Paisley’s Progress

Tom Paulin

In 1969, while he was serving a prison sentence for unlawful assembly, Ian Paisley sent this message to his congregation:

I rejoice with you in the rich blessings of last weekend. I knew that our faithful God would pour out His bounty. In prayer in this cell I touched the Eternal Throne and had the gracious assurance of answered prayer. What a joy to hear from Mr Beggs of a £1,000 gift for the pulpit. Hallelujah! May that pulpit be the storm centre of the great hurricane of revival. Oh for a tempest of power, a veritable cyclone of blessing, Lord, let it come!

Eight years later, the preacher rose up in that enormous pulpit and waved a copy of a historical study which had just been published. ‘Brethren and sisters in Christ,’ he shouted, ‘here is a great book that tells the Truth about Ulster. Go home, friend, and read it.’

The book was The Narrow Ground by A.T.Q. Stewart: did the book inspire Paisley, or did the voice of Old Ravenhill inspire The Narrow Ground? Accompanying this question is the problem of the relation of middle-class Unionism to working-class Unionism, or – to put it in cultural terms – the relation of Establishment and anti-Establishment ideas within Unionism. As Unionism cracks and splinters, a form of class politics begins to emerge – a populism in the case of Paisleyism and a form of socialism in the Ulster Defence Association.

For the UDA the problem is essentially one of identity: ‘The Prods have been brainwashed into believing that they were strictly a British Community, have no Irish or Ulster traditions and therefore didn’t need to learn Irish dancing, Gaelic or folk music.’ Thus Andy Tyrie, the leader of the UDA. Tyrie supports this view with a historical argument according to which there was an ancient British people (‘British’ in the non-imperial sense) who were called the Cruthin and who existed in Ulster long before the 17th-century settlement. He also emphasises his Ulsterness by having a photograph of the statue of Cuchulain in the GPO above his desk. Cuchulain is an authentically Ulster hero in a way that Carson – a Dubliner who privately despised the province – never can be. In effect, the UDA looks back to a dreamtime populated by aboriginal ancestors in order to affirm an identity which is both epic and provincial. At the moment, however, the UDA has stepped aside from the conflict and is insisting that it is a socialist and non-sectarian organisation, composed of forward-looking people who are ‘tired of being classed as Neanderthal bigots’. They may draw their inspiration from a form of atavistic energy, but they are also modern in their outlook and they are opposed to the link with Britain. They have parted company with what is now termed ‘Official Unionism’.

Although the UDA has now distanced itself from Ian Paisley, he more than any other Unionist politician appears to belong to the dreamtime of Presbyterian aborigines – of giant preachers who strode the Antrim coast long before the birth of Christ. He is a complex and protean personality who imagines cyclones of blessings, compares himself to the diminutive Mahatma Gandhi, and probably nurses a secret admiration for Parnell, on whose Parliamentary tactics some of his own appear to be modelled.

Ian Paisley was born in Armagh in 1926. His father came of a Church of Ireland family who had lived in Co. Tyrone for many generations. In 1908, his father was ‘saved’ by an Evangelical preacher and became a Baptist. In a memorial sermon, the son describes how his father went down to a frozen River Strule one Easter Sunday morning with a pastor who first broke the ice and then put him under the water:

My father tells when he went under the waters of that river he identified himself with his Lord in death, in burial and in resurrection. When he came out that day he had lost many of his friends, he had lost many of the people that once associated themselves with him in the gospel. He realised that there was a reproach with the gospel. My father, as I told you, was uncompromising in his character. He did not care. The more he was opposed the more he preached and the more he was persecuted the more he excelled in evangelism. God blessed him and eventually he went to Armagh to business.

This is a characteristically Protestant piece of writing: there is the assertion of uncompromising principle, a strong self-justifying theme which runs throughout the sermon, an affirmation of the work ethic (that brutal verb ‘to business’, echoing the anti-Home Rule slogan, ‘Ulster means business’), and finally there is the idea of being born again. Imaginatively, this is a 17th-century world where religion and politics are synonymous: on Easter Sunday 1908, the Puritan revolutionary rises out of the deep, having rejected friends, family, leisure and the private life. The old life of compromise, scepticism and individual personality is set aside in the moment of commitment. And that commitment is made out in the open air, as compared with, say, T.S. Eliot’s Anglican and institutional commitment which is a ‘moment in a draughty church at smokefall’.

Paisley Senior later broke with the Baptists because of their ecumenism and set up his own Independent Fundamentalist Church. The son has inherited this characteristic of breaking with established institutions and he has a Cromwellian scorn of formalism, an instinctive libertarianism which conceals, or creates, a monumentally dictatorial personality. It may be that the alternative to compromised institutions is a series of pyramids dedicated to the egotistical sublime, to his relentless monomania.

One of the strongest features of Puritanism is its autobiographical tendency, its passionate self-regard. Paisley likes talking about himself and in one of his published sermons he describes his ‘apprenticeship in preaching in the open air’. During the Second World War he was a student at the Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales and his tutor in open-air preaching was an ex-boxer.

He had his prize gold belt always at the gospel meetings. He used to swing that great gold belt, which he won as the welterweight for the South of England, around his head and shout as only Ted Sherwood could shout. He had a voice like a trumpet. People had to heed and listen to him. When he got tired and husky, he used to say, ‘Go on Ian, you have a go.’ So he drew the crowd, and so I served my apprenticeship, preaching when his voice was gone, his throat husky and his powerful frame exhausted.

It’s like a scene from Ben Jonson: a fairground world where that ex-boxer swinging his gold belt is a Herculean showman with a voice so powerful it might bring walls crashing down. The charismatic mountebank – or sincere preacher – must draw and play the crowd, amuse it, hector it and put down hecklers. He is like a politician on a platform as well as being a flashy Autolycus-figure. That ex-boxer with the greenwood name stands as an archetype of inspiration, an entertainer and fighter, a displaced version of Cuchulain.

In 1949, Paisley began a mission in Belfast’s dockland and he also joined the anti-Roman Catholic National Union of Protestants. Somewhere about this time there is a moment outside the printed record where he appears to have been snubbed by a member of the Unionist establishment. That establishment regarded him as a working-class rabble-rouser and his outspoken, unrestrained bigotry threatened and parodied its defter sectarianism. The rebuff demanded vengeance and Paisley began the long march which was to bring him to the walls of the Unionist establishment, to the barrier around the demesne.

The Paisley of this period is partly modelled on the Rev. Henry Cooke, a reactionary and highly influential 19th-century preacher who did much to counter Presbyterian radicalism. This Paisley is an autochthonous bigot who once organised a mock-mass on the platform of the Ulster Hall. Patrick Marrinan, his biographer, describes the sinister shabbiness of this occasion, the nervous fascination of the audience laughing at a renegade Spanish priest reciting unfamiliar Latin words, the canny showmanship, the plastic buckets brimming with money. Paisley’s particular kind of Puritan egotism is voracious in its subjectivity, and for all its insistence on sincerity, is in practice highly theatrical. He is a compulsive role-player and is fond of dressing up in other people’s personalities. After the Almighty, after St Paul – for whom he confesses ‘a strange liking’ – his most influential model, or imaginative icon, is John Bunyan, whose life and work obsess him. Bunyan is ‘this dreamer and penman’, ‘the most prominent man of letters as far as English literature is concerned’, who had ‘the tinker’s power of reaching the heart’ – there is a hint of rural superstition and natural magic here. He admires Bunyan for his ‘strong doctrinal preaching’, his opposition to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the enormous crowds he drew, and for his prose style. Bunyan’s appeal is theological, social and aesthetic – he is culture and tradition. It’s here that we enter a time-warp and see that world of Ranters, Fifth Monarchy Men, Levellers and millenarian preachers which E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill describe in their work. For Thompson, Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the two ‘founding texts of the English working-class movement’ (the other is The Rights of Man). And so to admire Bunyan is by definition to be a dissenting radical, a nonconformist and a republican – Bunyan was a soldier in the Parliamentary Army.

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