Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, by Connal Parr, Oxford University Press, 294 pp, £55, ISBN: 978-0198791591
The widely held view of the Northern Ireland Protestant working class is of “a group which is reactionary, prone to violence, possessing little or no Left and Labour history, and nothing approaching a literary heritage”, says Connal Parr at the beginning of this fascinating book. He sets out with the entirely noble aim of seeking to correct this misperception.
The jury must be out on whether he has succeeded. Certainly nobody can fault the meticulousness of Parr’s research, the depth of his interviews and the multiplicity of his sources. He sets out his stall powerfully in the opening chapter on Northern Ireland’s continuing cultural wars: largely an account of how republicans, led by “volunteers” turned writers like Ronan Bennett and Danny Morrison, have successfully demonised their Northern neighbours as reactionaries and ignoramuses.
These are unashamedly political writers. Bennett believes that writing novels is an effective way for him to “play a part” politically. In a Guardian article in 1994, he claimed that Northern Protestants lived in “an intolerable mental world”, with a culture limited to “little more than flute bands, Orange marches and the chanting of sectarian songs at football matches”. Morrison admits that in his fiction he remains a republican propagandist: his stories contain “self-justifications. Some aspects of the conflict – the heroism, the sacrifices – will be singled out, glorified; others, belonging to the darker side, will be suppressed or sanitised.” He admits that “republicans have the luxury of assuming that history’s on their side”. Neither Bennett nor Morrison, with their left-wing secular world view and passionate (if now past) attachment to violent republicanism, can be expected to have the slightest understanding for or empathy with three of the most important characteristics of Northern Ireland’s unionist community: their proud British identity, their attachment to evangelical Protestantism and their bitter rejection of the IRA and all it stands for.
However two broader-minded Marxist figures – both women ‑ agree with them. The English theatre director Pam Brighton, who devoted much of her later years to working in West Belfast’s Catholic community, called it “a much brighter community. It’s a much sharper community that has a future and can see it. West Belfast has something to celebrate and East Belfast doesn’t. I think the working class Protestant working class, as in East Belfast, is fucked on the whole, absolutely fucked. Unionism will not come to terms with the fact that the future ain’t going to be what it imagines.”
The former MP Bernadette McAliskey says that many loyalists have internalised the idea that they are a “white trash” underclass. When she has worked with young loyalists she has been surprised to hear them begin by saying “We know we are scum.” “I don’t understand any human being starting a conversation saying that they are not human. There is a clear lack of self-esteem and also a loss of confidence.”
Parr writes that the continuing republican struggle against Britain, and accompanying denigration of unionism, through art, literature and culture has led to “demoralization and a sense of defeatism” in the Protestant working class. This has been one of the great success stories of nearly fifty years of relentless republican propaganda, and nobody doubts how successful the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin have been as propagandists. Go into an Irish bar in any country in the world and ask for a summary of the 1968-1998 Northern Ireland “Troubles” and you will quickly see how successful.
However Parr goes on to argue that there is another significant, although now largely forgotten, element in Northern radical culture, and this has best been articulated by the (mainly) left-wing playwrights and poets whose work he explores in this book: notably St John Ervine and Thomas Cairnduff early in the twentieth century; John Hewitt and Sam Thompson in mid-century; and Stewart Parker, Graham Reid, Marie Jones and Gary Mitchell during the years of the Troubles. Many of these writers came from an equally forgotten – and politically powerless – Labour tradition.
Some of them are contradictory figures. St John Ervine is now largely remembered for the right-wing individualism, Ulster unionism and opposition to the postwar British Labour government of his later years. However as a young man he was a one-time secretary of the Fabian Society, and a Home Ruler who believed that the movement could be turned into an anti-sectarian movement which would unite Protestant and Catholic workers “in the struggle for economic equality”. He was also a notably cantankerous manager of the Abbey Theatre during the 1916 Rising. Thomas Cairnduff was a working class Presbyterian and member of the Independent Orange Order who is now totally forgotten. In his best play, Castlereagh, he identified strongly with eighteenth century United Irish leader and proto-socialist Jemmy Hope. However neither Ervine nor Cairnduff were major dramatists.
Perhaps the most attractive figure in Connal Parr’s story is the great, unrealised hope of Ulster Protestant radicalism, Sam Thompson. Thompson left school at fourteen to become an apprentice in Harland and Wolff shipyard, attended John Hewitt’s Workers Educational Association classes, and was recruited into the Northern Ireland Labour Party by Paddy Devlin (Parr’s grandfather). He ran as the party’s candidate in the 1964 British general election in the unwinnable constituency of South Down. Earlier he had tried to get a nomination in working class West Belfast, a constituency tailor-made for him, but, in the words of Eamonn McCann (himself a left-wing NILP member at the time): “The reactionary wing did not relish the prospect of a fiery, emotional radicalism being let loose in an urban constituency, and Alderman William Boyd, who in a subsequent controversy revealed his conviction that the foundations of civilisation would crumble if children were allowed to swing on Sunday, was selected.”
However Thompson’s main claim to fame was his playwrighting, and in particular his mighty indictment of sectarianism in the shipyard, Over the Bridge. In 1959 the Ulster Group Theatre was due to stage this play, which Thompson had given to James Ellis, the Group’s director of production (later to find fame as Bert “Fancy” Lynch, one of the central characters in the long-running ITV police drama Z-Cars) with the words: “I have a play here you won’t touch with a bargepole.” In the event the Group Theatre withdrew the play at short notice following objections by strongly unionist members of its board, notably the head of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (a forerunner of the Arts Council), who doubled as Unionist prime minister Lord Brookeborough’s golfing companion. Ellis and Thompson eventually founded a breakaway company to stage the play, which was seen by 42,000 people in its six-week Belfast run in 1960, before touring to Dublin, Scotland and London.
Thompson remained a controversial figure to the end of his short life: he died, aged only 48, in February 1965. A couple of months earlier what was probably his best play, Cemented with Love, had been postponed by an ultra-timid BBC in Belfast on the grounds that its theme of political corruption and “personation”, a long-established practice in Northern Ireland elections, made it unsuitable to be shown on the eve of a Westminster poll. Stewart Parker, a kindred spirit two decades later, said his death represented the loss of “a sane and compassionate leader for the Protestant working class. There is no knowing how Sam Thompson would have fared in this perhaps impossible position, but he remains the nearest thing to such a man that we have yet seen.” Parker said he represented “the voice of all that is civilized and decent in Belfast working class life, the embodiment of its impassioned common sense and derisive good nature.” Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison and the then lord mayor, Tom Hartley – proud working class Belfast men all ‑ were surely recognising this when they attended the 2010 recommemoration of Thompson’s grave.
Then there was John Hewitt, a poet rather than a playwright. Hewitt was a genuine socialist internationalist. For him, “our politics looked beyond [Ireland] to the world. Sacco and Vanzetti were, for us, far more significant than any of the celebrated ‘felons of our land’.” Like Thompson, he did not distinguish between what he regarded as the insular conservatism of Ulster unionism and the equivalent in Irish nationalism:“backward and tied to the ancient tradition”. Seamus Heaney said that in Hewitt’s mind “the Catholics in the North, and the Irish south of the border, remained definitively ‘other’ … nothing in him could altogether flow towards them. He was laureate of the reformed conscience, the embattled Ulsterman in stand-off from both England and Ireland.” He saw Hewitt as “full of a stubborn determination to belong to the Irishry and yet tenaciously of a different origin and cast of mind”.
Like many Northern Protestants sympathetic to labour, Hewitt found that the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike struck a strangely sympathetic chord with him. He “began to understand the reasoning behind it” and found it “magnificently run”. Stewart Parker’s final and probably best play, Pentecost, was set during that extraordinary uprising: “without doubt the most successful political action carried out by any European working class since the Second World War” (to quote Scottish political scientist Tom Nairn). Was it incipient fascism, with its self-appointed leadership, paramilitary thugs ruling the streets and the overthrow of a democratically elected government? Parr calls this description a “facile label”, but also quotes senior Catholic civil servant Patrick Shea’s description of the strike, which he lived through, as “raw Nazism”.
Parker’s feelings towards the strikers were less benign than Hewitt’s. One of Pentecost’s four characters, Peter, calls them “apemen … wee hard men who can barely sign their names on their bloody passes … shipyard bible-thumpers, unemployed binmen, petty crooks and extortionists, pigbrain mobsters and thugs”. Peter also vocalises Parker’s belief that Northern Protestants were bent on self-destruction after missing the opportunity to reach out a generous hand to their Catholic fellow-citizens when they ran Northern Ireland for so long:
Can you not see, this whole tribe, so-called Protestants … all that endless mindless marching. They’ve been marching away with the lambegs blattering and the banners flying straight up a dead-end, one-way blind alley, self-destroying, the head’s eating the tail now, it’s a lingering tribal suicide going on out there. There was no need for any of it, they held all the cards, they only needed to be marginally generous.
Parker had one aim and two preoccupations. The aim was to combat, through “an act of the imagination”, the “deepest, most enduring and least tractable evil in our inheritance”, sectarianism. The preoccupations were, firstly, to portray how people in a stricken society like Northern Ireland cope with a bloody present when the bloody past is still unfinished – the subject of his first play, Northern Star, about the United Irish leader Henry Joy McCracken. Secondly, to show how ordinary people, especially women, live their lives in a hellish situation, as in Pentecost. His niece Lynn Parker, director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin, says “he absolutely believed in the integrity of the Everyman who is the worker, which is why he was so passionate about Sam Thompson … His socialist politics were that as long as the political and social system remains iniquitous then the common man is going to be abused.” Like Thompson, Parker was to die young, aged forty-seven, and both were probably on their way to being important dramatists, not least because they brought an unusual left-wing Northern Protestant sensibility to the Irish theatre.
No new left-wing Protestant playwrights have come out of Belfast in recent years. Graham Reid, Marie Jones and Gary Mitchell (along with lesser writers such as Christina Reid and Ron Hutchinson) have been more contradictory figures. In the 1980s Graham Reid’s series of Billy television plays received rapturous reviews. The Guardian called them “the most memorable and powerful account of life in working-class Protestant Belfast that British television has so far offered”. Kenneth Branagh (himself born into a working class Belfast Protestant family), who played the title role and would go on to become one of Britain’s most distinguished stage and film actors, said the plays’ “humour and warmth and passion in working-class family life was made accessible to everyone, and not just to people living in Ulster”. The Billy plays were not overtly political plays: they were about a working class family under the multiple stress of unemployment, sickness, bereavement, drink, domestic violence and male pride, and thus they could have been set in any industrial, or post-industrial city in the UK. Unlike Hewitt, Reid says he is “British first, Ulster second” and has tended to spend more time in recent years in England, from where he was strongly critical of the compromises with Sinn Féin and the IRA that were an inevitable part of the peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Marie Jones is another singular figure but with a very different theatrical and political trajectory. Her platform was the all-woman Belfast theatre company Charabanc, started because its group of talented actors couldn’t get work in Belfast’s two conservative theatres, the Lyric and the Arts. Their first play was Lay Up Your Ends, written (with the company) by Martin Lynch and directed by Pam Brighton, about a 1911 strike of female linen workers. As a playwright, Jones sprang into the limelight with A Night in November, which reflected her own journey from East Belfast Protestantism to an identification with Irishness. The play is about an uptight, middle class dole clerk who discovers his identity as a Protestant Irishman by abandoning the Northern Ireland soccer team and becoming a fan of the Republic of Ireland on the occasion of a particularly nasty meeting between the two in a World Cup qualifying match in Belfast in November 1993. I remember being in Windsor Park that night and listening to the group of Northern fans next to me singing a song about being “up to our knees in Fenian blood”.
I disliked A Night in November’s simplistic and sentimental partisanship, its playing to the self-congratulatory instincts of Irish nationalists. The playwright Gary Mitchell agreed: “It’s tapping into a thing I hate: the idea that being British is evil/being Irish is fantastic. Guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to have a play that starts off with the stage red, white and blue and then at half time we’re going to change the stage into green, white and gold, and the audience are all going to stand and give us a standing ovation. They’re not. The play isn’t getting a standing ovation: the politics is. What they’re saying is: ‘A Protestant has written a play where a Protestant person suddenly realises that Protestants are evil and shit and realises actually we should all be Irish Catholics.’ Awesome! That’s fantastic! It’s not challenging; it’s confirming. But the point is that it’s still a shit play and nonsense, because no one does that. And anybody who does do that – they get called traitors.”
Then there is the inimitable and extraordinarily courageous Gary Mitchell himself. He tells it as he sees it, often in admirably straight-talking foul language, writing principally about the marginalised and disenfranchised underclass of young working class Protestants from which he has come: unemployed, undereducated, used and discarded by the loyalist paramilitaries, with the old heavy industries that used to employ them gone, and feeling they’re the real losers in a peace process that is moving steadily in an Irish nationalist direction. This is a macho and violent world where young people hide their intelligence and “being stupid was the smart thing to do”, says Mitchell. Danny Morrison has said he wouldn’t like a play to be written about the IRA in the brutally honest way Mitchell tackles the loyalist paramilitaries “because of things the IRA did”.
I wish Gary Mitchell was better known south of the border, if only to educate the ignorant Southern middle class about the difficult, utterly different people who are the Northern Protestant working class – the people that one day they are going to have to win over, or if you’re a Sinn Féiner, defeat or neutralise ‑ if the first national aim of a united Ireland is ever going to be realised. Amazingly, Dublin middle class audiences appeared to adore one of Mitchell’s best plays, In a Little World of our Own, when it was premiered in the Peacock in 1997. The Lyric in Belfast had been too scared to put on this drama about loyalist paramilitaries in a poor Belfast housing estate, asking Mitchell if he could change the setting to Birmingham! Perhaps it was the sheer raw power of its protagonists, “a group of people fighting themselves in really bad, ugly ways”, that made it so compelling. Fintan O’Toole thought “the relentlessness of Gary Mitchell’s gaze and the quality of his vision suggest that the play may in its own way mark the beginning of the end”.
O’Toole was talking about the end of the Northern Ireland Troubles. But maybe there is a more problematic “end” that is going to take many more years and much more hard thinking to reach: the end of loyalist paramilitarism. Underpinning this is an even more fundamental question which seems to be at the heart of Mitchell’s plays: does the violence and hopelessness of working class Protestants as their “tribal” majority disappears signal the decline and eventual disappearance of their loyalism – meaning the harder, working-class wing of unionism – as a political force in Northern Ireland?
That is why Mitchell’s drama is so important: it exposes the central dilemma of Ulster unionism in a Northern Ireland that is close to losing its raison d’être as a bastion against Irishness. Mitchell puts it starkly: “In Northern Ireland you’re born and told: ‘You’re better than these other people just because you’re Protestant. Don’t forget – those people there, no matter what happens to them, they’ll always be Irish. They’ll always be Catholic, they’ll always be scum. So you should just be happy – quietly happy. Sitting in your shitty wee house with no money and no food. Remember – you mightn’t have anything, but you’re still a Protestant … Don’t worry about politics. Don’t worry about anything that’s real. You have to vote for us because we’re going to stop the monster. What’s the monster? A united Ireland.”
Some loyalist leaders, notably David Ervine, have been genuinely affected by Mitchell’s plays. But his dramatisation of the anti-Irish loathing of Ulster loyalism, in all its ugliness and fear, does not make him popular among his own people. He was forced to leave his home estate of Rathcoole on the outskirts of north Belfast in 2005 after his car was petrol-bombed in his driveway and his family attacked in their home by masked men with baseball bats. Although they had not actually seen his plays, rogue elements in the local UDA had taken exception to Mitchell’s “no holds barred” exploration of Protestant working class identity in plays that were performed and admired in the Irish Republic.
I have great sympathy – as a socialist , a Protestant and a journeyman writer – for Connal Parr’s valiant attempt in this book to link the limited Northern Irish Protestant literary heritage with its even more limited socialist tradition. It is a lovely notion that a socialist theatre might emerge out of the rubble of one of the most socially divided and reactionary societies in Western Europe. Unfortunately, two left-wing playwrights who might have been brilliant if they had lived longer and another bold portrayer of working class life in the squalid basement of that society do not add up to socialist theatre.
Parr’s book ends with two powerful images of failure and loss. Sam Thompson (in Stewart Parker’s words) “roamed around fearlessly in no-man’s land waving a red flag” and then failed abjectly in his one essay into electoral politics. Ron Hutchinson’s 2012 play about Ian Paisley, Paisley & Me, ends with him burying his parents, and symbolically burying both their and Paisley’s Northern Ireland way of life. Hutchinson even wonders if Northern Protestant writers, rather than their Catholic counterparts, have the more interesting task ahead of them: “They will get their thirty-two counties one of these days. We had our six counties but we lost them. That seems to me, to have lost, to be a more interesting place for a writer to be writing from than ‘one of these days we’ll have our thirty-two counties and it’ll all be heaven on earth’. Decline and failure and loss and, of course, lots of violence: will a great Ulster Protestant play one day be created out of these inauspicious ingredients?
Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies (1999-2013), a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin, and co-author of a biography of Rev Ian Paisley.