Belfast Telegraph

Why there is a Protestant working-class culture beyond flute bands and lambeg drums

However, republican co-opting of the language of socialism has led some unionists to abandon their progressive, Left-wing past

By Connal Parr

Following the Westminster General Election of last June, when Arlene Foster's Democratic Unionist Party agreed to prop up a Conservative Government, people outside Northern Ireland began taking a sudden interest in Ulster Protestants.

Young BBC presenters marched back to Northern Ireland, where once the Troubles had brought them, to walk among the bonfires on the Eleventh Night, asking, "Who are the DUP? What do their supporters want?" What, indeed, are the politics and culture of this group?

For a start, we are dealing with a diverse subject considerably bigger than the DUP. By assuming that Ulster Protestantism is uniformly represented by this party and located in Orange culture, the television presenters themselves are a part of the problem, as are a legion of academics and journalists who return repeatedly to the self-appointed spokespersons for comment, assuming such Jamie Brysons represent the entire so-called "PUL" ('Protestant/unionist/loyalist') community.

It, therefore, became clear, as I wrote my book, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, that the most accurate portraits of this group were not being provided by its politicians and hardliners.

Research published by the University of Liverpool in August showed that the social and political views of Protestants under the age of 40 are not reflected by the mainstream unionist parties (most simply do not vote).

This is one of the reasons why it is worth looking outside the official political sphere, which is happily dysfunctional and carved-up, to those working in the community and creative sectors.

But there was something else. With the language of socialism adopted by Sinn Fein and (just as unconvincingly) the SDLP, some Protestants have responded by emphasising their conservative, Right-wing tendencies, adamant that their politics are the reverse of opposing groups.

They have abandoned their own progressive, Left-wing history, from the Presbyterian radicalism of the United Irishmen to the Northern Ireland Labour Party: a socialist party with a distinctly Protestant ethos that drew cross-community support.

Many of the writers considered in my book brought to life the Protestant community's Left-wing, or class-conscious, past.

The central myth addressed - and hopefully demolished - is that Ulster Protestants lack any culture to speak of outside of the Orange Order.

The hard evidence comes in the form of numerous Protestant writers - dramatists, poets and novelists - all offering an alternative culture.

Playwrights, especially, are natural dissenters and will suffer the consequences. Shipyard painter Sam Thompson once said that: "A writer is not considered as part of the community. If you are a writer and you speak your mind, you're a danger here."

Thompson's play Over the Bridge tackled sectarianism in the shipyards in the teeth of an Establishment which attempted to suppress it and a middle class which did not want to know.

The play was rapturously received at the old Empire theatre in January 1960 by over 42,000 people, most of them workers and shipyardmen, who recognised its honesty and humanity.

Another who faced the danger was Rathcoole-born Gary Mitchell, whose house and car were petrol-bombed in 2005 by a breakaway UDA group.

Towards the end of the 1990s, he was exploring divisions within loyalism in plays such as In A Little World of Our Own and As the Beast Sleeps: dark, but electrifying works which captured the ambiguous charisma of the paramilitaries he had been around all his life.

Mitchell's experience highlights the risk many writers take in capturing their own community and putting it on stage, even though, in many ways, his works humanised those behind the balaclavas.

Mitchell claims that great drama thrives on conflict, "and there's no more conflicted people than the Protestant community. Every person has a row every day, so there's great drama springing up all around you".

In June 2016, east Belfast-born actor and director Dan Gordon fronted a documentary called In The Shadow of the Shipyard, which focused on several east Belfast playwrights: St John Ervine, Thomas Carnduff, Sam Thompson and Stewart Parker.

All feature as chapters in my book, alongside Mitchell, Graham Reid, Christina Reid, Ron Hutchinson and Marie Jones.

Many are familiar with the final writer considered: John Hewitt.

Though more a poet than a playwright (and, unlike the others, middle-class), he also wrote plays and led by his intellectual example.

Like Sam Thompson, Hewitt clashed with the unionist authorities in his day and left for Coventry in 1957, before returning to Belfast at the height of the Troubles to die in his city.

Marie Jones and the late Christina Reid also grew up in Protestant parts of Belfast, remaining deeply in touch with their roots despite their later successes.

Orangeism, sectarian division and working-class history and culture all mark their plays, reflecting a life which is not found in the official reports, Hansards, or even the newspapers. They give us access to voices we might not otherwise hear.

And, because many unionist politicians have, again, traditionally assumed that the only place for women is in the home, Jones and Reid are vital in articulating female voices, which could so easily be submerged.

Younger dramatists, including Stacey Gregg, David Ireland and Rosemary Jenkinson, might be seen to be continuing the lineage of Ulster Protestant playwrights.

Of course, this particular binary label is not the main thing that defines them, but it's a point which might be raised to combat the sheer ignorance of local politicians, who publicly declare that working-class Protestants do not "buy into" the arts, as the DUP's William Humphrey foolishly claimed in October 2013.

Aside from ignoring all the names above, Humphrey made this statement a matter of days before residents of the Shankill area staged the community play Crimea Square - a sprawling work covering a hundred years of history.

They wrote it themselves and played it with help from theatre professionals (including Marie Jones) at the Shankill's Spectrum Centre.

As so often in Northern Ireland, the people are ahead of the politicians. They vote with their feet in continuing to be entertained and challenged by those Protestant working-class writers who represent a culture beyond the flute bands and lambeg drums.

Dr Connal Parr is Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University. His new book, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, has just been published by Oxford University Press

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