Friday, 25 April 2014

Patrick Murphy - the Irish News' resident cultural bigot (2)

In his column in the Irish News last Saturday (19 April) Patrick Murphy continued his habit of attacking unionism.  I was struck not only by the content of his attack but also by the manner of it.  He wrote in his usual nasty style, which seeks to demean, devalue and ridicule the target of his writing.  Moreover there was a smugness and arrogance about the article which was thoroughly distasteful.
The article was entitled 'Cultural unionism a recent invention' and in it he  said

It is hard to know where to find a definition of unionism.  There are no unionist works of philosophy, no fount of literature, no deep well of social and economic theory.
This statement was seen by the Irish News as so important that it was picked out and printed in large bold type in the centre of the page.
Patrick Murphy's core message was that unionists have never produced anything of value in the field of culture and here he takes culture in the broader sense that includes philosophy and social and economic theory as well as literature.
Now I am a unionist but I have other identities as well.  I am also British, which is my national identity, an Ulsterman, which is my regional identity, a Protestant, which is my religious identity, and an Ulster-Scot, which is my cultural or ethnic identity.  I can therefore identify with the cultural expressions of all these identities so here are some examples of what Ulstermen have done.

Ulster has also produced a number of great scientists, including Lord Kelvin, who was born in Belfast of an Ulster-Scots father and a Scottish mother.  He was one of the greatest scientists of his day and was also a Liberal Unionist who campaigned against home rule.
Francis Hutcheson was a great philosopher and an Ulster-Scot and was known as the 'Father of the Scottish Enlightenment'.  His radical ideas were taken across the Atlantic by another Ulster Presbyterian minister and helped to influence the American campaign for independence.
Viscount James Bryce, another Ulster-Scot, was born in Belfast.  He was a British academic, jurist and a noted historian. 
Ulster has produced a number of great hymnwriters, from the evangelical Protestant tradition.  When William Young Fullerton wrote 'I cannot tell why He whom angels worship', to the traditional tune of the Londonderry Air, he gave the world a truly beautiful hymn.
Dr Adam Clarke, another Ulsterman, was a great theologian of Methodism and the author of an excellent Bible commentary, which extends to six large volumes.

From time to time I write posts about aspects of Ulster heritage and culture and one reason for doing that is that it so much of that culture has been ignored by both academia and media.  As a result many Ulster folk know nothing about men such as Kelvin.  As a schoolboy and then as a university student I studied physics and regularly talked about Kelvin's laws of thermodynamics and 'degrees Kelvin' but I knew nothing about Kelvin's Ulster ancestry, his deep Christian faith or his Liberal Unionist opposition to home rule.

Back in 2003 Belfast bid, albeit unsuccessfully, to become the European Capital of Culture.  As a Belfast city councillor I was a member of the committee behind the bid and on one occasion we went on a bus up to the Ulster Museum.  As we were leaving and passing the entrance to Botanic Gardens one of the leading figures behind the bid pointed to the statue of Lord Kelvin and asked 'who is that?'  I was horrified that a well educated person, employed in the field of culture and seeking to promote the culture of Belfast did not even know who Lord Kelvin was!

The statue is still there in Botanic Gardens and there is an Ulster History Circle blue plaque at the site of his birthplace in Fisherwick Place but that is about as far as it goes.

Schoolchildren in Ulster still learn about the laws of thermodynamics, the absolute scale of temperature and degrees Kelvin, but does anyone actually mention that he was born in Belfast? 

Thankfully, not everyone has forgotten Kelvin.  He was a pioneer in the field of underwater trans-Atlantic telegraph cables and the promoters of the new telecommunications submarine cable connection between North America and Northern Ireland chose the appropriate name Project Kelvin. 

Ulster is a very small place but it has a rich cultural heritage that should be recognised, not ridiculed.

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