‘A terrible ignorance’ – By Brian John Spencer

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Pearse and Carson by the late Joe McWilliams

Easter, 1916 – a terrible beauty was born. It had a dark and little seen twin; a terrible ignorance of the people of the North.

South of the border, the Easter Rising is almost universally acclaimed. A singular understanding of history imposed, and a singular way of being Irish understood. Professor Michael Laffan wrote:

“When I was a schoolboy… reading Carter’s history of Ireland, more space was devoted to Pearse than to all the other leaders put together or to the Easter Rising. There was almost a state-imposed distortion whereby not only are the Irishmen who fought in the British army in the First World War airbrushed out, the constitutionalist tradition was seen as a dead end.”

Not only did Ireland of the twentieth century airbrush the constitutionalist tradition, they erased the avatar of a loyal Irish-British person and burnt the hard-drive.

My Irishness is not singular and prescriptive, I’m Irish and British. Two buckets are easier carried than one, so I stand in-between.

The unorthodox views of the northern protestant are never considered by the south. The Irish suffer willed amnesia when it comes to the loyal Ulstermen and women who are British and Irish.

The orthodox belief is that ‘wherever green is worn‘ the person is an Irish republican, they consider Pearse a founding father of modern Ireland and is stridently not-British.

Yet when green was worn by Trevor Ringland, former Irish rugby player and proud son of an RUC man, he was sporting the jersey as an Irishman who treasured his British citizenship.

Throughout the year of 2016 we have heard the orthodox and doctrinaire view of the Easter Rising and how it is to be Irish.

Not once has the Irish establishment considered the view of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are British and Irish (or at the very least British and Northern IRISH).

In a recent broadcast by BBC Radio Ulster Robert Ballagh and Susan McKay gave their view of the Rising. They trotted out the doctrinaire line that we have heard ad finitum – that the rebellion was a noble and gallant strike for freedom and equality against a brutal and incorrigibly malignant British Empire.

This understanding of the Rising has enjoyed almost one way traffic throughout this centenary year, 2016. Dissenting voices have been heard, those such as John Bruton and John Larkin. But those non-conformists come from the constitutional Irish nationalist tradition.

Within the Irish media, no alternative view of the Rising has been heard from the anti-Home Rule/unionist tradition. No counter-narrative has been heard from the hundreds of thousands of great-grandchildren of the Irishmen and women of Ulster who pledged in 1912 total resistance to a Dublin parliament.

Except for one voice (that I have heard), PUP Councillor John responded to Robert Ballagh who flatly rejected any idea that the Rising was motivated by Catholicism. John said:

“Well I think from the perspective of the Northern protestant it was very definitely a Catholic Rising with strong religious implications and a real religious tone about it.

Both in the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and in the Proclamation it makes reference to religious and civil freedoms, and for the Ulster Covenant it spoke about “disastrous for material well-being, for civil and religious freedom and destructive of our citizenship”.

The whole element of religious freedom was a massive issue for the northern protestant who viewed the Catholic Church as an apostate church, according to the Westminster Confession of faith, the Pope as antichrist, and so the position of the Catholic Church and the protestant religion were miles apart, compared to the relationships that we have today it was like night and day in those days.

The northern Protestant had great fear of the Catholic Church and saw the nascent Irish Republic as a confessional state. Their fears in a sense were proven true with Article. 44 and the special place given to the Catholic Church within the new state.”

This contribution from Kyle is to be welcomed and it should mark a beginning of further explanation and understanding of the northern-Irish-protestant worldview.

You categorically can be Irish and unionist, even Irish and loyalist.

Edward Carson was Irish and unionist as were James Craig, Brian Faulkner and the late Ian Paisley. Independent unionist John McCallister is Irish, as are UUP politicians Chris McGimpsey, Mike Nesbitt and “Irish unionist” Doug Beattie.

Loyalists Gusty Spence, David Ervine, Linda Ervine, William Ennis and Billy Mitchell all self-identified as Irish.

Loyalist Gusty Spence said “I feel greatly Irish” and his protégée David Ervine said he was “profoundly both British and Irish”.

Describing Edward Carson, east Belfast writer St. John Ervine wrote in 1915:

“No other Irishman speaks with so deliberate a brogue or says “What” so obviously “Phwat!” No one on earth is so clearly the ” typical Irishman” (that is to say, the Irishman of the muddy imagination) as Sir Edward Carson is.”

At the moment, the battle for Irishness is between two traditions. Those Irish republicans who support past physical force, and those Irish nationalists who support only parliamentary means. There is a third tradition, the Irish who are loyal to the Crown and want legislative partnership, as Edward Carson said in 1921:

“There is no one in the world who would be more pleased to see an absolute unity in Ireland than I would, and it could be purchased tomorrow, at what does not seem to me a very big price. If the South and West of Ireland came forward tomorrow to Ulster and said – “Look here, we have to run our old island, and we have to run her together, and we will give up all this everlasting teaching of hatred of England, and we will shake hands with you, and you and we together, within the Empire, doing our best for ourselves and the United Kingdom, and for all His Majesty’s Dominion will join together”, I will undertake that we would accept the handshake.”

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. I expect that more than a few on our depopulated and disfigured isle may yet feel that a process of reconciliation in which one side would be obliged to pretend that the barbarities of the other are only a trifle, best forgotten and never again be alluded to, for fear of annoying or embarrassing that other, is at best bogus and at worst hypocritical.

  2. Carson asks if the south and west came forward to Ulster; why would they? Ulster is no longer the power house on this island. Both traditions and many others co-exist happily in the ‘south’ and ‘west’.

    Ireland (south of the border anyways) is now a mostly secular country and where not, there are great strides being made in that direction. The ‘Powerhouse’ is no longer Ulster, indeed the powerhouse is no longer the United Kingdom. The powerhouse is the EU. We all enjoy the added social and political protections of European Human Rights law. Why doesn’t the north move forward with the south and west and guarantee and enjoy these very same rights? They won’t be there after brexit.

    There seems a peculiar position with some northerners where they believe we have never seen or spoken to a Protestant…. or a Muslim… or an Atheist…. or Agnostic… Where we live in fear of the Roman Catholic Church. But that’s the trouble with mindless propaganda I guess. It’s 2016, get over yourselves.

    If this appears harsh well I’m afraid it’s where I am on this whole debate. The marching season and bonfires does not demonstrate respect nor any ability to move forward. The same of course is there from the inexcusable scenes in the Bogside last night. People need to get real, the world today is a very different one from 1916 or the 1920’s.

    6,000 pounds was just used to dig up a children’s playground so as people could build and burn a bonfire on it. It’s dysfunctional behaviour regardless of what side of an utterly shat on working class population these people come from. Human rights are basic and universal rights. When people get to that level then there is something worthwhile to debate.

    The south is ignorant, ignorant of a contrived divide where it is ok to call someone a taig or a hun, or see an individual and neighbour as them and us. It’s that terrible ignorance the south will leave to the north east.

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