Book Reviews: ‘Ulster’s Third Way’, & ‘Dan Billany – Hull’s Lost Hero’
Ulster: the origins of sectarianism
‘Ulster’s Third Way’, by Brian McClintock, (Ulster Humanist Association. 76 pages)
The title of this booklet is something of a misnomer. It does not really propose an alternative political or economic scheme for Northern Ireland. What it does do is outline the religious conflict that was, and is, interwoven into the politics of Ireland and which has played a vital role in confusing the working class. Unfortunately, the author gives religion an independent role in the Irish conflict whereas it was a weapon, albeit a powerful one, used by contending economic interests in fashioning the politics of the country.
Protestantism, in its most virulent form, as McClintock shows, came to Ireland in the shape of the Plantation of Ulster in 1603. But the Gaelic tribes that resisted the Planters did not do so because of their opposition to Protestantism. Had the Planters been Catholics, or even Humanists, intent on dispossessing those already there, the latter would still have resisted and the ensuing violence would have become a marker in Irish history.
The belief is common in Ireland, where it was ruthlessly promoted by the Protestant Ascendancy, that the Church of Rome strongly favoured Irish political independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inevitably some local clergy, reflecting their upbringing and the sympathies of their local communities, were Nationalist or Republican in outlook but the Irish Hierarchy remained consistent in its opposition to Irish independence through the ages. Rome’s aspiration was to use Ireland as a springboard for the re-conversion of England, where, despite sometimes ferocious persecution, the Catholic Church retained many influential allies.
According to McClintock, Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen succeeded in persuading a group of Protestant and Catholic Irishmen to abandon their religious affiliations in the 1790s in pursuit of a common interest and that is the way forward. That is a half-truth that has sustained much Republican fiction. True, some northern Presbyterians and some southern Catholic peasants were united in an organisation whose purpose was to overthrow English power in Ireland. But the interest of the northern Protestants and the southern Catholics were certainly not identical. In the North the Protestants were farmers who enjoyed a modicum of prosperity as a result of the benefits of what was known as Ulster Custom. These, in turn, were led by a Presbyterian petite bourgeoisie, largely inspired by the French Revolution and the writings of Tom Paine. This revolutionary zeal was inspired by what they perceived to be adverse trade sanctions operated by London and, it is no accident that in later years, when their grievances were put right, the political heirs of these Presbyterians became the bitterest opponents of Irish Home Rule.
Conversely, in the south, the Catholic peasantry were motivated by their wretched conditions as tenants-at-will and, while the rebellion in the North was directed against the English military establishment, the Rising in the south was primary aimed against landlords, and their land stewards, who were invariably Protestants.
The working class and small farmers, who constituted the voting and cannon fodder at the turn of the last century and who are still burdened by the slogans of bigotry which disguise the true nature of the Irish conflict, did not mysteriously arrive at a sectarian consensus. This was the work of political opinion-formers, politicians, the business community and, of course, church leaders acting in a political capacity. Where the churches are indictable is in their willingness to be used by the profane business and political interests whose ultimate power resided in the numbers they could enlist into their battalions.
As a Humanist McClintock does a good job in helping to clear away the ignorance and superstition on which religion is based, but because in Ireland he finds more justification for his case in the story of what happened, he wholly neglects the more important question of why it happened. Thus he disregards the conflicting economic imperatives of the fledgling southern capitalists and those northern capitalists who had got fat on the benefits of the British connection imperatives, which lay behind an apparently religious conflict.
‘Dan Billany – Hull’s Lost Hero’, by Valerie A Reeves & Valerie Showan. (Kingston Press)
I have a confession to make before I start: this review is one of those tedious “. . . and the Socialist Party is briefly mentioned in line x of page x-ty x”. Yes Billany was an ex-member – joining in 1931 and being expelled under foggy circumstances just two years later. But besides this, Reeves and Showan’s biography is a fascinating study of the author of The Trap, which Ken Worpole, in his study of working class writing Dockers and Detectives, called the “finest novel to come out of the war”.
Billany was born in 1913 in the terraces off Hull’s famous Hessle Road, close by the western docks. Leaving school at 14 he was briefly an errand boy before starting an apprenticeship as an electrician with a local firm. As part of the training he had to attend evening classes and like many other working men found a new interest in learning. Before long he left the electrical works to become a full-time student first at the local Technical College and then at Hull University. By the outbreak of the Second World War he was an English teacher at Chiltern Street school in Hull and in the spring of 1940 he joined the army. It was at this point his writing career took off with the publication of The Opera House Murders, a rather run-of-the-mill thriller, and the acceptance of The Magic Door, based on his advanced teaching methods. In 1942 Second Lieutenant Billany was posted to North Africa, and not long after his arrival was captured at the fall of Tobruk. After months of appalling deprivation he was shipped to a POW camp in Italy. After the Armistice in September 1943 he was released by the Italian authorities but because Italy was occupied by the Germans was forced into hiding. In all probability he died of exposure in the Apennines near Rome a few months later. The Trap and The Cage, two novels relating to his wartime experiences, written while in captivity, were published posthumously.
Just for once the socialist ideas held by Billany are represented very accurately. That nationalisation is merely state capitalism (and this well before the late Tony Cliff appropriated the notion for his own sloganising purposes) and that “colonial freedom” really meant the substitution of a local boss for a white boss are both mentioned. The problems with this book lie elsewhere.
Firstly, the purpose of Reeves and Showan is to portray Billany as a repressed homosexual. This is tendentious. Billany was definitely interested in the idea of male homosexuality, as for instance in The Cage which is a rather tedious account of the obsession of one man for another in a POW camp. However the authors go too far in presenting fiction as dramatised fact. In relation to his early unpublished novel Paul they talk about Billany “fantasising” about being in love with a boy. This is practically accusing the fellow of being a child molester; an image of homosexuals not only old-fashioned but totally unjustified by facts.
Secondly, and rather more importantly, Reeves and Showan do not really address the crucial question of why Billany volunteered for service in 1940. Vaguely saying he wanted to prove himself really doesn’t wash, because Billany was not politically ignorant. In The Trap he clearly refers to the cause of the war as diplomatic scrambles over “international credits, trade routes, and a steady five percent” and goes on to state that “I do not ‘believe’ in the war—in this or any other.” Yet he was there, as an officer fighting for the cause of British capitalism. He was not forced to enlist, indeed with bright prospects as an author he had no personal reason to. The reason lies doubtless with Billany’s attitude to fighting. This first crops up when, as a teacher, he inspires his class with the story of an old pupil who was a hero in the First World War, single-handedly taking a section of the enemy front line. Billany was a romantic with a romantic’s desire for adventure. For heroism. And for this he went against what his logic and political background told him. This was to cost him dearly. He paid for it with his life.