Soapbox: Connal Parr on Mythmaking, Identity and Ulster Protestant Cultures

Dr Connal Parr is Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University. His research emphasises the interconnectedness of history, politics, and culture. His book ‘Inventing the Myth’ viewed local political developments and recent history through the prism of dramatists and writers and was inspired by his doctoral research.

On the evening of Tuesday 22 May, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs generously sponsored an event on the themes of my book Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, published by Oxford University Press last autumn.

It turned out to be a lively evening. After a brief introduction, a brilliant set of actors performed extracts from some of the theatrical pieces discussed in the book, followed by a panel of three speakers – Gerry Dawe, Rosemary Jenkinson and Katy Radford – who have all written about Protestant identity, or worked for many years with Protestant working-class communities.

‘Protestant culture’ in Ireland, in the eyes of both Ulster Unionists and Irish nationalists, conjures up one kind: Orange parading and marching bands. Instead of challenging this claim by highlighting the presence of any other culture(s), academics and journalists dismiss the idea of a ‘culture war’ because there are more Orange parades and marches taking place now than at any other point in modern times.

But to reset this debate, people should look at how the Protestant working-class community is portrayed in cultural terms – theatrical, cinematic and literary – including by those writers it has produced. If there is a ‘culture war’, it lies in the political insistence that Ulster Protestants have ‘no culture’ other than Orange marching and parades.

Northern Ireland is a very reductive place which seeks to categorize everything in a certain way, and this extends – indeed is exemplified – culturally. The book came from my PhD which was snappily-titled ‘The Development of Protestant working-class politics and culture in Northern Ireland since 1960’. So aside from getting a superior title for the book, I have to explain how it changed!

It was initially a conventional, political study of Ulster Loyalism and Unionism, with reference to the normal academic names and texts. Such theses and works are many (and continue to be fired out at a quare pace). But something happened just over half way into this project. I switched everything round. Where the culture had been a kind of supportive material to the political nitty-gritty, I decided to reverse the emphasis. This study would instead be about the writers themselves.

This was, in part, because there was something much more reflective about this group – of its diversity and character – in the works of the dramatists and writers than in the political culture, which continues to frustrate and collapse.

Not only are the incessant political squabbles phenomenally boring, but they do not reveal very much about the Protestant working-class community, certainly to me, as an outsider to it.

The writers, and especially the playwrights, on the other hand provided the journey into the heart of the community; to the real voices. And the portraits of this Protestant working-class life, its humour, vitality, dissent and division, came through in the works of the formidable set of writers I discussed: St. John Ervine, Thomas Carnduff, Sam Thompson, John Hewitt, Stewart Parker, Graham Reid, Ron Hutchinson, Christina Reid, Marie Jones and Gary Mitchell: names who are all from a Protestant background, and all – aside from Hewitt – working-class.

So the term ‘Ulster Protestant cultures’ was used in this event because there are other cultures which writers provide in poetry, novels and – for a group which keeps being defined as purely Orange, and prone to marching bands – in the form of an older culture once deeply entwined with the Labour movement. Not all the writers discussed in the book are Labourist or Left wing, not by any means; but some such as St. John Ervine, Hewitt, and Sam Thompson were deeply active, and the others all knew about or were around this Left wing/Labour vein in the community.

This is also where the mythmaking reference comes in. Raymond Williams once wrote of how myths provide a necessary ‘account of origins’ which explain ‘an active form of social organization’. They conjure up a sustaining story – not of course strictly factual, but prevalent and important nonetheless. With this in mind, writers are the natural mythmakers or myth-breakers in any society.

Ironically, the more I made it about the playwrights, the more political it became.

As Alex Kane has said in his review of the book, what unites all these writers “is their ability to unsettle both mainstream unionism and loyalism. Their own roots were mostly working class and pro-trade unionism and what they were saying was that mainstream unionism was doing nothing for ordinary people when it came to tackling socio/economic problems.”

There’s no question that the sheer volume of dramatists to emerge from this community render it a ‘theatrical culture’ of sorts, which is what makes the insistence of Unionist representatives that the Protestant working-class has no tradition of ‘buying into’ the theatre – as claimed by the Democratic Unionist Party’s William Humphrey in October 2013 – both inaccurate and absurd.

As Gary Mitchell said in the media after these comments, he had written around forty plays, and this politician frankly did not know what he was talking about.

If Unionist politicians continue to tell Protestant working-class communities – who they claim to represent – that they have no culture but the Orange Order, then you can be sure that eventually this myth will take hold.

Indeed, a major theme discussed throughout the book is the dearth of leadership of Unionist working-class communities, and how this accounts for the difficulties many working-class Protestants now face.

I interviewed the politicians too, some eminently reasonable people, but there is a real difficulty which has built up in Protestant working-class areas over years and which people need to keep an eye on – for it is until anger erupts again. Until the next time.

I found a lot out from the panel discussion, and especially from the audience. It was a cross-section of where many people in Northern Ireland are. Religious leaders, ex-politicians, community figures, academics, and writers amongst others were in attendance, and there were some tense and adversarial moments.

The conversations over a drink once the formal part of the evening was over were similarly revealing. Someone mentioned how the language sounded similar across the works, emphasising how Belfast-centric these writers were. It’s a fair point because, Ron Hutchinson excepted, Belfast does dominate the cultural life of Northern Ireland. Those who had crossed each other in the panel discussion had useful private conversations following their heated exchanges. That is how it has always been.

It was one of those frank, fascinating, slightly mad Belfast evenings, and I’m delighted to say that it was recorded and can be listened back to.

The book can be purchased at a discounted price at No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue, and can be ordered online from Amazon (paper or Kindle) as well as from the Oxford University’s Press website.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.