October 03, 2015

The stereotype of the Irish Protestant

The banker from the film Calvary who personifies vulgar excess and the lingering ascendency in Ireland
For the the outsider, every one from Ireland is Irish, Green and Orange and every shade in between. (Except perhaps in the United States, as noted here and here.) The natives suffer from and indulge in the vanity and narcissism of small differences. Irish people all have a notion of "the other". The person who is "the other" is the confessional and constitutional counterpart, the person in the house next door or in the adjoining community. I wrote here about the bias and prejudgement that the protestants of Ireland experience.
For "the other" we have certain preconceptions and stereotypes. Almost always myths and untrue.

Nick Liard wrote:
"For a Northern Irish prod, this is how it goes: in England you’re Irish, but not really Irish. In Ireland you’re British, but not really British. In America, where I live at the minute, you’re Irish, but when you qualify that you’re from Northern Ireland, you get the little glimmer of (mis)understanding. Then they say, pleased with themselves: “So are you Protestant or Catholic?” Cathestant or Protholic?… I hate this question, as the interlocutor thinks the answer will explain everything about you, about whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor."
Alan Bairner wrote:
"Whilst the ulster Protestant can be dismissed in England as just another Irish person or, more generally, as a Celt, in Northern Ireland itself, his or her perceived identity is unlikely to be either Celtic or Irish. Indeed, even those Ulster Protestants who do want to celebrate their irish news recognise the problems associated with their attempts at self-identification."
Dr Deirdre Nuttall who is running the 'The Irish Protestant Folk Memory Projectsaid;
"A lot of older people believe in the idea of the Protestant work ethic. There are stereotypes [about Protestants in southern ireland]: Protestants are good at growing daffodils and can make a meal out of barely any food."
She also wrote:
"Many Protestants arrived in Ireland at the time of or in the wake of the Cromwellian wars in the mid-1600s (when Ireland was conquered by the forces of the English parliament). It‘s reasonable to assume that many, if not most, old Protestant families have at least some ancestors among them. However, even in families that can proudly trace their ancestry through the centuries, many are reluctant to countenance this possibility and quite a few vehemently deny any ancestral link to the plantations, even when they haven‘t been asked about it. Many appear to feel that contemporary Irish Protestants are invited to assume a collective sense of shame for the terrible things that happened a long ago, such as the massacre carried out by Oliver Cromwell in Drogheda in 1649, or the subsequent clearance of Catholics to be replaced with ―planters‖, and to apologize for or express this shame. Some have even been explicitly told, at school or in conversation with their friends and neighbours, that they should be ashamed, because they are descended from the villains of Irish history. One of the first things that many Protestants in the Republic of Ireland say when they start telling the story of their family is ―We have nothing to do with the planters."
Elodie Aviotte wrote:
"During the week of the White House visit, Ken Maginnis agreed to appear on the Larry King Live show on CNN along with Gerry Adams, as long as there would not be any direct debate (O’Clery, 1996, p.176). This point has often been seen as a media victory for the Sinn Fein leader who appeared very relaxed and full of confidence facing a rather nervous, aggressive adversary. Thus, Adams was seen as a peacemaker, and Maginnis, because of his refusal to directly speak to Adams and to shake hands, reinforced the US prejudice toward Unionists."
Henry McDonald wrote in his essay, 'Investigating the Protestant ‘Kaleidoscope’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants':
"South of the border the overwhelming image of the Ulster Prod is one of bewilderment. The unionists of the north east of Ireland are in the main as unknown an entity as the Bosnian Serbs or the Algerian Berbers. 
Outside of the caravan of north-south community relations groups and the political classes, “Middle Ireland”, while not overtly hostile to the unionist population, has little understanding of/or social interaction with them. 
Herein, then, lies a paradox, because “Middle Ireland’s” indifference to matters north of the border has played an important part in the social shift within the Republic away from reclaim-the-Fourth-Green-Field nationalism to support for a political settlement, which in the short to medium term accepts partition. 
There is a minority (dwindling?) in the south who maintain an historic hostility to those they regard, at its most benign, as “misguided Irishmen and women”. Yet most people in the Republic take the attitude that, as long as it is peaceful, settled and stable, the north and its people can continue taking the high road while the south takes the low road. Partition in mind as well as geopolitical reality. 
The media uses televisual shorthand to explain a complex story in an increasingly short period of time. Images of young men in hoodies using flagpoles with Union flags on them, bashing police Land-Rovers amid pentecostal-like flames from smashed Molotov cocktails, make for great TV pictures. Sour-faced, angry men, some of them in bowler hats, scowling into the camera and the microphone, make for great sectarian soundbites. 
This selective cast-list, this guaranteed “picture-rich” backcloth, reminds you of the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often played out for Western viewers. The cast-list here are normally dispossessed Palestinians and wild-eyed bearded Jewish settlers, more often than not with Brooklyn accents. 
We rarely see the clubbers and the surfers of Tel Aviv, just as we hardly ever see the aspects of normal life that also go on across the Green Line in Palestine. Complexity is the enemy of all fundamentalist thinking, whether that be Islamism, the ultra-nationalism of the Jewish settler groups, the Taigs-Burn-in-Hell evangelicalism of the far-Right loyalist fringe, or the nihilistic addiction to republican armed struggle. 
Perhaps that is why a small but bewildered minority just didn’t “get” a gesticulating, marionette of anarchy and energy from east Belfast who had come down to Co Clare with tales of drug-taking, all-night drinking, financial chaos, daydream record business projects as well as a decent, utopian ideal. 
Here was someone who confounded all the usual stereotypes held even within sections of moderate, conservative Middle Ireland about northern Protestants - yet who was still “lost in translation” south of the border. 
One of the most important novels to come out of Northern Ireland in this decade gives a more rounded, kaleidoscopic vision of the Protestant community. 
David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam involves three sets of characters from loyalist east Belfast: a single mother struggling financially who reluctantly joins her daughter’s hen party to the Dutch city; a middle-aged, well-off couple taking a break in Holland from their garden centre business; and a divorced, lonely father accompanying his teenage son there for a weekend holiday he hopes will reconnect a bond between them. 
The centre-piece event that starts the novel off is the funeral of George Best and the main character’s melancholic sense of loss, the university art teacher sensing in the soccer star’s death his own ultimate decline. 
There are sparse references to the Troubles and sectarian division. Park’s book instead deals with the aftermath of divorce, isolation, frustration, the desire to break free, all existential, universal themes. Yet Park succeeds in bringing to life a section of the Northern Irish population rarely seen in novels, films, plays or documentaries. The main cast are essentially decent, but flawed human beings who are not driven by a 24/7 sectarian raison d'etre, or an impending sense of political doom. They have more important things to worry about. 
Perhaps it is no accident that Parks created Marion and Richard, who are relatively well-heeled living in the leafier suburban end of east Belfast and own a garden centre business. 
Back in 1998, when a progressive section of unionism was trying to persuade a sceptical unionist electorate to back the Good Friday Agreement, Paul Bew, Professor of Politics at Queen’s University and renowned Irish historian, coined the phrase, “the Prod in the garden centre”. Professor Bew noted the indifference an important section of the Protestant middle class - moderate and relatively liberal - had towards the feral politics of Ulster. 
Those interested in establishing real reconciliation in the Republic and a proper understanding of those “alien beings” that sometimes fall to southern earth should be arguing for a shift in southern perceptions. The place to start this is in southern schools and colleges. 
The works that need to be studied ought to include the likes of The Light of Amsterdam; to allow authors, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians and even anarchist-hippy-punk dreamers like Hooley to shine light themselves into a community where for too long (especially for those of us who grew up in nationalist and republican backgrounds) there were only the shadows of stereotype and gross generalisations."
Eamonn McCann wrote:
"If Orangemen marching along the Garvaghy Road is an expression of the culture of the Protestant people, what was Van Morrison at the Botanic Gardens? If the essence of the Protestant people is expressed through marching in a bowler hat behind a band past people who find the spectacle unpleasant, what is expressed in the plays of Sam Thompson and Gary Mitchell, the poetry of John Hewitt and Louis MacNeice, the accomplishments of George Best and Margaret Johnston, the music of Ash and Derek Bell?"
One abiding untruth is of the northern protestant community as "dour", laconic and downcast. Conor Cruise O'Brien articules this perception below, where he notes that Southern Catholics generally view Northern Protestants as a dour, humourless people. Conor Caffrey said below that Protestants were dark and colourless with no sense of humour. Conor Caffrey wrote:
"What is a Protestant daddy? A poem I remember by Mr Durkan. It summed up my early fears of those so called “left footers” in Greystones town. 
Greystones has always had a considerable density of Protestants since Oliver Cromwell rampaged his way through here. In my childhood, rumours abounded that the now genial Reverend Ian Paisley retreated here. Was that him that played the bagpipes at Smugglers Cove? I often wondered upon hearing the sounds of that alienated and most political of celtic instruments drifting out to sea. 
Protestants weren’t exactly monsters, but they had crooked angular features not unlike a painting by Graham Knuttel, but without the colour and much darker. They were tall, thin and wandered silently about town in black clothes, stooped, and lurched in shadows in the early evening or so I thought. They wore sunglasses which made we wonder if they had eyes at all. 
And St Patrick’s, on Church Road, was haunted with devilish ghosts. At least it appeared that way with uplighting and a full moon and my overactive imagination. I would run by quickly between the lampposts on the opposite side of the road. 
My early education was mediated through what I know realise to be the intransigent diatribe of the Holy Christian brothers and they had one view of those hellbound others and that was they were heading downwards and to burn. 
It didn’t help there were so many of them about town. They seemed to have all the money and live in the Burnaby. They spoke with Anglo accents, which I have to say as a teenager I later admired and thought sophisticated and even cool. Their shades looked cool now and no longer menacing. 
Now I am back and my kid is going to a Protestant school, albeit she is sent out with an agenda to proselytise and convert the heathens. And perhaps make one or two of her classmates jealous of her communion dress – the girls of course! 
And dare I say it. Just like our friend Mr Paisley north of the border I laugh and joke with the old enemy. Some of my best friends are Protestants. And two are even those dreaded Ulster Scots from the staunchest of Antrim and Down and shockingly they have a sense of humour that I enjoy. If it were not for the small family size, you would never know it. 
I have realised that besides their crooked features and impending doom at judgement time some of them Protestants are a likeable lot. 
According to the recent census we have the highest percentage of Church of Ireland attendees in Ireland. Not just Protestants but a baffling multitude of nonbelievers from Presbyterians to Pentecostal to Evangelical. I plead ignorance on the difference but they all have their churches and halls. 
And I realise that most of the settlers were of Protestant working class. Now there is a good reason for cultivating my Upper Redford Park accent."
Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote in his autobiography, ‘Memoir: My Life and Themes’ (pp. 428-430):
"I didn’t in fact think that the unionists in Northern Ireland were any more bigoted than nationalists. But because for historical reasons unionists’ bigotry tended to be uninhibitedly expressed, while nationalist bigotry tended to be covered over with layers of pseudo-ecumenical rhetoric, outsiders - British, American and other - tended to find nationalists nicer and more "reasonable” than unionists, a perception which has been greatly to the advantage of the former."
He continued:
"In the summer of 1995, a more formidable non-sectarian unionist, with no Thatcherite baggage, Bob McCartney, asked for my help and got it… I found canvassing with Bob McCartney in North Down a most interesting and illuminating experience an also a heartening experience. Bob is probably the most successful QC in Northern Ireland, but his own family roots are in the working-class area of the Shankill Road, Belfast. He is at ease with people of all classes in Northern Ireland, as very few other politicians are. In the working-class areas people recognise him and come up and chat with him. To my initial surprise, they were usually laughing and joking together. I was surprised because southern Catholics - the community of which I was an aberrant member - generally think of Northern Protestants as a dour, humourless people. Yet here they were joking and laughing like mad. How come? 
When I thought about that for a while, the answer was not hard to find. Most southern Catholics, when they talk with Ulster Protestants, try to induce the Protestants to move in a direction in which they have not wanted to go (that of a united Ireland). If you do that with any group of people you are likely to find that your interlocutors seem glum and uncommunicative. In short: if you try to push people around you will find that they will bristle. 
Canvassing with Bob McCartney, I was seeing Protestants as they are when they are at ease with themselves. Few people from a southern Catholic background can ever have seen Ulster Protestants under those conditions and I felt quite privileged and happy to have this experience."
Eighteen year old Irish protestant and Trinity College Dublin student Heather Jones said in 1996 in an interview with the New York Times:
"When you meet Roman Catholics they tend to judge you in the context of Northern politics… You don’t speak Irish (said citing the stereotypes)… You must be very Anglo-Irish, close to Britain, and financially well-off."
Tim Keatinge, an official at the COI College of Education, said to the New York Times in a 1996 interview:
"Twenty or thirty years ago, well, I wouldn’t say we were ashamed, but we were in the closet. But I never felt threatened. Roman Catholics would find out your religion and put you on a higher pedestal for some things, like honesty. They thought you could be trusted."
Conor Cruise O'Brien, described the Ulster protestant W.R. Rogers in ‘Introduction to Irish Literary Portraits’:
"Bertie Rodgers was an Ulster Presbyterian who sought and enjoyed the company of Southern Catholics. The case is not unique: it remains unusual… He was, among so much else, a good Dubliner and Dublin loved him."
Patrick Mayhew, British politician whose ancestors were Anglo-Irish in County Cork, said:
"Living in the south, Anglo-Irish families tended to think of northern Protestants as denizens of the wild woods."
Frank McGuinness wrote:
"It was an eye-opener for a Catholic republican, as I am, to have to examine the complexity, diversity, disturbance and integrity of the other side, the Protestant people."
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