The Chuckle Brothers: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
I remember a time when watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on a Saturday night was politically correct, when Larry Grayson represented humour at its most edgy and Dana’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest was seen by nationalists as a boost for the cause of Irish unity.
My other memory of Saturday nights was trying to get the timing right for bed. In our house, bedtimes were strictly policed during the week (or at least that is how I remember it), but we were allowed to stay up late on a Saturday.
The trick was to get to bed just before dad came in from the pub, otherwise my brother and I would be subjected to the dreaded Saturday Night Lecture. His larynx lubricated by a couple of pints of the black stuff, and his mind still buzzing from an evening of banter with his mates, put him in the mood to dispense sage advice.
As teenagers do, we tried to look engaged while ignoring everything he was saying to us. Mine do that to me now. But a few things sunk in.
He was a nationalist to the very root of his being. He loved his country, its language and its music. Like many of his generation, he was offended by partition he was also appalled by the violence that surrounded us during the Troubles.
But he was a tolerant man – and that’s what he taught me.
He loved the bands – Orange and Green – and he gave off about people who disrespected the Union Flag and God Save the Queen. He expected his Tricolour and Soldiers’ Song to be respected, and respect for others was the quid pro quo.
One night in the early 90s he rang me from work to say hello. “You’re in early,” I said – he did the nightshift. He explained he was covering for a colleague who had a lodge meeting. His Orange Order workmate reciprocated on holy days of obligation so my father could go to evening Mass.
Dad’s homemade bodhran, constructed from a garden sieve, was made from the ripped skin of a Lambeg drum (a gift from another Protestant workmate). He lived tolerance.
Anyway, I thought of him this week when I was considering the row sparked by James Galway’s denunciation of Ian Paisley. I imagine there were quite a few who agreed with Galway, not least some readers of this newspaper
Readers too (perhaps for the first time) will have found themselves agreeing with Lord Trimble who weighed in this week to support of Galway’s thesis. Conducting what he called a ‘thought experiment’, the noble lord came to the conclusion that without Paisley, there would probably have been no Troubles.
Historians – professional and amateur – are full of ‘what ifs’. But ‘what ifs’ are not history. ‘What-iffery’ is as bad as its siblings ‘what-aboutery’ and ‘begrudgery’.
It’s not that difficult to construct the case against Ian Paisley, and for many there is little difference between the man and the caricature – the ranting Dr No of a 1001 Ian Knox cartoons.
But for those who met him (friend and foe alike) the cardboard cut-out Paisley is much too two-dimensional.
I suspect there were some Catholic theologians who would have agreed with him when he harangued Pope John Paul II in the European Parliament. Indeed there are bishops now who find common cause with the DUP and members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster that he founded. Paisley’s reputation as a MP and MEP was high among all his constituents, regardless of their religious beliefs.
In private he was affable, funny and generous. The Chuckle Brothers were not a creation just for the cameras.
It’s all too easy to put the blame for the Troubles on Ian Paisley. But that would be to do him an injustice. The Troubles happened because of a collective failure of vision and will; they happened because London and Dublin left a vacuum in six counties of Ireland – a vacuum filled by demagogues and killers on both sides.
Ian Paisley could have chosen a different path. History will judge him, and it will not go easy on him. But he was a victim of history as well as its agent – as were the others whose names we could easily list and whose deeds we have all witnessed.
As for my dad? He would have said: “You don’t speak ill of the dead.” Sir Jimmy – who kept his counsel until the big man was six foot under – should think on that the next time he is cleaning his tarnished golden flute.
- A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on June 12 2015