Blind spots in cultural terminology

One long-standing problem in Northern Ireland is the fact that many things have multiple names, the choice of which can be both revealing and controversial. Derry/Londonderry is the most well-known example, and the name of Northern Ireland itself (or the avoidance of it) can also cause friction. However, such problems can be glossed over by simply ignoring the speaker’s choice of terminology, as it does not introduce ambiguity into the discussion.

Less obvious are those things that do not have their own names and which, if discussed at all, tend to hide behind the names of related but distinct things. This is a more difficult problem than the above examples, because dealing with it is not as simple as mentally substituting “Derry” for “Londonderry” – one must often expend some effort to unpick what the speaker actually intended to say.

One such example is the ambiguity between the island of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Careful speakers will make the effort to disambiguate them, but it becomes tricky when using derived terms such as “Irish”. Still, it is a well-known problem and that awareness prompts people to call for clarification when the speaker has been sloppy, or when the context is unhelpful.

I have been reminded recently that there is a less-appreciated, even insidious, blind spot in our terminology, and that is for words describing the communal divide. It used to be common practice to use “protestant” and “catholic”, but in recent years it is more acceptable to use “unionist” and “nationalist”, despite the obvious limitations. This has prompted the emergence of the clunky acronyms PUL/CNR, but even those fail to capture the essence of the concept.

To help explain, please indulge me in a personal reflection (this may also have the interesting side-effect of helping Slugger commenters more accurately pigeonhole me).

I am not a Protestant, nor an adherent of any other church. Whatever way I’m wired, I don’t have the capacity for religious belief. I understand the desire for certainty, hope and joy, but religion does not fill that void.

I am not a Loyalist. I’m not a paramilitary, but neither am I an Orangeman or a monarchist. Orangeism leaves me unmoved, and its arguments ring hollow. I have no interest in royalty or its trappings, and although I can tolerate the monarchy as a purely symbolic institution, I am strongly against both inherited power and the establishment of any church.

Nor am I a Unionist. I am comfortable with the current constitutional arrangement (or was, until Brexit), but I strongly believe in making the border as invisible as possible. I think some form of federal Ireland is probably the only viable long-term solution, if the Gordian Knot of economic dependency can be untangled. But neither am I a nationalist – although national identity can sometimes be a useful basis for political organisation, in Ireland nationalism (of both flags) has failed us disastrously.

And yet, I still came from somewhere. I grew up in a PUL family, went to a state school, played in a marching band (for two weeks; I was lazy), watched the parades until the Tunnel riots made me ask too many questions. I don’t pronounce the “H” at the beginning of “H”. I’ve had to bite my tongue at least once to stop myself saying “that’s a bit more protestant looking”. It’s all still a part of me, no matter how far I’ve strayed from the true path.

Am I British then? Obviously, but it’s too broad a term that does not convey the particular Ulsterness of PUL culture. But I am also Irish – perhaps helped by the great age of my grandfather (born 1889) my family was steeped in Irish culture and history. When I had to leave Belfast for work, I chose Galway over England. When I set foot off the island, or stand in Lansdowne Road, or nurse a pint of black in Tigh Chóilí I, like my father and grandfather before me, like countless others who come from where I come from, am the proudest Irishman there is.

So (to return to the point) the question I am asking is: what are you left with when you take the P, the U and the L out of the PUL boy (or equally, the C, N, and R out of the CNR)? What do you call the tribe, the community, when you are deprived of the usual shorthand? Don’t we need precise words for the things we are discussing, rather than easily-misunderstood euphemisms?

How do we think about that which has no name?

(Footnote: I wrote this in December 2011, but it got lost in Slugger’s moderation queue and I forgot that it had never been published. Six years later its relevance is sadly undiminished.)

Word on the Street” by “Word on the Street” is licensed under “Word on the Street

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