Signs of War and Peace: Social Conflict and the Use of Public Symbols in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Signs of War and Peace: Social Conflict and the Use of Public Symbols in Northern Ireland. By Jack Santino. (New York: Palgrave, 2001. Pp. x + 145, preface, photographs, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth)

The hostilities that by now have plagued Northern Ireland for over three decades are among the most written-about in the world. (Published works whose approaches resonate with that of the work under present review include Brian 1998, 2000; Buckley and Kenney 1995; Jarman 1997; Loftus 1990, 1994; Rolston 1992, 1998, 2003.) In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, The Troubles are a constant point of contention, analysis, public discussion, and outrage. Jack Santino's Signs of War and Peace provides a solid introduction to the nature and history of the conflict as well as to its prevailing ideologies and popular artistic manifestations. Using examples primarily from Northern Ireland, Santino examines genres of popular art-what Stoeltje 1993 calls "ritual genres"-that have become emblematic of the conflict: parades and processions, bonfires, effigy burnings, spontaneous shrines, and demonstrations, along with the flags, banners, and murals that may be components of these rituals or backdrops to them. The central aim of the book is "to place the study of ritual, festival, holidays, celebrations, and public display in the center of the study of major social problems such as war, conflict, and violence" (ix).

To begin to understand how intricately constructed, finely nuanced, and minutely articulated the two sides of this conflict actually are, and how they affect all aspects of life in Northern Ireland, one has to have lived there, or to have visited there extensively. Santino has the advantage of having spent protracted periods of time there, as well as the courage-the "bottle"-to grapple firsthand with the complexities and head-butting paradoxes of Northern Ireland, a place where brinksmanship has been honed to a fine art. In this sociopolitical context, virtually no cultural expression is neutral. The very terms used for the two sides of the conflict-Protestant/Catholic, Unionist/Nationalist, Loyalist/ Republican-are political tools. As Santino says, although these terms have been defined in multiple ways, including religiously, it is most accurate to define them politically (18-21).

Santino's candid first-person account and his interview materials (from private individuals whose lives have been affected by the Troubles and from public activists and artists and politicians) make it possible for the reader to experience vicariously the theatricality and intensity of daily life in Northern Ireland. Showing how the same expressions can be shaped and reshaped to serve mutually hostile political agendas, Signs of War and Peace elucidates the workings of multiform folk arts in this highly charged social and political environment. Santino provides vivid descriptions of what one sees and hears in Northern Ireland, especially during the "marching season" (essentially the entire month of July), in which thousands of parades commemorate William of Orange's 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne, pivotal in the Protestant version of Irish history and celebrated by Orangemen ever since. Perceived alternately as a threatening assertion of Protestant-Unionist hegemony and as the period of the year's most important festivities and social gatherings, the marching season induces a palpable malaise throughout the province and sometimes results in violent confrontations. Workaday Ulster virtually shuts down in July. Santino gives us a feeling for both the carnivalesque atmosphere at Orange parades and their starkly ominous aspects, the nature of the bands and the music played and their social implications, the individuals and groups involved in the parades, and the critical yet underplayed implications of social class. …