‘Did I ever tell you about the time that Elvis Costello called me an Orange bastard?’
This line appears, almost like a smack in the face, in the preface to a book I recently co-edited with Dr Paul Burgess – lecturer in Cork by way of the Shankill Road. The book is entitled The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants and that anecdote, recounted by Dr Burgess himself, occurred in a previous life when he was the drummer and songwriter with the criminally unheralded Belfast punk band Ruefrex.
Sadly Costello’s insult is the kind of ‘catch-all’ put-down that limits informed debate on the broad range of social, cultural and political threads that constitute the Ulster Protestant tapestry. There are many, like Costello, who would wish that that narrow stereotype would endure.
In the wake of the December 2012 flag protest controversy, when such lackadaisical stereotypes about the one-dimensional ‘fleg’ waving Prod were prominent in the press and social media, Burgess and myself decided to garner a range of slightly more nuanced and enlightened thoughts on the subject, with contributors incorporating academics, journalists and community activists.
Graham Reid, the much-loved writer of the Billy plays, in his contribution to our book, recounts in autobiographical detail the intergenerational experiences of his family, recalling memories of trauma both in the shipyard and the Somme. Reid’s own childhood, where ‘Money was not plentiful’, is remembered as is an episode in later life where Reid, attending a reception hosted by Charles Haughey in Mansion House, was ‘roundly attacked’ by the Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre for daring to write that he was ‘British’ in the nationality section of the visitors’ book. As Reid writes: ‘…but that’s what I am. Not Northern Irish/British…just British. I love Northern Ireland because it’s British.’
Reid’s dilemma highlights one of the main frustrations of the Ulster Protestant; that they can’t just be understood on their own terms.
Reid of course would be one of the ‘misguided Irishmen’ so ingrained in the Sinn Fein lexicon.
Burgess, writing about his Protestant working-class experience in Ruefrex songs was just an ‘Orange bastard.’
The truth is that there is more to be understood, appreciated and critiqued by journeying through the contested identities of Ulster Protestants.
• Dr Gareth Mulvenna is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy. Dr Paul Burgess is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Social Studies at University College Cork. The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (Palgrave Macmillan) is available to buy now