The Sound of the Shuttle: In defence of the Protestant imagination

Review: Gerald Dawe’s essays make for a remarkably open exploration of a maligned culture

A mural by artist Dee Craig highlighting cultural figures from east Belfast including Van Morrison, George Best, CS Lewis, James Ellis and Gary Moore. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

A mural by artist Dee Craig highlighting cultural figures from east Belfast including Van Morrison, George Best, CS Lewis, James Ellis and Gary Moore. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

For some the term “Protestant imagination” leads to the same head-scratching as “married bachelor” or “square circle”. The two words make sense in isolation, but when put together one seems to cancel the other out. This is where Gerald Dawe’s essay collection, The Sound of the Shuttle, begins, challenging the often unspoken yet conscious conviction in Ireland and Britain that Ulster Protestants are to the imagination and the arts what rainwater is to the campfire. And the extent to which this view has been received, incubated and amplified is a central concern of Dawe’s analysis. The Sound of the Shuttle has arrived at a time when interest in cultural Protestantism, or “Protestant culture”, has rarely been higher, with a 2019 conference in east Belfast, The Protestant Imagination, implying that there must indeed be such a thing.

These essays do not so much present an economically or efficiently expressed argument, but after a couple of pages Dawe has already trained his reader’s expectations. To read Dawe on Irish literature, the hunger strikers or cultural Protestantism is not to be taken from point A to point B, a linear journey from issue to solution, but is to be invited into a non-dogmatic, remarkably open exploration. And in this way, Dawe’s writing style is, after all, his most potent – if implicit – argument. It has been corridored dogmatism that has led to the entrenched and self-harming notion that northern Protestants lack culture and imagination. Dawe’s collection of essays trouble this characterisation basically by ignoring it – to defend the Protestant imagination is, it would seem, to have already given too much ground.

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