Signs of War and Peace: Social Conflict and the Public Use of Symbol in Northern Ireland available in Hardcover
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About the Author
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History, Conflict, and Public Display in Northern Ireland
I first went to Northern Ireland to study Halloween, but I was struck (as I think most Americans are) by the preponderance of visual display. Brilliant multicolored murals adorn the walls and gable ends of houses; curbstones are in some neighborhoods painted red, white, and blue; in others, green, white, and gold. Starting in the spring, it seemed as if there was a parade almost every other day, and indeed, there well may have been; a Belfast city official told me there were 3,500 parades a year in Northern Ireland, which is about the size of Connecticut. The calendrical holidays in which I was interested, such as Halloween, had major public components such as bonfires and fireworks--and, again, parades. Likewise, the rites of passage of the life cycle have strongly visual public customs associated with them. Sometime before her wedding, for instance, a bride-to-be might be taken out to a party, gotten helplessly drunk, decorated with shaving cream, tin cans, and ribbons, and left tied to a tree or pole in some public area (Ballard 1998). Likewise, funerals customarily involve public processions of the coffin through the streets. Flags--British flags, Irish flags, Ulster flags--are ubiquitous. In addition to all this are the patrols of British soldiers, on foot and in armored vehicles through the streets, a visual and tangible presence of another sort.
I lived with my family in Bangor, Northern Ireland (a seaside resort on the Belfast lough about 15 miles outside Belfast) from August 1991 to June 1992, after an initial visit in June 1990 sponsored by the British Council. My initial research project, as stated above, involved an ethnographic study of Halloween as practiced in Northern Ireland today (see Santino 1998). Because of all the activities mentioned above, and many others explored below, I expanded the scope of my work to include the uses of symbols in public more generally. I have returned every year since then (through 1996) for periods of up to six weeks, specifically to research these many forms of public rituals of presentation and display. In the course of doing so, it became obvious that apparently simple phenomena were complicated; that there are multiple distinctions among the spectatorship and among the generators and participants of these forms; that meanings are multiple, fluid, and shifting. I determined to investigate the ways in which public symbolic forms are used socially, how they have contextual and historical meanings and how these meanings are reconstructed and recreated in particular interactions and negotiations. I was interested in the parades and in the components of parades: banners, flags, musical instruments, costumes. I was interested in the cultural landscape: the murals, walls and curbstones; the fireworks displays and the effigy burnings; the spontaneous shrines. I thought I knew what I was looking for, and yet, due to my own ignorance and scholarly biases, I almost missed some of the most obvious and most displayed dimensions of culture and society.
There were noisy scenes at this week's council meeting in Bangor when Alliance [a political party that positions itself as nonsectarian and dedicated to amelioration of the schism] councillor Brian Wilson asked the council to send a letter of congratulations to the team.
This apparently very reasonable position is complicated, however, by the comments of another member of the council:
Independent Councillor Austin Lennon defended his stance in blocking the message of congratulations. He said the GAA's ban on security force members prevented him from congratulating the Down team.
William; Will and Bill are Protestant); one's address and place of residence--indeed, even how one refers to Northern Ireland--all are significant.
Symbols in Everyday Life
In the summer of 1994 I was staying with a family in Bangor that is "mixed," in that the father is Catholic and the mother Protestant, but as Buckley and Kenney (1995:6-6) have noted, such mixed marriages are usually mixed in name only. That is, in such circumstances an agreement is reached in which one or the other religion is accepted as that of the entire family. In this case, Roman Catholicism prevailed. All the family's children attended Catholic school and Catholic church. It was in this context that I noted the following incident.
A Troubled History
Edward D. Ives has written that the past is everything that ever happened. History, on the other hand, is a perceived coherence, "a backward look, the past as conceived and patterned in the present." History, then, "exists only in our minds . . . only in the present . . . [it] never was; it only is" (Ives 1988:5). The Irish have been accused of living in the past, of refusing to let go and get on with life. This formulation is intended to account for the ongoing troubles still afflicting Ireland, particularly in Ulster. However, it fails in at least two ways.
Forms of Public Display
The major forms we will examine include murals, parades, calendar celebrations, life cycle rituals, occasional celebrations (such as sports victories), and spontaneous shrines. These clearly overlap. Not only are they not mutually exclusive categories, but they are also not of the same level or order of analytical category. For instance, a parade can exist simply as a parade, or it can be one component of a larger celebratory or ritual event. Conversely, these forms can be broken down into other constituent components, also symbolically significant; examples are banners and musical instruments, which are used in parades, or flowers and personal memorabilia, used in shrines. So a drum might be a component of a parade, which in turn might be a component of a festival.
The terminology can be confusing. The name "Ulster" is frequently used synonymously with Northern Ireland, but it is important to remember that the province of Ulster comprises nine counties, only six of which were included in the partition. The six counties are predominantly Protestant, but the three counties that are part of Ulster but not Northern Ireland include an Irish-speaking area, or Gaeltacht, in the heavily Catholic county of Donegal. Northern Ireland is internally divided: Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican; and the historic province of Ulster is divided on a grander scale, being partially in the Republic of Ireland and partially in Northern Ireland.
Church of Ireland Roman Catholic
Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) Irish Republican Army
Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) Irish Peoples' Liberation Organization (IPLO)
Allegiance to Queen, union flag Republic of Ireland, Tricolour flag
The Protestant versus Catholic terminology has been discussed above. A unionist is a person who wishes to retain the union with Great Britain; a nationalist is someone who wishes to see the North reunited with the South. It is more accurate to describe the Ulster division in these political terms rather than the religious ones, although all these terminologies flow into each other. Indeed, Buckley and Kenney have argued that the sectarian religious groupings in Northern Ireland are essentially a kind of ethnicity; certainly religion functions as a source of identity politics in a way that race and ethnicity do in the United States and elsewhere (Buckley and Kenney 1995:14).
Celebrations and Politics
It is a mistake to view an Orange parade, an IRA funeral, or a Bloody Sunday commemoration as second-order cultural phenomena, as a reflection of the culture. Again, the population of Northern Ireland knows better. Because of their real potency and significance, these events and others like them are fiercely contested. Witness the "Reroute Sectarian Parades" movement, for instance. Orange parade routes through nationalist or republican areas are so controversial that the resultant civil disturbances surrounding them, as at Drumcree in the late 1990s, threaten to permanently derail peace settlement negotiations. Nevertheless, these events are always much more than political statements. Even the explicitly political rallies are also festive, even carnivalesque events (see for instance Buckley and Kenney 1995:153-172). They are simultaneously rites of intensification of ethnic identity, the construction and maintenance of which always involve the construction of differential identity, the creating of an "other" against which to define oneself.
projects, the way they evaluated them aesthetically and took pride in them, the way they used surplus materials that the community had no real use for, and how those materials were thus disposed of in a way that was constitutive of community. There is much about these bonfires that is of positive community value.
family and neighborhood and even season. To legislate against the bonfires would cause deep resentment; to do away with them, even if possible, would be to do away with all of this.
--From Signs of War and Peace by Jack Santino. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission.
Table of ContentsIntroduction Ritual Display and Presentation Assemblage Spontaneous Shrines and Rituals of Death and Politics Conflicts Shared Style and Paradox Epilogue