Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Protestant Boy – Geoffrey Beattie in interview

Do you feel you've got a handle on the Northern Protestant identity, and if so, what is it?

I think I've got more of a handle than I did before, actually. I think a lot of people who've become middle class tend to be very quiet about their Ulster Protestant roots, but I felt quite proud in the end. When I started having a look, I kept thinking ” Well, there is something quite interesting there”. I've got a Chinese friend, who read the book recently, and she's never been to Northern Ireland, and I asked her what she thought of it. She said, 'It's a book about heroes,' and I thought that was really interesting. I love this notion of people being heroic in different ways: I look at people just getting on with life, and I like this resilience, and I thought I saw some of that, in the end, in some of the people around me. And I had to see through all of the barriers – one of them was my mother, and like most sons and mothers, it was a difficult relationship. I was going off to university and she was terrified I'd come back as a snob or I'd look down on her. Life was always difficult; as soon as I'd come back, she'd say, 'Do you want a cup of tea?' and I'd say, 'Oh, I don't drink tea, I only drink coffee,' and she'd say, 'When you were a child, tea was always good enough for you. What's happened?' And yet she was obviously very resilient, very strong, and put up with a lot: lost her son, lost her husband.

Did the Troubles affect your career path? Was it an influence on your becoming a psychologist?

The two things happened simultaneously. My experience of growing up in north Belfast through the Troubles meant that I could never be one of those psychologists who believe that there are a set of people who have got psychopathic personalities – it's them and only them. There are some psychologists who say that the Troubles had to be driven by psychopathic characters with some odd genetic makeup. The odd thing is that you grew up knowing some people in a community who went down a totally different career path, and you knew them before any of it happened; you keep thinking “Well, where were the signs of that? Where is the evidence of that?”. It's made me more interested in trying to understand the minute experiences, which worked on people to change their behaviour and the actions they were capable of carrying out. I've asked myself many times, if I hadn't passed the 11-plus, if I hadn't gone to a good school, if I hadn't gone to university, what would I have done in the same situation? I find that quite frightening.

One of the greatest shaping influences on people is inter-family relationships. How do you see yourself in that sphere, say in regard to your relationship with your mother?

I was quite like my mother in a lot of ways – obviously, I looked like her. She was very good at school, from a previous generation. I went to the local primary school, and the headmaster said to me: “You're the brightest student we've had since your mother was here!”. The problem with my mother was that as soon as she was fourteen or fifteen, she was straight into the mill. So, she had no opportunities and therefore, was destined to lead a certain kind of life. She was happy that I was being given a different set of opportunities… but, as I say, the structure of her life was pretty crap really: my father died when she was in her forties, and then her son died in a climbing accident. I think she was frustrated to be caught in Belfast. One of my favourite stories was when she met Brian Keenan; he and I were up for a literary prize. He liked my mother enormously and he was telling her all about his experiences in a cellar in Beirut, and she said, 'Brian, I know what it's like, I never get out of the house either!' I suspect there was a bit of frustration there because she should have got a better life really. So, there was always a little bit of tension there, I suppose.

Tell me about the change of scene: growing up in north Belfast and then going to university in Cambridge. What sort of a culture shock was that?

It was an enormous culture shock. I went to Trinity College Cambridge, Prince Charles' college, and a few kings of England had gone there. Of course, they'd say to me, 'Where are you from?', because I've got an accent, and I'd say, 'Belfast'. They'd say, 'Beattie? You're a Protestant,' and they assumed I was rich! They assumed that because the stereotype was the conflict in Ireland was about the downtrodden Catholics and the Protestant Ascendancy. I thought that they should know there was this huge Protestant underclass… but I didn't necessarily talk much about my background when I was at Cambridge because I didn't want any special treatment. I let them make their own assumptions. I didn't want to be excluded. I was very good at sport – I played for the University, and I became College Field Captain and so on, so I was kind of, in their face, if you know what I mean. I wasn't one of these working class boys who were tolerated. Literally, I played them at their own game. But sometimes, I think life is odd; I used to work on building sites when I was a student and I remember getting my pay packet and it just said, 'Paddy' on it, and I just thought, Jesus… Somebody said to me, 'Are you studying?' and I said 'Yeah,' and they said, 'What college are you studying at?' 'Cambridge' 'Oh' They didn't connect that I was at Cambridge University; they just thought I was at some college in Cambridge. It was an odd kind of life.

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