Inventing the Myth on the Eleventh Night: Review of Connal Parr’s Book on Ulster Protestantism

“What is distinctive of political Protestantism – its Orange marches, its flute bands, its lodge banners, its sectarian songs – is taken to be the sum of all cultural life in that community.” – Prof Arthur Aughey, quoted in Connal Parr, p. 15, Inventing the Myth

We are on the eve of the Twelfth – usually considered the height of Ulster Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist cultural expression. But Aughey’s words should give us pause for thought.

Aughey is quoted in Connal Parr’s widely acclaimed, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination. Aughey wrote these lines in response to Ronan Bennett, who he accused of telling ‘the metropolitan readerships’ of The Guardian and The London Review of Books what they wanted to hear about Ulster Protestantism.

Inventing the Myth raises many important questions, not least of which is: ‘What do we want to hear about Ulster Protestantism?’

Doubtless, many do not want to hear anything at all about Ulster Protestantism. They simply wish the bonfires and parades would go away. That’s why they have left Northern Ireland in their droves this fortnight and will try and disengage from what’s happening on our streets.

Others look on with a grim fascination. Like Bennett’s ‘metropolitan readerships,’ they crave an easy narrative that reduces the PUL community to bonfires and parades. This fosters a smug superiority as they judge these expressions of culture as backward and destructive. Both middle class unionists and republicans could fall into this camp. In particular, it is easy to see how such a narrative could suit republicanism, creating a ‘good guys-bad guys’ version of history and the contemporary period.

But as Parr’s book makes clear, this easy narrative also can suit unionist politicians, who use it to manipulate and control the working classes. In other words, get people fired up about a flag, and perhaps they won’t ask those hard questions about why their living conditions are so poor and their young people – especially young men – are underachieving in school.

Reporting on a symposium about the book back in May, Parr himself summed it up:

‘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.

Parr is not the only commentator to bemoan a lack of engagement with alternative Ulster Protestant identities and cultures. Another example is Claire Mitchell’s thought-provoking ‘Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots Histories’, published here on Slugger not so long ago.

But Inventing the Myth is the most comprehensive and meticulously –researched response to those who would reduce Ulster Protestantism to bonfires and parades. Alex Kane has called it ‘one of the most important books to have been written about unionist ‘identity’ in Northern Ireland.’

The heart of the book is its careful examination of the literary works of playwrights and poets, including Thomas Carnduff, St John Ervine, John Hewitt, Sam Thompson, Stewart Parker, Ron Hutchinson, Graham Reid, Gary Mitchell, Marie Jones and Christina Reid.

These writers were grounded in the Protestant working classes; they were also part of or heavily influenced by trade unionism. They bemoaned that unionist politicians and religious leaders (it was unavoidable that Rev Ian Paisley featured in some of their works) seemed relatively unconcerned with improving ordinary people’s everyday lives.

Parr deftly utilizes the texts of these authors’ writing, exploring how their work fit within and critiqued the political contexts of their time. He also interviewed the authors who are still living, adding invaluable insights.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the harrowing chapter, ‘The Anger and Energy of Gary Mitchell,’ which explores how those from his own community harassed and hounded him out of his home in response to his brutally honest portrayals.

This, as much as any chapter in the book, exposes the tensions about identity and cultural expression within the PUL community, raising more questions than answers about how unionism might become more at ease with its own internal diversities.

Parr is a scholar, a Research Fellow at Northumbria University. And Inventing the Myth is a scholarly book. But Parr’s writing style is clear enough to be appreciated by a popular audience. Though some familiarity with the writings of those he profiles would be beneficial, it is not strictly necessary. Indeed, I think that this book could prompt people who have not encountered these writers before to seek out their original works.

Regrettably, the book comes with an academic price tag — £55. I hope that the much-deserved attention it has received will result in a paperback version, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com