This weeks writing Challenge; Digging for Roots

100 years ago J B Woodburn said of the ‘Ulsterman’:  “He is determined to the verge of stubbornness and will accept no compromise; stern, dogged, and strong of purpose; independent, self-contained, and self-reliant, able to stand up on his own feet, and intensely proud of the fact. He has the passion, alertness and quickness of the Celt in addition to the adventurous spirit of the Norseman. He is steadfast and industrious beyond most races. In his uncultivated state he is blunt of speech and intolerant of shams, and lacks the attractiveness of manner of the Southerner”.

I think that this describes the Ulsterman and indeed myself perfectly, I would add a few observations of my own.  The Ulsterman is sometimes scathing, dryly humorous and rarely suffers fools at all (never mind gladly).  Again I would include these traits in my own ‘pen picture’.  Sadly there are a couple of other common traits that I (thankfully) do not share.  The Ulsterman has a view of gender roles that borders on Misogamy and all too often carries an overt religious and racial prejudice that borders on sectarianism and frequently spills over into violence and murder.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s was challenging, sectarianism had spilt over into terrorism and the Army was on the street.  In some ways life continued as normal but security checkpoints, being body searched going into shops and seeing armed soldiers on the street was a part of daily life.  As terrorism took hold both sides of the community retreated deeper into their Loyalist or Republican enclaves and distrust grew creating a king of religious apartheid.  I come from a large family, my father was one of eleven, my mother one of six.  When we were all together the atmosphere was raucous and making fun of each other was the norm.  If you showed any weakness you would be pulled to pieces, it sounds brutal and it often was.  It was rarely malicious, it was meant in fun, but being the butt of other peoples ‘fun’ can still hurt and be damaging.  Over time you learn to hide your emotions, to build walls.  I believe that developing this trait is directly responsible for my being a depressive later in life.  I learned to bury my emotions, to keep them in until the dam burst at the expense of my mental health.

At around the age of 9 my family moved from Belfast to a small seaside village some 20 miles away. it was a pretty idillic environment, beautiful beaches, open countryside and the freedom to roam.  We  were often outdoors from early morning to late evening and we spent our time outdoors, swimming, climbing trees, building dens and hanging out with our friends.  I have no doubt that this environment led directly to my love of nature and the outdoors, I am never so happy as when I am out walking and enjoying the countryside.

At 16 I left home and travelled to the South of England to join the Navy.  It separated me from my family and friends, and in the days before air travel, mobile phones and e-mail it was very difficult  to maintain contact with those back home.  Joining the services exposed me to a whole new way of life and to people from different backgrounds.  It was immediately apparent to me that I did not care what religion or social background people came from, if they were open and friendly that was good enough for me.  These changes undoubtably led to my abhorrence of prejudice, discrimination and inequality in all its forms.

Growing up I detested school, I had always been a bright kid but looking back in hindsight I can now see how bad the teaching was at my school.  In the late 1980’s I decided that I wanted to improve my education and took a degree course with the Open University.  I was hooked. I immediately developed a love of independent learning, I developed a more questioning mind and learned never to take things at face value.  I learned a lot more about politics and economics and how the less well off in society are often demonised by the law, the media and the ruling classes.  This, without doubt, deepened my understanding of social issues and my belief that it must be possible to improve social mobility through education and welfare support.   It strengthened my beliefs that a fairer and more equal society is not just desirable, it is imperative.

Obviously as I matured, married, had children and faced all of the challenges that life sends our way, I have had many more experiences that have changed my life, my thinking and my health, but I think those are stories for another day.

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