In the 1980s, Northern Ireland Protestant culture was inexpressibly oppressive.
Casual sectarianism passed unnoticed: it seemed to be thought reasonable by most members of the unionist and loyalist community to regard all Catholics with suspicion. Some people did not even use the term “Catholic,” they simply talked about “them.”
Xenophobia was thought to be a source of humour, and a way of illustrating a point. I once heard a clergyman, who became a dean in the Church of Ireland, suggest from the pulpit that misunderstanding things through failing to look for a deeper meaning was like a black man who would look at a clock and see only the clock face, and who would fail to realise that there was a need to look inside if you wanted to know how the clock worked. Looking around the church, there were no expressions of disapproval at the blatant racism, they seemed to assume that the preacher’s assertion was true.
Attitudes towards women were unapologetically sexist. A women’s place was to be in the home; women were to be subject to men. To challenge discriminatory comments or practices would bring the response that the Bible said that man was head of the woman. Within church life, the sexism was extraordinarily oppressive. In many churches, women were not considered properly dressed if they did not wear a hat. In some, women were not permitted to do so much as read from the Bible.
To have talked about equality for gay and lesbian people would have been unthinkable. It was only in the 1980s that homosexuality was decriminalised in Northern Ireland. Decriminalisation was introduced in the face of opposition from Protestant leaders such as Ian Paisley, who declared he would, “save Ulster from sodomy.” (Four decades later, the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian churches are still led by homophobes).
There were few avenues of escape from the misanthropic atmosphere created by puritans and fundamentalists. Belfast was a small city with its heart blown out; its annual festival at Queen’s University offered one of the few breaks from the gloom that dominated much of the year. News headlines from Northern Ireland were more often about violence and controversial marches than they were about life-affirming events.
Television in the 1980s offered few options for escape. The local newspapers reflected the mood of the time and the place. The one reliable avenue to getaway from all that was around was to retreat into the pages of books.
Belfast had two, small local bookshops, but the arrival of Waterstones in the city seemed a moment of pure delight. To walk through the shop and to peruse shelf after shelf of books was to step into a different world. Sorting through books that have remained from those times, I picked up Seamus Heaney’s book of poems The Haw Lantern. Heaney’s work could always transport readers, but I remember buying that book, and feeling it in my hand, and sensing that here was a way out of the oppressiveness that was inexpressible.