Why I Turned My Back on Culture

I live in Northern Ireland, a country that oozes culture from every bump in the road. 

Since its inception in 1922, Northern Ireland has been a battleground between Irish nationalism and British sovereignty.

The history and its rights and wrongs are for another time; however, in 2021, after a 20-year peace process, we still have the green (nationalist) versus orange (pro-British) dichotomy.

For centuries people from both cultures clashed, costing countless lives. It’s a miracle the country got through the 1970s never mind everything previous.

The survival and the country’s growth today is due to the overwhelming majority of peace-loving people who live here.

The July Holidays

July and the surrounding months are the marching season in Northern Ireland.

Pipe bands and the Orange Order members from the protestant community would usually parade through the towns cheered on by thousands of supporters.

Many, but not all, protestants celebrate the defeat of Catholic King James II by Prince William of Orange from the Netherlands, in 1690.

But while tens of thousands of protestants celebrate William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne, thousands of people also take an international vacation or would do if it were not for the pandemic.

I spend the public holiday, on 12th July, at home in the garden.

Before the ‘Twelfth’, we have the 11th night — bonfire night. Protestant communities build skyscraper-tall piles of wooden pallets, some adorned with images of the Pope, the Irish flag or other symbols of nationalist culture.

A few communities build fires close to their neighbours’ homes, leading to damage and risk to life.

People who live close to bonfire sites are frightened to speak out.

Despite attempts to modernise the festival, it remains rooted in the need to display one culture’s supremacy over another.

I would love to see our country join the 21st century.

Would it be acceptable to light fires to celebrate the supremacy of heterosexual life and adorn bonfires with symbols of homosexuality?

Would it be acceptable to celebrate white supremacy over black, male over female?

So why today, is it acceptable to advocate the supremacy of protestants over the catholic/Irish identity in one part of the United Kingdom?

Bonfires and Culture

Bonfires commemorate the lighting of fires on hills around Belfast lough to guide the ships of Prince William’s forces.

But check out the Guardian’s images. The people in the pictures scare me — I don’t have any sense of belonging to their culture or the culture they oppose.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines culture as:

“a way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”.

The reference to time is crucial because it infers culture can evolve.

But what is my way of life?

During the past twenty years, I became neutral in my thinking on flags and emblems. I own a British and Irish passport – the latter more important than ever given the Brexit shenanigans.

I slowly came to realise I am protestant only because I grew up in a family of that persuasion.

There’s no more sophisticated explanation. 

Had I been born into a catholic family, my outlook and loyalties to the UK would have been different.

As a child, I helped to build bonfires. It was fun. Imagine long summer days and nights, playing with friends and creating a giant castle of wood.

I remember building a bonfire and ‘stealing’ some items local folk donated. I rescued some balls of string and sewing thread for my Mum because they were too good to burn.

Small children, then and now, build bonfires in ignorance of the politics.

What Defines My Culture?

If I strip away flags, colours and celebrations of a historical event, what else defines me?

  • The wife I love
  • Work
  • Home
  • Family
  • Life
  • Faith
  • Hobbies

I’m happy such things define me instead of some affiliation with cultural trappings. My passion is to live a life and care for the people around me.

The flag that flaps in the wind above me is of lesser importance.

Please have no doubt, I don’t disrespect the cultural identity of others. We should have respect for all cultures.

But today, I am culture-free.

Sample polls vary, but only 20% of my fellow citizens would prefer to have a different kind of Ireland, separate from the UK.

So those who burn nationalist symbols don’t have anything to fear.

Opinion polls change over time, however, and Brexit has done nothing to strengthen the UK or the four nations that comprise it.

Let’s Respect Difference

Contemporary political parties still and will always disagree with each other, fuelled by one cultural identity vying for dominance over another.

Instead, shouldn’t we try to promote each other’s culture?

Shouldn’t we celebrate all cultural identities with equality and respect?

Maybe someday our country could change the 12th July holiday to a neutral date for a multi-cultural celebration. 

Couldn’t we consider a day of celebration for the land we live in, all it has to offer, for all religions, races, sexualities and genders.

In recent times immigration has diluted our polarised communities.

Around 175,000 long-term international migrants are estimated to have arrived in Northern Ireland between 2000 and 2014.

It’s ironic that while politics in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) remains over-excited about migrant numbers, Northern Ireland has reaped benefits from a more multi-cultural society.

At least we know change is the only constant.