Northern Ireland in movies, Part 1: Protestants on film

Resurrection Man

There is a perverse pride of being on the side of the fallen angels and refusing to get up. – Derek Mahon, “Spring in Belfast”.

In Northern Ireland, dwelling on the trauma of the recent past is a national pastime, something cinema is only too happy to indulge. What actually happened in the recent past depends on who you ask. It is often said that there are two truths in Ireland – a Protestant truth, and a Catholic truth. Both of which are generally lies.

While serving a prison sentence for his role in the Brighton bombing, Patrick Magee completed his PhD, a study in examining depictions of Republicans in fiction. He concluded that fictionalised accounts of Republicans tended to be over-simplified and designed merely to denigrate the ‘enemy’ and extol the virtues of the ‘right side’ – the enemy and the right side being dependent on the author, naturally. In cinema, this also tends to be the case, and there are so many films to look at. Cinematic depictions of PIRA and those who co-existed with them fall out of Hollywood’s arse on a regular basis, covering every possible angle and agenda. A similar investigation could not be conducted of Protestants. In the cinematic world, that community barely exists.

It is a source of deep resentment that the international reputation of Northern Ireland is so overwhelming dominated by stories of thugs and murderers but from a Hollywood producer’s perspective, it is understandable that a story about guns, flashes, bangs and secret organisations are much more marketable than the lives of the quiet, mainly peaceful majority. But why the fixation with the IRA over the loyalist paramilitaries? There are more films about Bobby Sands than the entire loyalist movement. In fact, there are more films about Americans being inadvertently snarled up in the machinations of the IRA than there are about loyalists. It cannot be due to lack of significance. Loyalists were responsible for just as much death and chaos as their Republican counterparts, thank you very much.

The only film centring on loyalists of any note is Resurrection Man, which claims to be based on the deeds of Lenny Murphy and the Shankill Butchers. It is a garbled pile of anti-historical wank that devotes all of its energy into salivating over hideous acts of sadism at the expense of making any kind of sense. When it was released, a Presbyterian reverend objected to the content – but only because there were homoerotic tones to the relationships between the butchers. This, he said, amounted to a slur on family men. A family member of one of Murphy’s victims tartly responded that it was more of a slur on homosexuals. Everyone else just said it was rubbish. The film quickly sank into obscurity and there it remains.

Gary Mitchell stands alone in his dramatic depiction of Northern Irish Protestants. Mitchell grew up in Rathcoole, a poor Protestant estate in North Belfast. Mitchell writes mainly for the stage but has taken the odd foray into television. He says that he can see how the Republican cause is more attractive to filmmakers. They were the side on the attack, which allows for more creative potential.  Further to that, I would say that the Republican cause fits the classic Hollywood template in that it is positively goal-orientated. The goal of the Republicans was to create a new society. The goal of the Unionists was to maintain the status quo. A film about a group of people trying to maintain the status quo can only end with an unhappy ending or an anti-climactic one – neither of which have any currency in Hollywood. Republicans fit. Loyalists don’t.

Mitchell’s plays often end on a note of anti-climax. The status quo is maintained, for now, but his characters trail debris, violence and uncertainty in their wake. He is hugely effective at giving voice to the siege mentality that exists in the minds of Protestants, the constant griping paranoia and the impotent fury laid against nationalists and the neglectful British government alike that reveals itself in waves of seemingly irrational frenzy. What is particularly admirable is his refusal to idealise his subjects who he portrays in all of their ugliness. His characters are often half-witted, viciously sectarian, sexist and violent with it. Perhaps it was this lack of sugar coating that led to him being forced from his home by the UDA. Mitchell believes that they hadn’t even seen his plays, but that they’d heard that they were popular in Dublin which must mean that they had nothing nice to say about Protestants.

His work is not denigrating to Protestants, apart from those in our number who deserve it. Outside his own community, Mitchell has been critically acclaimed and hailed as “finally providing a voice for working class Protestants.” I respect Mitchell, but disagree totally. His experience is not universal of working class Protestants. Declaring his voice to be the only representation we need is to claim feast from a famine.

In his beautiful poem ‘Spring in Belfast’ Derek Mahon speaks of the ‘sullen silence’ of the Protestants. Years of outrages, derisions, insults and casual humiliations have led to a deep suspicion of any outsider seeking to penetrate this strange, bitter and forlorn community. This sullen silence contributes to the lack of Protestant representation in popular culture. We do not speak for ourselves and we let no one else close enough to speak for us. If it continues, the portrayal of the recent past as dominated by IRA tales put through a mawkish Hollywood sieve will be the only cinematic representation of the Troubles available, and this narrative will be given free rein to dominate portrayals of the country in the present and the future.