Two fingers from Belfast: A centuries-old culture of dissent
From Mary Ann McCracken to George Best, dissent runs in the city's blood
Stiff LIttle Fingers. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns
In the middle of the last decade of the 18th century, half a dozen young men met on Cave Hill, overlooking the town (as it still was) of Belfast and swore an oath to unite all the people of Ireland, Catholic, Protestant – that is to say, Established Church Protestant – and Dissenter, which for Ireland then and for Belfast in particular was synonymous with Presbyterian.
Four of the six (the exceptions were Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell) were themselves Presbyterian. Religious and political dissent were, if not everywhere intertwined, far from strange bedfellows in the northeast corner of the island.
The oath on Cave Hill is in more ways than one the pinnacle of our political history to date, the clearest, most succinct expression of a non-sectarian politics that still eludes us and the pursuit of which in the late 1790s – for every peak here, alas, a trough – ended in bloodshed and the very sectarian strife those swearing sought to transcend.
If any one individual represents the continuation of the spirit and ideals of the late 18th century into the 19th it is Mary Ann McCracken
They did, though, succeed in leaving their stamp on the city in other ways. The Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, more commonly known as the Linen Hall Library, still flourishing 230 years after its foundation, is a product of that radical moment. Several of its founding members died in, or were executed after, the United Irish rebellion of 1798. And though it is commonplace to say that the repression of the rebellion and the Act of Union that quickly followed focused the attention of Dissenters thereafter on matters more spiritual than temporal, some of the openness to new ideas that characterised the previous generation is evident in the founding of Belfast’s first museum, in 1831.
The guiding lights were again in the main young Presbyterian men, but if any one individual represents the continuation of the spirit and ideals of the late 18th century into the 19th it is Mary Ann McCracken, sister of Henry Joy McCracken, the Belfast United Irish leader, hanged outside the Market House on the corner of High Street and Cornmarket – Dunnes Stores today. Mary Ann turned 28 the week before her brother’s execution. His body was handed over at the foot of the scaffold into her care. She survived him by almost 70 years, well into the era of photography.
She was, in her long lifetime, a campaigner against the causes and effects of poverty, at one point lobbying the board of the poorhouse for candles “sufficient on to the hours of darkness” for the children who until then had been allowed the equivalent of only an hour a day, or rather night, even in the depths of winter. She took a keen interest in prison reform, the care of the sick and even apparently animal welfare. Her admiration for the nuns in Belfast’s first convent were tempered only by her certainty that she could never keep to a vow of silence herself if when out and about she was “unable to take the part of some poor ill-used animal”.
No to slavery
She was a disapprover of strong drink and coarse language, and a lifelong opponent of slavery. She and her friends abstained from sugar while the slave trade was ongoing in the West Indies. Even after abolition throughout the British empire, she continued – by her reckoning, one of only 16 or 17 people in Belfast, all women – to protest against its perpetuation elsewhere.
To the image of half a dozen young men taking a vow on Cave Hill, I add as the epitome of dissent, Belfast style, Mary Ann McCracken, aged 89, standing at Belfast’s docks handing anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants boarding the ships that would take them to America.
A decenter skin, as my father would have said, may never have walked the streets of Belfast.
And I would be the world’s worst liar if I said that hers was the version of dissent I aspired to or even paid attention to when I was growing up.
On the football pitch, at least, he was a man far more sinned against than sinning.
When I was growing up, dissent was something you got sent off the football field for. (Sent off for dissent – what a beautiful little capsule of a phrase, a phrase that seems to flirt with palindrome - sent off fo… – and then, do you know what, just can’t be bothered with that symmetry shit). I don’t know whether you could call golden an age whose principal element appeared to be mud, but the 1970s seemed to specialise in players who combined sublime individual skill with long hair, untucked shirts and constant mouthing off: Charlie George, Peter Marinello, Stanley Bowles and, the daddy of them all, Belfast’s own George Best.
Before I say another word about George Best and discipline, I am bound to draw attention to a documentary, by Doubleband Films, called George Best’s Body, which featured a full-length portrait of Best in his footballing prime wearing just a pair of shorts. The term “kicked to pieces” might have been coined for his legs.
On the football pitch, at least, he was a man far more sinned against than sinning.
On April 18th, 1970, Northern Ireland played Scotland at Belfast’s Windsor Park. I was eight years old: too young to go – it would be another year before I saw my first international – but my two eldest brothers went with my dad. I remember running to them as they came in the back door. I had only two questions: how did we do (lost) and how did Georgie play? My dad shook his head in disgust and despair: George Best had been sent off for flinging mud at referee Eric Jennings who – as if the offence needed to be made any starker – had been wearing a white shirt for the day, to distinguish him in that black-and-white television world most of still lived in from the dark shirts of Northern Ireland and even darker shirts of Scotland.
(Luckily in those days, being sent off was no bar to playing the next game, which Best did, three days later, against England, and scored. We lost, again, but he scored, so you know, small victories.)
I say Best was the daddy of them all, but my favourite image of that era is of Robin Friday, once of Reading then playing for Cardiff City, wheeling away from the goalkeeper Milija Aleksic, left sitting in the mud after Friday had scored a goal against Luton Town in the old Second Division.
I like football, but in the ordinary run of things I don’t – certainly in the ordinary pre-internet run of things, living in Belfast, I didn’t – regularly encounter photographs of English Second Division matches. I know this image only because it was used on the cover of a 1996 Super Furry Animals CD single, The Man Don’t Give a Fuck, which takes its title from the second line of a couplet from Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids, “Showbiz kids making movies of themselves/ You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else” – not only takes its title from, but samples and repeats it 50 times in the course of its four minutes 47 seconds, making it for a time the sweariest record ever released.
(It is no longer the world’s sweariest – that record is now held by a live version recorded in 2004, which comes in at 23½ minutes and therefore contains a fuckload more fucks.)
On the sleeve of the studio version the goalkeeper has been cropped out, so all you are left with is Friday, looking in truth like he doesn’t give much of a fuck about anything, although Robin Friday himself isn’t the Man referred to in the song’s title. The Man of the title is that other Man, in the words of Super Furry Animals lead singer and lyricist Gruff Rhys, “any organisation that is terrorising you or anyone who’s cramping your style”.
And Friday is giving him – giving them – as in that far off day against Luton he gave Milija Aleksic, the fingers.
Earlier this autumn my screenwriting partner, Colin Carberry, and I, adapted our 2012 film Good Vibrations for stage at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. This is the story of Terri Hooley, whose father had repeatedly stood for election – unsuccessfully – on a non-sectarian Labour ticket and who, aged 29, in the late 1970s, opened a record shop on what was then the most bombed half mile in all of Europe. The shop became a haven for a generation of young people from all quarters of the city and in time spawned a record label that released The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks.
There are a great many stories about Hooley – most of which he has told himself – but to give you a flavour of the man, here is a story I heard from someone else, at an evening celebrating the history of protest song at the Oh Yeah Centre on Gordon Street. A couple of years before the start of our Troubles, so some time in the mid-1960s, there was a demonstration – the guy I was talking to thought probably against the Vietnam War – down Royal Avenue, our main shopping street. Just as it was setting off, this guy looked over his shoulder and saw Hooley and his placard heading in the opposite direction. “Hooley!” he shouted, “Where are you going?” And Terri shouted, “I’m forming a splinter group.”
Funny – well, I thought – and typical Terri. But the real point of the story for me was what this man said to me next: “And do you know what? We would all have done better to follow him.”
Many of the people in Hooley’s circle back then ended up drawn into the conflict, taking sides, taking up guns. He himself escaped an attempt on his life – by people he knew – and was severely beaten on more than one occasion for refusing to take a side himself. The rest of the time he was – as is often the lot of non-conformists and dissenters – dismissed as a joke, a clown.
Two fingers, my friends
There is a key scene in the film Good Vibrations, just after the shop has opened, in which the crowd at a punk gig on which Hooley has just stumbled chase the police from the Pound bar, about 200 yards from where we are gathered this afternoon, with chants and jeers.
I noticed in rehearsals for the stage production that the young cast all held up their middle fingers to wave the cops bye-bye.
I had to point out to them that this was the 1970s. A single finger in Belfast was as exotic as an aubergine. It was two fingers. Always two fingers.
Stiff Little Fingers, one of the more overtly political Belfast bands of the time, who recorded the seminal Alternative Ulster, even incorporated a stylised version of the fingers in their logo, although if you ask me it’s a little too, well, stiff – static – to be effective, because you just didn’t raise your fingers, you threw them: bend it, stretch it, double it and send it.
There was such energy in it – energy mixed with insouciance, even glee.
TV news cameras in those days – and in those days there were TV news cameras aplenty in Northern Ireland – were two-finger magnets. Teenage girls and boys would jostle to register their disdain – was it? – for whoever was on the other side of the screen, looking back at them, and also to an extent their disdain for the events that had brought the cameras there in the first place.
The simple truth is that dissent can very easily harden into orthodoxy
I would call it a non-verbal form of dissent were it not for the fact that it was often accompanied by three single-syllable words, equally gleefully delivered: Up your hole.
So not non-verbal but not necessarily structured either. At its most elementary, dissent is about differing in opinion or even just in sentiment, feeling.
We each of us at every stage of our lives define ourselves as much by what we dissent from as what we adhere to.
My daughter told me the other day that a friend of hers didn’t have a record player. Three or four years ago few people her age (any age, maybe) had, but it wasn’t that her friend hadn’t caught up, she’d gone beyond: “She’s all about cassettes,” my daughter said. Vinyl has become mainstream again, even a little smug. I am speaking at a Vinyl Festival in Dún Laoghaire next weekend. I could be pleasantly surprised by the demographic, but I’m not holding my breath.
The simple truth is that dissent can very easily harden into orthodoxy. That self-definition can become self-regard. Perhaps the true measure of us as people is, rather, how we behave towards those who dissent from us. Tenacity in your own dissent, and dignity in the face of those who dissent from your beliefs, seems to me the line to hold to.
Although it is clearly easier said sometimes than done.
I voted Remain
I voted Remain in the UK’s EU referendum, not because I understand the European Union and all its workings fully, but because I feel the European project is in the best interest of the greatest number.
I have to accept, though, that some people feel differently, or at least they did last time they were asked. Quite a lot of people actually. That is their right. There are obviously twerps and zealots and not-so-closet xenophobes in their camp – heading it up, in fact – but there are also those who I can see felt themselves to be in a minority and wanted to register their dissent, only to find, perhaps to their surprise, that they were after all a majority. Meanwhile those who had been the majority found – to their horror – they were now a minority, though not in Northern Ireland, where the majority voted for what turned out to be the minority cause, including a great many who had grown up identified as a member of a different kind of majority, within Northern Ireland itself that is, though a minority on the island as a whole … If you follow me.
Orthodoxy, generates dissent, becomes a new orthodoxy, generates new dissent. Dissent keeps us honest. Dissent reminds we can go too far. Not can: all too frequently do
If, in years to come, anyone asks me to describe the experience of these times, I will describe for them a rail journey I once took from Manchester to Norwich in which, on at least two separate occasions, the train pulled in to a station facing in one direction and pulled again out facing the other. By the time it reached Thorpe Station in Norwich my fellow passengers and I were so disoriented, the station guards were using cattle prods to steer us up the platform.
Orthodoxy, as I had been saying before I got sidetracked and cattle-prodded, generates dissent, becomes a new orthodoxy, generates new dissent. Dissent keeps us honest. Dissent reminds we can go too far. Not can: all too frequently do.
Political opposition is in this sense dissent given institutional form. One of the things that most irked me about the political dispensation in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Belfast Agreement – which I also voted for, 20 years ago in April – is that it made no provision for an official opposition.
If citizens here hadn’t known it already, the current inquiry into the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal – aka “cash for ash” – has revealed our vaunted power-sharing executive to be no more than a hollow shell of the long dreamed-of Union of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. It has been for most of its lifetime a duopoly, a carve-up by two parties whose loathing for each other is only outweighed by their reluctance to relinquish control to anyone else.
We did finally get a mechanism for an Opposition in March 2016, although that has not yet come into effect given that it requires a change to the Standing Orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has itself not sat since the start of 2017. So, still no Opposition, and now for the best part of two years no fucking government.
Punk is free
I was talking earlier about Good Vibrations. The film version of the story ends in the Ulster Hall, April 24th, 1980 (a decade and a week on, I’ve just realised, from George Best’s sending off against Scotland) at the time the largest venue in Belfast, a gig that is supposed to be a fundraiser for the shop, which is dire financial difficulties.
Except Hooley lets half the audience of punk kids in free. Because Belfast at that moment is in the midst of a particularly nasty spasm of violence: after a brief period in which it seemed as though things might be opening up, people are being dragged back behind their lines. Better to have this one glorious night, is Hooley’s reasoning, than to simply carry on until the next crisis.
He rounds off the night at the microphone himself, singing a song – a hymn almost – to all those who, like himself, have been dismissed as jokes and clowns, reclaiming the terms. The song is Laugh at Me by Sonny Bono: “So I don’t care, laugh at me/ If that’s the fare/ I have to pay/ To be free/ Then, baby, laugh at me ...”
The play ends with the same song, but whereas in the film Terri simply says he and the band are going to do an old Sonny Bono song because they fucking can, now he prefaces it by saying “They call us jokes, clowns, well fucking let them”; and while he sings, by a feat of theatrical legerdemain, the scene changes and the audience is fast-forwarded with him from 1980 to 2018.
Now I can say this without blushing, because it was not my doing, nor Colin’s, but the director Des Kennedy’s, but the audience were on their feet and cheering every single night the moment Laugh at Me finished, or the moment Aaron McCusker, who was playing Hooley, finished with the song. On more than one occasion they were on their feet long before that.
I appreciate that there might have been a very specific Northern Irish explanation for this reaction – for reasons just outlined there is a huge amount of frustration with our dis-Assemblied state. But I think something more was going on – something more even than the general dissatisfaction with organised politics abroad in the world.
Pilots from Venus
Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals said at the time of its release The Man Don’t Give a Fuck’ could bring down the government, but in five years’ time we could be ruled by pilots from Venus and then they’d be The Man.
Or here’s another, even more frightening thought: we ourselves in time become the Man … or Wo-Man … the establishment. As a human being I am a mass of contradictions. I struggle for consistency, struggle to do what is right, live how is right, and I fall short a hundred times a day and a hundred times more worry that my life has become, as it were, a mere museum of my past life, built on equivocation and compromise, to which all I do is add new artefacts and trinkets.
I may be extrapolating wildly here, but I think what was happening in that Laugh at Me moment in the Lyric was that members of the audience were connecting, or reconnecting, with an inner seam of dissent present in us all.
Belfast has changed enormously in the past 38 years, but the character represented on stage – like the man on whom he is based – stands at the same critical angle to his world, this city, in 2018 exactly as he did in 1980. He is still calling out the shortcomings.
And in regard to those who would ridicule or belittle or otherwise try to marginalise, he says the same now as then: fucking let them.
It is a defiantly dissenting voice, and though it could probably still get you sent off and is certainly not one of which Mary Ann McCracken would have approved, it is to me a profoundly decent voice.
This is an edited version of an address Glenn Patterson gave to the UK Museums Association’s annual conference in Belfast recently