Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780198791591

Reviewed by Henry Patterson

Henry Patterson is Professor Emeritus of Irish Politics at Ulster University.

Connal Parr has written a cultural and sociological history of the Ulster Protestant community from the Home Rule period to the Peace Process focusing on the work of ten writers, the majority of whose work was produced for the stage or television. It is rooted in a wide range of primary sources, a large number of interviews and a grounding in scholarly literature on the modern social, cultural and political history of Northern Ireland. It is a courageous book in many ways, not least in its argument that nationalist/republican radicals easily fit into a pre-existing tradition whilst Protestant radicals have to invent it for themselves.

Inventing the myth is a synthesis of the political and the creative, an approach fleshed out in its combative first chapter, ‘Words as Weapons’. Here Parr argues that a key development in Northern Irish politics since the paramilitary ceasefires of the 1990s has been a cultural war unleashed by the republican movement, putting armed struggle behind it, with the arts becoming a new area of political struggle. As Parr recognises, the republican movement always had a cultural dimension, albeit of a largely propagandist nature, but from the 1990s he argues that authors like Ronan Bennett and Danny Morrison have been to the forefront in constructing a binary view of two communal cultures in contention: an open, progressive, confident one on the Catholic side and a closed, reactionary Protestant culture of Orange marches and flute bands. In fact, Parr argues, Ulster Protestants have a complex and conflicted history, and this is particularly the case for the Protestant working class, from which nine of his ten writers come.

It is this history of class tension and conflict, with its manifestations in trade unions, strikes and political action against the dominant Ulster Unionist Party and the Stormont regime, that forms the background to the first four writers considered: St John Ervine, Thomas Carnduff (a former B Special and member of the radical Independent Orange Order), John Hewitt and Sam Thompson.

Carnduff’s play Castlereagh resurrects the figure of James ‘Jemmy’ Hope, a weaver from Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, and the United Irishman whose interest in social and economic issues has led to his being described as having the ‘class politics of a proto-socialist’ (p. 68). Hewitt, better recognised as a poet than as a playwright, wrote a master’s thesis on Hope’s social class of handloom weavers and possessed perhaps the most developed sense of the dialectic of class and religion amongst all the writers considered here. Parr pairs Hewitt with the shipyard worker Sam Thompson, both supporters of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in its period of maximum influence during the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. Hewitt was passed over for the post of director of the Ulster Museum and Art Gallery because of his politics, just as the Unionist establishment tried to prevent the staging of Thompson’s Over the bridge for its depiction of the conflict between trade unionism and sectarianism in the shipyard. Thompson died tragically early from a heart attack in the NILP’s offices in Waring Street in Belfast. It was 1965, the year the ‘liberal’ Unionist leader Terence O’Neill concentrated his party’s propaganda machine against the NILP and its supposed threat to the constitution.

Parr recognises that the outbreak of communal violence and the disintegration of the Stormont regime between 1969 and Bloody Sunday marked a fatal point of inflection for the tradition of Protestant socialist and labourist dissent as a potent political force. Although for the writers considered in the remaining chapters the issues of class and the rejection of mainstream unionism are as potent, the context is darker and the prospects bleaker, although in the work of one of the two female writers analysed, Marie Jones, this is sublimated in a comic form. Stewart Parker—whose radio play Pentecost is set against the backdrop of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974—and Graham Reid wrote during terrifying levels of violence. In Reid’s recollection, IRA bombs killing RUC men on the border, ignored in the Republic where he was living at the time, reinforced his identification with the UK and shook his sense of Irishness.

As the bleakness of the 1980s gave way to the paramilitary ceasefires and consequent Peace Process, much journalistic and academic commentary has focused on the challenge that peace supposedly posed to Ulster’s Protestants—often bound up with Ian Paisley, whose key role in the genesis of political violence is at the heart of the work of the other writers featured in the book.

Parr devotes a chapter to the work of Gary Mitchell, whose relentless depiction of the ravages of loyalist paramilitarism on working-class Protestant communities had him expelled from the vast Rathcoole estate in north Belfast. Mitchell’s work represents a powerful counter-blast to the official ideology of the Peace Process, written from the perspective of the marginalised and disillusioned underclass, which flared up dramatically during the flag protests of 2012–13.

At a time when the Brexit vote has contributed to a rejuvenation of the Irish nationalist project and an influential nationalist commentator like Denis Bradley can describe unionists as a people ‘committing self-harm’ because they will not accept the demographic inevitability of unity (Irish Times, 21 February 2018), Parr has made a major contribution to a historically and culturally sensitive understanding of that community, and in particular of its combative and progressive dimensions—something that republican cultural commentators have done their best to obliterate.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568