John Wilson reviews On the Outside Looking In: a memoir by Sam McAughtry, Blackstaff Press, £9.99 pbk
A FEW years ago Sam McAughtry was referred to, not unsympathetically, among certain of the younger, more progressive sections of literary/political Belfast as ‘soda-bread Sam.’ The clear implication was that his writing was homely, tuned to the nostalgically anecdotal, somewhat lacking in bite. Then, as one of the successive Drumcrees which annually blighted life in the province for so much of the nineties reached its drearily predictable crisis, in an article on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph, he delivered himself of one of the most excoriating pieces of journalism ever published in the north.
A kind of Irish ‘J’accuse’ in which he lambasted unionists in general for their myopia and, in particular, Trimble and Paisley for having had to ‘be dragged kicking and screaming’ into making even the very minor concessions (sic) which in reality were bringing the two communities in the province closer to a just and equitable settlement of their historical grievances.
He would not thank me for suggesting its effect was so explosive because it was written by a Protestant, but the fact that it was serves to underscore McAughtry’s fierce independence of mind.
If certain strands of unionism, since then unfortunately increasingly dominant, find such views distinctly unpalatable, even treacherous, equally it would be a mistake for nationalists to try to enlist Sam as an exception into that chimerical category of unionists which, patronisingly, defines them as being merely Irish men and women who have yet to recognise and accept their Irishness.
More than ever before it is an urgent moral responsibility upon us all to engage in radical acts of sympathetic imagination. Showing a healthy contempt for the “politicians on both sides who have grown fat and prosperous by peddling fear” McAughtry’s capacious catholicity of temperament is illustrated in his affection for figures such as Charlie Haughey and Cardinal O’Fiach (more critically, Francis Stuart) and in his respect for Caoimhghin O’Caolain the Sinn Fein TD and Alex Maskey the former Mayor of Belfast. People more commonly demonised by his fellow Protestants.
Perhaps the closest he comes to articulating his own political credo is in a passage describing Eamonn McCann his erstwhile colleague on the Belfast political radio programme Talkback a man many unionists still affect to believe single-handedly started 'the Troubles'.
From being brought up in a loving family, as he describes it, “down where the dirt Protestants lived,”then “growing up in an even harsher loyalist political climate, with uncles and cousins who were nationalist…” the stress is always on the complexity of identity.
From his work with the trades unions and the Northern Ireland. Labour Party, his ultimately successful battle with the bottle, to his development as a writer, his involvement with the Peace Train organization and his period in An Senead, McAughtry gives us a vivid picture of a remarkably full, politically and culturally engaged life.
While we may not concur with all the positions he takes (can you be an Irish unionist?) it is hard to conceive of a better, a more generous and humane, introduction to the condition and historical experience of working-class Protestantism.
His emphatic and articulate international socialism, evidenced in his approval of Cuba and his support for the 1984 miners’ strike, is a further recommendation.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2004 John Wilson