Ashes To Ashes

So Ash Wednesday.

Back in the 1960s, we all marched from the Primary School to the Catholic Church and we all lined up at the altar and the Priest used his thumb to imprint a sooty, black “ash” on our foreheads.

We actually liked this. We felt disappointed if the “ash” was a little grey mark. We felt elated when it was a big, yukky black mark. GOD knows what the Protestant neighbours thought…something vaguely Catholic like worshipping the Pope and burning Presbyterians at the stake.

Of course the 1970s were different. Groups of Catholics would leave the office at lunch time, walk the short distance to the city centre church (St Marys) and get the “ash”. It was as much a statement “screw you!” to the boss who was an Orangeman or Freemason as it was some kinda identification with the whole “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” philosophy. Indeed I am pretty certain that some Catholic colleagues never went near a church from one Ash Wednesday to the next.

For me ….getting an “ash” in the 1970s was an interesting social experiment. Returning to the office, some Protestant colleagues thought it quaint, even politely asking what it signifies. To be honest, few Catholics could give a straight answer. Some politely pretended not to notice the black mark. Some rudely pointed out “do you know there is a big dirty mark on your forehead?” And some had that “look” that only the sectarian bigots can give.

See….from a very early age in Norn Iron, we were expert at sussing out our Protestant colleagues. The nice people and the bigots. And we were particuarly good at sussing out the people who pretended to be nice.

Of course, it wasnt always a good idea to identify openly with being a Catholic. A lot of people, including very devout people never bothered getting an “ash” (it is more to do with ritual and tradition than actual doctrine). And some merely went to Church in the evening.

I am not really good with overt displays of Religion. And in the 1970s, many Catholics considered it advisable to remove “pioneer pins”. And no point in having an “ash” in the middle of your forehead. Its not exactly that I feared making an easy target for non-existent loyalist snipers on the dome of the City Hall….it was just a matter of staying under the radar.

But a thought strikes me.

For about a month before Remembrance Sunday, BBC and UTV require their on screen presenters to wear a poppy. Of course Poppy Apologists will say that is completely different. The Poppy is after all not a religious symbol. And they would go further and say that it is not a political symbol. All it does is honour those who have served in the British Armed Forces….and all the usual fig leaves about “lost generation” blah, blah blah, “lions led by donkeys” blah, blah, blah, “shared history” blah, blah, blah. But this is Norn Iron and everything is political.

Of course, it might well be the case that BBC and UTV presenters are just taking the easy option. The Troubles are over after all. No big deal. Take the BBC and UTV cheque and say nothing.

But is BBC and UTV really diverse? I dont ever recall a BBC or UTV presenter wearing an “ash”. Totally different of course. …as the Poppy Apologists would say. Yet on BBC World Service, I have seen young local reporters wearing indicators of religion…indeed I have seen young British Asian reporters do the same. And I have seen “western” CNN, CBS, BBC reporters honour local custom by wearing dress that is not traditional for them.

It surely cant be a problem. Northern Catholics seem to have the worst of both worlds. It is politically correct to wear a poppy. In a religious sense, we cant wear ashes on screen but people of other faiths can wear symbols of their faith.

Seems a bit of a double-standard. Something to think about while BBCNI and UTV are broadcasting from the Twelfth “Festival” in July.







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