Teaching in a Catholic school in a working class community, I find myself in a unique position. I appear to be the only Protestant some of the students have met. Perhaps it is not a surprise, the total community of Protestants of all types numbers less than five per cent of the population of the state, and they tend to be concentrated in certain areas.
Being the Protestant means having to deal with particular stereotypes. Stereotypes I once discussed while undergoing surgery back in 2008.
The surgery took longer than expected. It was forty-five minutes while the surgeon dug a lump of fatty tissue he described as being “the size of a saucer” out of my upper back. It took far longer than he had anticipated, requiring a second local anaesthetic to be administered.
The time was shortened by the banter. The surgeon complaining that he had only gone into the trade because he thought the nurses would be good looking, and they responding that the good looking nurses were all with the good looking doctors. There was then a discourse on neurosurgeons being poseurs.
I told him that they all frightened me, because most people I knew who had died had had some contact with a doctor, and that the correlation between contact with a doctor and dying seemed disturbingly high.
Getting on to what I did for a living, he commented that there seemed to be an awful lot of red blood across my back, shouldn’t Protestant blood be orange?
“No,” said one of the nurses, “Protestant blood around here is blue.”
“Not mine,” I said, slightly concerned about the reference to a lot of blood, “my family were Labour Party through and through – our blood is deepest red.”
Never having had surgery before, I wondered if such conversations were typical. The surgeon then said that it might have been better to have had a general anaesthetic, but having started the job, he might as well finish.
More serious, we talked about sectarianism and the North.
“I wasn’t a Protestant until I moved to the North in ’83.”
“What do you mean?” said the surgeon, “you weren’t a Protestant?”
“I wasn’t an anything,” I said, “I’m English, I lived in England. No-one ever asked; no-one cared what you were.”
One of the nurses, a Belfast woman joined in, “No-one asks in the North. They just work it out. They ask you what school you went to and other stuff.”
She was right. The first indicator is a person’s name. Sharing a Christian name with the arch-protestant himself, my label was always quickly applied.
I winced as he hit muscle with whatever implement he was using.
“Sometimes,” I thought, “I just want to be a person. I don’t want to be a Protestant.”