Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical movie about being a Protestant in Belfast at the outbreak of the Troubles, has been nominated for seven Academy awards, one of which will almost certainly go to British Quaker Dame Judi Dench for playing the role of a wise Protestant granny.

The film centres on Granny Dench’s family and is told largely through the eyes of her young grandson, who is into Raquel Welch, playing cowboys, looting Mr Singh’s shop and trying to get off with his smart Catholic school mate, who they do not call a Fenian or a Taig because they are so tolerant and because such Belfast colloquialisms would confuse whatever Americans and Brits end up watching this lop-sided effort.

Although they live an idyllic, almost bucolic life in their well-kept slum before the Orangemen suddenly stomp through to burn out the Fenians and Taigs in their midst, just before the ethnically diverse Tommies move in to save the day, there are other little things that the film gets wrong. 

The little Protestant girls, for example, sing rhymes praising Danny Blanchflower but he had hung his boots up some years earlier and, when the Troubles broke out, Georgie Best, the Belfast Boy, was definitely the man. And so too, of course, was Van the Man, who provides much of the sound track to the film and who probably deserves any spare Oscars that may be going.

But all of that is by the way. Granny Dench’s family is just too politically correct for words. Though they despise Popery, they labour the point that Taigs, Catholics as they call them, should be treated as well as their own sort. Given that cars are being torched in their street and British Tommies are doing a Blitzkrieg on it, one must admire their tolerance.

And the fact Mr Singh, who is probably not a member of the Black Preceptory or even the local Orange Lodge, did not high tail it out of Dodge once the Belfast Confetti started flying, is not only a wonder but an ahistorical bow to ethnic diversity quotas; Belfast Protestant murder gangs did, after all, spend some years trying to murder an uppity Peruvian Taig and South Armagh PIRA did murder an Indian and a Pakistani, who were asking too many questions about them in Bandit Country where they stuck out like Mr Singh would have in Granny Dench’s ethnically cleansed Shangri-la.

Although Belfast gets many things wrong, it does get some of the more important things right. Billy Clanton, the main Orange heavy, is a thicko, as is his son who is in the same class as Dench’s grand kid, who fancies some Catholic crumpet. The Troubles brought scum like Clanton to the fore on both sides of the sectarian divide and, without the violence, the Catholic and Protestant Clantons would have lived out their lives signing on the dole and engaging in pettier crimes than the unspeakable ones they inflicted upon Belfast.

The other thing that Belfast got right was that there no longer was any room there for working class Protestants, who just wanted to earn an honest crust and go watch Linfield and cheer for Rangers on a Saturday afternoon. Although the family could have become ten-pound Poms, they instead decided to relocate to England, the destination of choice for impoverished Micks from even before the Famine.

The ordinary decent people of Belfast paid a huge price for indulging the Billy Clantons of both sides and, though Blanchflower and Best managed to gingerly side step all of that, its pathos is best reflected in Van the Man’s work, most particularly perhaps in Madame George, which did not make the Belfast cut.

Although RTÉ and The Guardian both loved and hated Belfast, its strongest point to me is that it gives a viewpoint at odds with the Catholic and Protestant Billy Clantons, who have dominated the discourse and gerrymandered Belfast to serve their own myopic vistas. 

Belfast and beyond needs more Van Morrisons, more Danny Blanchflowers, more Georgie Bests and, no matter what teams they pretend to follow, less Billy Clantons.

Posted by Dr Declan Hayes

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