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Building bridges in Northern Ireland through the promotion of Protestant working-class literary culture

For a long time, widespread understanding of Protestant (Loyalist) culture in Northern Ireland has been largely limited to Orange Order rituals, in particular the annual July 12th parades. Research by Dr Connal Parr, Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria has challenged this view by showcasing the vibrant literary culture of working-class Protestants. Dr Parr’s work, which demonstrates that Protestant writers and playwrights provide a more complex portrait of working-class life in Northern Ireland than previously thought, has been praised as one of the most important explorations of Protestant identity to date. 2019 saw Dr Parr’s work make an impact on the ground, through the formation of the Thomas Carnduff Society and a cross-border project held in the Republic of Ireland, which brought together divided communities through discussions of Loyalist culture. 

Research published by Dr Parr since joining Northumbria in 2016 illuminates the multidimensional nature of Protestant working-class culture and its fiercely inventive cultural heritage. His successful monograph, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, explores the work of ten mid-century working-class writers including St John Ervine, Sam Thompson, and Thomas Carnduff. The study was acknowledged as one of the main sources of inspiration for the formation of the Thomas Carnduff Society (TCS), an arts organisation focussed on promoting identity expression among Loyalists through the discussion of Protestant working-class literature.  

Between September 2019 and March 2020, when activities were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, open mic nights held by TCS for writers to showcase their creative writing (known as the ‘Yard Sessions’) attracted around 120 people from across the Loyalist community, including former paramilitaries who acknowledged that Parr’s research gave them the validation that they needed to feel confident about their work. In recognition of his contribution, Dr Parr was invited to become honorary president for the TCS in 2019, a role he continues to hold today. 

Dr Parr played an instrumental role in supporting the cross-community, cross-border ‘Across the Lines’ project, run by the Glen’s Centre in the Republic of Ireland. As well as helping to obtain funding for the project, his research provided key content for each group session attended by community members from North Leitrim and South West Fermanagh, an area in which Protestants are in the minority. By focusing on Dr Parr’s research, these sessions encouraged participants to look beyond media stereotypes and superficial portrayals and thus develop a deeper undertaking of Loyalist culture, whilst also providing a safe space for attendees to talk about past division to aid the reconciliation process.  

The reach of Dr Parr’s research extends beyond these two examples. His expertise has been acknowledged by Unite Trade Union, The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other prominent figures, including William Crowley – host of BBC Talkback, who has invited Dr Parr on his show numerous times to help ‘foster a new sense of understanding within and about Protestant working-class communities [valuable] in a place with so many loud and uninformed voices’. 

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