This website is a forum for political debate and the exchange of ideas. Unless indicated, the opinions expressed in any article, commentary, argument or review is solely that of the author and not necessarily that of the publisher.

 Home Page Reviews Ulster comment  Archives  International issues   Links   Conversation with Rabbi Schiller  FAQs   Open Forum  For Sale  Obituaries   Culture and Identity

Negotiating Identity. Rhetoric, Metaphor, and Social Identity in Northern Ireland
Anthony D Buckley
and Mary Catherine Kenney
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC and London 1996.  ISBN 1- 56098-520-8, £34.75

This book is a delight to hold. It is printed in clear type on beautiful crisp white paper. The binding is far superior to most books published in Britain today. It almost justifies the horrendously expensive price. This is not another polemical history of the troubles. It is a serious anthropological study of everyday Ulsterfolk. Buckley concentrates on a rural Protestant area of Co Londonderry- which he gives the fictitious name of 'Listymore'. Kenney's field of study is Ardoyne in north Belfast - a Catholic urban village which would be difficult to disguise under any other name.

Most of the published sociological works on Ulster are full of tortured jargon and opaque prose. They are a struggle to read and afterwards the reader wonders if the effort was worthwhile. Usually it isn't! The authors of such works seem to have no interest in their subjects as people and often regard them with the superior detachment worthy of white mice in a laboratory.

This book is different. Buckley works in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum where he is the curator of community- life. This position seems to give him powers of observation of the little details of life and an unusual sensitivity towards his subjects. Kenney is a postdoctoral fellow in the sociology department of the University of Bielefield in Germany. She spent two years in Ardoyne doing the fieldwork for this book. Both authors seem to have a genuine fondness for Ulster and its folk and a genuine interest in our homeland's problems. This comes across in the book. There is even a bit of humour!

Buckley looks at various aspects of our behaviour - particularly what he calls the siege metaphor among Protestants. He goes on to show that for many Protestants it is much more than a mere metaphor - they- are literally tinder siege. Kenney shows that Catholics in Ardoyne feel much the same.

Buckley gets under the skin of his subjects. He admits that in his study of evangelical Pentecostalists that 'an almost immediate impulse on entering such a service is to join in - and this is as true for the sceptical anthropologist as it is for the believer'. His look at the themes on Black Institution banners is also very- valuable but the Protestant reader will notice that he does seem to confuse 'melody' and the more aggressive 'blood and thunder' flute bands.

I was much taken by Kenney's look at Fighting and run in Ulster Riots. She is the first writer I have come across to point out that riots are often great fun for the participants and for spectators. She calls them 'carnivalesque'. People who live far from places where riots seldom happen might doubt this but she is right. Riots are brutal. Property is damaged, people are hurt and sometimes even killed, but ‘Nevertheless, in rioting there is also a strong element of macabre fun.' Riots have fun, thrills, danger, the opportunity to wrong foot and embarrass the police and a certain level of 'rules' and rituals.

The study for this chapter was done in Ardoyne and in Portadown during a time of unrest in 1995 and 1986 but given present tensions; it is equally true throughout North Belfast and 'front line' areas of Ulster in 1996. Living as I do in an 'interface' area in North Belfast, I have often witnessed incidents just like the riot in Woodhouse Street, Portadown, which the authors describe in great detail.

This chapter is so brilliant that it deserves to be issued a pamphlet in its own right. Readers outside Ulster - and perhaps a few here too - might find it helpful in understanding the recent and ongoing tensions surrounding parades in parts of Belfast, Portadown, Londonderry and a number of towns and villages up and down the countryside.

This book suggests that it may be possible to negotiate a shared identity, pointing to the work down by the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Ulster Museum in exploring, recognising and valuing the things we have in common and explaining the meaning of the rest.

It's a shame that this book is only available as a £35 hardback. It deserves a much wider readership. I hope that the publishers will consider bringing out a £10 paperback edition soon.

David Kerr

home page


Copyright © 1990 - 2007 Third Way Publications. All rights reserved.