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John McCain The Ulster Orangeman

There were, to put it mildly, a few raised eyebrows at Jamie Kirchick’s recent suggestion (albeit made very much in passing) that Irish Massachusetts might be tempted to tip towards the Scots-Irishman John McCain in November. As Daniel Koffler pointed … Read More

By / April 14, 2008

There were, to put it mildly, a few raised eyebrows at Jamie Kirchick’s recent suggestion (albeit made very much in passing) that Irish Massachusetts might be tempted to tip towards the Scots-Irishman John McCain in November. As Daniel Koffler pointed out on these pages a few weeks ago, most Irish immigrants to the fledgling United States were of Protestant, and usually Scottish, lineage, and coined the phrase “Scots-Irish” only when Catholic emigrants began to flood into America during the great Famine of 1845-51. So, on the face of it, Catholic Boston — which is more Irish than the Irish themselves (I almost wrote plus royaliste que le roi) — would be less likely to vote McCain, not more.

In the land they left behind, three hundred years, several civil wars and that infamous famine only exacerbated the divide between the native Catholic community and the largely Scottish Protestant settlers (who started arriving in 1610, which in Irish terms is the day before yesterday). The original “two state solution” of 1921 has taken the best part of another century to settle into uneasy peace, and to the uninitiated, the ancient feud is all but incomprehensible. To take an example more or less at random, Northern Ireland is one of the few places where you will see the Star of David being flown in solidarity with Israel – a nation whose robust response to terrorism, as Protestants see it, has led to unjust vilification the world over – whilst Catholics, who see themselves as a people oppressed, fly the Palestinian flag in response.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that this is a story of byzantine complexity, peopled with protagonists possessed of extremely long memories, and two communities that are quite distinct and, historically at least, mutually antipathetic. (Which makes Hillary’s achievement in bringing peace to the island all the more remarkable.)

McCain’s pitch to the Scots-Irish constituency, on the other hand, is not terribly subtle. That the war hero chooses to tour the nation on a "No Surrender" Bus may not trip too many alarm wires in the average voter, but to any self-respecting Ulsterman, though the words to the old song vary depending on who you ask, the resonance is immediate and unambiguous. (It commemorates the defense of Derry against the besieging forces of the Catholic James II in 1689. Remember: long memories.)

“The cry was no surrender But come when duty calls With heart and hand and sword and shield We'll guard old Derry's walls”

But memory can also play tricks. I well remember, on my first visit to New York some years ago, being astounded to hear the Orange anthem, “The Sash My Father Wore,” playing in a Manhattan pub which otherwise appeared the very epitome of hardcore expat republicanism, right down to the painting of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands on the wall. My drinking companion, a large man from Cork, growled at me to keep my counsel; it wouldn’t do, he said, to point out the owner’s naivety when we were guests in his establishment (and, not incidentally, consuming the first of several beers on the house). Experiencing the hyper-patriotism of Irish-Americans at first hand is a little like watching Mel Gibson’s ludicrous Braveheart in a crowd of Scottish nationalists: As the music swells and the eyes around you grow more misty, it seems almost rude to point out that a chisel-jawed William Wallace shagging Queen Isabella of France is just ahistorical tripe. It doesn’t pay to delve too deeply into the details.

Irish-Americans, of course, are far from being the only offenders in this regard. From Diaspora Armenians and Cuban-American exiles in America to Palestinians in London, or Greeks whose families were forced from Asia Minor, a romanticised version of home always jostles for space with a heightened sense of victimhood and hostility to the historical oppressor. Any immigrant community has to work hard to maintain their unique identity; through religion, through art and music, food, holidays, even sports teams. “Where e'er we go”, as the Pogues once put it, “we celebrate the land that makes us refugees”.

Jews are better than most at hanging on to these golden threads of identity, thanks to an unusually rich cultural and religious heritage which stands proudly apart and passed down, through ties of blood, whether the next generation likes it or not. For the rest of us, with the passage of time, the threads binding us to our homes loosen one by one; each generation less religious than the last — in Christian communities, at least — and our traditions and languages diluted through assimilation. (Let’s just say I’d be surprised if Kim Kardashian speaks much Armenian.) And so we replace these gaps with a pastiche of symbolisms; the tales become taller, the ballads louder, and the outrages perpetrated against ancestors all the more brutal, until you are faced with the grotesque spectacle of collection plates for the IRA being passed around well-to-do Massachusetts soirees.

Is there anything distinctively “Scots-Irish” about McCain’s rhetoric? Well, maybe. Certainly it is likely to go down well among those of his fellow countrymen who share the faith of his fathers, but to the extent that it does so, that may be because it speaks to broader, more populist ideas of patriotism and service to one’s country (“something greater than myself,” etc. etc.), and pitches his tent squarely on blue-collar territory. Scots-Irish tend to live in red states like the Carolinas and Virginia anyway; Massachusetts is less likely to be swayed by exclusionary sloganeering that reminds Irish-Americans of all the things they don’t like about their Protestant neighbours.

At the very least, John McCain should be cautious about the buttons he chooses to press. No-one ever made a buck betting against the Irish.

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