Why am I not
represented in the
culture of Scotland?
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain
All human communities benefit from seeing a positive portrayal of themselves in the culture within which they live. It is affirming. It tells you, implicitly, that you belong, that you are valued. It doesn't need to be gushing or hagiographic, but a well-rounded view that says that a particular nationality or sub-culture has something to commend it.
I was born in the 1950s in the West of Scotland. My family was working-class Irish catholic. My father was from Mayo and from a traditional rural Irish nationalist background. My mother's grandparents were all Irish born. Again they were from rural stock. The counties of Carlow, Donegal and Antrim provided my mother with her grandparents.
I grew up inside an Irish sub-culture in the west of Scotland of the 1960s. My story is utterly unremarkable in that it is so commonplace in the West of Scotland. What is remarkable, in being worthy of remark, is that I have yet to see any character in Scottish literature, film or TV with that ethnic background that could in any way be considered a positive role model.
Now if I was writing this and my father was from, say, Jamaica and all of my mother's grandparents had hailed from the Caribbean, and I could, with justification, say that I had never in my childhood and adolescence in Britain seen a positive portrayal of my lived experience – then you probably wouldn't be surprised that I relocated back to my father's country with my young family and that I was proud to travel the world on a Jamaican passport. Moreover, most literary types, culturally sensitive and historically literate, would readily describe the lack of positive characters in a culture as the product of institutional racism. Quite.
The story of the Irish in Scotland, if told in literature and drama, would enhance the world's already positive view of the country of my birth.
The lack of positive role models in a culture is a form of oppression. There are great human stories to be told of the Glasgow Irish experience yet how many great literary characters can we point to that are part of that narrative?
I can think of one or two of my classmates who were of Italian ethnicity. Becoming aware of their identity as Scottish-born Italians, they would have seen various characters that positively portrayed their contribution to Scottish society – and they all weren't played by Tom Conti.
Consider the following incontrovertible facts:
In my 53 years I have yet to be aware of a fictional character in Scottish drama that positively portrays my lived experience as an Irish citizen from the West of Scotland.
Rangers football club has not had a Republic of Ireland player in its first-team squad since I first saw the light of day. Many of its supporters have an ethnic cleansing ditty called the 'Famine Song'. It was ruled racist and criminal by Lord Carloway in 2009.
Isn't it time for the poets and playwrights, novelists and scriptwriters, to do their bit in recording Scotland's debt to their oldest ethnic minority? There are great characters to be created from a compelling narrative that has been shamefully ignored. The story of the Irish in Scotland, if told in literature and drama, would enhance the world's already positive view of the country of my birth.
Scotland's story will not be fully told until the world knows why some of us always belonged to Eirinn sean.
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain is an author, blogger, journalist and writer living