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Rude Mechanicals?

David Blake Knox

The Sound of the Shuttle: Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland, by Gerald Dawe, Irish Academic Press, 200 pp, €18.95, ISBN: 978-1788551069

The Sound of the Shuttle is a collection of a dozen essays written by the poet and academic Gerald Dawe between 1983 and 2019. The essays have been arranged in a rough chronological order, but there are some exceptions to that rule. The opening essay, for example, is dated 1985-93, but there is no further indication of how it might have been worked upon or developed over the course of those eight years. The sixth essay is dated 1983, and comes immediately after one that is dated 1992-96.

This arrangement might be more understandable if it represented the uneven or hesitant evolution of a critical analysis. While there are some points of reference to the dates when the individual essays were written ‑ often, relating to the review of a book ‑ there is relatively little internal development of Dawe’s central themes. Indeed I think the essays might be published in a different sequence without any significant loss of meaning or effect.

Dawe’s objectives in writing this book are identified in its sub-title: “Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland”. The value and pertinence of that description might also be questioned: the whole notion of “cultural belonging” is clearly a pretty loose and highly subjective concept. It is also applied by Dawe to issues that are not confined to Ulster.

Similar questions could be raised by the book’s claim to be addressing “Protestantism in Northern Ireland”. In fact there is almost nothing that is written by Dawe about the current or historical nature of the various Protestant faiths that can be found in Ulster. Those reformed churches can evince displays of ecstatic emotion as well as featuring the close study of biblical texts. Their cultural impact has been great and comparable to that of Catholicism in other parts of Ireland, but that history does not inform any of these essays. Instead Dawe treats “Protestantism” as a form of shorthand for cultural rather than religious identity. There are obvious reasons for doing so, but also some limitations in the approach, and the term may need some basic definition if it is to prove an effective means of analysis.

Dawe’s essays sometimes refer to Southern Protestants, but, insofar as there is an all-Ireland Protestant community, it is far from homogeneous, and, as such, resists blanket generalisations. Protestants growing up in Ireland encounter a wide variety of different cultural expectations and experiences. Dawe only appears to recognise some of this diversity in the final pages of his book when he acknowledges that “the range and cultural mix of Irish Protestants is much more complex than generally believed”.

However, there is one issue of which he is acutely aware, and which draws him back repeatedly throughout these essays. In some respects, it provides the connecting argument that gives this collection its overall sense of coherence. This is even indicated by his book’s title, and may explain why the sixth chapter – also called “The Sound of the Shuttle” – is placed at the centre of the book.

When John Keats passed through Belfast in 1818, he noted in his diary that he had heard “the sound of the shuttle” and considered it “the most disgusting of all noises”. He thought it “worse than the bagpipe”, or the “laugh of a monkey”. However, since he also compared this “disgusting noise” to “the chatter of women”, his sensibilities need not be regarded as exemplary. Keats was revolted by the grimy and chaotic circumstances in which a modern industrial city like Belfast was being born. While he expressed sympathy for the “rags, dirt and misery of the poor common Irish”, he did not recognise that the same harsh process of industrialisation was also capable of raising those “poor common” people from the state of wretched poverty in which they found themselves.

Dawe believes that Keats’s adverse reaction to Belfast was an early instance of the recurrent tendency to understand and portray the city as a place that has been “engrossed in commerce and hardened by the graft of industrialism”. He further suggests that it follows on from this negative perception that Belfast often stands “condemned, or at least disdained, for its lack of imaginative offspring”. It is certainly true that the construction of a modern Irish identity, which took place in the course of the nineteenth century, was conceived in opposition to what was then regarded as the crass materialism of England. “Anglicisation” was often equated with more general processes of modernisation, and an image was created of an Ireland that had remained pure and unsullied by the “filthy modern tide”. 

That image was clearly hard to reconcile with the commercial prosperity and rapid industrial expansion of Belfast. In other words, there was a structural difficulty in accommodating and explaining the type of society that had emerged in northeastern Ireland within the narrative and imagery that became dominant in most of the rest of the country. This ideological blindness meant that the very existence of Ulster’s Protestants was often ignored, downplayed, or dismissed as evidence of an alien presence on the island.

Dawe believes that this dismissive and condescending attitude towards Belfast extends to what he has called “the Protestant imagination”. He is able to cite many and varied sources to support that belief. An article in The Guardian, for example, written by Ronan Bennett in 1994, described Ulster Protestant “culture” (his quotation marks) as being “restricted to little more than flute bands, Orange marches and the chanting of sectarian slogans at football matches”. As Dawe comments, if such terms were used to describe any other ethnic group in the UK, there would have been “justifiable rage against such gross caricatures”.

There is often an undercurrent to the ways in which Belfast is written about that betrays a deep-seated loathing of the cultural preferences of its urban working class. As Dawe points out, many of the allegedly typical features of “Ulster Protestant culture” that some commentators treat with open contempt ‑ the crude football chants, the fondness for the Queen, the popularity of tacky TV shows – could, with some obvious adjustments, “be applied to working class communities throughout these islands”.

However, not all of the caricatures that frustrate and aggravate Dawe are external to the Ulster Protestants’ own ranks. In a recent article in The Irish Times, one Northern Protestant complained of the prejudice that he claimed to have experienced while trying to become an accepted member of the uileann pipe-playing community. While making this claim, the author also suggested that the culture of Protestant Ulster was starved of similar creative outlets, and could be reduced to “1690 and the Somme”. There was also an implicit assumption in his article that artists such as Yeats and Joyce (of all people!) could be viewed as belonging to Catholic or nationalist Ireland. Perhaps that is the same type of “belonging” to which Dawe refers in his book’s sub-title. But for me there is something submissive in this type of approach, as if the author were begging to be allowed to rent a room in someone else’s house.

Gerald Dawe does not adopt that suppliant posture, but he repeats his central argument – that Protestant culture in Northern Ireland should not be written off as “dull, dour and pragmatic” – so frequently that I began to feel he protested too much. I also felt at times that I was reading a book that might have been written to satisfy two different audiences, or, perhaps, to meet two different impulses.

Dawe grew up and was educated in Northern Ireland. But he has lived long enough on the Southern side of the Irish border to be aware of what he terms “the general switch-off in the Republic to the North itself”. That awareness might explain what can seem like a compulsion to reference and quote extensively from other writers, as well as from his own previous work. Sometimes, such references are effective in clarifying or enhancing his arguments. But at other times they seem to strain for effect and appear designed simply to buttress and validate his own feelings and opinions.

As one might expect with an accomplished writer, Dawe’s prose is often fluent and engaging. Much of the time, it is focused and direct. But it can also seem unduly discursive and unnecessarily convoluted and dense. The complexity of the writing is not always accompanied by a corresponding depth of meaning.

Dawe presents himself as an enthusiastic exponent of European communality, a convinced Remainer, and an advocate of the breaking down of international barriers. But there is also the repeated emphasis that he places on the fundamental need for “cultural belonging”. He even argues that most of the political crises that have rocked Europe in recent decades – from “the break-up of Yugoslavia”, to the “anti-federalist movement in Italy”; from “the unravelling of the Soviet Union”, to “the anxieties of the Nordic countries” – can be “directly related to the need for ‘cultural identity’.”

To say the least, that argument fails to convince me. I am also sceptical of any suggestion that Ulster’s Protestants consider themselves to be some sort of lost tribe, wandering aimlessly in a desert of cultural confusion. However, many of the questions raised by Dawe do strike home. It is clear, for instance, that we are currently in the tortuous process of changing our sense of Ireland’s national identity. This may be, in part, because the historic connection between the Catholic church and Irish identity has been seriously weakened, if not broken. It may be caused, in part, by the changing nature of the Irish economy. It may be due, in part, to the arrival of significant numbers of immigrants from other European counties and elsewhere.

This tendency should not be overstated, and recent events have shown the persistence and strength of some atavistic currents in our political culture. However, while the notion of Ireland as a monolithic nation may still be found in some quarters, it is surely becoming obsolete.

The formation of a more flexible and inclusive sense of Irish identity need not carry any direct political implications, such as the imminent reunification of the country. It may be enough that an understanding and respect for all of this island’s inhabitants be properly increased. Gerald Dawe’s book will undoubtedly, in its own way, contribute to that process.


David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films.