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A marvellous stroll down Memory Lane
on 23 July 2009
The tune was running round my head before I opened this book. "Lilliburlero", the famous signature tune of the BBC World Service. And even after years away from Northern Ireland, I automatically filled in the rest of the words used with it - "The Protestant boys are loyal and true", one of the "Loyalist" arsenal of pro-Unionist songs. For I also am a Protestant boy from the same area as Professor Beattie. When he talks about the library at Ligoniel ("Lag-a-neel" as the locals say), I can see it in my mind's eye, plus the now-vanished wee houses opposite, where he grew up. I remember well his "turn of the road", with the buses snarling up and down it. And the BB boys he confronted at the Mayfair sweet shop were undoubtedly from the BB company to which I once belonged. And that was only the start of the book.
Professor Beattie's major dilemma was the same as mine and, I suspect, that of many other Northern Irish boys (and girls), both Protestant and Catholic. Belfast is a working-class town with some of the best performing secondary schools in the UK and an excellent university - and where can most of the products of these worthy institutions go but away from Northern Ireland? And that's where the trouble starts, with the working-class parents born between the wars, with their poor education, their educated children and the sudden gulf between them and the subsequent incomprehension on both sides. I can empathise with his changed habits and ways of doing things being confronted by a dismissive "It's good enough for me - used to be good enough for you too."
To add to that, there was the embarrassment of being a Protestant away from Belfast during the Troubles, when, in the aftermath of the US Civil Rights campaign, the whole world seemed united in condemnation of the evil Protestant domineering class trying to keep the poor Catholics "in their place". While there was undoubtedly much truth in that, nobody wanted to hear about the working-class Prods whose country it also was, who were no better off than their Catholic counterparts, but who were seen somehow as accessories after the fact (not helped, of course, by "Loyalist" violence). Nobody wanted to hear that it wasn't all black and white, that the story had two sides.
Professor Beattie articulates wonderfully well the frustrations and problems of being a Northern Prod both away from home and coming back home, not to mention the conflicting emotions of living in two worlds in neither of which one fully belongs. He also looks into the background and heritage of Ulster Protestantism. He remembers the "Scotch-Irish" who formed 40% of George Washington's army and who gave the USA 11 Presidents. He remembers the touchstone of the Battle of the Somme where so many Irishmen (Prod and Catholic, North and South) died on that terrible First of July, 1916 and which, with the 1916 Easter Uprising, was to change the course of Irish history completely. He also visits the dark side, the murders during the Troubles, perpetrated by people whom one sometimes knew personally (I still can't get over the skinny, not terribly bright wee fella who used to live in the house opposite being arrested for being a "colonel" in the UDA), the triumphalism of "The Twelfth" and the infamous stand-off at Drumcree.
There are no answers in a book like this, but that is not its point. Its point is to recreate a place and a time, and to preserve it permanently before it passes away. For me, as someone who has been there and done that, it succeeds splendidly.