Belfast Telegraph

Where could be more appropriate to stage a one-man play about Martin Luther than a former Protestant church in the heart of west Belfast?

Local historian Philip Orr explains why he didn't hesitate when invited to take his production to an Irish language centre in the old Broadway Presbyterian Church

Anniversaries abound in our information-loaded world, some being less meaningful than others. Last year coincided with the 500th anniversary of the year when Martin Luther composed his Ninety-Five Theses. This is surely a moment in history that is well worth our consideration.

Luther's protest against what he considered to be the systemic abuse of Church power was a key event in the fracture within Christendom that would mark the world for centuries to come.

Of course, the deep boundary line which opened between Catholicism and Protestantism is the division along which the cultural and political wars of our own small society were fought for many years.

It is a wall which, even in a more secular and tolerant age, leaves many of us still cut off from one another.

Last year, I was asked by Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church in Bangor to mark this anniversary with a series of talks on Church history and also to compose a short play about Luther. Once the play had been performed, there were inquiries from other groups, asking if I could stage the drama for them.

The play was shown in Omagh, for instance, in a cross-community context, with a lively panel discussion to follow.

Then, an invitation came from individuals involved in the West Belfast Festival. Would I be happy to bring the Luther play to a venue on the Falls Road? And if the management of An Culturlann possessed a suitable slot in their calendar, could I stage it there?

An Culturlann is an Irish language arts and cultural centre which has a theatre.

I stressed that an Irish language translation might be beyond me and my actor. But I had little hesitation in saying yes to the request.

I sought the logistic help of an organisation with which I had attempted similar projects before, the Centre for Contemporary Christianity. As a result, An Evening with Martin Luther, which is a one-man show, will be performed in An Culturlann on Saturday, August 4, followed by a panel discussion.

I cannot stress too highly the resonances that existed for us when we were rehearsing at this venue in recent days.

The vibrant Irish language centre exists on the site of the former Broadway Presbyterian Church. This place of worship once drew its congregation from the network of red-brick streets all along the Falls Road.

I discovered through accessing the research of historian Tom Hartley that, in the First World War, 135 men had gone off from the Broadway congregation to fight in the conflict and that number had included no fewer than 21 sets of brothers. Sadly, 23 of these young men did not return from the trenches.

The Broadway congregation continued to exist in the years that followed the war, with all their violence and poverty and the sea-change wrought by Irish partition. By the 1960s, change was bubbling below the surface.

An older generation of local people still remember the presence of Orange marches on the Falls Road, making their way to a Church service at Broadway.

But, with the eruption of the Troubles in 1969 and the demographic shifts that occurred all across the city in those fearful years, Broadway's days were numbered - but not until 1982 did it close its doors for the last time.

The Irish language centre which is now housed at this location has clearly gone from strength to strength and includes a cafe, book shop, gallery and performing space. Yet, An Culturlann is very careful to preserve some memory of the institution that preceded it on this site.

There is a stained-glass window on a stairwell dedicated to the story of the Broadway church. And so, it is into this historic context that An Evening with Martin Luther will step on August 4.

So, in undertaking our production, my actor, Brian Payne, and I will be very aware on the night that a congregation once worshipped here for 86 unbroken years and that for them, Martin Luther would have been a respected figure, albeit of lesser significance in Presbyterian culture than was John Calvin.

We are also aware that, in the not-so-distant past, an event openly advertising the subject of Luther and the Reformation on the Falls Road could have been deemed a sectarian provocation.

The fact that my play is happening after an invitation and that it is to be followed by frank conversation is perhaps a measure of the positive changes in our society - changes too often ignored by those who simply argue that we are a more divided and rancorous people than ever before.

In my play, a middle-aged Luther looks back over his early life. In his later years, Luther's anti-Judaism and his failure to side with the German peasants in their struggle for justice form dark blemishes on his life.

These are not matters which we address, although we do suggest in the course of the performance that a sequel to this drama would have to address them.

Rather, our narrative traces the course of Luther's early life, a period during which he is still very much the German friar, angered by perceived corruption, pondering the theology he had inherited, but under the mentorship of fellow-Augustinians. In that regard, we are not yet looking at the more visceral years of animosity between Luther and the Pope - which would also be a matter for further dramatisation perhaps, though not on this occasion.

On the night, there will be a panel discussion in which four individuals who have tried to play significant leadership roles inside their Protestant faith communities will discuss what they will have taken away from the performance.

The Reformation years constituted a time of enormous change, not least in the expansion of human knowledge, in which the role of the printing press cannot be overstated.

We can also look back and see glimmers in that period of something we now think of as national consciousness.

In this, another time of change, what are the challenges facing the churches and the wider faith community?

Perhaps there is an added resonance in undertaking such a discussion on a site that has borne witness to great change in our city, much of it painful, but much of it creative and positive.

However, it strikes me that the time may well be right for writers to tackle drama which examines the life, achievements and limitations of other important religious figures from the past.

A friend recently inquired as to whether I might tackle the subject of John Calvin.

In recent years, a brand of "reformed" theology which claims a Calvinist ancestry has made profound inroads inside Presbyterian culture, though not without hard questions being asked of it.

The time may come when society needs a greater understanding of this man's controversial intellect, of the much-debated link between Calvin and Calvinism and his remarkable theocratic experiment in Geneva.

The many "alternative" Reformations also need attention, involving the subversive teaching of the Anabaptists, the practical mysticism of the Society of Friends and the remarkable surge of mid-17th century social radicalism represented by the Diggers and the Levellers.

All these religious cultures mattered here - and some still do.

However, religious narratives can end up as a less well-grasped part of historical inheritance and I reckon that this is the case where Ulster Protestant culture is concerned. The last four years have seen a very necessary focus on commemorative projects that stress military history, whether at the Somme, Gallipoli or Jutland.

The ensuing few years will see a focus on the centenaries of constitutional change, especially the formation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

There is also a divided public memory of the bloody times that accompanied these events.

However, political, social and military history must not occlude narratives that deal explicitly with faith and religion. For instance, there is an Evangelical surge inside 19th and 20th-century Ulster Protestantism which cries out for a vivid, incisive artistic treatment of such stirring figures as the Rev Henry Cooke and the evangelist WP Nicholson. There are also plays to be written, needless to say, about the marginal role of women in many local religious narratives.

A visit to the little-visited Balmoral graveyard, which lies near the Belfast-Lisburn railway line, reveals that this is where Henry Cooke and numerous figures of bygone religious significance are buried. The almost-forgotten nature of this place suggests cultural neglect.

Without a contemporary understanding of the religious past, the self-awareness and creative capacity of a community is diminished.

An Evening with Martin Luther, written by Philip Orr and featuring Brian Payne, is at An Culturlann, Falls Road, on Saturday, August 4 at 8pm. Tickets, priced £6, are available from

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