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‘You can feel the tension up here on the ground at the minute’


Jan Carson, who appears at Ennis Book Club Festival, tells Owen Ryan about her efforts to reflect all sides of the protestant experience

WHILE they share the same island, it’s safe to say that most people at the Ennis Book Club Festival will know little of the culture of Antrim Presbyterian communities.

Jan Carson, whose latest novel The Raptures has won widespread acclaim, is from such a background and it’s where she set the book, which tells the story of 11-year-old Hannah, in the summer of 1993.

Hannah lives in the fictional village of Ballylack, and over the course of the summer her classmates begin to succumb to a violent and mysterious illness.

Also in the village, tempers simmer, panic escalates and long-buried secrets threaten to emerge.

The Republic was nowhere near as liberal as it is now in 1993, but the community Jan grew up in was far more conservative than anything the vast majority of people in Clare would have experienced.

“I grew up in a very conservative Presbyterian community and there were a lot of things that were seen as worldly. Some of them like the cinema, looked on now seem ridiculous, but at the time they were very much seen as worldly things, stay away from them, dancing, the cinema, anything to do with alcohol really. Those communities still exist up here, they still have quite a big influence.”

“If you think of someone like Paisley and some of the other big politicians who have had influence here and come from a very churchy background, those things would be in the back of their heads as well.”

There are certainly plenty of plays, novels and films set in Northern Ireland, but the majority of the art that people will be familiar with reflects a Catholic experience.

Jan is conscious of the need for the Protestant experience to also be reflected, with its strengths acknowledged and weaknesses also laid bare.

“I wanted to write about this world for a long time, even 15 years ago when I started writing, because it hasn’t been reflected. there are obviously things you’ve never come across before that are incredibly familiar to us.

“I thought it was important that it be reflected in art somewhere, but I wanted to be able to do it in a nuanced way so it wasn’t all critical, because there are some lovely aspects of growing up in that community as well. I hope I’ve done a good mix of the more difficult parts alongside the parts that are beautiful.”

And what has the reaction been like from people from that more traditional, rural and conservative background been?

“It’s been really interesting, I’ve actually had a lot of Ministers and clergy reading it and responding quite graciously, saying there’s a lot for them to learn and think about, which is really good I think.

“I’ve always said I wanted this book to start a conversation, rather than a conflict. It’s hard to talk about things in the past in Northern Ireland that were difficult.

“We talk a lot about the politics and the conflict but not so much about the religion it was based on. I’d love to start a conversation around that and this has opened the door for it.”

While in the south writers from Brian Friel to John McGahern to Donal Ryan and Marian Keyes are household names, she says it is harder for authors in evangelical communities.

“With this branch of evangelical Protestant culture, because it has such a fear of art, a lot of people are not writing about it, because they’re still in those communities.

“It would be like a Muslim writer critiquing women’s writers from within a Muslim community, it’s not going to happen, you’d be kicked out.

“There are very few voices coming from within that evangelical Protestant community. I’m on the edges of it, I don’t worship there anymore, but my family are still there so I’m observing it very closely.”

In the Republic, religion doesn’t play much of a part in current affairs and politics nowadays, but she says that in the North the evangelical influence is still strong.

“The Catholic church in Ireland had such a sudden undermining, all the scandals that came out really rocked it very quickly. With Evangelical Protestant churches it’s a much more gradual erosion.

“It’s an interesting thing to talk about and I think it isn’t talked about enough. For so many people in the North their faith really influences their politics, and if we’re going to plan the future of Northern Ireland, the future of Ireland as a whole, we need to understand all the factors that go into how people think about politics and the future of this place.”

From the Republic it looks like unionism is having a disastrous few years. While the DUP promoted Brexit it has been thrown into crisis by the ramifications of it, and is furious at the introduction of the so-called Irish sea border. 

Jan says that religious leaders are becoming more active in politics as a response to the instability of recent years.

“There are conservative, Protestant, Evangelical communities rising up again, because of their fear of what’s going on in the world. A natural human instinct is to dig your heels in and stick to what you know. In the part of the world I come from in Antrim those voices are starting to rise up again.

“I grew up with politics preached from the pulpit, the Minister taught you how to vote. I’m seeing ministers speaking on how to vote on Brexit, whether people should get vaccinated and that’s harking back to the ‘80s again, very, very Paisley-esque, fusing religion and politics.”

She lives in East Belfast, a particularly Protestant area of a divided city, and she says the discontent and upset is really noticeable.

“You can feel the tension up here on the ground at the minute. I live in a very working class unionist part of the city and there are a lot of signs up saying things like ‘no to a sea border’. There’s an anger around here.

“What’s very frustrating is we have really incredible leaders in Northern Ireland, they’re just not the politicians. They’re the people working in the community, who have for years been trying to bring the communities together. But they’re not in positions where they can change legislation.”

She says that with Northern politics as toxic as it is, many people who could make a very positive contribution simply don’t want to get involved.

While the north is still a terribly divided society, Jan does feel there are some grounds for optimism, but she is worried that the current leaders will leave their successors with a near impossible job.

“I always say I’m both incredibly hopeful and incredibly fearful about what happens next. I’m very, very hopeful when I look at the younger people.

“There has been a huge shift towards not single identity politics, they’re more concerned about poverty, education, the environment, proper big issues.

“But what makes me afraid is it’s going to take an awful long time before those young people are in positions of power and influence.

“The dinosaurs that are up at the top are not reflecting what most people on the streets feel or want. They’ve just got their own agenda, they just want their own way. I’m fearful we won’t have time to get young people into positions of power before they’re inheriting a Northern Ireland that’s so completely messed up.”

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.