Creating space for the working class prod experience

Lindy McDowell lays out several misconceptions of the reality of Working class protestant life – especially amongst people outside the boundaries of Northern Ireland. The external image for some seems tied umbilically to the old Ulster aristocratic families, which is entirely at odds with her own experience of growing up in NI. For the large part, she believes, that voice is simply squeezed out of the larger public spaces.By Lindy McDowell

Just because I’m a Prod doesn’t mean I’m Bertie Wooster. The thought occurred to me again recently when I read about how the cartoon programme, The Simpsons, was planning a storyline about a leading character’s conversion to Catholicism. In the show, we were told, Catholic heaven would be depicted as a sort of Irish Riverdancing hooley. Protestant heaven would be genteel types playing polo and croquet on the lawn.

Now I’m not for one second suggesting that the creators of the cartoon took their inspiration from Northern Ireland. The Simpsons’ has much bigger things to concern itself with than the trivial matter of religious stereotyping in the occupied six counties.

All the same, for very many of us who grew up in this part of the world there is in that concise portrait of parallel paradises – on the one hand the fun-filled, laid-back, culturally rich Catholic option, and on the other the upper-class, anally retentive, staid, Protestant version – a sharp resonance.

For, where Northern Ireland is concerned, it’s a common perception that this is precisely how the community is divided … between the liberal, popular, up-for-a-bit-of-crack Catholics. And the rest of us. The elitist, Anglicised dour Ulster Prods. What surprises me is not just how widespread this perception is, but how very rarely it is challenged.

True, someone like Sir Basil Brooke might well have fitted the upper crust almost-Anglo template. But there are hundreds of thousands of us Ulster Prods from a working class background who most certainly would not. Yet, in the world out there, that’s often how we’re viewed.

Catholics have culture and crack and victimhood status. Protestants have all the advantages, all the bigotry, small minds, dour personalities – and moustaches.

My first taste of this came many years ago during a visit to America when I was accosted by an Irish American (fourth generation, had never been in the Oul Sod himself) who told me in no uncertain terms that the best job a Catholic in Northern Ireland could ever get was as a bin man. That there was a law against Catholics owning property. That they weren’t allowed to vote. And that I Was Personally Responsible For All This.

I did try to remonstrate. To point out that actually I knew many, many Catholics whose families were a damn sight wealthier than mine. That the One Man, One Vote legislation gave my parents too a vote for the first time. That for a so-called privileged community, the people I grew up with were every bit as poor as our Catholic neighbours. And if my community was so hot on oppressing the other lot, how come it wasn’t any better off?

Then, as now though, nobody was listening.

This week has seen the release of more statistics to fuel the “equality” debate I won’t bore you with the details of these latest unemployment figures. If you want to get a flavour of the arguments and counter-arguments they’ve provoked I suggest you take a look at the always excellent Slugger O’Toole weblog (www.sluggerotoole.com). The fact is that while they have been seized on by some to project yet again a picture of oppression, discrimination, Alabama and the back of the bus, there is a reality staring those of us who actually live here, in the face.

And that is, despite what the propaganda might suggest, no one community in Northern Ireland has a monopoly on inequality.
“Privileged” Prods are just as likely to live in deprivation. And the very sizeable Protestant working-class faces, and has faced over the years, exactly the same concerns, difficulties and disadvantages as the Catholic working class.

But there is, of course, that vital difference I’ve alluded to. In Northern Ireland only nationalists are allowed to claim second class citizenship. The fact is that there will be many, many Protestant people reading these words who will like me have grown up in a working-class home, without any “ascendancy” advantages whatsoever.
How come then that the stereotype of the privileged Prod has been allowed to survive for so long?

More interestingly, how come the views of those people who feel they have been unfairly portrayed as such are so rarely articulated – in the media, in the arts and in literature? I’ve mentioned before how it is almost impossible to cite even one sympathetic portrayal of a working-class Ulster Prod in film or on stage. (No, Jim McDonald in Coronation Street doesn’t count.)

Equally it wouldn’t take the fingers of many hands to count the number of books written about the Northern Irish working class Protestant experience. And that’s something the media rarely focus on either. How Protestants think and feel, how they see themselves and the others with whom they share this island gets strangely little coverage.

Why is this? Isn’t it time we opened this debate?

Liam Kennedy coined the cutting acronym MOPE to describe the mindset of that section of the republican community that revels in the image of victimhood. It stands for Most Oppressed People Ever. Could something similar be applied to the Protestant working class?

Most Suppressed People Ever?

First published in the on 4th June 2005