I annoyed a Protestant with last week’s column and this has made me sad. I may have annoyed more than one Protestant, but only one of them emailed to let me know. To any Protestants I annoyed last week, I’m sad and I’m sorry. I am hoping this column might help.
It’s not that I’ve never annoyed a Protestant before. It has definitely happened. I share a bed with a Protestant every night and I definitely annoy him with my snoring and ignorance of how to use the washing machine and various other household appliances.
I was not trying to annoy a Protestant in this case, I was trying to be funny which is always risky. What happened was I wrote a column about a delightful weekend in Ballyvolane House, Co Cork, where a friend was lamenting his rapid descent into deep middle age. I wrote, “he told a few of us the sorry tale over an afternoon game of croquet” and then came the offending line… “which makes us sound not only ancient but extremely Protestant”.
(On the day the column was published a well-known novelist I know texted to say “he told a few of us the sorry tale over an afternoon game of croquet” might be the most Irish Times thing he’s ever read in The Irish Times.)
But the Protestant who wrote to me felt stereotyped by my bad joke. “When you refer to extremely Protestant do you mean that as a derogatory term?” she asked. “Is it assuming that all Protestants are entitled, rich people? If so, it is very far from the truth. Most are ordinary people who have to go about their business keeping their heads down to avoid unwelcome comments. I have many instances of people making nasty comments about Protestants in my company and of taxi drivers foul mouthing Protestants when given directions to drive past a Protestant Church. My daughter was fed up with anti-Protestant comments while at one of Dublin’s leading universities.”
When 22 years ago I met a Protestant in Portadown in the middle of a riot I behaved unprofessionally and asked him for his number
My correspondent clearly had good reason to be irritated by unfair, small-minded perceptions and throwaway comments in newspaper columns. She was cross with me and I understand why.
It was a fair point. There are some Protestants in Ireland who know their way around a croquet lawn, but there are many more who do not. I know this already because my life has been touched and shaped by ordinary, non-croquet-playing Protestants in so many ways.
At the risk of, how can I say it, protesting too much, I’m going to say it anyway: some of my best friends are Protestants.
I grew up singing Protestant hymns at the “Tuesday night meeting”, a weekly event in a Protestant hall which is how I still know every word of Rise and Shine (and give God the glory, glory).
When the pope came to Ireland I did not go to the Phoenix Park to see him in his popemobile. I went across the road to eat instant noodles – the absolute height of luxury in 1979 – in the home of my Protestant friends Shirley and Helen.
I grew up next door to a Presbyterian hall where I honed my love of traybakes at their bake sales and where often as a child I longed to be a Protestant so I could join the Girl’s Brigade.
My own mother used to be a Protestant. I got my first big break in journalism from a Protestant who is one of the finest people I know. When 22 years ago I met a Protestant in Portadown in the middle of a riot I behaved unprofessionally and asked him for his number. We now have two children who have been educated by Protestants and who have sung like angels many times in Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, that glorious and ancient bastion of Protestantism.
She'd come to my house, tidy up, and afterwards declare with a satisfied sigh, 'now, that's more Protestant looking'
The most Protestant person I know, my partner’s mother Queenie, has long been my greatest teacher when it comes to Protestant culture. That is, to be specific, Northern Irish working-class Protestant culture.
Long before Lisa McGee wrote her iconic Protestant/Catholic blackboards in Derry Girls I had noticed Queenie put her toaster away in a cupboard after every use. (The reasoning here is that the toaster when not in use makes the counter more cluttered, something that doesn’t seem to bother Catholics as a general rule but for obvious reasons I am reluctant to stereotype.)
When we first became acquainted and I persuaded Queenie’s son to move to holy Catholic Ireland, she’d come to my house, tidy up, and afterwards declare with a satisfied sigh, “now, that’s more Protestant looking”.
Annoying a Protestant has come as a shock. Over many years of columnising, my views have mostly annoyed Catholics. They did not send polite emails about being annoyed; they sent scary letters in all capitals and called me the kinds of names of which Jesus would not have approved.
Having been made a Catholic as a baby without my consent 50 years ago, I actually managed to formally defect from the Catholic church in the noughties, something that is sadly no longer possible.
So while I’ve no formal religious credentials to speak of, there is no escaping the fact that culturally I am far more Protestant than Catholic. I sincerely hope no Protestants were harmed in the writing of this column. And like I said earlier, I’m sorry. Not just to the Protestant who wrote to me but to any other Protestants who were offended by my lazy croquet stereotype.
If it's any consolation everyone knows you have the best cakes and your hymns are in a different league altogether. Not to mention the fact that your religion is more equal – it's over 30 years since women were first ordained into the Church of Ireland.
Queenie is probably right, as usual. We should all try to be more Protestant looking.