March 25, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Dr Ian Malcolm

Dr Ian Malcolm is Portadown-born, Lurgan-raised and is still there. His background is Protestant and firmly Unionist. He was educated at King’s Park Primary School, Lurgan Junior High, Lurgan College and Lurgan Tech. He only took an interest in education after leaving school.

His Further Education includes a BA Hons and PhD at Queen’s University Belfast. Ian now works as an Irish language lecturer, writer, broadcaster and author.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Dr Ian Malcolm: 

"Truth to tell, I can’t quite remember. I feel as though I’ve always been aware of it, along with many of the other significant events that have affected this island. I may have done something about it at school, but my Dad has a huge interest in history and this rubbed off on me."

BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" IM: 

"In the context that they are important figures in the history of this island, yes. But I could never identify with their ideals or ideas. They just happened to be the latest in a long line of Republican-minded insurgents and their ultimate success in redefining Ireland, where others failed, was probably down to the manner in which they were dealt with by the British authorities after the Rising.

In the history of Ireland, rebellion has generally been a dirty word among most Protestants. This may derive from the atrocities of 1641, which led to a perpetual fear that it may be repeated.

Presbyterians, of course, were notable participants in the 1798 rebellion but the massacre of Protestants by rebels at Scullabogue served to reinforce this suspicion of those who seemed inclined towards revolution. The Protestant appetite for insurgency – with a few exceptions – effectively evaporated after the Act of Union."

BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" IM: 

"Probably in the same way as the Rising, I can’t pin down a time. I think I was always aware of the sacrifices our young men made, not just in that war, but in other conflicts.

As a child I was always fascinated by old artefacts in a particular cupboard at home. There were a few medals – the relevance of which I never discovered – but what especially caught my imagination was a bloodstained Nazi armband, taken from a soldier at Dunkirk by a Lurgan man who returned home with it after the evacuation. Somehow, it ended up in my Dad’s possession. 
I think that armband made me realise that war, however noble the cause, is a nasty and bloody thing. And that it came from Dunkirk was a reminder that 1914-1918 was not ‘the war to end all wars’."

BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" IM: 

"Of course. I’ve a great interest in the songs of the period and a famous one relating to Lurgan is called The Hill Street Tommies, which lists and describes many of the young men who enlisted to fight the Kaiser.

They were just ordinary guys, nothing special. Had I been a young man in Lurgan at that time, I imagine I’d probably have enlisted too. But none of this should make war appear to be a glamorous thing. It’s not. 

Another song – The Armagh Brigade – proves the point:
'I hear loud booming thunder, the stutter of the gunsI hear the angry screaming, of Ulster's falling sonsIn this bloody slaughterhouse, on the Battle of the SommeI’m dyin' with the Armagh Brigade'  
BJS: "As a British/Irish/Northern Irish person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" IM: 

"I’m tempted to say I recognise the bravery of those who believe so strongly in an ideal that they are prepared to die for it – but it’s an uncomfortable position if we extrapolate it to the present day where the likes of Daesh/ISIS are content to die for something they believe in. 
The Ireland which sprang from 1916 was one incompatible with what I believe in as a Unionist. Let us not forget the dramatic fall in the Protestant population post-Partition. Or, indeed, the strict application of Ne Temere and anti-Protestant aggressions such as the Fethard on Sea boycott.

But the Rising is still important to us all, as it utterly changed the political map of the island."

BJS: "As a British/Irish/Northern Irish person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" IM: 

"It should be important to everyone, regardless of however we label ourselves. Let’s remember that Catholics and Protestants alike fought with the utmost bravery in The Great War.

It is great to see people from both sides of the community now taking an interest in the conflict and acknowledging the role of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

A while ago a Catholic man in Lurgan showed me the ‘Death Penny’ that had been sent after one of his relatives died in the Great War. He said he had never shown it outside the family before.

This willingness to explore the past among those from Nationalist and Republican backgrounds is encouraging."

BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" IM:  


BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" IM: 

"I think the Dublin government did (by the time this is published there will be a new government) a good job of organising a programme of events that in the main are commemorative rather than celebratory.  
Both the Rising and the Somme are events that need to be remembered. But I’d be uncomfortable with ‘celebrating’ moments in our history where so much blood was shed.  
Arlene Foster’s stance could be viewed in that context and she has already attended a commemorative event in Dublin."

BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" IM: 

"Obviously, the cultural issue is one in which I have a very deep interest. As an Irish-speaking Protestant and Unionist, I believe that culture can and should be shared.

I love the Irish language, and earn my living through the medium of Irish: it’s something I’m keen to share with those from my own background. Culture has to be seen as separate from politics.  
I certainly hope I am doing my bit in terms of promoting a better understanding of our shared linguistic heritage, and I think that my book, Towards Inclusion, shows that we can reach a positive consensus on Irish.

In the broader context, I believe we are moving forward – but very slowly. I cannot say that there has been a marked increase in ‘cosmopolitanism’ in working-class communities similar to the one in which I grew up. This process will take years of trust-building. 
On the plus side, both Northern Ireland and the Republic have changed greatly. Northern Ireland is no longer a Unionist hegemony and the Republic is no longer a Catholic State adhering to the writ of Archbishop McQuaid."

BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" IM: 

"I’d hope for a greater understanding that none of us are so special and ‘chosen’ that we can determine how others live their lives. We should have the freedom to celebrate what is special to us but acknowledge that what the ‘other side’ celebrates is important to them and worthy of celebration, too."

BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." IM: 
"I like to think that I did something last year which in a tiny way showed that we can celebrate our differences without falling out. While I love Irish, I’m also entranced by old Orange ballads and have a wonderful collection of songs. 
I was in the GPO on O’Connell St (or should that be Sackville St?!) on Easter Monday and had the opportunity to sing a song to a small audience. Singing Lurgan Town – a ballad about a 19th century marching dispute in my own town – in that wonderful building, so alive with history, was a moment I’ll never forget. 
Even better, there’s a line in the song where you have to shake hands – and the man who shook my hand was Éamon Ó Cuív, Fianna Fáil TD and the grandson of Éamon de Valera. 
I think that song, that venue and that handshake perfectly encapsulated how we can move forward, celebrating our differences but recognising that we’re all entitled to hold our own interpretations of history."
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