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A Twisted Root

Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland
Patricia Craig
The Blackstaff Press

Sectarian noise was not confined to Belfast. Let us take a look at Portadown. The late George Watson, academic and literary critic, published a pointed essay in the Yale Review in 1986 about his experiences growing up as 'a Portadown Pape'. Each day, coming home from primary school (he says), he and his friends had to fight Protestant boys who taunted them with the epithet,'Fenian scum'. Now — if you gave it any thought at all in this respect — you would take 'George Watson' to be a Protestant name. If you then found out that Watson's father was an RUC constable, the family's Protestantism would seem to be assured. But it wasn't so. Both his parents, in fact, were Catholics from the South, from Kilkenny and Connemara respectively, and his father (born in 1898) had got himself transferred North from the old Royal Irish Constabulary after 1922. Members of the RIC were at risk of assassination in the South, and Catholics were at risk of assault in Portadown. It seemed there was no escape from sectarian violence anywhere — well, anywhere apart from the family home, especially when the radio was on and a sonorous English voice, reading the shipping forecast or delivering a cricketing commentary, disseminated a tremendous sense of well-being and security.

'Cultural confusions' is George Watson's pertinent subtitle. As far as he was concerned, England was the great good place, a view compounded by his boyhood immersion in English public school stories such as Teddy Lester's Chums and weekly story papers like the Champion and the Rover. 'In that world,' he writes — that is, the world of honour, fair play and English uprightness — 'you would not see, with that sickening lurch of the heart, three shadowy figures detach themselves from a wall and saunter towards you, while you realised that your mental navigation had let you down ... and you had blundered into an Orange street. In Teddy Lester's world, you would not get a half brick on the head because you were a "Papish".'

The self-perpetuating momentum of sectarian misdoing was the thing that engendered the greatest despair in the hearts of liberals and social reformers of all persuasions, in the past and later.