Although a native of Yorkshire, parts of my summers were spent with my maternal grandmother who lived in Liverpool. We would often go over there in early July before school term finished – that was to celebrate the 12 July – the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 at which King William III defeated the forces of King James II and ensured the triumph of Protestantism in the UK. One of my maternal ancestors fought at the battle, and the family still has his sword.
But the anniversary was not a nice historical memory – it was a chance for a display of visceral anti-Papism. Liverpool was the place many Irish immigrants came after the famine of the 1840s, and many stayed nearby, leaving the city with a large Catholic population and a politics marked by sectarianism. There were Orange Lodges in the city, to one of which may maternal grandfather belonged. He was a fierce old Calvinist Baptist, and could always be counted on for a stirring rendition of the loyalist anthem: ‘the sash my father wore‘. On the 12th he would wear that sash as he paraded with the other Orangemen and children dressed as ‘King Billy’ and Queen Mary – usually past Catholic areas. It was the sort of thing others saw only in Ulster – but it was part of my family background.
My granddad hated Catholics. He regarded Catholicism as idolatry and Catholics as traitors and pagans. The ‘Paddies’ as he called them, were not welcome in his shop, and I doubt any of them entered it. He didn’t like Bishops or the Church of England, but his greatest ire was directed at the ‘Papes’. He would go over in the summer to his brothers in Belfast, and sometimes I would go with him.
They were a God-fearing bunch, and I daresay God may have reciprocated, because the ‘brothers’ as they were always known, were not men who knew the meaning of the word compromise. They used to take me sometimes to hear a young preacher who they said was ‘alive in the Lord’. He had the loudest voice I ever heard – his name was Ian Paisley. I had not come across the word ‘charisma’ then, but when I did, he was the first such person I had seen in the flesh as opposed to the TV or cinema.
It as a Protestantism forged in the fires of the struggles of the seventeenth century, and in Northern ireland and Liverpool, it retained the heat thereof. It was there that I picked up a habit which took me years to kick. God forgive me, but I took on that narrow view.
I had, of course, never talked to a live Catholic – I don’t know there were any at home, and in Liverpool we avoided them. I knew what they believed – because my Protestant family and teachers told me. The idea that what they were telling me was their narrow view was not one my own even narrower view could take on board.