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Note to self: Irish culture is sectarian

Carolyn Moore Special to the News Strabane, Ireland I've always been fascinated by Irish culture. As a little girl, I read books about Irish fairy tales, myths and legends, tried to grasp the differences between leprechauns, pixies, and elves.

Strabane, Ireland

I’ve always been fascinated by Irish culture.

As a little girl, I read books about Irish fairy tales, myths and legends, tried to grasp the differences between leprechauns, pixies, and elves. As a teenager, I had an enormous crush on Shane McGowan, lead singer of the Irish traditional music/ punk band The Pogues, a man with extremely bad teeth and, therefore, not really teenage-girl crush worthy.

Throughout high school, I listened to Irish music, read Irish novels, and tried to perfect a very bad Irish accent .

At university, I went to Irish music sessions, bought a bodrhan (a round, handheld Irish drum), and tried to learn to play.

And, later in life, when I met my husband, one of the many attractive things about him was his Northern Irish heritage and his UK passport.

So, years later, we have decided to uproot our three children, ages four, seven, and nine, to Northern Ireland from Whitehorse, Yukon, for a year to experience Irish culture. We are living in a market town in rural Northern Ireland, where my husband’s family has lived in the same house for more than 100 years.

His family is Protestant, “Ulster Prods,” which defines our relationship to living in Northern Ireland. Our children attend a “controlled” school, a state school, which, by the fact that it is not the Catholic school, by default becomes the Protestant school.

Coming from the modern Canadian tradition of non-religious public schools, we have been surprised to see the level of religious education in the schools: they sing hymns every morning before school starts, the children say prayers in class, and grace before dinner at noon.

Our four-year-old has been learning about Lord Jesus: he comes home telling us with authority that Jesus is God’s son who fights bad things, like Spiderman. The school is distinct in its culture as well: my older son is learning the recorder, playing football (soccer) and field hockey. If we had gone to the Catholic school, he would be learning the tin whistle and playing Gaelic football (soccer with hands), and hurling (field hockey with hands).

As part of our Irish experience, my daughter wants to learn Irish dancing. We have friends in County Mayo, in the Irish Republic, whom we have visited and our children have been impressed at how well those girls can Irish dance and play the tin whistles, already before the age of 10. So I’ve begun to try to find Irish dancing; however, Irish dancing is a Catholic and Republican activity, and frowned upon by our Protestant family.

Our school isn’t able to tell me anyone who teaches it; I’ve tried to track it down through the local leisure centre, to a local Catholic community centre, to another Catholic hall, and I haven’t had any luck. However, our next plan is to now try to track down the Highland Dancing, which is a Protestant activity (the Ulster Prods heritage of Scotland), I’ll have to see what pans out with this side of the dancing divide.

This past weekend we went to an Irish Traditional Music Festival at an arts centre in our town, heard some amazing music, and met a welcoming group who promote Irish music, encouraged us to come to more sessions, and even teach music lessons at the local Irish school.

The friendly man I was talking to said quickly, “we just use the space; they give it to us for free, there is no affiliation.” So we’ve started taking lessons; my older son has already picked up the bodrhan and had a lesson at the Youth Irish Music session on the weekend. It was held at the local Catholic hall, where we heard kids as young as six sing a song on their own, along with the whole group of over 20 of them playing fiddles, bodrhans, accordions, tin whistles and ueliean pipes playing traditional songs they all know.

However, this past week has also had our little town in the headlines as a local Real IRA (RIRA) man was found dead in police cells. At his funeral, three masked men saluted shots into the air (paramilitary style). This past weekend there was a bomb threat at the courthouse just below where we live, so people near us were evacuated overnight, and there was some violence in the town.

It does make us nervous to unknowingly blunder back and forth across the Protestant and Catholic divide; we can’t see it, but we keep finding out that it’s there.

Our context is that my husband’s family is quite disapproving of Irish culture; the music and dancing that we associate with Irish-ness is “Republican” and Catholic in their eyes. Irish-ness, to some extent, is not Protestant, and therefore not Northern Irish, at least in their community.

It makes us nervous because we don’t know when their assessment is accurate, when is it age-old religious bigotry about participating in Irish music and culture, and what is actually not safe to do in this present climate.

Last week, for example, the relatives told us not to drive through an area prone to violence on our way home (in their parlance, “the Catholic area”), and there was some substance to their warnings because there was violence on the road we would normally have taken home (cars burnt out and kids with paint bombs).

However, last night, we drove to the Irish-language school to participate in music lessons (bodrhan, fiddle, and tin whistle), and it was fabulous in a low-key, students-teaching-students kind of way, with kids and adults all learning together. Everyone was very friendly; no-one asked our religion and we’ll definitely be back.

I still thought it wasn’t wise to ask if the loud shots we heard were fire-crackers.

And I need to find out about dancing for my wee girl.

Carolyn Moore is a Yukoner

and freelance writer who currently lives in Ireland. This is her

first article for the News.