Skip to main content

Negotiating Identity: Rhetoric, Metaphor and Social Drama in Northern Ireland.

Washington: Smithsonian Institution 1995. x+270 pp. notes, bibliography, index $44.50 (cloth) ISBN 1-56098-520-8

Review by Begoña Aretxaga Department Of Anthropology, Harvard University

If there is something that Northern Ireland is known for, besides the violence of the "troubles," it is its calendric political rituals. Flute band parades march in the streets in commemoration of historical events that seem lost in time but ingrained with significance in the minds of people. The historical narratives encoded in the songs and symbolic displays of the marches articulate stories of invasion, domination, and resistance where the metaphors of siege and redemption play central roles. These stories have, of course, very different significance for Catholics and Protestants. Protestant marches celebrate the victory Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II. This is translated into over Catholics and ritualized through territorial occupation of Catholic streets and neighborhoods. Catholic parades are now mostly republican parades held during holidays such as Easter. They speak of colonial domination and nationalist redemption through martyrdom. The stories that Catholics and Protestants tell to each other are indeed very different and even incompatible; Protestants view resistance to Catholic invasion as an admirable trait while the Catholic minority views Protestant resistance as colonial domination and social discrimination. Yet Buckley and Kenny argue that both groups use same metaphors, structure identity, and social interaction in similar ways.

This is a book about personal, social, and ethnic identity. Buckley and Kenney argue that in Northern Ireland, identity is constituted by social interaction and that much of this social interaction framed by metaphor. They focus on rhetorical metaphors. They focus on rhetorical metaphors and social dramas, such as political parades or riots, to explore the power of metaphor in organizing identity. The most salient are the metaphors of siege and redemption, as well as parental (father-son) and gender metaphors in framing social and political reality. For example, Buckley and Kenny analyze the siege of Derry, a central myth of loyalist resistance constructed through sexual imagery; the female city is in danger of rape by outside invaders and then saved by heroic male action. Gender metaphors are used to confer moral authority on political action and employed to justify rough and rebellious male behavior. But metaphoric assertions work only in context; social interaction does not occur in a sexual abstract. Their power resides in their capacity to articulate inchoate feelings and to make sense of a reality that seems uncertain and threatening. The authors acknowledge this and analyze a variety of social setting and situations to show the play of metaphor in practice.

Negotiating Identity is an interesting book about the formation of identity in Northern Ireland that displaces attention from reified conceptions of ethnic identity and places it on the fabric of cultural discourse and social interaction. The authors also remind us the ethnic identity is not disengaged from other identities and social positions such as class, gender, religious affiliation, or the structure of inequality that pervades ethnic relations in Northern Ireland. The latter point is, however, a major absence in this book. After reading about the metaphoric structuring of identity, I am left wondering about the structuring of metaphors by histories of social inequality.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.