Geoffrey Beattie is a Professor at the Department of Psychology in the University of Manchester. A native of north Belfast, he was later educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He has written a memoir of his life growing up during the Troubles of the 1960s and '70s, called Protestant Boy (Granta). Mark Harkin met Geoffrey during a promotional visit to Dublin.
What motivated you to write this book?
I suppose it's the notion of displacement, really. I've moved away from Northern Ireland and now live in England. Like a lot of people in society today, I feel a bit rootless sometimes, and especially so, coming from Belfast, I feel as though I've left my working class background to become something – perhaps not middle class – something in between. I've left that bit of north Belfast which was particularly affected by the Troubles. It's an area that's been levelled, although my mother, until she died, lived in exactly the same area. I'm a psychologist, so I'm interested in what shapes my personality, and so, some of it's like an intellectual journey, to find out what makes me the kind of person I am. Because of the Troubles, identity was a big issue and it always struck me that the Ulster Protestant identity was the vaguest of all – it was defined by all the things that people were not: 'We're not Irish, we're not English, we're not Scottish, we're not Welsh.' So who are we? That was tied up with almost a sense of embarrassment: you meet people and they go: 'Oh, you're Irish?' 'I'm from Northern Ireland. I'm a Protestant.' It was like being a social leper, a white Afrikaner or something. I was interviewed on a London radio station, and the guy had a very clear set of iconic images in his head, like Ian Paisley and Johnny Adair and that was it. Which of the set do you belong to? And I just thought that was slightly unfortunate really.
Something that I've always understood as being central to the Ulster Protestant mind-set is that the UK = Britain = One Nation. Did your experience of moving to England from Belfast challenge that?
It doesn't quite work like that, does it? (laughs) Of course, I tell in the book, of my mother: My going away to university, her greatest fear was that I'd become English or try to become English! It was, 'Oh my God, heaven forbid!' And again, it's part of the motivation, to say that, when you think of the whole business of unionism, you think you have a union with the mainland and yet, obviously, you recognise certain distinct differences. I think that the Ulster Protestant character, if there is one, has come in for such stick over the past thirty or forty years. Perhaps I was almost a kind of a neutral observer in this, because I had been made to feel slightly embarrassed by it, and this was a kind of an exploration back and saying, I'm going to examine it. I wanted to take a fresh look at some of the things I took for granted. The Somme is the classic. Every Ulster Protestant thinks they know what happened at the Somme, and I thought I did, too, and this was a fresher look. As a psychologist, I was fascinated by the psychological aftermath of the Somme, what happened in the trenches at the Western Front. In the book, I talk about the psychological consequences… the guys who came back, their common symptom was mutism: they didn't talk, and they had absolutely barbaric psychological treatments at the time to get them to talk, which involved electric shocks. I didn't know enough about that, and I suspect that's buried deep in the Ulster Protestant character.
You mean as a trauma that wasn't spoken of and recognised?
It's this tragic but heroic event. I think most people came back unable to talk about it, and somehow the truth was buried. So, why is this such a significant thing? I suspect why it's so significant is that everyone knew there was something deeply psychological about what happened there, but nobody ever spoke about it. Part of the book is concerned with uncovering that.