Book review: Inventing the Myth – Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination

The Orange Order
The Orange Order

Alex Kane reviews Connal Parr’s new book exploring the idea of unionist identity:

I’ve spent many, many years writing about what we mean by Protestant, unionist, loyalist, British, Ulster “identity”.

Marching - a mainstay of Protestant culture

Marching - a mainstay of Protestant culture

I’ve also raised questions about why the pro-Union community (a huge and not always harmonious family) has always seemed to find it so difficult to present a coherent narrative about itself; a narrative that makes sense to, and attracts sympathy from, an audience outside Northern Ireland.

Connal Parr quotes the poet, Tom Paulin: (Unionism) “clings to a concept of nationality which no longer satisfies many of the British people whom the Ulster Unionists wish to identify with”.

Paulin wrote that in 1985, although he could just as easily have been writing about Ulster unionism at any time since its origins in the mid-1880s.

‘Inventing the Myth’ is an important book. Indeed, I think it’s one of the most important books to have been written about unionist ‘identity’ in Northern Ireland.

The cover of Connal Parr's new book

The cover of Connal Parr's new book

And one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the clear – and I would also argue, disturbing and self-defeating – evidence that unionists are not comfortable discussing their own multi-layered identity.

The playwright Sam Thompson – whose play, Over The Bridge, rattled the cages of establishment unionism in 1959/60 – noted afterwards: “A writer is not accepted as part of the community. If you are a writer and you speak your mind, you’re a danger here.”

When Thompson stood as a Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate for South Down in the 1964 general election, his unionist opponent, Lawrence Orr, sniped: “Politics is not a play – it is concerned not with fiction but with fact.”

Terence O’Neill talked of “a certain Mr Sam Thompson, whose past experience was in producing works of fiction.”

The one thing the writers covered in this book – Thomas Carnduff, St John Ervine, John Hewitt, Sam Thompson, Stewart Parker, Ron Hutchinson, Graham Reid, Gary Mitchell, Marie Jones and Christina Reid – have in common 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.

Their writing, whether it be a book, play, poem or television script, tended to focus on a class who were being ignored for the most part by a unionist/loyalist elite which traded on fear of “themuns” and a version of unionism which portrayed socialism – even in its mildest form – as a danger.

Even John Hewitt, who raised concerns about the complacency of the pro-Union middle class, made for uncomfortable reading:

You coasted along

to larger houses, gadgets, more machines,

to golf and weekend bungalows,

caravans when the children were small,

the Mediterranean, later, with the wife.

Who would have guessed it, coasting along?...

The cloud of infection hangs over the city,

a quick change of wind and it

might spill over the leafy suburbs.

You coasted too long.

But unionists don’t want to hear this.

They don’t want to be told that how unionism/loyalism manifested itself since 1921 could be part of the problem in understanding their own identity and narrative today.

Because to question themselves is interpreted by some – usually in leadership roles – as handing ammunition to the enemy.

But, although Parr doesn’t really explore this area, the same leadership which condemns the ‘anti-unionism’ of unionist critics doesn’t often offer a more appealing, thought-through narrative of its own.

It’s a point noted by Ben Lowry in his piece in last Saturday’s News Letter, when, to paraphrase his argument, he wondered why, when it came to film and television portrayals, republicans seem to have the best tunes?

The answer is simple: there seem to be few pro-Union writers prepared to make the case.

Parr quotes Robert Cooper, a former drama producer for the BBC: “There is lurking within the Protestant culture a fear that they don’t have a culture. I’m not sure that Northern Irish Protestants know what their culture is, and that’s different from saying there is no culture.”

He also quotes the novelist Maurice Leitch: “...if you denigrate the opposition (Protestants/unionists) long enough, they’ll actually believe that they don’t have any culture, that they can’t produce any art.”

And the academic Arthur Aughey: “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.”

It isn’t, of course.

At the heart of this book is a basic, yet hugely important truth; namely, in the same way that unionism has many forms, so too, must its culture. And all of those forms are important.

Writers, artists, critics, poets, playwrights, film-makers are all an integral part of a community and it’s important that their voices are heard.

Protestant/unionist/loyalist culture is more than just the Orange Order and Ulster-Scots, deep though their roots may be. Each new generation plants its own roots, tells it own story and offers its own interpretation of the broader community.

That’s how a community survives: it adapts to new realities and circumstances.

Parr focuses on one element, writers. But many of those writers – particularly Hewitt, Thompson and Parker, in my lifetime – were prophetic.

They should have been heeded rather than dismissed as purveyors of “fiction”.

The lessons to be learned from their experience apply equally to every other exploration of our culture.

“Culture” has never played such a key part in political debate here as it is at the moment.

Connal Parr is to be congratulated for this very important contribution to that debate. It deserves a wide audience: and the publishers really should consider a less expensive paperback edition.

‘Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination’

By: Connal Parr

Publisher: Oxford University Press