Telling us apart

Mar 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Ireland

It was a point of honour in some Protestant communities in the North not to observe Saint Patrick’s Day.  It seemed strange, to avoid something that might have been a national celebration, but sectarian spirit seemed always stronger than community spirit.

Sectarianism is insidious.  I remember sitting 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 had to pull myself up for slipping into old sectarian ways.

A sister in a 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.

If the new government is really about building a new Ireland it will be one without sectarianism, but that will demand an awareness of all our shibboleths, the humorous and the serious. Only when the marks of difference are no longer marks of discrimination will there be a new republic.

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