Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: ‘Women of the Glens’ were Irish nationalists, so why did BBC NI make out they were unionists?

Nelson McCausland was ‘fair scunnered’ by documentary claiming four Protestant Gaelic speakers backed Union

Mary McAleese and Linda Ervine.
Mary McAleese and Linda Ervine.

On Sunday night BBC Two Northern Ireland broadcast an Irish language documentary programme, Mna na nGlinnti, which means ‘Women of the Glens’. I watched it on iPlayer on Monday and was glad that I did so, because the programme lasted a whole hour and, with iPlayer, I was able to watch it in short sections. Those short sections were as much as I could cope with and, even so, at the end of it I was fair scunnered.

It wasn’t the Irish language that scunnered me, because the Irish language is part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland, along with Ulster-Scots and other cultural and linguistic traditions. The problem was the programme itself and that was what left me fair scunnered.

Now, it was well-presented and beautifully filmed, so it wasn’t the technical quality of the programme that was the problem. Furthermore it was fronted by Mary McAleese, a former Queen's University academic and a former President of the Irish Republic. The problem was that the programme constructed a propagandist narrative that was patently untrue.

It was about four affluent Protestant women from privileged backgrounds who embraced the Irish language — Rose Young, Ada McNeill, Margaret Dobbs and Margaret Hutton.

They either lived in, or spent time in, the Glens of Antrim and were associated with the Gaelic revival at the end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.

They were Protestants, although one of them later converted to Catholicism, and their Protestant backgrounds were central to the narrative of the documentary. They were also Irish Gaelic enthusiasts and activists and that, too, was central to the programme.

What was problematic was that the programme presented them not only as Protestants, but as unionists. It made much of their unionist backgrounds, but was much more circumspect about their own politics.

Meanwhile, most of the official publicity surrounding the programme identified them unequivocally as “unionists”, whereas in fact all four women abandoned their unionist backgrounds and embraced Irish nationalism as well as and alongside the Irish language.

All four were Gaelic cultural nationalists for whom the Irish language was inseparable from their Irish nationalism.

The programme acknowledged, albeit briefly, that one of them, Margaret Dobbs, became an Irish republican and was a founder member of Cumann na mBan, a revolutionary Irish republican organisation for women. So, why did the BBC publicity call her a unionist?

Meanwhile, viewers were left with the impression that the other three women remained unionists when, in fact, all four abandoned unionism and became Irish cultural nationalists and republicans.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland Screen, which manages the Irish Language Broadcast Fund, said on its website: “Former Irish President Mary McAleese reveals how a group of female unionist aristocrats became key figures in the revival of the Irish language and culture in Ulster at the turn of the 20th century.”

BBC NI also tweeted that the programme was about “how a group of female unionist aristocrats became key figures in the revival of the Irish language in Ulster” and this was then retweeted by the production company.

The consistent impression was that these women, who were held up as role models, were Irish-speaking unionists, and that is untrue.

Linda Ervine, a Protestant Irish speaker, went so far as to retweet: “Margaret Dobbs, Protestant, unionist and enthusiastic member of the Gaelic League.” Yet, even the programme itself acknowledged that she became an ardent Irish republican and member of Cumann na mBan.

It is true that some Protestants and unionists did join the Gaelic League, but when it became clear that the Gaelic League was an Irish nationalist organisation, those unionists left.

Any Protestants who remained — and they were very few — were Protestants who had become Irish nationalists and most of them had been drawn into Irish nationalism through the language movement.

If we are to build a more culturally rich and culturally integrated society in Northern Ireland, then it has to be done with integrity, honesty and respect for truth.

A BBC NI documentary should be a factual documentary — not an opportunity for disingenuous and distorted propaganda.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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