more to the names of geographical features. Famously, some nationalists are offended by “Londonderry” and “Ulster” while some unionists see “Derry” or “the north of Ireland” as an affront. Whether one approves or disapproves of this kind of thing seems to depend on one’s sympathy (or lack of it) for the group in question. In all such cases, the regulation symbolically dramatises that someone has the power or the right (a particular form of power) to insist that others take account of their sensitivities.

Symbolism also has a place in more devious forms of power-play.Scheper Hughes (1979a; 1979b), for example, writes of abstruse kinds of cruelty in rural Irish families, involving the bewildering manipulation of confused symbolic messages. She claims that this kind of activity can induce schizophrenia in its victims.[5] Though the connection with schizophrenia may be doubted, Scheper Hughes is undoubtedly right to claim that the "double binds" involved in such symbol-laden interactions are related to the acquisition and dramatisation of power.

In these contexts, and one can think of many others, it is not the symbols alone which are relevant. When one uses a symbol in this way to define (or disrupt a definition of) a state of affairs, it is only because, politically - through superior physical strength or social support, or just through guile or skill - one can get away with it.

So one comes back to Orwell and to Hitler's moustache. Symbols do very many things, and I have emphasised the creative and destructive element in symbolism. In a political context, however, all symbols are like Hitler's moustache. They are daring us to laugh. Symbols proclaim that a state of affairs exists, but only if nobody challenges the symbol - only if nobody laughs.

Several of the essays here (O'Reilly, de Rosa, Kenney, Jarman, Bryan) deal directly or indirectly with a major issue in Ulster, the symbolic definition of local territory. When somebody puts up a mural or graffito in Northern Ireland, the picture remains there as a challenge. In principle at least, another person can come along and deface it, or put up an another mural to represent another vision of reality (see especially Jarman below). The mural is effectively daring other people to laugh.

The dare is in part directed against the young men of the other ethnic group. However, as I found in my own fieldwork, there may be opposition from other residents, older, more respectable people who do not always like graffiti or murals (Buckley and Kenney 1975, 107-109). Whether the mural remains is a matter of power.The question at issue is: who, in any given street, has the power to put up and sustain a mural, or to deface it and wipe it away? The existence or non-existence of the mural is a symbol of who is in control, who can get away with what.

Life, however, does not have to be like this. When faced with the symbols of other people, one need not have only the simple option of defiance or capitulation, scornful laughter or fear. Other possibilities have always been available to people in Northern Ireland.

In the mid-1970s, when the troubles were at their peak, I visited a rural area of County Down which I called the Upper Tullagh (Buckley 1982). Here, many Catholics and Protestants were making a very real attempt, as they put it, "to get on well” together.[6] Part of this pattern was a deliberate attempt, by people on both sides, to show open respect for at least some of the other side's symbols. I heard strange stories of Catholics raising money to rescue the flute band associated with the local Orange Hall; of a town gala whose organizing committee was selected deliberately from both Catholics and Protestants; and of individuals rather self-consciously supporting the fund-raising events of churches across the divide. And indeed, despite major hiccups, one of the good things that has happened in the last quarter of a century has been a growing recognition of the importance of showing respect for other peoples' symbols.Conclusion

I want, however, to end on a note of caution. Symbols are important to everybody. Intellectually, symbols allow people to explore and discover reality. Politically, they are a means of defining one's position, testing one's strength against opponents, and perhaps establishing a social order. Despite this, one should not overestimate their importance.

Writers since ancient times have urged that a symbol should not be mistaken for the reality it represents. The finger which points at the moon is not the same as the moon. The fancy tail is not the same as the peacock. Symbols of all sorts do have importance. But they should not be mistaken for what they represent. This is true in religion. It is certainly true in politics.

There is a tendency, however, in Northern Ireland to regard the conflict as totally about what is called "culture", but what really should be called "symbolism". The two sides in the conflict, for example, are misleadingly called "two cultures" and they are said to be "culturally divided". I have heard quite intelligent people say that if only we could sort out the cultural problem, then the troubles would go away. This is, of course, not the case.

First of all, the social division in Northern Ireland is not, fundamentally, a matter of cultural difference. There are cultural differences, of course, between the two sides but these differences only symbolise more fundamental divisions. Much more fundamental to the Troubles has been the failure of Catholics and Protestants to interact in certain crucial respects.

The fact that Catholics and Protestants do not intermarry is central.It divides society from top to bottom. All of one's parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren; the brothers and sisters of all of these people; the spouses of all of these people; and all the relatives of all of the spouses of all of these people: all belong to the same segment of society as oneself. The family is still the basis for society in Northern Ireland. Since family life is segregated by ethnicity, so too is the whole of society.

Add to this the residential and territorial segregation, and segregation in schools, churches, clubs and workplaces, and one discovers the mountainous nature of the social division.

This colossal division in society is, of course, given symbolic expression in names, alphabets, theology, "cultural heritage" and the rest, but the division cannot be reduced to the symbolism.

In the same way, the political conflict has a much more substantial basis than just the symbolism of that conflict. One may paint murals, walk in processions, sing party songs, burn flags and so forth. But the conflict is not about any of that. More substantially it is about the ways that Protestants and Catholics live together, given that they are so divided.

My point is this. The social division is expressed through symbols.So too are the two sides’ political aspirations. One must not, however, mistake the word for the object, the pointing finger for the moon, the symbol for the underlying reality.

Much can be achieved through symbolism. Symbolism can stake out a position against the opposition and laughter of one’s critics. It can present a vision of how society ought to be. Symbolism is also creative and flexible: old symbols can gain new meanings; new symbols can emerge to meet new circumstances. Symbolism can express old divisions and it can also proclaim (as did the Symbolsexhibition) that that Catholics and Protestants should have equal value.

Symbols, however, cannot achieve everything. Fine symbols alone butter no parsnips. Symbols succeed only when they highlight social realities with sound political foundations. There is a need, therefore, to end violence, to break down social barriers, to end segregation and discrimination, to mix up the two sides in the hurley-burley of family life; to create the substance of a decent caring society. Only then will the symbolism of peace reflect the reality. Only then will the people who despise the symbolism of peace be disposed not to laugh.


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[1]The exhibition was created under the auspices of the Cultural Traditions Group of the Community Relations Council. Since its launch, the exhibition has travelled to many parts of Northern Ireland and beyond.

[2] The remark concerns social class, the snobbish don deploring a ruler’s enthusiasm for social equality:

On every side Field Marshals gleamed,

Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed,

With Admirals the ocean teemed

All round his wide dominions.

[3] Turner (1969) points out that symbolism is not universally associated with narrative.

[4] Deserving attention in the Carlsberg advertisements is the word "probably". "Probably" is a word used by scholars and other professionals when they want to cover themselves against criticism. One only uses the word in this way if one's opinions carry some weight. By describing a beer as "probably the best beer" the speaker turns himself into an expert. The phrase alone is, therefore, enough to give the speaker an identity. He becomes a man of discernment, an old or a young fogy.

[5] In this, she follows the ideas of Bateson and his colleagues (Bateson et al 1956) Haley 1959a; 1959b). Typical forms of this kind of activity include the inconsistent offering and withholding of symbolic tokens of affection, while denying that this is in fact what one is doing. See also Berne (1964; 1975) for a rather different view. Whatever might be its connection to mental illness, this general approach to communication has immense theoretical strength (see Goffman 1975; Buckley and Kenney 1995 ch. 9).

[6] This, indeed, was a recurring theme in anthropological community studies in other parts of Ulster (eg Bufwack 1982; Harris 1972; Leyton 1975; 1976).