Wanted: a loveable Protestant protagonist

Belfast author Angeline King read high and low, seeking positive role models in Irish fiction of her community, and found them in novels by Sam Hanna Bell and Joan Lingard

I was four years old when I first thought about how lovely it might be to be Catholic.

Perched on my wall, legs dangling, I watched in wonder as the local princesses sailed by in their long, celestial gowns.

“There are no princesses here,” my parents said.

“Of course there are princesses!” I replied. I saw them every day as I tra-la-la-ed to my somewhat Irish interpretation of a Boney M song: “Brown girl in the rain.”


One day, I gleefully pointed to the princesses from the window and declared that I wanted to be just like them. The yeuchs and the laughs that followed echoed from Larne to Killarney and a small part of my childhood was stolen away: I was Protestant, the Princesses of the Cross and Passion Catholic, and in the tribal climate of 1979 Ulster, I would categorically never join the ranks of their order. This was the greatest disappointment of my four years on the Earth, a disappointment that heightened into despair when it later transpired that my religion implicated me in the crime of 800 years of oppression.

When I began writing, the issue of identity came to mind, and as I talked about the portrayal of the Protestant in Irish fiction, a republican former paralimitary advised me that there were fewer Protestant protagonists in Irish fiction because “Protestants do not have the romance of the native Irish.” I was four years old again, weighed down with disappointment, but all the more determined to find the romance of the Protestant in Irish fiction.

I began by re-reading Joan Lingard’s young adult classic, The Twelfth Day of July. I was satisfied, through my adult eyes, that the feisty and adventurous Sadie was still a suitably admirable Protestant protagonist, but when I reached the chapter entitled The Glorious Twelfth, it occurred to me that there was no Twelfth parade to be had. The Catholic and Protestant children all go off to Bangor for the day. I wondered if the band tradition is always to be seen as a symbol of trouble and triumphalism. Or, could there be another story? As I sat back on my deck chair listening to the Irish folk ballads at this year’s Twelfth in Randalstown, trouble and triumphalism were far from my mind.

Of course, it wasn’t all rose-tinted merriment. There was the bizarre political tract that spelled out how Jesus would have disapproved of the EU, and the odd raucous “kick-the-pope” band to remind me why the Twelfth’s reputation precedes its media depiction. In my novel, Snugville Street, I try to demonstrate both the nostalgic and romantic perspectives of the Twelfth, while acknowledging the shame that lingers over the pageant like a fine Boyne mist.

The theme of shame continues in Linda Anderson’s Cuckoo, which is set in 1980s London. Fran is a conflicted Protestant character who immediately grabs our attention: “I have no use for people...Recently I almost loved a man...He was a married man, but that didn’t bother me.” The darkness continues through a narrative that is gripping, rhythmical and pulsating with language, and although the plot is understated and obscure, the exploration of character is masterful. Fran compares her people, “the usurpers”, to the white supremacists of South Africa, an emotive part of the novel for me and one that is contrary to my own life experiences.

Interestingly, Fran can’t connect her Protestantism with Irish culture. She observes: “There was something forlorn and irremediable and exquisite about those sounds that connected with the landscape outside, with the low hills, the mist, the thwarted but undying hopes. I thought I was close to ‘Irishness’ and I longed to be ‘proper’ Irish.” In addition to the resplendent language, I found this paragraph illuminating, and again inconsistent with my own upbringing. The vocation of the convent was to elude me, but there was never in my life a barrier to jigs and reels on a Saturday morning at the Andrews’ School of Irish Dancing. Fran suffers an identity crisis of vast proportions: even her republicanism is seen as an affectation. She carries the burden of Protestant shame and the weight of republican suspicions.

The House Where it Happened is Martina Devlin’s recent historical novel about the real-life witch-trials of Islandmagee in 1711. The novel is narrated in the Ulster-Scots of my parents and grandparents and is a golden record of colloquial phrasing and idiom. The most intriguing character in the story is Mary Dunbar, a Protestant from Armagh who arrives in Islandmagee and causes chaos. Mary is pretty and smart and has men at her beck and call; so much so that the ministers in this puritanical peninsula believe her when she claims that she is afflicted by witches. In modern eyes, Mary Dunbar is ill.

This novel is set only decades after the Plantation of Ulster, when the “native Irish” could still remember life as it was before the plantation by Scottish lowlanders. The subplot centres around the downfall of the Magees, the original inhabitants who were thrust over a cliff in a gruesome event lead by the barbarous Hamilton Lock. This is what his soldiers, the usurpers and oppressors, did by the Gobbins’ cliffs of Islandmagee: “A few women kneel. ‘Mercy!’ they cry. These women are bayoneted, their bodies tossed over the cliffs...Limbs flap in mid-air. Rocks poke through flesh. The foam turns red. Wails rise up to the heaves: a howling burst of fright, panic, despair. An infant is found where its mother left it, pushed to the side, half-hidden by a bush...A soldier picks it up. “Nits grow into lice,” he says, and throws it over the Gobbins. The child’s thin bleat sails back on the wind.”

As for the planters, they “closed their eyes and ears and waited for murder to be done in their names”.

Devlin creates an emotional link in the reader’s mind between the evils committed during the plantation and the evils of the witch trial: “to mind, that act of looking away at the time of the Magee killings gave birth to the corrupt seed”. My only remaining hope in the search for the romance of the Protestant in this novel lay with Ellen, the narrator, but it is revealed unexpectedly that she is one of the original Magees, that she is “native Irish” and, by inference, not really “Protestant” in the sense of identity.

In Tony Macaulay’s memoirs, he turns Protestant shame on its head and questions its foundations. Although Paperboy is refreshing and filled with charm, All Growed Up is the book that reveals the heart of this Ulster Protestant. Here we meet a young man who is continually tortured by the misconceptions of his working-class background. His father, an atheist of Protestant stock and socialist who works at the foundry, refuses to have “any son of his” involved in the Orange Order. In an an interesting twist on perceptions of Belfast Protestantism, Tony rebels against his father’s doctrines by becoming a Christian. The passing of Big Isobel, Tony’s maternal granny, brings us up close to the spirit of a Belfast granny. Big Isobel is a great Belfast matriarch who holds nothing back, “You wouldn’t be the first Holy Joe to run off with some wee whouer,” she says to her grandson, casting aspersions on his fidelity and Christianity in one blow. She also reveals the truth behind most Protestant doors with the observation that Gerry Adams had “the sorta bake you’d never get tired of kickin’” .

Tony’s work is a nostalgic, funny and at times romantic portrayal of the Protestant family in all its working-class glory, but Tony is wise to the rhetoric of republicanism and challenges many notions that have loaded the Protestant people with a shameful burden.

The International by Glenn Patterson was the book that everyone recommended, but another of his titles, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, caught my eye. And so it was that I was transported by way of Victorian prose to the silty shores of nineteenth-century Belfast.

This novel is a history book brought to life and Belfast is its main character. Significantly, the novel is set only decades after the Irish Rebellion of 1798 when disenfranchised Protestants and Catholics rose up together. The plot revolves around Gilbert Rice, a politically frustrated young man who pursues a wild ambition to murder Lord Belfast. There is no sense of overt shame about Gilbert Rice’s Protestant status because he feels let down by men further up the hierarchy of the “Protestant Ascendency” at a time when Protestants identified themselves as both “Irish” and “native”. Rice is not quite a great romantic hero, but he is a charming coming-of-age protagonist and he would be a revelation to many young Belfast men of today.

Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride is a classic novel that opens outside the Ravara Meeting house with a sentence that must be one of the most poetic I’ve ever read: “Ravara Meeting House mouldered among its gravestones like a mother surrounded by her spinster children”. The narrative, from the beginning, is locked to the land and the water of the Ards peninsula as a country tone rises and falls throughout the braes and loanen of the farmland of Rathard in the early 1900s. At the centre of the novel is Sarah Gomartin, a beguiling and stoic character, who refuses to conform to the norms of her tightly knit Presbyterian Ulster-Scots community. Her sleeping arrangements are unconventional and she bewitches at every turn, even bringing a Protestant minister to his knees.

December Bride cares less about Protestantism and more about character, and Sarah Gomartin stands out as a truly three-dimensional Protestant protagonist, a romantic hero who challenges convention until convention finally forces her hand.

Any modern look at the Ulster Protestant in literature would be incomplete without exploring the gritty reality of those loyalist people for whom loyalty is surprisingly sparse, rejecting as they often do any allegiance to queen, country, church or employer. Leesa Harker gives us “le chavs” (the chavs) in a feast of phonetic dialect that led to a socio-economic theatre phenonomen in Belfast. Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue is a shocking and perplexing piece of satirical West Belfast erotica that would send the average evangelical sprinting to the gates of Drumalis convent in Larne for an extended period of prayer and silent recuperation. Romance? Shame? Neither was on my mind in the midst of all the sexual shenanigans.

The Protestant people of Ulster are a melting pot of religious beliefs and political ideals, and the books that I read represent a wide cross section of character through time. Two Protestant women emerged for me as my own romantic heroes, Sadie in the Twelfth Day of July and Sarah in December Bride. Political struggle may represent romance in the eyes of a former republican terrorist, but the struggle for female independence is more enlightening for me; Sadie crossing barricades and Sarah living outside the conventions of her church. Both women sit well with the woman who grew from the Protestant girl who dreamed of being a nun in a less divided world as she tra la la’d in the rain.

Angeline King is the author of Snugville Street (2015), “an enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist” (The Irish Times) and new novel, A Belfast Tale. angelineking.com