Can you name a strong Protestant protagonist in Irish fiction? That was the question I recently posed to friends and literary contemporaries. By this, I mean the character that you never forget, the Scout Finch, whose voice still trickles like honeyed Southern charm years after you’ve read the book, or her father, Atticus, the man who leaves an indelible mark on your conscience. The most recent Irish Catholic protagonist I met was Jim Finnegan in Kevin Maher’s The Fields, one of many Irish Catholic protagonists who’ve entered my consciousness over the years.
My first introduction to Irish fiction was the The Twelfth Day of July, Joan Lingard’s young adult classic. Up until that point in my literary life, there had been boarding schools, tunnels, secret hiding places and plenty of larking around from children with posh English accents. There hadn’t been so much of a whisper of a pretend band with school recorders, stainless steel pots, and sticks lovingly bound in red, white and blue duct tape. There had been no reference to the Girls’ or the Boys’ Brigade and no displays of dancing girls moving like swans with clipped wings on the stage of Irish dancing festivals.
And so, when I first picked up Lingard’s work, my 12-year-old heart must have resounded like a cane rumbling against the skin of a Lambeg drum. Sadie was the first Protestant protagonist I had ever met, and I’ll never forget her name. Nor will I ever forget Kevin, her boyfriend. Many writers on the Women Aloud NI forum quote the same source of influence, and when a Twitter fan recently asked where she would find a novel with a strong female Protestant protagonist, we all found ourselves referring back to Joan Lingard.
Snugville Street, my debut novel, was also suggested. It is set in the Shankill area of west Belfast, and brings tears, laughter and a French exchange to an area more frequently depicted in crime novels. My female protagonist, Hannah, is ashamed of her community and of her father. Jean is a Protestant matriarch, who deals with suffering with gusto and the mighty stroke of her duster, and Harry lends some gravitas to the story when his jail sentence for murder ends. The subplot brings all the religions and versions of Belfast full circle, leaving the reader with a wonderful sense of hope.
Glenn Patterson was also mentioned time and again; his novel The International praised by many as the best book ever written about the Troubles. Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride, a compelling tale that predates the Troubles, was also frequently quoted as one of Ireland’s finest novels. The names kept coming: William Trevor, Jennifer Johnston, Robert McLiam Wilson, Anne Dunlop, Ian Sansom, Tony McAuley, Lucy Caldwell, Brian Moore, Janet McNeill, Kerry Hardie, Patricia Craig, Linda Anderson, Bernard MacLaverty, Marilyn McLaughlin, Sharon Owens, Claire McGowan, Brian McGilloway, Eoin McNamee and David Parks. There followed the great poets, playwrights and writers of Ireland’s past: Yeats, Wilde, Swift, Shaw, Synge and Beckett, all Protestant.
What I was searching for, though, was that really compelling protagonist, the one who touches the heart and soul of the modern reader. Could there be a present-day Presbyterian whose life changes when his only son comes to him to say he’s homosexual, or perhaps a Grand Master of the Orange Order in the 1990s who meets his brother in a police uniform on the other side of a barricade. Is there a great matriarch of the seventies and eighties, who spends all her spare money on leather supplies for a husband who is serving a long sentence, a woman who dreams of having a handbag made anywhere but the Maze prison? Where are all the conflicted Protestant heroes, the great men and great women of this small and stubborn community?
After Lingard, I migrated to the urban heartland of Roddy Doyle’s Dublin, an exciting acknowledgment that there was life beyond the borders of Northern Ireland, the borders that were soon to be crossed again via Crossmaheart in the witty, fast-paced narrative of Colin Bateman, a true revelation to me and to my fellow students at Queen’s University, who were, by 1995, sick to the back teeth of the grim reality of the Troubles and ready to indulge in some comedy to escape a heritage of violence. Frank McCourt came next, the man who clinched the deal for me and whose memoir made me believe that everyone has a story.
It was Maeve Binchy’s work that really made me question why there were no female Protestants writing hearty tales with a hard edge for the world to read. When Binchy’s characters were lighting penny candles and riding on bikes through a Dublin filled with charm and benevolent nuns, where were all the novels featuring the female protagonists who had worn ribbons in the Girls’ Brigade, or who had twirled the sweeping ropes of Orange banners in their Sunday school dresses, those novels fleshed out with the compulsory divorce, alcoholism and domestic violence of Irish tales?
As Protestant women in Ulster migrate away from their working-class world towards career, hotel breaks, book clubs and red wine, Protestant traditions remain in the hands of real-life stubborn protagonists who are steadfastly upholding their Protestant traditions, and there is a gap for women and men in Northern Ireland to reveal the true heart of Protestant life.
Sheena Wilkinson is filling that gap for young adults, bringing the Protestant protagonist into the post-conflict era in Still Falling, which explores issues around sexuality in an evangelical faith setting. Shirley McMillan’s soon-to-be published book, A Good Hiding, has a title that most 1980s children will understand. Felicity McCall has a Protestant matriarch with dark secrets in Finding Lauren. Jo Zebedee’s Inish Carraig, which recently topped three of the Amazon bestseller lists, features a post-alien invasion of Belfast through the eyes of a Protestant protagonist. Deirdre Quiery commented: “Eileen in my novel is a wonderful Protestant protagonist. The publisher said this is what he found compelling – the strength of the Protestant women in the book.”
There is a wealth of talent right now that has coincided with a terrible dearth of access to publishing houses. In an era when the unknown artist is told to self-publish first and then return to the publisher with their sales figures, and when funding has been pulled from the Arts, Northern Ireland Protestant writers have found the confidence to write about what they know. The great modern Protestant protagonist may already be in the making.