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SOURCE: Cineaste Vol XXIV, Nos 2-3.

Brian McIlroy, Challenges and Problems in Contemporary Irish Cinema: The Protestants

The representation of minorities in narrative and documentary film has always attracted critical attention. Good reasons exist for this interest, since it is through such an examination we can judge how mainstream society however defined, and from which the works generally come positions itself against other groups less central, particularly in terms of political and social power relations.

Both kinds of film often provide us with exemplars of dominant cultural assumptions, and this is as true in Ireland as it is true in the United States. In a critical utopia, these analyses of minorities and their visual representation may indeed lead some filmmakers and producers to rethink stereotypes and previously unquestioned areas. As the Irish film scene progresses (it might be slightly misleading to call it a full-blown “industry”), with plaudits in the 1990s going to such films as Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father (1993), Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son (1996), and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), one is conscious that stories focusing on the Catholic nationalist and republican communities have been dominant. Yet, this observation only begs the question: how have their counterparts in the Protestant unionist and loyalist communities been addressed? Or, indeed, those Protestants who live in the Republic of Ireland?

One of the key difficulties faced when approaching this conundrum are the conflicting definitions of a majority and a minority. Both communities in Northern Ireland, for example, can see themselves as both. If one stresses the all-Ireland concept, Catholics become part of a 80% majority and the Protestants a 20% minority; if one stresses the Northern Ireland state alone, then there emerges a 60% Protestant majority and a 40% Catholic minority (this leaves the Republic of Ireland with not even a 5% Protestant population). As Irish historian T.W. Moody once famously noted, religion has always mattered in Ireland; what he meant in part was that to be Catholic or Protestant on the emerald isle was to engage differently in issues far beyond institutional affiliation, to those of culture, education, politics, and even sport. At a time when the peace process in Northern Ireland remains fragile, despite the mammoth diplomatic work by the governments of the United States, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, and the equally important discussions among the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement (further recognized by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to unionist David Trimble and nationalist John Hume), it is undoubtedly churlish to raise disturbing questions about the representation of Protestants in Irish film.

Nevertheless, such a survey is required, if only to problematize the comfortable essence of Irishness that frequently pervades American, British, and Irish funded or cofunded films on Ireland. Simply put, the Protestant community in Ireland is not one that has attracted filmmakers to any great degree. Many films that do exist are mentioned below, and there are gems among them; however, several impediments to a fuller representation are constantly at play. These impediments include the perception of the unionist and loyalist communities as backward looking, unduly attached to the status quo, in frequent opposition to left-wing politics and culture, too reliant on supremacist thinking, and as holders of more than enough privileges.

A film that posits these assumptions is the British Film Institute funded Ascendancy (1982), directed by Edward Bennett. In this work, set at the near birth of the Northern Ireland state, unionism is linked inextricably to imperialism, militarism, and sectarianism.

Ascendancy attempts to show how its traumatized wealthy Protestant heroine is unable to cope with the loss of her brother from the First World War. This familial sacrifice for the British Empire is at the base of unionist and loyalist culture, members of which conjure up the Ulster commitment at the Battle of the Somme as evidence of allegiance to the Crown. By implication, the film seems to suggest that such ties were misplaced, and that clearly such sacrifices did not bring peace to Ireland. These assumptions also extend beyond the Ulster community. Ironically, despite the long tradition of Protestant nationalists and republicans Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Roger Casement, W.B.Yeats, and so on southern-Irish Protestants still retain, if we were to extrapolate from visual representations alone, an aura of decayed privilege. The popular history of

these so-called Anglo-Irish is one of mansions, estates, servants, and access to the joys of Empire. These advantageous conditions were broken by the War of Independence and the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921/22. As a community, the Protestants proceeded to gradually dwindle in size through migration and intermarriage. To many, they had had their day, and given the undeniable grievances of the Catholic population over hundreds of years, they withered in the background to general indifference.

The Irish writer William Trevor has captured this gloomy mood magnificently, so much so that one can almost feel the sepia tones come right off the page. His novel Fools of Fortune was translated to film in 1990 by Pat O’Connor, and is probably the most powerful commentary on the fate of the Protestants in the South. The director has commented recently that he knew it would take some years for this film to be properly assessed because of its keen focus on a wealthy Protestant family. Fools of Fortune traces the tragic story of Willie Quinton, whose father is murdered and his home burned by a Black and Tan soldier, Rudkin, during the War of Independence. Willie’s sisters die in the fire, and many years later his mother, finally unable to deal with these losses, commits suicide. Driven by revenge, Willie travels to England to seek out Rudkin whom he kills brutally with a knife. Willie goes into exile, only returning to the remains of the family home when he learns that his liaison with his English cousin, Marianne, has resulted in a gifted but troubled child, Imelda, and that he may be free from prosecution. Stretching from 1920 to the 1940s and 1950s, the film would seem to be a heritage or period film that relies for much of its effects on costume and setting. But it is a peculiarly Irish heritage film that speaks just as much to the unsettled present as it does to the unsettled past.

O’Connor underscores this point by opening the film with slow motion black-and-white footage of the Protestant Quinton family all dressed in their summer whites having mid afternoon tea and cakes on the grounds of their estate. That time could be likened to the atmosphere of the ancien régime just before the French Revolution. Once the War of Independence begins, the Quintons are placed, as representatives of the Anglo-Irish, in an impossible situation. While sympathetic to the aspirations of the IRA, in the spirit of the United Irishmen, and resentful of the repressive British military presence, Mr. Quinton has too many vested interests and obligations to provide more than clandestine financial resources. Ironically, his English wife is more supportive of Ireland for the Irish than he is. This marriage between an Irish Protestant and an English woman is replicated later in the film in the relationship between Willie and Marianne. Here O’Connor suggests how Irish Protestants are interconnected with Britain perhaps in a more complex way than Irish Catholics. Adding to this complexity, it is significant that the Quinton employee Doyle, who informs for the Black and Tans, and who may well be a Catholic, fought for the British during the First World War. Loyalties are full of shades of gray, and in his historic speech to both houses of the Irish parliament in November 1998, Tony Blair specifically mentioned how unionist and nationalists traveled to Flanders to “remember shared suffering.” As the young Willie is told by his tutor, a defrocked priest, “The past is always there in the present.” Very early on in the film, Mr Quinton explains to his son that it is very difficult to be Irish in Ireland, whereas what the film proves is that it was difficult to be Protestant and Irish. The forces of history and violence reduce the Quintons to emotional cripples, a rather sad, gentle, but anachronistic group of people, who have been unable to overcome their past heritage. The daughter Imelda is the repository for all the past family traumas. Spurred on by discrimination at school, where she is made to feel an outsider because she is not a Catholic, and by a troubled relationship with her mother, who also feels abandoned by her family, the child experiences visions of the violent past, including that of Mr. Quinton’s murder and Willie’s murder of Rudkin. She loses the power of speech and appears to live in a fantasy world where time slippages are seamless. If Imelda is representative of the Protestant future in the Republic of Ireland, it is an ambiguous rendering. To her mother, she has simply gone insane, traumatized by history; to others, she is blessed and has the power to heal the afflicted. We are encouraged to favor the latter reading, but the former is not eliminated from our thoughts.

For all its cultural baggage as a troubled heritage piece, Fools of Fortune is a powerful film, particularly noteworthy for its suggestive use of landscapes and interiors that dovetail nicely with the melodramatic elements. As befits the size of population, most representations, however, focus on the Ulster Protestants, and these films may be understood better by accepting that they are informed by what Tom Nairn has called the “anti-imperialist myth.” This myth presupposes that the Protestants are suffering from a false consciousness since they wish to remain connected to the origin of imperialism (Britain); that the Protestants are not a “real” people or nation with legitimate rights which happen to diverge from the aspirations of Irish nationalists and British ministers; that since the Protestants are “deluded lackeys,” they can be “dismissed from history.” Once the myth is adopted, awkward facts can be elided (for example, the last power-sharing agreement in 1974 was brought down primarily by working-class Protestants, not the unionist elites). The power of the anti-imperialist myth is indubitably seductive, allied as it is to the romantic, restorative image of Irish unification, with all the suggestive metaphors of harmony, closing the circle, and finishing a narrative quest. Only recently have unionists realized that they must repeatedly travel to Britain, continental Europe, and the United States to argue their case, just as their nationalist adversaries have done for years. This dismissal from history creates at least three kinds of identifiable representation in Irish film.

Sometimes elements of all three occur in the same film. First, the Protestants appear ironically as a structuring absence or merely background filler. Second, the Protestants are collapsed into figures in uniform, thereby strongly linking the community with militarylike repression. Third, the Protestants are demonized or decontextualized. In Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son, for example, the two Catholic female protagonists mainly experience their Protestant neighbors as mute, suspicious prison officers, as aggressive, ranting protestors at an election count, or as the people involved in throwing urine at them as they hand out leaflets.

Jim Sheridan¹s In the Name of the Father positively excludes Irish Protestants, except for brief visual suggestions of heinous RUC men. In Sheridan’s later The Boxer (1997), the Protestant population is reduced to two bereaved parents, a policeman who is assassinated, a faceless mob, and a sinister assortment of tattooed hard men. Roger Mitchell’s Titantic Town (1998) features for thirty seconds or so a group of middle-class Protestant women who, within a few seconds, are pilloried and thrust out of a community meeting. Neil Jordan’s remarkably successful The Crying Game (1992) appears to omit Protestants totally, forcing the viewer to see the Irish conflict specifically as a struggle between Britain and Ireland rather than between two ethnic communities within Ireland. In addition to pursuing the queer and race themes, if Jordan had chosen to have his IRA group arrest a local Protestant policeman or soldier, it would have perforce led to a most challenging piece of political dialog. Such a choice, however, would have invalidated the comfortable anti-imperialist myth at the level of politics which the film relies upon in its Irish section.

Jordan’s first feature film Angel (aka Danny Boy, 1982) made clear a link between Protestant policing and loyalist death squads; his Michael Collins (1996) featured one Belfast police detective being blown up in his car. In and of itself, this scene is unremarkable until you think that it is the only specific Protestant representation in the film. Even in my fairly unIrish city of Vancouver, the scene elicited great laughter as the arrogant policeman seemingly got his just deserts. These selective observations naturally appear univocal and reductive, but what they suggest is the exclusionary esthetics that the anti-imperialist myth determines, consciously and unconsciously, in a screenwriter’s and director’s mind. These films place the Protestants in the margins of their narratives, and are easily taken to task. More interesting are the films that seek, on the surface, to confer parity of esteem between the two communities. The notion of parity of esteem emerged in the late 1980s as a cultural nostrum from various governmental bodies eager to find a middle ground in a very divided society. It’s one English filmmakers and writers took up in practice earlier in the decade.

Peter Smith’s No Surrender (1985) and Mike Leigh’s Four Days in July (1984) attempt to straddle both communities. The former film was written by Alan Bleasedale and exudes his penchant for biting, black satire. What¹s unique about No Surrender is Bleasedale’s setting of the story in Liverpool, England, where the transplanted Protestant and Catholics maintain a warring enmity. But whereas in their youth, the feelings were direct and vital, the antagonism has turned in old age to weary sarcasm and self-doubt. Bleasedale hilariously heightens their antiquarian nature by having both Protestant and Catholic senior social clubs turn up at the same venue for an evening out, along with incompetent and outrageous comedians and musicians. In amongst this chaos, a loyalist gunman is trying to hide out with one of his former comrades, Billy.

The political and social impact of the film centers on Billy, once a fierce Protestant loyalist, who has now forsaken his sectarianism, underscored by his eventual killing of his previous colleague, and by his asking to speak for the first time to his Catholic son-in-law. It’s interesting that Bleasedale would see that it is the Protestants that most need to renounce their violence (particularly when one realizes the fact that republican paramilitaries are responsible for two-thirds of the deaths in Northern Ireland, and the Loyalists one third).

Mike Leigh’s film is typical of his general style: he seems to invite and encourage improvised scenes based on an extended prerehearsal period, and by positioning his camera unobtrusively in the midst of a conversation. The director focuses on two couples who are both expecting their first child. The sympathies of Leigh, however, towards the Catholic couple are clear to all to see. In terms of screen time, before the two couples meet in the hospital, some fifty minutes have been devoted to the Catholic couple and only around thirty-three minutes to the Protestant couple. The bias is further enhanced by choosing to represent the Protestant man as a soldier, and the Catholic man as a gunshot victim. By further choosing the run-up to the Orange 12th July celebrations as the setting, the assumed larger mentality of the Protestants is underscored.

These deliberately political readings of these films should not overshadow how immensely enjoyable they are to watch, often able through a stroke of humor to say more than any overly serious dramatic scene.

A more traditional approach to joint representation or apparent parity of esteem is to adopt the Romeo and Juliet storyline. We see this in the Irish film This is the Sea (1998) directed by Mary McGuckian, in which Hazel, a Plymouth Brethren Protestant meets Catholic Malachy, but must negotiate difficult family, religious, and political objections to the match. The fundamentalist Protestant depiction inevitably pushes the viewer to identify with the more socially relaxed Catholic family.

Within the documentary genre, and continuing the desirability of parity of esteem, Northern Irish filmmaker Margo Harkin’s 12 Days in July (1998) focuses on the explosive “Drumcree March” in Portadown during the summer of 1997. Harkin shifts back and forward between the Garvaghy Road Residents Association and the local Orange Order in the days leading up to the contentious parade. Invariably, in these films the Protestants are depicted as if they are all collectively suffering from a joyless upbringing with too much dogma. Even when Protestants are the main focus of a feature narrative, the tendency is to give them a disturbing pathology.

This is particularly the case with two recent feature films on the Shankill Butchers of the mid 1970s (a loyalist death squad) Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Nothing Personal (1995) and Marc Evans’s Resurrection Man (1998). Both these films suffered from indiffererent distribution, and it is not hard to see why. At a time of tortured negotiations for peace, and efforts to wean the violent paramilitaries towards political dialog, these two films seemingly presented themselves as part of the Seventies retro movement that we have experienced in Western culture as a whole in the Nineties.

Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, this takes us back to the most violent sectarian period of the Troubles. Ginger in Nothing Personal and Victor in The Resurrection Man are based in part on a real-life figure, Lenny Murphy, who encouraged his gang to torture and mutilate their random victims. At the 1995 Vancouver International Film Festival, Ian Hart, who plays Ginger, put forward the theory that this man was the biggest serial killer in Britain, but escaped detection for a long time because of the general violence.

Although The Resurrection Man is regarded as more gruesome (and exploitative) than Nothing Personal, it at least seeks, like the novel by Eoin McNamee on which it is based, to find the seeds of this violence in a strict family background with an overbearing and indulgent mother coupled with an effectively absent father whose allegiances are questioned by the community at large. This may be bad pseudopsychology, but at least an explanatory kite is flown. Family is totally absent in Gingers representation in Nothing Personal, and neither is he nor his immediate boss contextualized meaningfully in political terms; so although O’Sullivan has produced a technically more assured film with big name stars, witty dialog, and superb kinetic energy, it arguably raises more questions about Ginger’s motivations than Resurrection Man’s Victor.

What’s elided in such representations is the belief in secular individualism and in civic society, incorporating a pluralist and federalist British Isles, to which Protestant unionism and culture give voice. Also often missing is the value of a dissenter culture, only part of which manifests itself in Orangeism and extreme loyalism. As the Protestant interviewees for Marilyn Hyndman’s book Further Afield: Journeys From a Protestant Past (1996) reveal, Protestants have taken many divergent routes away from conventional unionism. Some have been attracted to republicanism, but many are still searching for a nonsectarian socialism for which they have currently no natural home.

While local filmmaker John T. Davis has explored the intensity of Northern Ireland’s evangelical culture in his doublet Dust on the Bible and Power in the Blood (both 1989), showing in the latter film links between Bible-Belt America and certain strains of Ulster Protestantism, perhaps more valuable today is the work of people like Cahal McLaughlin, whose Moving Myths (1989) profiled, similar to Hyndman¹s book, people who had gone beyond their given heritage, and who were skewering stereotypes right, left, and center by embracing their atheism, social activism, or intellectual freedom. And one can even begin to see more sophisticated and challenging representations of Protestants and the North of Ireland in narrative film emerging.

O’Sullivan’s December Bride (1990) and David Caffrey’s Divorcing Jack (1998) are two possible approaches which defy stereotypes. December Bride is based on a famous Ulster novel by Sam Hanna Bell, which is here rewarded by a crisp screenplay from David Rudkin and stupendous cinematography. In the film, set around the turn of the century in northeast Ireland, a young Protestant woman Sarah and her mother Martha are given employment at the Echlin’s farm. The two Echlin sons, Frank and Hamilton, compete for the attentions of Sarah, but though she has a relationship with both of them and gives birth to a child, she refuses to marry. Only in old age, at her daughter’s pleading, does she give in to marriage to Hamilton with Frank serving as best man.

What is of import in December Bride is how the Presbyterian culture of northeast Ireland is analyzed. The dissenter beliefs of the Echlins extend in a different direction than the obvious Protestant/Catholic clash. The Echlin brothers choose not to attend church on Sundays nor to be members of the strong local district Orange Lodge. They also choose to accept the unusual living arrangement with Sarah and choose to provide for Catholics on their land. Even the simple matter of Frank playing a Jews harp becomes a subversive act in a Presbyterian culture that prefers the beat of the Lambeg drum. Of great interest, too, is the way Sarah has healthy but pragmatic ambitions to be more than a domestic servant. She is more sectarian than the brothers, and initially surprised by their lack of interest in Orangeism; they, in turn, are surprised but respect her desire to retain her own name and not to lose it by marriage.

O’Sullivan is also able to give screen time to the Presbyterian clergyman who finds the Echlin arrangement deeply disturbing, since it seems, as Sarah exclaims at one point, that religious men are “botched on the inside but smooth on the outside.” So powerful is Sarah’s rebuke and so confused is the man’s response that he seeks another parish, “a tidy little town” where he won’t have to deal, he thinks, with such matters as fornication and children out of wedlock. Sarah extends by implication her negative assessment to all Presbyterian observance. She is, in short, an unmarked or secular Protestant, eager to break with at least some old traditions and to whom land acquisition and personal freedom are paramount.

This notion of the unmarked secular Protestant is a useful way to approach the hero Dan Starkey of David Caffrey’s Divorcing Jack. Starkey is a political columnist for a local newspaper, gearing up for the election of a Prime Minister in a new, independent Northern Ireland. At last, a writer and filmmaker have decided to look ahead and to imagine a possible future for Northern Ireland instead of lamenting and working over past wrongs and incidents. The writer and screenwriter Colin Bateman has said that this production is a “unionist thriller,” although Starkey’s unionist background is downplayed in the film, whereas arguably his political credentials are clearer in the novel on which it is based. Starkey occupies that intellectual middle-class center ground, a man who wishes the warring factions would destroy themselves rather than the innocent people around them.

The baroque style of Divorcing Jack relies on black humor how else can we explain an attachment to a hero who accidentally kills an elderly woman?! Caffrey and Bateman also ingeniously recast the paramilitaries and government operatives in terms that render them equally culpable. Most striking is the acceptance that any workable government will comprise former terrorists in many respects, this likelihood is an underlying assumption for at least part of the future governance of Northern Ireland. Equally striking is the model of an independent state. This idea has always simmered beneath the surface of Northern Irish politics, and with a devolved assembly now in existence, we may be surprised at further turns in this direction. What is so refreshing about Divorcing Jack is a willingness to play with clichés in a tense political situation, and to play equally fast and loose with generic codes. To depict the Protestant gun-toting paramilitaries to the strains of the theme music of The Magnificent Seven is to reclaim some sanity and ironic distancing in a world that often has neither. Looking back, then, over the last ten to fifteen years in Irish film, there is an undoubted confidence in Irish people telling their own stories on celluloid. Northern nationalists and ordinary Catholic citizens have had their experiences rendered, however partially; whether or not the next decade will shift some of the focus to the Northern Protestants, outside basic stereotypes, remains an open question.

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