Brendan “the Dark” Hughes, must be swiveling in the grave that has cradled him since 2008. The IRA man, a 1980s hunger striker, died peacefully in a hospital bed, after a life devoted to gunning down others in the name of Irish freedom. For many people in Northern Ireland he is a hero, but it is fair to say he does not have many fans among those of Ulster Scots heritage, my own proud tradition. His was not a face I ever expected to see again, so imagine my surprise when up popped a picture of the Dark, above a caption claiming him as the Executive Producer of a new television program shown on BBC 2 Northern Ireland this week. The Dark’s picture features on an app promoting The Gaitherin. This monthly magazine show celebrates all that is unique about the Ulster Scots–their taciturn tenacity, their Presbyterian puritanism, and their love of the Lambeg Drum. Truly, Brendan “the Dark” Hughes wouldn’t be seen dead anywhere near it.
Let me explain: Ulster Scots people are the descendents of people who came to from the Scottish Lowlands in the early 1600s as part of the Tudor Plantation of Ireland. These people were early adopters of Protestantism. The English Queen was pleased to pay to move them only 13 miles across a strip of stormy sea so she could have them on Irish soil where they could help her keep the Celtic Catholic rabble at bay. Much of this population has remained fiercely loyal to the British crown ever since and, because of their trenchant opposition to the idea of an independent Ireland in the early 1900s, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom today. The old, original Irish Republican Army fought to have Ireland liberated from English rule nearly a century ago. Fast forward sixty or seventy years and you have the likes of Brendan “the Dark” Hughes prepared to risk his own life,and take the lives of many others, in an effort to convince the British Parliment to get the hell out of North and leave the Ulster Scots to fend for themselves in the coldest corner of a United Ireland. It didn’t work out that way.
Most of the population of Northern Ireland–Ulster Scots Protestant or Celtic Roman Catholic –did not take the terror trail followed by The Dark. They stayed out of trouble and out of each other’s way. In a largely segregated society, no-one needed to meet anyone who wasn’t from their own tribe. Education and a Euro grant or two are changing all that. Prosperous, professional Protestants and Catholics now live and work together in a way that just didn’t happen when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. It is possible still for people from each tradition to choose to keep themselves to themselves, never venturing past their own partisan-painted gable end but for the most part everyone is mixing and mingling; practicing playing nicely. So it is that The Gaitherin is produced by one Brendan Hughes. Actually by my friend Brendan “Spud” Hughes and not the the moustachioed IRA member. Same name: two very different people. As you can see, the most sinister thing about Spud are the dark frames on his glasses. He is more ganch than guerilla freedom fighter. Although far from where he was reared (by the Christian Brothers in Newry, Co. Down, right on the Northern Ireland Border) he is completely comfortable talking to red-haired people who have oxters where others have armpits. He is terrible fand of them forbye. No-one needs to fear for his life when Spud shows up at the door carrying a camera, not a Kalashnikov. He makes wee fillums about flute fingering, and shares recipes for tray bakes on TV. He knows the importance of a Sunday hat bought from Logans of Cloughmills. While not a dulse eater himself, he has a tolerance for those who do indulge. He roams the roads of Armoy, Lisnagat, Liscolman and Mosside in Co.Antrim speaking to old men whose first names are Campbell and Armstrong and Nelson. They are almost certainly relatives of mine and they speak as my maternal grandparents did: They “canny call the polis” even if they “had a quare gunk” from a hard chaw, a drouth, or a sleekit wee skitter. (Translation available here). Spud seems remarkably unfazed to have been mistaken for the Hunger Striker Hard Man by Google Images. He thinks its a laugh. It is a testament to how things have changed in Northern Ireland, that no one else is up in arms over an error that might once have cost millions in a libel suit–or, worse, cost people their lives.