It’s time to explore riches of Ulster Protestant culture
A rich, vibrant literary and political heritage exists beyond the DUP’s grip
A 2016 production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. Photograph: Johan Persson
Despite claims that people across Ireland are counting down the clock to Irish unity, different political priorities appear to abound south of the border: affordable and good housing, environmental issues, anti-poverty campaigns, and consideration of Ireland’s place in Europe and the world. Generally speaking, it is not advisable to talk too much about Protestantism in Ireland, especially its northern contingent. Something to put people off their food or get into a row about. Even recent books about Irish Protestantism tend towards “spare me the North”.
In many ways this is understandable. Southern Irish concerns are demonstrably not the sectarian point-scoring of the broken North’s political culture. But there is a renewed debate and dialogue going on, mostly because of the largest party of Ulster Unionism’s current influence (very soon to end, probably in tears) at the Brexit negotiating table. And Ulster Protestants, like it or not, will play a large part in the future of this island in whatever political, social and economic form that takes. For this reason it is critical to remember that a rich and vibrant Ulster Protestant literary and political heritage exists beyond the boundaries (and grip) of the Democratic Unionist Party.
There is no doubt this is a group generally lacking in cultural confidence – a condition discernible by doing the revolutionary thing of actually speaking to working-class Protestants. They go against their own grain and will insist passionately that they have produced little of cultural or literary value.
One anonymous musician interviewed in Marilyn Hyndman’s Further Afield: Journeys From a Protestant Past (1996) spoke of “dying” Protestant estates (whole council estates, “dying”?), and described “a wee parade on the Twelfth, beating a drum and hating Catholics” as the sum of Protestant culture. Things have, if anything, worsened since, with North Belfast DUP representative William Humphrey assuring the departed Stormont Assembly in October 2013 that Ulster Protestants have no tradition of “buying into” the arts: it’s more a Catholic/Irish thing, you see.
Last month, a new series exploring Ulster Protestant identity began at the Glens Centre in Manorhamilton, Leitrim, and moves from November 7th to the Garrison Church of Ireland Hall. Actor and director Adrian Dunbar, who holds east Belfast-born playwright Stewart Parker among the finest dramatists he has worked with, comments how it “looks like a thoughtful and indeed timely intervention. The Protestant imagination continues to struggle free from orthodoxies unique in these islands. Its lore and commitment to our national imagination is unparalleled.”
This series aims to move beyond the familiar images and stereotypes by looking at writers who reflect Ulster Protestantism’s diverse, dissenting, contrary and occasionally progressive character. One early case is Thomas Carnduff: a poet, playwright, shipyard worker and Orangeman who ascended the Abbey Theatre stage to rapturous applause following the first performance of his play, Workers, in October 1932. It expressed Belfast working-class life and dialect to a Dublin audience, winning Carnduff praise as an “O’Casey of the north”, even if he was obliged to stand for Amhrán na bhFiann when he got up to receive his accolade (he later admitted to humming The Boyne Water under his breath as a “kind of repudiation”!). A recently-founded society dedicated to new creative writing recently launched in Belfast and is named after Carnduff.
John Hewitt, dubbed a “Protestant Prospero” by a fellow northern poet, also broadened things by describing himself, in a “hierarchy of values”, as “an Ulsterman; of planter stock…an Irishman...British…and European”. This remains a useful and accurate identity framework for many northern Protestants. In August 2017 the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, presumably prompted by one of his clever advisers, quoted Hewitt’s hierarchy in a speech to Queen’s University Belfast, speaking admiringly of Hewitt’s vision “that we all have multiple identities, it’s what makes us what we are”.
This was not the first time a taoiseach namechecked Hewitt (Fianna Fáil’s Jack Lynch once quoted Hewitt’s poem The Colony in an address), but it was telling that the conservative Varadkar neglected to mention Hewitt’s other major identity: socialism. He was a branch delegate for the Northern Ireland Labour Party and regularly proclaimed his socialism – associations that crippled Hewitt in 1950s Northern Ireland. He missed out on a job he was expected to get to run the Ulster Museum and instead took a job directing Coventry’s superior Herbert Art Gallery, until his retirement and return to Belfast in 1972, the deadliest year of the Troubles. He would wander round the war zone, writing poems about sectarian killings in the south Belfast newsagents where he bought his tobacco.
Hewitt’s leftwing politics remained as out of kilter with the South of the 1980s as with the North of ever. Several years before he died, he waded into Ireland’s September 1983 referendum, which ended up recognising “the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn”, telling fellow Belfast Protestant Sam McAughtry in an Irish Times column: “As far as I am concerned the life of the mother is sacred. It is ridiculous to pretend to indignation on behalf of the unborn. This is the sort of thing that makes unity of the island recede further and further away.”
Later Protestant working-class dramatists including Gary Mitchell deal with the ravages of Loyalist paramilitarism (Mitchell was forced out of the Rathcoole estate where he had grown up at the end of 2005), while others considered the identity outside of Belfast and Newtownabbey. Dave Duggan’s and Jonathan Burgess’s dramas tackle attitudes to the peace process (on both sides) in Derry/Londonderry, band culture, and the flight of Protestants from the Waterside. Dispatches from the streets of compromise and loss.
Along with the aching border-view of Eugene McCabe and the poetic sensibility of Frank McGuinness, who look in at Ulster Protestants from the other side of the fence, women writers also make their mark and are presently on their own march. Marie Jones and Christina Reid’s plays portray working-class women – often, though not exclusively, from Protestant backgrounds – negotiating the Troubles and beyond, with humour that aids survival.
Commandeered by British director Pam Brighton, Charabanc Theatre Company educated themselves on history and theatre, investigating rare moments of working-class solidarity such as the Outdoor Relief riots of October 1932 (as one of Charabanc’s founders, Jones says that when she first heard about “outdoor relief” she thought it was “an outside toilet”). Those five fiercely talented, then unemployed actresses brought back into view women in the mills, lost to history, voices buried, and built their own historical record. As with Field Day, they toured their plays to people outside of conventional venues; from the ground up, then out on the road.
Rosemary Jenkinson, who will come in to interact with the forthcoming seminar series, notes that many northern Protestants envy the positive images enjoyed by Irish Catholics internationally. Echoing Hewitt, she is proud of all her identities as a Protestant, Irish and British woman, even if, as she wrote in The Irish Times in 2017, “the new uncertainty of Brexit makes us feel as precarious as an infant in care. We’re like the problem child of Europe, feeling disowned and unloved by England and Ireland, yet at the same time we’re incredibly proud to have survived.” In a hashtag unlikely to receive the same level of fashionability as Waking the Feminists, Jenkinson jokes that a new campaign needs to begin: #WakingTheProtestants!
It is an identity which that will continue its negotiations in (and with) Ireland long after present storms pass. In an extraordinary interview carried in the Studies journal in the year of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Frank McGuinness interpreted the Protestant imagination as being “deeply influenced by a whole Northern European scope”, epitomised by the “great voice of Northern Protestantism”, Ibsen, who ‘gives his energy to the nature of doubt and the task of defining oneself – training oneself to undercover the personal redemption that stands at the hear of Lutheranism”.
Aside from such theological reflections, lending this group what McGuinness calls “an extremely strong spirituality and sense of identity”, novelist – and persistent contrarian – Maurice Leitch contends that Protestants in the north are simply defined by their being “agin things.” Despite his success and acclaim, he sees the boys collecting battered and broken wood for the bonfires.
On the ground, on the trusty interfaces, in places of work, and the community halls where ordinary life breathes, it usually endsin the old northern predicament: of ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in an extraordinary situation. As the Protestant working-class protagonist of Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit, a short film written by Stacey Gregg, puts it as she walks her young daughter to school along a Belfast interface:
“At the end of the day, if you’ve your head screwed on, get your Irish passport: you’re European and your British. Go after the work. And sure, that’s the best the young ones can hope for, isn’t it?”
Connal Parr’s Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination is out now in paperbackThe ‘Protestant Imagination’ programme continues to run every Thursday at 7.30pm in the Garrison Church of Ireland Hall, Enniskillen. All sessions are free and anyone interested in signing up can contact firstname.lastname@example.org