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April 11, 2012

As part of my continuing education on Northern Ireland, I came across a most informative perspective in the British Broadcasting Corporation online Wars and Conflict article by Professor Marianne Elliott, Director of the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.

In her essay The Plantation of Ulster: its impact on the Catholic population, Ms. Elliott observed that, “The Plantation played havoc with this intensely status-conscious [extended kinship] society. More than any loss of land, it explains the sense of lost glory which later infused developing nationalist tradition.”

In what perhaps best illustrates the difficulty faced by the highest levels of intellectual perspective of an occupying state in comprehending the authenticity of self-determination, Professor Elliott — absent any malice per se — continues: ‘The people in general are great admirers of their pedigree,’ commented an English traveller in 1674, ‘and have got their genealogy so exactly by heart that though it be two hours work for them to repeat the names only from whence they are descended lineally, yet, will they not omit one word in half a dozen several repetitions; from whence I gather they say them instead of their Pater noster’. “This older lineage definition of status,” says Elliott, “was to continue in Ulster Catholic society alongside the newer landed one, quite independently of wealth and property, and was undoubtedly responsible for the long memory of customary land rights.”

As Ms. Elliott notes, by the 1630s some 40,000 [English and Scottish] settlers had arrived to make use of the roughly 80% of Ulster confiscated from the Irish by the Crown. In what perhaps is the understatement of the century regarding this conflict, she writes, “There may too have been a restlessness for old ways.”

To Professor Elliott’s credit, though, she observes that,

It would be difficult to exaggerate the social consequences of the 17th century land settlements for the future of Ulster Catholicism. Only a handful of Catholic landowners survived into the 18th century and very soon these too disappeared. The Protestant [settler] gentry in Ulster never had to deal with equals, and the distance between them and the socially inferior Catholics bred unrealistic fears of subversion. [Because the indigenous Irish] had lost their natural social leaders, the vacuum was filled by the Catholic Church.

For a different perspective on the organic leadership of indigenous societies, I read an article in Indian Country Today by John Mohawk titled Industrial Society and the Culture Wars. In his essay, Mohawk recounts,
Since time immemorial, traditional societies have existed which were dependent on elders. Indeed, true traditional societies develop leaders who serve the communities over long periods of time. Sometimes designated as chiefs, male or female, they sat in small groups of councils and presided over the community’s business. A traditional society has a special place for its elders, but elders aren’t simply old people. They are the old people who are steeped in the traditions, who have been paying attention to the community, who know how that community solves its problems. In semi-technical jargon, they are the keepers of the customs and customary law, the living encyclopedias of the group. In most Native societies, they were not elected but rather appointed through some process of acclamation, and they often served a lifetime.

Mohawk goes on to say, “The ancient chiefs who were famous – Sitting Bull, Seattle, Crowfoot and Chief Joseph – were such people. Traditional societies are associations of families, although they define family in diverse and distinctive ways…elders were treasured because they were the repositories of the knowledge of the history of the group and the customs of the larger group, the tribe or nation.”

In trying to reconcile these different perspectives — one an advocate for modernity, the other for traditional cultures — I find myself doing what my Native American tribal leader friend once told me:  “We take what’s good from other cultures, while at the same time protect and preserve our own. In that way, we hope we can all learn to cooperate and to coexist. We never had all the answers, but neither did you.”

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