My father’s father came from Londonderry, and to the end of his long life he was a member of the Orange Lodge. On King Billy’s day he would proudly wear the sash that his father had worn. If you’d asked him to distinguish between his religion and his nationalism he’d have thought you a ‘daft loon’. There was a photograph of the King (and later of the Queen) in the sitting room, and if you went to the cinema, you’d stand for the National Anthem at the end – by George you would.
My own father, from his point of exile in Yorkshire, decided that the whole thing was mad, and as soon as he could, he renounced religion in favour of another creed – in his case Marxism. He was a firm believer that the advent of the workers’ State would solve the problems left by superstition, and on the rare occasions he went home, he’d come back frustrated by the obscurantism of his father. When he da’ died, he moved his ma to Liverpool, and they never spoke of religion without the pair of them arguing. We youngsters learned to avoid it as a topic.
My grandma, in old age, would talk about her girlhood, which had been spent between Liverpool and Belfast, and for her, as for my granddad, Protestantism was integral to their identity. In accent, and in many habits, they were identical to their Catholic neighbours, but because they were British and Protestant, they were better than them. They scorned the ‘idol worship’ of the Catholics, and they had the most blood-curdling views of what the ‘Paddies’ got up to.
My granddad, who was of a puritanical frame of mind, shocked me one day by saying that the confessional was a ‘priest’s brothel’. I must have been about 10 at the time, and as a well-read 10 year old might well do, I asked what a ‘brothel’ was. Grandma told him to ‘hold his whisht’, but he said ‘the boy has to to know that those old men are not safe with any lass’. The casual passing on of his prejudices was certainly not subtle.
These views were widespread, and even in West Yorkshire, where I was brought up, the locals held to them. I recall that when I went to grammar school, the Catholics would be asked to leave the Assembly (along with the single Jewish boy), which was an act of worship which the Head thought quite unsuitable for a Catholic.
Between ancestral prejudice, and that with which I was surrounded, I easily adopted these views without ever really thinking about them. Apart from Sean Brady at school, I doubt I ever spoke to a Catholic, and as Sean was so wet you could shoot snipe off him, his acquaintanceship did naught to help widen my mind.
As I passed through grammar school into the sixth form, these views hardened. In all my history lessons the Catholics were the villains: from ‘Bloody Mary’ and her Spanish husband, through to Louis XIV, the Catholics were ‘wrong ‘uns’ – the enemies of my country. It all fitted in too easily with the legends around the shash my grandfather wore.