BREIDGE Gadd has picked up the theme we’re discussing here about the reluctance of Protestants to tell their story (subs req’d), although it’s more in the context of summer schools and the like, which Brian Feeney might appreciate. Gadd’s advice to Protestants is to “shake off some of the defensiveness and self-pity” and realise that critical analysts within the unionist community are not “disloyal”, but “have the best interests of unionism/Protestantism at heart”. Protestants must tell their own story
By Breidge Gadd
Holiday reading contained two interesting books. Two books about Northern Ireland and very different books, in fact. One, by Gary Mitchell, (and my first time to read him) told a story of a clergyman in east Belfast. The other, by Louise Dean, told the simultaneous story of two people, the mother of a soon- to-be hunger striker and the English-born prison warder on his H-Block.
Both books had one element in common – Protestant people were uncharismatic and defensive. In fact, common to both books was the hint that the Protestants were the authors of their own misfortunes. On the other hand, Dean’s book in particular – whether accidentally or deliberately – depicts the republicans with more just cause for their actions.
The portrayal of working-class republicans as the freedom fighters and the working-class Protestant as dour and sectarian is by no means unique to these two writers.
It is a stereotypical element in most fiction and non-fictional writings about Northern Ireland.
However, to suggest that Mitchell writes in stereotypes is to do his writing an injustice. He is better than that and his characters are crafted with great understanding and empathy on his part. Nevertheless, the fact must be faced that republicans have a history that lends itself more easily to fictional romanticism and writers are intrigued by that possibility.
I cannot claim to be an expert on the massive amount of fiction, prose or drama written about the past 40 years here. I’d have to say from my very limited and amateurish perspective, Protestant authors certainly don’t don the rose tinted spectacles when writing about their own people. I’m thinking also about Marie Jones’ funny but viscous portrayal of her own tribe in a Night in November.
I would even go so far to suggest that nationalist/republican/Catholic indigenous writers aren’t anywhere near as critical of their people’s behaviour or the justification, or lack of it, for their acts as their Protestant counterparts are.
These musings are way outside my comfort zone because I’m not a critic of modern Irish fiction. But they are not irrelevant when we look at how communities here are handling their past and their future.
A guest at last Sunday night’s New Lodge dinner, I was hugely impressed by the commitment and determination of all the people there to work through the most difficult and inner soul issues of our shared history.
I am told that the whole weekend had been in similar ilk. Honest talking together or enabling individual stories to be told and listened to, through the medium of the cultural festivals, must rank as a particularly positive event in this summer of positives compared to previous summers of contention and discontent.
However, as Brian Feeney pointed out in this paper some weeks ago, nationalist/republican communities mostly lead such events.
Therefore, while ground-breaking in their popularity in working-class areas, this way of signing off the past is bound to have limited impact with many from the other side. The problem is that the Protestant story is harder to tell.
As I have pointed out above, its authors so far take no prisoners in their determination to tell it as it was, warts and all.
We do need to find a way to balance the storytelling books so that some events are led and managed by Protestant communities and the nationalists/republicans become their guests.
There is no reason why Protestant communities shouldn’t devise their own storytelling events.
Firstly they need to shake off some of the defensiveness and self-pity. Then they should realise that authors and playwrights like Jones and Mitchell, commentators such as Garland, Kennaway, and David Adams and poets such as Longley have the
best interests of unionism/Protestantism at heart. They must also accept that to be self-critical is not to be disloyal but can become a major strength internally and externally.
There is ample evidence that Protestant communities have talent and ability. All that is needed is the confidence to ask some of their famous writers to help them learn to laugh at themselves.
The rest is easy.