On the 11th of July the Belfast-London shuttle was an airlift by jumbo-jet. But the exodus I joined had nothing to do with political panic. It meant holiday-time - 'the Twelfth fortnight'. The Protestants left behind to march, and Catholics left behind to object to their marches, were mostly those who couldn't afford Corfu. In The Crack: A Belfast Year  Sally Belfrage notes: 'A look at the class-composition' of the Twelfth procession was 'to see overwhelmingly the poor, albeit with the gentry to the fore, and it ill becomes middle-class snobs to sneer at this celebration of who they were.' I was deserting this 'genuine people's festival', this dangerously alive piece of folklore, for an academic conference on Irish drama. However, the dust of Ulster is not so easily shaken off: at the University of Caen there were video-clips of something called 'the Northern play', a dramatic form which now interests Continental professors. Searching for origins, they might turn to the first page of Northern Windows, where William Carleton tells how 'for some years after the Rebellion of '98 a bitter political resentment subsisted between Protestants and Catholics ... The plays of the Siege of Londonderry and The Battle of Aughrim were acted in barns and waste houses every night.' Back home, too, middle-class Belfast watches working-class Belfast on TV, in fact and fiction. But viewing the familiar mayhem at a seminar in France made me more conscious of the processes whereby a slice of life ends up as a critical category.
LRB 17 September 1987 | PDF Download