Thursday, 28 January 2010

In the Footsteps of the Bard

This week the Blether Region attended a Burns Nicht do in Belfast. Since my acquaintance with Scots is mainly limited to dry tomes on language, the event took on a degree of anthropological significance.

Nearly everyone was dressed very formally indeed, and apart from friends and family of the guest speaker and those attending out of professional interest, nearly everyone was in their 60s or older. As can sometimes happen at single-identity gatherings of older people, the organisers were oblivious to the need to present a neutral face, toasting the Queen and making jokes about the sectarian colours of ballot tickets. There was clearly no malice in this, and perhaps it merely reflected the reality that involvement in Scots at this formalised level, as opposed to hearing, speaking, reading or writing it, is an overwhelmingly Protestant pastime in Northern Ireland. There was also a peppering of passing political incorrectness about unmarried mothers, gays and women. One should remember, of course, that wars of the sexes are to a certain extent encouraged by the format.

In Scotland no Burns Supper would be complete without a haggis main course. In Northern Ireland the haggis is often either relegated to a symbolic role or, as in this case, that of a starter (the usual main at such events seems to be Antrim turkey, which is nice but not as nice as the "chieftain o' the puddin' race").

Perhaps the most intriguing question that occurred to me was whether the proceedings reflected what we know of the personality of Burns. Guests were several times enjoined to stand up, on one occasion for the entry of those at the top table: this at an event to honour the lyricist of "Is there for Honest Poverty". And when one speaker compared the poet's lifestyle to that of local lad o’ pairts George Best, a lady next to me let out an involuntary gasp of disapprobation. It seems that excessive devotion to wine and women is all right — as long as it remains in literature.

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