Anthony D Buckley
Overcoming Northern Reticence
A Folk Museum in the Northern Irish Troubles
Anthony D Buckley
In (eds) Sladana Bojkovic and Ana Stolic 2009 Museums as places of reconciliation: Proceedings of the 8th colloquium of the International Associations of Museums of History, Belgrade, September 24-27 2008, Belgrade, Historical Museum of Serbia. pp38-51
The population of Northern Ireland has recently witnessed extraordinary scenes of peacemaking, with irreconcilable enemies “chuckling” as they express political and personal friendships. This paper explains how, over several decades, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has contributed to reconciliation by intelligently addressing serious issues. In particular, it has said openly what was previously left unsaid. Worry is expressed that – as in the wider society – museums may now be tempted to retreat into triviality, and to focus on commercial rather than historical questions in the complacent belief that the Troubles of the past can never return.
In the months following 8 May 2007, the population of Northern Ireland witnessed extraordinary scenes of peacemaking. Most spectacularly, two fierce opponents, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became respectively First and Deputy First Ministers in a power-sharing local administration. The Revd Ian Paisley is a politician, but also a clergyman of extreme theological opinions. He believes the Pope is an Antichrist and the Catholic Church is “Mystery Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots” as described in the Book of Revelation. For 50 long years, Paisley opposed even the mildest friendly of relations between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland. In contrast, his new colleague, Martin McGuinness, is reputed to have been a former commander in – and was certainly a supporter of - the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, sometimes judged to have been the most efficient terrorist organization of modern times. These two men were now to be seen laughing heartily as they exchanged private jokes. Even more astounding was the sight of a smiling Ian Paisley in Dublin - his hand on the shoulder of the Irish Prime Minister - explaining how he, Ian Paisley, was proud of his own Irish Heritage. Anybody who knew Northern Ireland was flabbergasted. Astonished journalists called McGuinness and Paisley, “The Chuckle Brothers” and the name stuck.
Much of the credit for this transformation was due not only to the politicians themselves but also to the population of Ulster who have done much to overcome earlier prejudices. For thirty or more years, there has been an ongoing public and private negotiation, transforming the social, emotional and intellectual life of Northern Ireland. In this, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has played a small, but honourable part, helping to bring into the open issues formerly left concealed.
The process of reconciliation, however, has not been easy. There still remain bad memories of mistreatment, discrimination and violence. People have suffered in too many ways and they resent it. More profoundly, the Troubles are deeply rooted in the sociology of Northern Ireland, with social groups defined by generations-deep patterns of segregation. There is reluctance but also practical difficulty involved in relinquishing or trying to transform the old identities – Protestant, British and unionist or Catholic, Irish and nationalist – that gave rise to the Troubles in the first instance. By coming to terms politically, and by exchanging smiles, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley did what their followers found painful.
In this new and rather strange peace, there is now a danger that the museums in Northern Ireland, like the wider society, will try to avoid confronting the continuing social and cultural problems in the foolish belief that the Troubles can never return.
Segregation and silence
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has had a minor, but positive role in addressing some of the inter-related facets of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, namely, what I shall here identify as social segregation, a lack of empathy and a politics of recognition.
The two ethnic groups in Ulster are divided most fundamentally by social segregation. This curtails the ability of people to make social contact – especially intimate social contact - across the sectarian divide. In particular, the groups are divided from each other by the fact that they do not intermarry. In effect, all of a person’s kin and affines - parents, siblings, grandparents, children, grandchildren; the spouses of all of these people; all of these spouses’ relations; their forebears, descendants and siblings; and all the spouses of these relatives; plus all of their relatives - all are in the same major segment of society as the person him or herself. To the extent that family is the basis for Northern Irish social-organization, so does family life divide Northern Ireland (Buckley and Kenney 1995, 4-15).
Other social practices reinforce this primary segregation. Ethnicity segregates most schools. Many residential areas are similarly segregated. Add to this the complex fact that the two groups are religiously distinct, that the proportion of churchgoers in Ulster is much higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom or the rest of Europe, and that much social life involving parents and children has its focus in the churches. The result of all these practices, and more, is that most children in Northern Ireland will be unlikely to become friendly with people of a different ethnic group until their late teens. All this perpetuates the central ban on intermarriage on which the entire system rests.
This ancestrally bequeathed cleft in social interaction creates and sustains two major social blocs. The members of each group differentiate each other by an often-subtle symbolism (Buckley 1998). Political representatives of the two sides also cultivate zero-sum conflicts involving incompatible social and political ambitions. In addition, they justify these objectives using a well-developed rhetoric based in historical and religious narratives (Brewer with Higgins 1998; Boyce 1982, 306; Buckley 1989).
Until the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s, however, a feature of Northern Irish life, however, was its special politeness. It was considered impolite to allude to the social division between Catholics and Protestants in public situations. In 1972, the anthropologist, Rosemary Harris published a study called Prejudice and Tolerance in Northern Ireland. She noted that, although Northern Irish people were intensely preoccupied with their ethnic division, they nevertheless spoke of the sectarian divide only when individuals of a different religious affiliation were absent. Controversial subjects – especially politics and religion - were avoided in the presence of people from the other side. Indeed, the necessities of politeness made the discreet discovery of a person’s religion a central preoccupation in social intercourse (Harris 1972 146-148).
Heaney captures this, speaking of “Northern reticence, the tight gag of place and times”. He writes, “Smoke signals are loud-mouthed compared to us”. He notes too the quiet habit of circumlocution: “Whatever you say, you say nothing” (Heaney 1975, 54).
One reason why Harris’s book was so important is that it was the very first full-scale scholarly study of Northern Ireland to examine Northern Ireland’s division between Catholics and Protestants. Until 1972, even professional scholarship, with a few small-scale and quiet exceptions (for example Buchannan, 1956; Evans, 1966; Mogey 1948), failed to mention that Ulster was indeed divided (Buckley 2008).
So, until the mid 1970s, among the general population and even among scholars writing about Northern Ireland, a widespread silence hid the fact that there were two ethnic groups with different cultural features and different political agendas. A conventional wisdom asserted that Catholics and Protestants could maintain good civilized social relations only by pretending that the division did not exist. And this politeness extended to scholarship.
Unfortunately, the polite practice of not recognizing that a person was a Catholic or a Protestant was radically unsatisfactory. Its effect, on a day-to-day basis, was to diminish the people concerned. For Ulster people, being a Catholic or a Protestant is an important and valued part of their identity. To have this identity systematically denied in everyday social interactions was demeaning.
In a seminal work, Jean-Paul Sartre noted that to confine a person to a narrow status such as Jew (or Catholic or Protestant) – putting them in a narrow conceptual box - is a wicked stratagem (Sartre 1946, 76-77 et passim). It is what the Nazis did to the Jews when they sewed a yellow Star of David on a person’s chest. Sartre noted, however, that the opposite stratagem was almost as bad. This is to refuse to recognize that person’s status: to pretend that the person is not a Catholic, not a Protestant, not a Jew (or whatever).
As Sartre indicates, this second strategy is often rooted, not in malice, but in a desire to be polite, or at least to avoid trouble. By tiptoeing around the stigmatised status, one hopes to treat the Jew, the Catholic or the Protestant as if they were just like one’s own friends, almost resembling those people who lacked this stigmatized status. As a stratagem of politeness, however, to ignore a person’s ethnicity is doomed. In addition, as things turned out in Northern Ireland, avoiding difficult subjects, such as politics or religion, proved radically unsuccessful as a technique for avoiding trouble.
Failing to recognize a person’s undoubted status has an additional disadvantage that it prevents people understanding each other, for it prevents each set of people engaging with the other in discussion. It becomes impossible to find out how the other person actually feels, difficult to express genuine disagreement, difficult to come to terms.
Worse still, liberated from the constraints of reality, one may indulge oneself by inventing fantasies or stereotypes about the members of the other group. One might come to believe, for example, that one’s own group are God’s Chosen People in contrast to other groups who are not. One might even believe, for example, that the other group are in thrall to the Antichrist. More moderately, one might just see the other group as “bad” in counter-distinction to one’s own “goodness”. Moreover, these conceptual oppositions can become the foundation for historical narratives that provide a focus for allegiance, or a justification for one’s current political ambitions (Brewer with Higgins 1998; Buckley 1989, Buckley and Kenney 1995 122-4 et passim)
There is nothing inevitable about this politics of recognition and of non-recognition, and it can eventually be transcended. This end can be attained, however, only when people stop trying to reduce a complex human being to just a single category, such as Catholic, Protestant or Jew. Simultaneously, one must also accept that it is OK to be a Catholic, OK to be a Protestant, OK to be a Jew; and, indeed, OK to be none of these things. Fundamentally, it can be achieved only through negotiation and by bringing difficult issues into the open.
In saying this, however, one must recognize that it is too simple to urge mere empathy on others, to wish that each person see the world through the eyes of the other. For if other people are to be recognized as they actually are, their opposed aspirations must be resolved, if not by victory and defeat, then by compromise. Such resolutions are not always easy to achieve, and in Northern Ireland, they are not yet complete. Empathy may be part of the solution; it is not the whole package.
The Ulster Folk Museum and the Politics of Recognition
Inevitably, from its beginnings in the 1950s, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum shared in Northern Ireland’s polite convention that one did not draw attention to sectarian division. .The charismatic Welsh writer, Estyn Evans, whose idea the Museum was, expressed the hope that the Museum might bring the population together (Cashman 2006; Evans 1965), and his wish was frequently expressed privately by the Museum’s Director and his colleagues for years thereafter. At first, however, this was attempted by displaying only that – albeit substantial pert of Ulster’s culture that was common to all, and by ignoring those elements in Ulster’s culture that were divisive.
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum had been set up in 1958 as an open-air museum depicting “the way of life and traditions of the people of Northern Ireland past and present”. During my first full-scale field research in Northern Ireland which began in 1975 (see Buckley 1982), I was astonished and delighted to observe just how accurate was the depiction of this landscape and these buildings. However, it was incongruous in these reconstructed buildings in 1975 to see an absence of features showing which building belonged to a Catholic and which to a Protestant. In this respect, the dwellings in the Museum were quite different from real-life houses found among the real-life population. Real-life Catholic houses in 1970s Ulster were awash with small indications - founts for holy water, holy statues, holy pictures, pictures of the Pope (pictures of President JF Kennedy were still common) - that allowed a visitor immediately to identify a Catholic household. .Conversely, you could tell a Protestant household partly by the absence of these Catholic indicators and partly by subtle features such as biblical texts. In the early Folk Museum, however, you could never tell which house was Catholic and which Protestant.
This merely polite reluctance to recognize that there were indeed Catholic and Protestant identities gained a terrible new impetus in the 1970s. Against the background of communal violence, there was considerable advantage for the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum not to mention ethnic division. It allowed the Museum to retain a semblance of orderliness in the midst of chaos. The expression “an oasis of calm”, used first to describe schools was also applied to museums (Buckley and Kenney 1995 214ff). To enter a Northern Irish museum was to enter a peaceful world, free of conflict. Simply, the early 1970s was not a time to invite the population to muse, with philosophical detachment, on the nature of ethnic division. People were too angry. The topic was too hot. It would have invited gunmen into the oasis of calm. Not until the mid-1980s did things begin to change.
It is important to register just how dreadful the early Troubles were. When I first arrived in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, in 1975, Northern Ireland had already spent some seven years in civil war. There was been “ethnic cleansing” on a considerable scale, not as great as in Yugoslavia or Palestine, but real enough. .Rioting was a daily event. Straightforward murder was common and continued to be common well into the 1990s. Taxi drivers were shot by their passengers. Diners were blown up in restaurants. Post offices, bookmakers and sweet-shops were attacked. Especially in the 1970s, anyone living within earshot of Belfast could hear explosions night after night, year after year. Eventually, bombs and bullets were to kill more than three thousand people and injure many more. Walls or “peace-lines” were built to stop people from the next-door neighbourhood coming to cause harm. Soldiers patrolled the streets, walking backwards and peering down the sights of assault rifles. Road-blocks and heavy parking restrictions disrupted traffic. Every shop had security guards searching customers for weapons. Theatres, cinemas and restaurants closed. The impact on a tiny population was profound.
By the mid-1980s, Northern Ireland still had riots, explosions and sectarian murders, indeed, in certain respects, the violence got nastier. Despite this, there was a growing feeling that public bodies should become active in addressing the conflict.
In this period, therefore, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum began to give explicit recognition to the fact that there were indeed Catholic and Protestant people and therefore that there were indeed Catholic and Protestant buildings. Into the dwellings in the open air museum came religious texts and pictures of Protestant and Catholic heroes and saints. The Folk Museum began to build public buildings that reflected distinctively sectarian identities. A hall was built belonging to the Protestant politico-religious organisation, the Orange Order. So too were a Catholic priest’s house and a Catholic Parochial Hall. A building that had formerly been interpreted as a merely a farmhouse was reinterpreted to emphasise that it had once belonged to a Church of Ireland curate. A Protestant temperance hall came into the collection. From having somehow sidestepped the sectarian division, the Museum’s open-air museum increasingly recognized that individuals and therefore buildings did indeed have distinctive denominational identities.
Importantly, three churches were built in the open-air museum reflecting Northern Ireland’s three major denominations, Church ofIreland, Catholic and Presbyterian. These three church buildings were interpreted to reflect theological views found in the period before the First World War, when opinions were more starkly distinctive than they are today. The Catholic church interior was, therefore, set out as if for a Tridentine Mass. The Presbyterian church was represented as belonging to a conservative, firmly Calvinist congregation which rejected instrumental music and which held its communion on tables set out for the purpose in the aisles. The Anglican church was presented as reflecting an older High Church tradition that preceded the Evangelicalism that later dominated the Church of Ireland. Advanced preparations were made to create a religion gallery to enable the public, and especially school-students to understand the different religious traditions.
A central difficulty facing a museum in a situation of ethnic conflict is that each side has cultural property, the presentation of which is taken to reflect the relative importance that side. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum therefore adopted a policy of representing the traditions of the different groups fairly and respectfully.
One aspect of this involved addressing controversial “ethnic” history. This history provides a focus for ethnic allegiances, defines grievances and justifies political ambitions. This was approached in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Museum put on gallery exhibitions sympathetically representing the traditional histories of Catholics and Protestants (see Buckley and Kenney 1995 ch. 14).
The other main “national” museum in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum, situated in Belfast and comparable to city museums elsewhere in the British Isles, took rather a different view. It staged a number of straightforwardly historical exhibitions that have actively questioned some of the traditional ethnic histories that have defined Catholics and Protestant politics. The Ulster Museum’s view was that the popular ethnic histories were simply wrong and that a museum should present the alternative, correct scholarly view. I have myself expressed disapproval of this approach, believing that by giving credit to the breadth of these traditional histories, one can in fact construct a more complete history of Ireland (Buckley and Kenney 1995, 225-226). Nevertheless, even by opposing ethnic history, this so-called revisionist approach found in the Ulster Museum involved giving at least some recognition to ethnic identity and ethnic history.
Another main social issue underpinning the Troubles is social segregation. This is a complex matter, not ordinarily part of the business of a museum. Nevertheless, Northern Irish museums have in fact been involved in addressing the question through their involvement in education.
Museums therefore became involved in a strategy called “Education for Mutual Understanding” or “EMU”. The aim here was to create educational activities where Catholic and Protestant children from Catholic and Protestant schools could come together through long-term collaboration between the schools. The idea is that, over a period of a person’s schooldays, a class of Catholic schoolchildren would regularly come together with a class of Protestant schoolchildren for shared activities outside the school. The kinds of activities here include skiing and camping holidays, sometimes involving journeys to foreign parts, but they also include Museum visits, and museums have been willing participants in Education for Mutual Understanding projects.
So at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum there was built a residential centre where schoolchildren (mixed groups of Protestants and Catholics) can come together for a week-long visit to study aspects of folk life.
It was widely recognized that Education for Mutual Understanding was second-best to actually integrating the schools. Indeed there has been a growth of “integrated” schools attended by both Catholics and Protestants. The first integrated schools were started in the 1970s through the initiative of parents and teachers. More recently, government has allowed existing schools to be been renamed and identified as “integrated” because they were thought to have a sufficiently potent mix of Catholic and Protestants to be so-called.
With the arrival of a series of ceasefires, followed by an apparently final political settlement, it would be easy to conclude that Northern Ireland’s social and political difficulties have ended. Certainly, the violence has all but disappeared, and Northern Ireland’s towns and cities have become places where the population can fearlessly engage in harmless pursuits, such as drinking coffee, going to the cinema or strolling through the streets. Foreign tourists are now coming to Northern Ireland to explore the undoubted charms of the cities and the countryside.
It would be premature, however, to be too sanguine, believing that the Troubles have gone. The worst of the violence of the Troubles has certainly disappeared. .This, however, only means that a brief period now exists within which one can act constructively. It would be a great error to fall back into the old ways of not mentioning ethnic division and hoping that the nastiness will just stay away.Unfortunately, this is in fact happening not only in Museums but more generally in society.
My view is that one should “mend the roof while the sun shines”. The truth is that segregation continues to exist in the wider society, and political animosity continues to gain expression. For example, there is still frequent small-scale rioting in Belfast. Sectarian violence, much of it recreational in nature, has been a steady feature of Belfast life since the early nineteenth century, sometimes fierce, occasionally diminishing, but never entirely disappearing (Bardon 1982 passim). Splinters from the old paramilitary organizations still build up supplies of weapons and explosives, waiting for the political weather to change. There have been occasional killings. The authorities are still actively building walls (“peace lines”) to keep one neighbourhood separate from the next. There has also been a succession of small but poisonous controversies between the political parties represented in the power-sharing government that prevent them from cooperating fully.
When the Revd Ian Paisley resigned from his post as First Minister in June 2008, the theatricality of political life significantly altered. Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson, took great care to appear in public never smiling nor ever showing any sign of friendliness to his Republican counterpart. Their demeanour became so dour – almost comically so - that journalists labelled them “the Brothers Grimm”. This extreme, if somewhat theatrical hostility diminished with the end of a particularly difficult controversy in November 2008, but the political parties nevertheless keep up a show of prickliness, apparently to satisfy their more fervent supporters.
Adding to the instability, it seems likely that, within ten or fifteen years, there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. This will entail a dramatic shift in the balance of power. The logic of the constitution will dictate that a Republican First Minister will govern a province originally constructed to provide a home-land for Protestants.
What I fear, then, is a drift back to the situation identified by Rosemary Harris back in 1972. This is a situation where everybody acquiesces in a status quo in which Catholics and Protestants live separate lives, managing to be polite to each other by avoiding difficult issues and refusing to recognise the differences that do exist.
In museums, as elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the perils of the new regime are increasingly concealed by resurrecting the old blandness and retreating into a new triviality. Museums increasingly see as their central role the provision of light-hearted contexts where their customers can spend money. Northern Irish museums are increasingly motivated by commercial targets. They want to ensure that commercial firms, voluntary associations and individuals use the museums as venues for their social gatherings. They want to attract foreign tourists, and more generally just attract the general public. In such a context, the desire to present dynamic exhibitions exploring serious issues is swamped.
I have suggested that a major element in healing the conflict in Northern Ireland is for Catholics and Protestants gradually to renegotiate their relationship to each other. Also that this renegotiation will involve revising or abandoning age-old symbolic forms, historical prejudices and social segregation. Such a process is by its nature painful, for it involves abandoning much that individuals and groups of individuals have found valuable in their lives. There is also a pernicious “politics of recognition”, where individuals cannot bring themselves to recognize another person in their entirety – seeing a person only as a Protestant or a Catholic, or as anything but a Protestant or a Catholic.
The way out of this unsatisfactory attitude is ultimately to recognize that it is OK to be a Protestant or a Catholic, or indeed, that it is OK to be black or white or male or female or whatever, for the politics of recognition exists everywhere. To say this, however, is easy, while the political reality underlying such attitudes can be difficult and painful to unravel.
In the 1980s and 1990s, museums in Northern Ireland played a small but significant part in helping the population negotiate the end of this politics of recognition. Their responsibility, however, is to continue in this historic work. There is, I believe, a regrettable reassertion of the tendency to retreat into blandness, niceness and triviality and to avoid difficult and controversial issues. However, since ethnic conflict still lurks just below the surface, an excessive concern with the bland and the trivially pleasant seems unhelpful.
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 Rev. 17,5. See Moloney and Pollak 1986 215ff; Bruce 1986 228-9, 221-6
 Buchanan (1956) appears to have been the first scholar to note the centrality of endogamy as the basis for the sectarian divide.
 The “politics of recognition” is a topic that has attracted much recent attention (see, for example, Fraser 1999, Neumann 2000, and the important collection of essays edited by Gutmann (1994)). The roots of this discussion are at least as deep as Hegel’s discussion of “lordship and bondage” in the Phenomenology (Hegel 1807, 104ff).
 Sometimes this manoeuvre can be bullying or malicious. For example, a manager may recognize the attractiveness and tea-making skills of his female colleague, ignoring, however, her Nobel Prize.
 In 1969-93, 3,285 deaths could be attributed to “military groups” (Sutton 1994, 206). There were many more injuries. This figure, small when compared with other wars and other atrocities, is large in a province of about 1.5 million people.
 This project was dropped, apparently for lack of funds, when the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum was amalgamated with other museums to create National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland (NMGNI), later called MAGNI, and, subsequently, National Museums, Northern Ireland (NMNI).
 On 20 November 2008 there was a major resolution of a controversy over policing. Martin McGuinness asserted that he and Peter Robinson had never truly fallen out over this matter. Following murder of soldiers in County Antrim on 7 March 2009 there was even more of a rapprochement when McGuinness called the murderers “traitors” to the Republican cause.
 The 1991 Census gave very clear statistics, which (if one did some sums) revealed that Catholics and Protestants were almost equal in numbers. The figures in the 2001 Census are much more difficult to interpret. This sensitive topic is nowadays almost totally absent from public debate.