Thursday, 17 January 2013


Rosemary Harris published in 1972 (Manchester University Press) a study of neighbours and 'strangers' in a border community in Northern Ireland. To the community she gave the name 'Ballybeg' in rural west Antrim. She was concerned with the nature of prejudice and tolerance. She identified a number of Roman Catholic families and a number of Protestant families. They were also given names which were pseudonyms. Among the Roman Catholics she names two brothers who are in the 50-70 years age range whom she calls Peter McIlhaggar and John McIlhaggar. John is married to Carmel, the daughter of another Catholic family called O'Hanlin.

Dr. Harris's choice of our clan name for a Roman Catholic farmer in an area where traditionally there have been Protestant McIlhagga farmers for upwards of 200 years is indeed a strange one. She has either Peter or John appearing on just five pages of her 225 page study, and it is for general interest that I quote her here rather than out of any thought that her characters might reflect any real McIlhagga clan members. Indeed I may comment in passing that there is no known Peter of our clan who would have been born near the beginning of the 20th Century.

In her chapter 5, entitled 'The Common Culture; the social networks of households', and in its first section, 'Ethnography', on page 80 she writes, 'Although I have now described Paul [Jamison, a Protestant]'s relationship with a number of Catholics with whom he was brought into contact through his farm I must say something further about his relationships with two of his closest Catholic neighbours. With neither did he have occasions for very regular contacts because links of kinship and kithship bound him in co-operative ties to Protestants rather than Catholics. Nevertheless the links his household did maintain with them are instructive.

With the more distant of the two, the McIlhaggars, the Jamisons' links were rather casual. Peter McIlhaggar brought his cow to Paul's bull, but this was their only normal business contact. Otherwise the men sometimes met in neighbours' houses; the women gossiped when they met occasionally going into or out of Ballybeg on the bus and as representatives of their households they met each other at neighbourhood activities. Because they were near neighbours of the young Presbyterian couple, Archy and Jenny Wright, the McIlhaggars gave a party for them after their marriage to which Paul and Mary Jamison were invited. More often than weddings, wakes brought them together; for example when Lizzie Wright's brother, Willy John, died, as near neighbours both the Jamisons and the McIlhaggars spent a lot of time in the house prior to the funeral. Clearly also there was considerable knowledge of the McIlhaggars' domestic affairs; they were neighbours to the extent that it was interesting to gossip about them. Peter McIlhaggar's wife's elder sister, a widow, usually stayed with them, but she was a woman with a somewhat difficult temperament who had never really reconciled herself to the loss of her own home, which as she was childless she had given up after her husband's death. Periodically she would have a row with her sister and brother-in-law and leave them to go to stay with other relations, always asserting that she was never going to come back. Her goings and comings were matters for amused observation by the Jamisons.'

In a further section entitled 'Bill Jamison's network', Dr. Harris makes the observation, '...he was a cheerful, friendly person, glad of an excuse for the odd pint with any neighbour, whatever his religion, and the local Catholics seemed to regard him with amused tolerance. As Peter McIlhaggar said, "Bill was the sort of lad to put the Union Jack up on St. Patrick's Day and the tricolour up on the Twelfth, just to set the neighbours at each other"; but this was said with a reminiscent grin rather than with irritation'.

In a further section entitled 'Peter O'Hanlin's network', Dr. Harris observes, 'The brothers [Peter, a driver...and Dan, a mason] had useful connection to nearby farmers. Their brother Micky, living in Ballybeg, was married to the daughter of John McIlhaggar, one of the most prosperous Catholic farmers in their locality..... Dan, looking for younger and more lively company, as befitted his age and unmarried status, found it in the household of his brother-in-law, John McIlhaggar....'.

The final reference is in chapter 10 of the book, entitled 'Protestant prejudice: the influence of income and area'. On page 182 Dr. Harris refers back to Peter McIlhaggar. After recording the comment 'Catholics are great neighbours - they'd carry you on their backs at midnight... even if they might stick a knife in you after....', she continues, 'Further evidence of the same sort of attitude was to be found in the use of the word 'sweet', to describe a person nice to your face but ready to do you a bad turn should occasion arise. It could be used perfectly well for a co-religionise.... Of the Jamisons' closest Catholic neighbours... McIlhaggar was definitely "a sweet man" despite his many acts of neighbourliness'. 

I wonder of Rosemary Harris, by choosing certain fictitious names for her (real) characters was doing a kind of double-take? Was she saying about some Catholics what she had really discovered about some Protestants, and vice-versa? Perhaps, or perhaps not!

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