Lean with ear lobes curled like bacon fried to within an inch of its life; early baldness in the genes; parsimony born of deprivation; anger, anger, anger leeching into every human exchange but rarely surfacing except in tight threats to “correct” others. My picture of the Northern Irish Protestant man. If you want to see examples, check out the actors who play Belfastmen in The Fall, the excellent BBC thriller with Gillian Anderson playing a British detective.
Then check out the actors playing Catholic IRA sympathizers in James Marsh’s film Shadow Dancer. A different race. I remember them with full heads of hair, sensual, redder-faced (all that booze), and strangely, in my memories less angry than the Protestants I grew up with. God knows the Catholics are supposed to be the angry ones, and they’ve proved it. Maybe their deadly anger seems less threatening to me because it was always taken for granted. (We stole their country.) Northern Irish Protestant men had less justifiable reason for their anger, except perhaps hatred of the Other.
It seems to me that Northern Irish Protestant men’s anger is rooted in having to maintain an indefensible position, which destroys self-respect: an alcoholic arguing that booze played no part in his three DUIs; a pornophile arguing that the young models in a world of shattered personal boundaries, drugs and prostitution aren’t harmed by doing what he watches.
When I moved to London, I found that most English didn’t know the difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and maybe you don’t. Northern Ireland was colonized by Scots and English Protestants in the early 17th century, an attempt to quell rebellion against English control. The Irish of course continued to rebel. And the colonialists, not exactly the cream of society, were as brutal and ignorant in Ireland as anywhere else, the natives treated as disposable savages. I’ve been called Paddy plenty of times by English yobs.
Despite the brutalities on both sides down the centuries, this seems the basic truth to me: the Northern Irish Protestants don’t belong there. Maybe that denied knowledge and the bone-deep manipulations of self that denial requires, is the basis for the anger I remember in Northern Irish Protestant men.
There are plenty of other reasons for my own anger.
Until I read Colin Broderick’s book That’s That I didn’t know how little I know about the subject on which you might suppose I’d be an expert. I didn’t even know whether to call myself a Prod or a Proddy (Proddie? I believe the name appears only in the plural in Colin’s book, so he was no help.) I knew to call him and his people Micks but I didn’t know what they called me. How could I, when we had nothing to do with each other? Not a conscious decision we ever questioned, more something bred in our bones.
Unlike Colin, I was born in Belfast. He was born in Birmingham, England, although his parents moved him back to their Northern Irish home when he was two months old. Discovery of where he’d been born was enough for his schoolboy fellow Catholics to accuse him of being one of the hated English.
I could fill a book with what I don’t know about Northern Ireland, the place I lived until I got out when I was 17. Until recently I thought the Battle of the Boyne, a victory by William of Orange which Ulster Orangemen celebrate with an inflammatory parade every July 12, took place in Holland! Until I read Colin’s book I didn’t know that Northern Ireland measures roughly only 60 by 60 miles. I thought it was quite a large country, almost none of which I’d ever visited. (How in God’s name could I have so little curiosity about the place where I grew up? One reason: I was trying to forget it.)
Until I read Colin’s book I didn’t know not only quite the extent to which Northern Irish Catholics’ hatred of the Brits consumed them, but also how Northern Irish Catholic nationalists despised Irish Catholic nationalists from the south, responsible for abandoning them to the Brits. (We Prods didn’t hate the English, we just thought they were sissies. On the first of my only two visits back to see my family, they melted into puddles of embarrassment in the drizzle at the airport because I’d got into the habit of carrying an umbrella. Real Ulstermen didn’t carry umbrellas. Though I could write another book listing the ways in which most of the men I grew up with didn’t and don’t fit my notion of what a real man is.)
I’m not entirely stupid. I have a summa cum laude degree from Columbia and two master’s degrees to prove it. I have perfectly logical—almost perfectly convincing—explanations for why I’m so ignorant about a topic on which I should be an expert. And I can explain at least one of the reasons I assumed Colin Broderick and I must have a lot in common. We are agreed on the truth about the topic on which Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants so bitterly disagree. I, a Northern Irish Protestant, had no right to be in Northern Ireland. MORE TO COME
I meant to begin with a few sentences written by another author, and briefly fool you into thinking I’d written them. The author is Colin Broderick; his book is That’s That, a memoir of growing up in the Northern Irish Troubles. My purpose was to prove that despite the differences you may see in us—the overriding difference being that he’s Catholic and I’m Protestant—we were more similar to each other than to anyone who wasn’t raised in Northern Ireland. But although I read That’s That with the express purpose of finding those sentences that would prove our similarity, I couldn’t find them, not on any of Colin’s 359 pages. Not a sentence that I could honestly pass as entirely belonging to me. There were too many differences, almost all created by how our country raised us.
Maybe I haven’t thought this subject through sufficiently (or ever could). Which is what I was taught by the country where I grew up: Thinking strongly discouraged, but if you must think, don’t talk about what you think. Or write about it. Not if you were a Protestant from the North. If you were a Catholic from the South, you could at least churn out masterpieces. All you risked was being banned or sent to hell.
Yet on a personal emotional level Colin Broderick and I are as similar as twin brothers raised under the same roof (except for minor differences such as sexual preference and the 30 years’ age gap). We grew up giving the finger to the British government -controlled education system that prohibited us from learning the history of our country. Our Irish mothers stuck to their traditional role of cooking and cleaning, talking to us only to issue mostly empty threats about what would happen if we didn’t stop doing what they said it was wrong to do. (At the end of Colin’s book his mother finds her voice at last, rather too conveniently for the shape of the memoir, I thought. Colin’s Dad is a silent unexamined presence; mine was that depressed skeleton in the corner after he retired as a postman.)
Colin and I took it for granted that a blackout binge was a rite of manhood to be sought out as early as you could fool the bartender about your age, not that they ever much worried about checking. (I spent the first few pounds of the advance on my first novel Aubade sampling every drink my best friend and I could think of at a pub on the Bangor seafront.) Colin and I early discovered the joys of jerking off, and indulged frequently despite the punishments we assumed were inevitable: he feared eternal damnation, I thought I’d grow an extra testicle every time I had an orgasm. And we’re both angry little buggers. But more of that later. MORE TO COME
I remembered the Belfast railway station as a lofty Victorian-era iron-and-glass terminus where I’d bought my first whisky at the age of 14 or 15, a walk from the city center across a bridge over the Lagan. When I was a child horses still pulled coal carts over the cobblestones. Today’s station (the last time I was back in 2000) was a simple walk from my hotel to what looked like a flimsy small-town bus station for the poor and the old in a car society, no pub that I remember noticing.
I’d taken the train from Bangor to Belfast when I escaped from the house, to a picture in one of the big Belfast cinemas on a Saturday afternoon, or maybe on my half-day after I got a summer job when I was 14 in a tiny general store. Or maybe I went to spend the money I’d stolen from the till on a cheap record player at Smithfield Market. A few times I got to travel alone late at night to the Ulster BBC (I think on Ormeau Avenue) to rehearse and play troubled children in radio plays. After my voice broke (I started making strange grunting choking noises at unpredictable moments) I auditioned for adult roles, but with no guidance I chose for my audition an American poem that included the words “on glory of split bourbon float.” I pronounced “bourbon” as if it were a French king, and I swear I heard a man in the control booth having hysterics. As usual, ignoring the laws of consequences, I continued hoping to be called for an adult part.
Maybe on those late night train journeys I hoped for a replay of what I’d read about in the racier but unsuccessful alternative paper to our stodgy Bangor weekly The Spectator. A disgusted reader reported coming across two men in an otherwise deserted carriage, one hiding on the floor, another feeling his crotch. I’m sure that letter fueled my already busy masturbatory fantasies, but I doubt I’d have gone through with a similar opportunity if it had been offered to me. Once, sitting near the front row at the Adelphi cinema on Main Street in Bangor, a man had felt my crotch. I knew what I was getting into when I sat next to that young man: lust radiated from his tight light-colored trousers, his knees spread wide. But I chickened out and fled.
Not soon enough to avoid the couple in the foyer. “There’s that thing,” the woman said. I ignored them, my cheeks burning, afraid to make eye contact in case I knew them, which would entail unavoidable unthinkable shameful consequences. One night in a BBC rehearsal studio, the juvenile lead walked over to me and thrust his crotch an inch away from my face in full view of the rest of the cast while I sat on the floor. I kept my head bowed until he moved away, but I remembered wondering where we’d go to do it. The lavatory, I supposed.
That day back in Bangor in 2000 for the first time in 30 years (longer, more like 40 years, since the last time I only came back to Northern Ireland as far as Belfast) I found myself in another lavatory in an arcade on Main Street. I’d had a hefty slice of Christmas fruitcake with marzipan paste and white icing hard enough to break a tooth on (yummy) and needed to go. When I came out of the stall there were too many idling men and two policemen hovering, as if deciding who to confront. I made brief cool uninterested eye contact, a good thing to do whether you’re guilty or innocent, washed my hands and left. In a stationer’s store on the same side of Main Street (it was a Sunday, but to my astonishment the shops were open, the street far busier than it had ever been on a weekday when I was a kid) I noticed a solitary copy of Gay Times. But as I left a hostile voice said to its female companion: “As long as he’s not gay.”
On second thoughts, it’s vast progress for that shite to openly acknowledge even the possibility that a son of his might turn out gay. MORE TO COME