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Research Finds New Confidence in Loyalist Performance from 12th July to Theatre


New research by the University of Warwick has found that the peace process has been paralleled by a new confidence in working class Loyalism particularly on both stage and ‘in the street’. Working class Protestants are abandoning old attitudes that “Theatre is for Catholics” and long cherished performances of identity from orange marches to wall art are embracing a much wider range of symbols and heroes of the loyalist community.

The research was carried out by East Belfast born Wallace McDowell for his doctoral thesis in the University of Warwick’s Department of Theatre Studies. He outlines what was until recent times the austere nature of working class Loyalist view of performances in particular the rejection of theatre as really only for Catholics. Examples of this date as far back as an 1840 letter signed by every Church of Ireland clergyman in Belfast in which drama was described as: “the most dangerous part of our literature. Throughout the entire range of all plays an anti-Christian principle is maintained”. In the present day Wallace also recounts:

* The views of self-proclaimed Loyalist playwright, Gary Mitchell who has said: “I believe that there is a deep-rooted ignorance of the arts within Loyalist communities. I think that the lack of encouragement from the schools through the educational process is incredible. When I was sixteen I went on a government scheme the Catholics were told that the course was called a drama course. The Protestants, and I was one of them, we were told it was personal development. It was the exact same course…. This is the reality I have always come across within Loyalist areas, that they do not trust drama and they will tell you coldly that drama belongs to the Catholics. Drama belongs to the Nationalists.”
* The story of working class protestant playwright Marie Jones who, when she wanted to be an actress on the stage, was told that: ‘Don’t be so stupid, you are a Protestant, and Protestants can’t act sing or dance. So go and get yourself a decent job’.

However Wallace’s thesis also outlines that from the time of the Good Friday agreement onwards Loyalsim began to feel more confident in its culture and how it was expressed and this was particularly evident in a new willingness to engage with theatre and tell tales about their community in a way which had previously been left to the Catholic community. Wallace outlines a number of what were quite bold moves by working class Loyalism into theatre as the peace process began to build: Among many new developments he notes:

Rathcoole Loyalist playwright, Gary Mitchell. who’s first play “A little world of our own” was one of a number of acclaimed plays by him to depict something of the reality of the loyalist community from the perspective of someone living in it. However Wallace notes that the plays were not universally popular within Loyalism. Gary Mitchell was intimidated out of his Rathcoole home in 2005 .

The production in Derry in 2005 of “The Beaux Stratagem” by Loyalist theatre producer Jonathan Burgess, who lives and works in Derry. “The Beaux Stratagem” was written by George Farquhar a Protestant Derryman who lived in the city at the time of the siege of Derry who became Ireland’s first professional playwright. To revive the play at all was a potent symbol in itself to do so within Derry’s walls in the Church of Ireland Hall that stood on the site originally occupied by Derry’s first ever purpose-built theatre was an even bolder statement.

Community worker George Newell, who has spent many years trying to get community theatre off the ground in East Belfast, commissioned a report for the Ballymaccarrett Arts and Cultural Society entitled “Prods Can’t Act, Dance or Sing”. He has steadily built up a new interest in Loyalist community theatre but not without a struggle . In an interview in Wallace’s thesis he recounts that for one play “We held auditions. There are only seven parts in the play. In the greater East Belfast area we have 95,000 people…So, not a problem, or so we thought. The first week we held auditions, nobody turned up. We put it on the radio and took out ads in the local paper. Nobody came along. The second week we held auditions, nobody came along. The third week we started to do a wee bit of arm-twisting and two people turned up. Then we started strong-arming people and we finally got the seven”

Wallace’s University of Warwick research also notes a significant wind of change in the marching season and the range of symbols used on walls in Loyalist areas. There is a new confidence that is open to different images, a wider range of loyalist heroes, and to opening up orange marches and other Loyalist celebrations to wider audiences. The research also notes moves by the leadership of the loyal orders to re-imagine parades in a more carnival rather than sectarian way and the new symbols on Loyalist streets. In particular he notes:

* In the 2006 Belfast parade, floats appeared for the first time. A musician on one float was playing a bodhran, a drum usually associated with Irish traditional music. Other floats contained characters costumed as seventeenth-century characters from the Williamite wars. In the parade through Bangor in the same year, the traditional attire of dark suit and bowler hat was augmented by a chapter of a Harley Davidson motor cycle club, their bikes festooned with Ulster flags and Union Jacks
* The Apprentice Boys use of ‘Living History’ with costumed enactment of the events of the siege and descriptions of their activities as ‘pageants’ rather than parades and efforts to reposition the Apprentice Boys parade from a stand-alone event to one strand in a week-long Maiden City Festival of events, talks and exhibitions;
* Attempts to re-brand the 12th of July as ‘Orange Fest’. In July 2006, the Northern Ireland Social Development Minister, David Hanson, approved funding of £104,000 for a development officer to promote the more positive aspects of the Twelfth of July parade in Belfast. Hanson said ‘he understood why there were negative perceptions about the Orange Order but that Belfast was about to experience rapid growth in retail business and tourism’.
* In August 2007, further steps were taken towards turning the Twelfth into a festival when representatives of Northern Ireland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure met with senior figures in the Orange Order. Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Lodge of Ireland, was quoted as saying ‘we certainly think there is room or demand within the Protestant community for it.”
* The shift away from the dominance of militaristic images on gable walls and their replacement with murals on other historical themes or loyalist heroes such President of the United States, football hero George Best and Belfast writer C. S Lewis. However the most striking recent example of this took place in the Loyalist estate of Tullycarnet in East Belfast. A mural which depicted a soldier with a skull’s head and a silhouette of the grim reaper, was replaced by a portrait of the only man from Northern Ireland to have been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War Two. The significance of this is that where the existing mural honoured the paramilitary group the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the soldier, James Magennis, was a Catholic who came from the nationalist Falls Road area of Belfast.

Wallace McDowell concludes: “Working-class Loyalism had, for many years, been stuck in a cultural quagmire. It has relied on the same old set of iconographic totems to define itself – the battles, the parades, the red hand, and the old slogans ‘Not an inch’ and ‘No Surrender’. This research shows that performance is beginning to help Loyalism create a more open and more confident expression of its identity.”


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