Tom Sutcliffe considers the Irish Question


What is nationalism? It may seem a simple question and perhaps in many countries it is just that. But in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we have had over 200 years to see how ill, really, any kind of nationalism fits us. I love Ireland, all of it, though I have no Irish blood—just Welsh, Scottish and English. But being in Belfast is always a lesson. The Union Jack and red cross of St George both play big roles here, especially in parts of the city like Sandy Row, where snooker champion Hurricane Higgins grew up. Being Irish and British has a price—our NHS is not theirs south of the border. But there were always other factors. As we were visiting our son in Holywood outside Belfast, I went to Saints Phil & Jim, which is the CofI parish church, a fine 1840s Gothic construction with a full set of richly stained glass—and at the 8am service a priest in surplice and stole at the north end (as I experienced a few years back in Derry Cathedral). Also, no candles on the altar/communion table.

I first came to Ireland in 1966 when I was singing a concert at St Bartholomew’s in Dublin. Sitting in a pub after rehearsal was my first experience of the Angelus on television, regular as clockwork. Michael Chesnutt, a fellow choral scholar from Magdalen (later my best man at Chichester Cathedral) was teaching Old Norse back then at University College, Dublin. We had together got up a concert at Exeter College in 1962 which included James Bowman singing in a men’s voice choir that sang what was probably the only performance of John Browne’s Stabat Mater from the Eton Choirbook since the 15th century. In Dublin our programme included a Scarlatti cantata, Infirmata vulnerata, for me and John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell for the two of us countertenors. There was also the wonderful baroque trumpeter Don Smithers playing the second Brandenburg. It was a grand experience. A few years later, I sang for Michael’s wedding mass in Dublin.

Many of my Irish friends over the years have described themselves as Fenians. The clash of nationalisms is a particular problem in these so similar and appealing Atlantic Isles. I have always thought of myself as English—that’s my family background on both sides. Yet we English have come to be known as Brits, especially in France and America. We live with these two identities, not unlike being British and European. Brexit as a serious idea (if we can accept that it has become that, even if it is fundamentally only serious in consequences, if or when it happens) reflects this quandary perfectly. I have been listening to Neil MacGregor’s latest engaging series of five broadcasts called As Others See Us, focussed on Poland, Australia, Spain, the USA, and Singapore and following on his previous series with Germany, Egypt, Nigeria, Canada, and India. Such exercises are inevitably selective, however intelligently and indeed fascinatingly Neil applies his historical wisdom.

History is always an exercise in perspective as well as an assembly of sometimes rather dubious facts. When I was young, there was a big split which still to some extent exists between the Whig view of English history and the Tory view. In the 1950s we read numerous novels and adventure stories based on the war, which had only ended a few years earlier. We got a sense of national glory and achievement that was something to be proud of. My father was a naval officer and he took me on HMS Romola (a minesweeper on fishery protection duty) for five days out in the Irish sea, aged five. It got rough. Furniture not fixed slid around dangerously, even in the captain’s cabin midship where I was sleeping. A kind sailor gave me liquorice allsorts and I was seasick for the only time in my life. Southsea, where we had our flat, was filled with soldiers and sailors. Other children I played with were almost always from military or naval families. At Chichester choir school the history we were taught was unrevised old-style stuff about the pinkness of the map with the Empire all over the globe.

Neil McGregor finds our British myths staggering and not shared elsewhere in Europe. Nor should they be. The time is now for truth. We won since Hitler attacked and invaded the Soviet Union. Having been bankrupted by the 1914–18 war, the so-called ‘Great War,’ we were in no position to fight in 1939 and had been saying so loudly. My dad’s minesweeper HMS Gazelle, on which I was christened in November 1943, was a product of lend-lease and he had gone to Savannah, Georgia to collect and commission it in order to contribute to D-Day, for which minesweeping was a fundamental preliminary. After the war the partition of India followed the example set by the partition of Ireland on a vastly huger scale. Next was Cyprus’s partition—smaller than Ireland, just as problematical.

In Ireland, home rule was objectionable to the more Protestant and Presbyterian north because of its democratic implications. Home rule meant Rome rule; they forgot ‘who is my neighbour.’ Irish are ineradicably Irish. Scots and Welsh are Scottish and Welsh. The term ‘British’ is a convenient way to avoid facing the fact of the vastly greater numbers of English on these islands. But what is an entity? What is a nation?