Contested Identities

Contested Identities

The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants:
edited by Thomas Paul Burgess & Gareth Mulvenna.

The book is prefaced as a response to co-editor Thomas Burgess’s uncomfortable encounter where:

“… a young woman with impeccable Irish Republican credentials spoke up forcefully, and advanced her sure and certain hypothesis that there did not exist – neither could there ever exist – any legitimate or worthwhile expression of a valid or meaningful cultural contribution emerging from the Ulster unionist or loyalist tradition.”

We’ve all been there.

The immediate response:

“I forced a smile of course – though gritted teeth – feeling that any spirited defence on the matter would render me a bellicose Paisleyite and monarchist lick-spittle … once I had left the room, naturally.”

We’ve all done that.

As the preface ends, the book offers a promising prospect of journeying through the contested identities of Ulster Protestant culture; that we may perhaps better understand some of the reasons as to how things became – and remain – anchored in the sorry state of caricature and negative stereotype that the collective identities of that Ulster Protestant (or is it Irish Unionist, or Irish Protestant, or Loyalist or the broad catchall PUL) suffers.

In a News Letter piece heralding the book’s publication co-editor Gareth Mulvenna says:

“Our book sought to take a nuanced look at Protestant identities’. The article suggests that the authors believe ‘The truth is that there is more to be understood, appreciated and critiqued by journeying through the contested identities of Ulster Protestants.”

There is an admission up front in the introduction to the book that:

“it us arguable whether a single text could hope to exhaustively reflect the diversity of opinion and experience that exists within the PUL community.”

The editors note quickly that:

“Susan McKay, with her study Northern Protestants, attempted to do just that but ended up creating a deeply self-flagellating tome that failed to reflect the positive aspects of Northern Ireland Protestant Communities. Northern Protestants was more a personal exorcism of Protestant self-loathing that a credible attempt to provide that community with a voice.”

If the book wished to show there are lots of different views on Ulster Protestant identity/culture, then it does to some extent. If there is a fault it is that the focus is predominantly on the ‘loyalist’ culture/identity/place.

Or perhaps, if not ‘loyalist’, then a ‘progressive’ perspective on the Ulster Protestant which invariably settles on the ‘working class”.

As a consequence of the ‘progressive’ undercurrent, the book becomes quite narrow. The contributors seem an easy reach for the editors, rather than any search for something wider, or deeper. In the end the totality of the book tends to confirm rather than dispel caricature. Which is a shame because there is a bigger, wider, deeper story to be told – is being told, beyond the ‘progressive’ mind camp.

Eoghan Harris takes a view of Ulster Protestants drawn from his own cultural core. He references the acclaim for Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme as a moral milestone in the South being prepared to push anti-unionist prejudices to the margins of public life. Yet this was an acceptance through the central nationalist theme of ‘blood sacrifice’ – not the sober reflection of the late Sam Starrett’s Home for Christmas; of men with love for God, King and fellow man.

Sam McCready and Neil Symington provide a useful insight to Marching Bands, but no more than in Darach MacDonald’s 2010 book Blood and Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band

Brian Kennaway rehearses his falling out with the Orange Order, again. Why not the wider insights of Ruth Dudley Edwards’s The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions?

John Williams and Alister McReynolds seem to be unsure of whether the American Branch is Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish, and a chapter is spent never quite reaching a conclusion. A better understanding of that American, and the common notes with his Ulster/Scottish roots might be found in Karen F McCarthy’s The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America  or Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America 

Graham Reid and Billy Hutchinson provide a personal story of growing up in a ‘working-class’ area, Malachi O’Doherty provides a outsiders observation onto ‘loyalists’ today, and Gareth Mulvenna takes a view of why ‘the Protestant Working-Class and Protestant Community’ might be where it is today. Yet none reach into the essence of why Ulster Protestants became who they are as does John Bew’s The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast

The book narrows Ulster Protestantism through the prism of the ‘progressive’. In doing so it fails to reflect the diversity of opinion and experience that exists within the ‘PUL’ community. In its almost singular focus on the L, of Loyalism, it dwells on a section of the Ulster Protestant population which electorally remains a small and possibly just as marginal by individual personal identification, even among the ‘working-class’. For a broader view, you’ll need to read more widely. The suggestions above are good start points.

That is not to say there are not essays in this book worth a read. It does not however provide, in any way, a more positive response to that young woman with impeccable Irish Republican credentials – though it is probable that young woman wouldn’t care if it did.


This review appeared on thedissenter in April 2015