That nasty ‘s’ word

Sep 5th, 2010 | By | Category: Ireland

Listening to the ‘Sunday Supplement’, Sam Smyth’s programme on Today FM, there came one of those moments that revived past conversations.

Living in East Down in the early-90s, there would have been complaints within Orange circles that they were labelled as ‘sectarian’ while the GAA, with its rules against members of the security forces and ban on so-called ‘foreign games’, went unchallenged about its attitudes.  Trying to point out that Sam Maguire was a Protestant was futile; John, an Orangeman who was good company provided one avoided religion or politics, was adamant in his opinion that the GAA explicitly excluded certain members of the Protestant community and was therefore sectarian.  It availed nothing to try to argue that identifying all members of the security forces, excluded by the GAA, as ‘Protestant’, was itself a sectarian attitude.

There was ‘Sunday Supplement’ discussion today of hurling and Gaelic football in Counties Laois and Offaly, Charlie Flanagan, one of the local TDs felt that the counties were too small to play both games at a competitive level, but explained that Laois was divided between hurling and football on the basis of diocesan boundaries.  The Diocese of Ossory, based in Kilkenny, had a strong hurling tradition, so the Laois parishes in Ossory tended to play hurling; while those in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin tended to play football.  The dioceses to which Deputy Flanagan referred were, of course, Roman Catholic dioceses.

Driving along, I could hear John’s voice saying, “See, I told you so”.  He would not have been persuaded that following Roman Catholic diocesan and parish boundaries did not make the organisation exclusive, or, as he would have expressed it, ‘sectarian’.

The problem with sectarianism is that it sometimes takes one unawares.

Sitting once in a hospital waiting room, staring vacantly ahead of me; “Saint BRigid’s” was written up the leg of one of the wooden chairs in black indelible marker. “Catholic handwriting”, I thought, and immediately pulled myself up.  A sister in a Catholic religious order once told me that she thought that the use of the upper case ‘r’ where it should be in lower case, stemmed from the teaching of handwriting when the old Irish script was used. I told her that it was a mark by which a person might be judged; very few Protestants in the North of Ireland would have ever learned Irish.

There were other shibboleths. The letter ‘h’ was the best known. Did you say ‘aitch’ or ‘haitch’? It might have been important to know which one to use in which place.

Even within the Protestant community there would be distinctions. Sitting one day with a journalist friend and his solicitor wife, I caught some reference she made to her church that marked her out as a Presbyterian. “You’re a Blackmouth”, I laughed. “You’re not a real Protestant at all.” (The distinction is too long to explain!) Her Catholic husband looked at me astonished and said “Do you mean to say you can tell each other apart?”

Shibboleths, ways of telling people apart, are very ancient. The word has a very bloody origin in the Old Testament book of Judges,

“Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’ ” He said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.” Judges 12:4-6

Even allowing for Old Testament exaggeration, it was one nasty piece of sectarianism.

A new Ireland without sectarianism demands an awareness of all our shibboleths, the humorous and the serious. It also means a secularization of organizations, and an awareness that the experience of being ‘overlooked’, which has been the common experience of minorities in both jurisdictions, is itself an experience of sectarianism.  Is there a willingness to grasp nettles that are going to have a nasty sting?  It’s hard to see it happening.

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