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Nelson McCausland: Northern Ireland's cultural establishment is missing a trick when it comes to Ulster Scots achievements

Things are starting to improve, but there are still too many missed opportunities, argues Nelson McCausland


The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, who had roots in Ulster

The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, who had roots in Ulster

The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, who had roots in Ulster

A delegation from Nashville has been in Belfast as part of the Sister City relationship between the two cities. As part of their visit, there was a reception in the Discover Ulster-Scots Centre in Victoria Street, during which the Ulster-Scots Agency launched a new publication on one of the most famous residents of Nashville, Andrew Jackson, who served as the seventh president of the United States of America, from 1829 to 1837.

Like all of us, Jackson was a flawed man, but he was also a great man and he is still remembered and revered as "the hero of the common man". He once said: "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes." That is a view which is shared by many people today on both sides of the Atlantic.

There is an Andrew Jackson Centre at Boneybefore, on the outskirts of Carrickfergus, which was the ancestral community of the Jacksons, but we could do so much more to highlight the fact that he was the first Ulster-American president and the first of just three presidents who were first-generation Americans.

Jackson is featured on the front of the US 20 dollar bill and there are counties and cities named after him across the USA, from Tennessee and Texas in the south to Indiana and Ohio in the north. A sculpture of Jackson on horseback stands in front of the White House in Washington and there are also identical statues in Nashville, New Orleans and Jacksonville, but there is a no statue of him in his ancestral homeland. We are certainly missing out on something here.

Nevertheless, it is true that we are doing better and, over a period of six week, the BBC has broadcast a series of television programmes about Ulster-Scots communities. The presenters, Mark Thompson and Ruth Sanderson, started in Portavogie and then visited Raphoe, Cullybackey, Markethill and the Foyle Valley. The final programme explored stories of emigration from Co Londonderry, looking at those who left Ulster and the impact on the communities that stayed behind.

The programmes had a richness of content and a warmth and authenticity for which all involved in their production deserve credit. So, there are encouragements and the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund, which supported the BBC series, is a sign of progress. However, this is only the start of a journey and the missed opportunities continue to occur.

Last month was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Captain Thomas Mayne Reid, the author of many adventure novels. These were especially popular with boys and they were popular around the world. President Theodore Roosevelt described him as a major early inspiration, yet here in Ulster he has been almost entirely forgotten, in spite of the fact that he grew up in a Presbyterian manse at Ballyroney, in Co Down, the son of Ulster-Scots parents.

For that reason, I had hoped that the cultural establishment in Northern Ireland might have done something to mark the anniversary, but it seems that the bi-centenary passed almost unnoticed.

Yet, the work of Mayne Reid is part of the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland and is part of our cultural wealth. This was certainly a missed opportunity.

If we are to build a shared and better future in Northern Ireland, then as a society we need to look at how and why such things happen, because cultural traditions matter to most people. Why, then, is it that some aspects of our cultural diversity are so often ignored, especially those associated with the Ulster-Scots?

During the reception for the visitors from Nashville, Arlene Foster gave a short address in which she spoke about our diverse cultural traditions. She also spoke about equity, about addressing our cultural traditions holistically and about affording all our cultural traditions respect and recognition.

I was encouraged by those remarks, because it seems to me that the principles she was affirming are central to the challenge of creating a shared and better future and building a more united community here in Ulster.

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