07 December 2005

Celebrate artists, don't burn them like Lundy


(Susan McKay, Irish News)

It is a terrible thing to hear of a child so scared he says to his mother, "I'm going to die, amn't I?"

This is what Alison Mitchell's seven-year-old said to her after men petrol bombed their home in Glengormley two weeks ago. She was terrified her son might be right. Her father-in-law, Chuck, took a heart attack. Alison's husband, Gary, ran after the attackers but they got away. The family was told to get out of the area and they are now staying with relatives.

Chuck and his wife had already been intimidated out of their home in Rathcoole.

The thugs who did this would call themselves loyalists but this wasn't the usual sectarian intimidation of a Catholic family out of a Protestant area.

Gary Mitchell is a Protestant. He is a writer. He has, in a series of excellent and award-winning plays and films, given a voice to the angry men of loyalism. He has presented their dilemmas to the world and demanded that they be understood. He is passionately committed to his own people.

When I interviewed him for my book Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People in 1998, I asked him why he was so determined to stay in the place he'd grown up. He was already a highly respected dramatist and had been appointed writer in residence at the National Theatre in London.

Unmarried then, he was living with his parents in Rathcoole, flying to London only when necessary.

"Why should I leave?" he replied. "It is important for me to stay here and keep in touch with the people I'm in touch with. If you are not aware of how things are changing, you'll lose the detail and you'll write a lot of nonsense."

At the same time, a community worker in Rathcoole talked to me about how she was in high demand to sit on management committees for local groups because funding agencies required professional people to be involved.

"In Protestant areas those people have cleared off," she said.

"Our ones leave and don't look back."

She also talked about destructive ways of thinking among working-class Protestants, defeatism and apathy.

"There is also this thing of wanting to drag people down. You know. 'Who does he think he is? What would he know anyway.'"

Mitchell said he felt he'd been "psychologically damaged before I was born". He talked about what he'd learned at school. "How to talk my way out of difficult situations. How to take punches and kicks. How to get up and walk away." He hated it. Later on, he spoke to a careers teacher about wanting to be a writer. The response? "Well you can forget about that for a start." The teacher told the teenager he had no choice and no chance and then how to go and sign on the dole.

The painter, Dermot Seymour, who is from the Shankill Road, told me that being a Northern Protestant for him was "like having no head, in the sense that your are not allowed to think – there is this constant putting each other down so that no one moves. It is a world of inferiority complex." There was a "pride in being ignorant".

An artist got slagged off as a homosexual.

If you were different, you were 'a Lundy'. Lundy was the Protestant governor who proposed a "timely capitulation" to end the 1688 siege of Derry.

He was driven out as a traitor.

Mitchell was on the dole for years, doing 'murky' things. When he did a drama course, his peers said acting was for "Taigs and faggots". However, he forged his path.

"I made the journey through violence and out the other end. I learned that you CAN talk, you CAN compromise and everyone CAN win so there is no loser."

This is a lesson loyalists have been trained by their political leaders NOT to learn.

In one of Mitchell's plays, a politician tells a paramilitary lieutenant to speak to the foot soldiers about knocking off the violence. He replies: "They don't talk. They don't listen. They follow orders. I made them that way."

Mitchell has eloquently explained the mindset of those who turned on him.

One of his plays is called In a Little World of Our Own. Another is As the Beast Sleeps. Artists like him should be celebrated by their people and supported by all of us. Not burned and banished. They burned Lundy in Derry last weekend. They do it every year.

December 7, 2005

This article appeared first in the December 6, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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