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Ulster blood, English heart – I am what I am

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

On UTV last Thursday night Lord Laird of Artigarvan graciously offered me a free ticket to the Ulster-Scots musical On Eagle's Wing, so that "this young man can learn what he is and who he is".

But alas for Lord Laird such a lesson would be entirely misplaced, for like fully half the Protestant population my ancestry is not Scottish at all.

The Emerson family arrived here straight from Lincolnshire in the early 1600s and remained resolutely English for more than 300 years, right up until 1967 when our noble bloodline was polluted by my mother.

It is a measure of Lord Laird's historical ignorance that he assumes every Protestant is an Ulster-Scot awaiting cultural enlightenment, for the profound division between the Scottish and the English in Ulster is an ancient fault line that remains highly active to this day.

Writing just a few years after the Plantation reached its peak the Reverend Andrew Stewart of Donaghadee recalled that "from Scotland came many, and from England not a few, but all of them generally the scum of both nations, who, for debt or breaking and fleeing from justice, or seeking shelter, came thither."

But while a gentlemen such as Mr Stewart might have seen this wave of settlers as an essentially homogenous underclass that was not how they viewed themselves. The Scots planters were fleeing English landlords at home and had a refugee mentality, while the English planters saw their decision to emigrate as more of a choice and were also favoured for land and positions by Ulster's nervous new Tudor aristocracy.

United only by fear of the natives the planters settled into a life of impressively modern tribalism – not for nothing are towns of this period built around an Irish Street, an English Street and a Scotch Street. The situation was even more tense in the countryside where English landowners and Scottish Plantation 'undertakers' argued over how to deal with their Irish tenants.

Even the trauma of the 1641 uprising wasn't enough to forge a lasting bond between English and Scottish settlers – less than a year later Scottish forces seized much of Ulster at the outbreak of the English Civil War and it took almost a decade to dislodge them.

In the early 1690s the arrival of King William coincided with a famine in Scotland, causing a further wave of emigration across the North Channel.

A contemporary record notes that "Vast waves of them followed the army as victuallers and purchased most of the vast preys which were taken by the army in the campaign."

Unlike their Plantation forbears these new Ulster-Scots were Presbyterians and as such aroused considerable suspicion at a time when their novel form of worship was regarded as little more than a barbarian heresy.

Consequently Presbyterians found themselves lumped in with Catholics under the English Privy Council's 1704 bill to 'Prevent the Further Growth of Popery'. Excluded from the army, the professions and municipal office many moved on to America but among those who remained an emerging intellectual class increasingly found common cause with the Irish, which may or may not explain why the 18th century saw the longest sustained period of peace Ulster has ever known.

That peace began to unravel in the 1790s as the French Revolution inspired a handful of Ulster-Scots Presbyterians to found the United Irishmen. Their aim of an independent Ireland for 'Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter' translates directly into 'Irish, English and Scottish' but alas for most Catholics it just meant 'pike a Protestant' while the English viewed the whole thing as simple treason.

The 1798 rebellion finished off any idea that the Scottish were a third force in Ulster politics, forcing them to side once and for all with the English in an alliance that evolved into what is now called unionism. But scratch the surface and that old tribal division is still there. There are always two types of unionist: DUP and UUP, Orangeman and freemason, working class and middle class, saved and unsaved, football and rugby – and these all translate, even now, into Scottish and English distinctions.

At times of stress this division becomes transparently obvious, manifesting itself as trust or mistrust of London, integrationist tendencies versus nascent Ulster nationalism, or appeals for an inclusive Britishness countered with pseudo-ethnic tripe about the Kingdom of Dalriada and the linguistic merits of a Ballymena accent. The difference surfaces in trivial matters too, such as the way Protestant sixth formers sort themselves neatly into those applying to Dundee and those applying to Manchester, as if some Jungian folk memory was calling them home.

The Protestant population is rarely analysed in these terms, perhaps due to some lingering embarrassment over the shotgun-wedding origins of the unionist family. It is unlikely, for example, that Billy Kennedy will ever tour the gospel halls of south Antrim with a lecture entitled 'Historical Ulster-Scots ambivalence towards the union'. Yet the division remains real enough to explain a great deal about unionism, particularly its obsession with betrayal, love-hate relationship with England and habit of calling disloyalty 'loyalism'.

Hence I'm afraid that I will have to refuse Lord Laird's kind offer to tell me who I am and what I am, for I am Ulster-English – and in accordance with the traditions of my unique cultural identity, I wouldn't be seen dead at anything as common as a musical.

May 22, 2004

Newton Emerson is editor of the satirical website

This article appeared first in the May 20, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News