Facing our unwitting bigotry

Mar 25th, 2012 | By | Category: Ireland

Sitting at the hospital bedside, the Lord’s Prayer was said. ‘Our Father, which art in heaven’, said the lady.

A shibboleth, a marker that she was a Protestant who had grown up reciting the words of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘You’re a terrible old Prod’, I joked.

‘I never got used to saying ‘who’, she said.

Shibboleths are indicators for sectarianism.  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 such an uncritical, unreconstructed thought.

A sister in a Roman 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’? The English ‘aitch’ would have been more common amongst Northern Protestants. There were times when it might have been important to know which one to use in which place.

Even within the Protestant community there would be distinctions. Sitting in Dublin one day with a journalist friend who was a Dubliner and his Belfast 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’. (Traditionalist members of the Church of Ireland would regard ‘Protestant’ as applicable only to churches which ‘protested’ in the Sixteenth Century; it’s a distinction that appears in popular culture, even in the words of the song the Galway Races)

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.

Identifying shibboleths, owning them and disarming them, preferably with humour, is important in facing the unconscious sectarianism that still permeates our society.

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