When my family first moved to Ireland when I was a teenager I was asked by a neighbour “Do you have prayers in your religion?” That was the first time I ever felt I was on the other side of a fence. Even though I had grown up hearing about sectarian attacks in the North and knew the difference between Cavaliers and Roundheads in the English Civil War it had never occurred to me that the church I had gone to as a child belonged on any side of any fence. It was a place of bells and smells, somewhere that occasionally held jumble sales and children’s parties, somewhere where my less exciting friends hung out.
By the time we moved to Ireland I had gone off the idea of becoming a nun (a week long fad after watching A Nun’s Story and Black Narcissus in quick succession) and pretty much lost interest in religion as a whole. It’s an interest I never particularly regained. But as I got used to living in the west of Ireland it was a subject I couldn’t quite leave behind. It was there when my school was selected. It was there on the doorstep when I moved north to college in Belfast. It was in the countless jokes I shared with friends over the years – measuring differentness be it remembered kids’ shows (me Bagpuss & Saturday Swapshop, them Bosco & Wanderly Wagon), pub snacks (me salt & vinegar crisps or dry roasted peanuts, them Tayto or King). Even though none of us went to any kind of church from one end of the year to the next we all knew which tribe we belonged to for that game at least.
The thing about the religion question was that it always did and always will underline differences. It builds a them and an us and running under “them” and “us” is usually a current of entitlement. Heirs to the kingdom and all that. But surely now the kingdom is up to it’s armpits in mortgage arrears and we are all apparently up a proverbial creek without propulsion “them” and “us” should be put aside.
This morning on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE’s 2FM there was a light hearted discussion about how to spot an Irish protestant. As frequently happens these days with light hearted radio discussions it came with a Twitter hashtag. Everyone had lashings of fun pointing out those differences (including at least one physiological one concerning optical distance). There was no harm done, no offence taken and no malice meant…well mostly. Tubridy addressed the negative comments beginning to clutter up the Twitter stream as belonging to a po-faced minority and advised them to turn off and listen to something else.
There it was again, the Them and Us. They can’t take a joke.
The problem is that perhaps encouraging a large group of people to itemise how they differ from another large group isn’t very funny. It’s not really something that encourages empathy and understanding. Pointing and laughing at another peer group wouldn’t be funny if that group was made up of gay men, or black families, or Jews or Muslims. Everyone knows this. There would never be a slot on how to spot an Irish Jew or How Good’s Your Gaydar? We’re all the children of the PC 80s in one way or another. We are so careful not to offend.
And what was there to offend about the Irish Protestant slot? It was all meant as a bit of a joke. Why am I even writing about it –I’m not even in the group being (gently) slagged? The problem is that it encourages Them and Us thinking. Ireland’s come a long way in terms of tolerance as last weekends Dublin Pride proved. We no longer send unmarried mothers into slave labour in the Magdalene Laundries or turn round to stare at an African on the street.
But racism and sexism and sectarianism haven’t gone away, you know, and they won’t while Them and Us is the default joke position. It might mean being a little po-faced once in a while but surely tolerance and empathy are worth the hassle? There’ll always be forms of tribalism in society, but couldn’t we just leave it on the pitch? We should be looking for similarities not differences and not pointing and laughing at the other side.