Kevin McAleer has made us all think through laughter
KEVIN McAleer's three-part series Our Friends in the North finished on RTE last Monday. The films followed the personal journey of the famous Tyrone stand-up comic, who comes from a Catholic nationalist background, to find out more about the culture and traditions of his near neighbours, the Ulster-Scots Presbyterians. It was one of the best things I have seen on television for some time.
Some people down here professed surprise that the two northern communities knew so little about each other. Really? Thirty years ago, many southern Irish people from the majority tradition had visited a synagogue, mosque or Hindu shrine when on holidays. But how many had been inside their local Protestant church?
Think about that. Thirty years ago in the towns and villages of rural Ireland, when the black flags of the H Blocks flew and the windows of some Protestant churches were broken, the people we were least likely to worship with, mix with or marry were those closest to us in religion.
Most Irish people found it incredible that two women could be held captive in a house in Cleveland for 10 years while neighbours walked by. But isn't it just as incredible that for most of the last century, Catholics and Protestants living cheek by jowl, in small towns and villages across the Irish Republic, knew so little about each other's beliefs that they might as well have been living in different countries?
My point is that it is very hard to see the familiar with fresh eyes. Here, a theory of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht can help. You take something familiar and make it strange. Only then can you see it freshly as if for the first time. The problem is to put aside what you think you know. Or, as the newspaper slogan put it: before you make up your mind, open it.
The genius of Kevin McAleer was not to second-guess the strangeness of what he was about to do. Which was to drive only 40 or 50 miles and ask his Presbyterian neighbours to let him hang out in a local Orange Hall in Donegal, toss a caber in Glenarm and do his comedy routine at a tent meeting in Cairncastle, where his audience had been getting in touch with its Ulster-Scots heritage.
Notice I said "getting in touch". Cultural identity is not fixed. It can wax and wane. Not everybody is brought up playing Irish music or swinging a hurley. When I was young, few people in cities listened to Irish traditional music. Sean O Riada changed all that. Just as Kevin McAleer can change our stereotypes about Ulster-Scots people.
Twenty-five years ago, in a 1987 document Television And Terrorism, I presented a 13-point list of programme proposals to RTE, aimed at reaching out to northern unionists. One of them was a "frank and funny examination of what Protestants and Catholics thought of each other growing up North and South and the myths and fantasies of both sides". RTE did not respond.
So I was glad that it finally got around to doing such a programme. But because I spent some time thinking about such programmes, I know better than most how difficult it is to do what McAleer did. It is doubtful if any other presenter could have pulled it off without patronising either the Presbyterians or patronising us.
So what was the secret of his success? The short answer is he made himself vulnerable. Most broadcasters find that impossible. They approach those outside their politically correct Pales (whether Israelis or Orangemen) with their prejudices intact. They end by presenting viewers with pre-used programmes they had made earlier.
The Presbyterians he met took McAleer to their hearts because he had no hidden agenda. He did not hide his feelings of insecurity or his doubts. He freely admitted he did not know much about Ulster-Scots culture, was even a bit sceptical about it, but was on guard against his own inherited beliefs and prejudices.
So he bumbled about benignly, cracking pawky jokes, totally without ego, effortlessly engaging with everybody he met, if necessary on a level of eejitry. And everyone he met, seeing his guard down, dropped theirs too. In doing so, they subverted any stereotyping of the Ulster-Scots as a dour shower.
The Presbyterians that McAleer met immediately sensed he had not come with a camera crew to make use of them, to mock them or falsely make up to them. They knew he was not on some empty ecumenical mission, not a patronising peace processor, not a do-gooder from the Good Friday Agreement.
McAleer was just there as himself. But he was also trusted because he left nothing of himself behind. So before you settle down to another stereotype – Kevin McAleer as the naïve but nice Tyrone man who left politics and religion at home – think again. In fact, it was his political jokes that wowed his Presbyterian audience at a packed tent meeting during the Scots-Ulster Folk Festival in Cairncastle grounds.
Unlike some politically correct pluralists who avoid awkward political and religious truths when addressing northern audiences, McAleer knows that anyone who wants to act with good authority, and reach out to the other side has to be upfront about his own frontiers. But it takes cold courage to pierce a political boil so that its toxins lose their power.
McAleer cut with the cold steel of comedy. And his audience – most of whom looked old enough to have lived through all the atrocities of the Troubles – clearly appreciated his courage. You could almost feel them hold their breath as he began his stand-up routine, hoping he could lance the boil without inflicting a mortal wound.
Kevin: "I had a show down South last night. Down in Kerry. (pause) Sorry, London-kerry." (sudden delighted laughter)
"Ah we're all the same eh, north and south?" (uncertain laughter, wondering if they were in for a pious pluralist lecture) "Six of one, 26 of the other." (louder laughter) "No, we have to reach out to the other side, understand their deepest fears." (a long pause – and then he went for it) "And do our best to make them come true." (long, loud, cathartic laughter)
McAleer's Ulster-Scots neighbours went home happy. He had made them laugh, at him, at themselves, at their deepest fears. He was happy too.
"Laughter is a very intimate language. I knew by the end of it I was among my own. How could I have ever doubted it?"
Congratulations to commissioning editor Colm O'Callaghan of RTE and to director Julie Forbes. It took courage to use a stand-up comedian with an open mind, rather than a talking-head historian with a closed book. Let's hope we learned some lessons about respecting other traditions down here too – like defending our little Protestant national schools from downgrading.
The Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Patrick Rooke, should not have to use a colourful phrase like "a kind of Protestant cleansing" to get our attention about these schools. Let's make the familiar strange. Let's take the familiar 1916 Proclamation and implement it's promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally.