Unionist/ Nationalist, Who Cares?

I love stories like the one below (in bold and italics) about our troubled little province.  It make the point wonderfully, that nothing can be framed in the black and white terms that either the Unionists or Nationalists love.  This particular episode relates to a bigoted, blinkered view that unfortunately still seems to hold sway in some protestant/ unionist circles.  It is a great pity in all the years of schooling that each of us endures, that we cannot be taught to ask a few simple questions about some of the things our culture presents as the truth.  I love too that the person who paid for the painting was Craig, a man who openly boasted that he did not, and would not, employ a Catholic.

The text comes from a booklet of reminisces called “My Bangor from the 1890’s”, published 1975 by our local newspaper, The County Down Spectator (https://countydownspectator.co.uk/).  It was written by C.F. Milliken, and I have included a picture of the inside cover to tell you who he was.  Milliken has many great tales to tell about my home town.

After deciding to share this story with you all, I tried to find a picture of the artwork concerned.  In fact, Google has many references to it, but the text reproduced below tells only part of the story.  It seems that two Glasgow politicians who had somewhat narrow views on life and the tolerance of others, threw paint onto the picture and slashed it with a knife in the 1930’s.  This may be the incident described in Milliken’s text, although it seems somewhat more subdued there. Ian Paisley wanted the picture hung in his private office during his tenure in Stormont while Nationalist politicians too wanted the painting prominently displayed because of the duplicity of its symbolism. 
 This BBC article ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/5263210.stm), states that the pictures location was unknown from 1936 until 1975, when it was moved to the Public Records Office.   In 1983 it was returned to Stormont, where it hangs in the speaker’s office.  It really should be placed somewhere more prominent.  The telling of its story would do us all some good.  The artists name is actually Pieter van der Meulen



In Ireland historical facts are very likely to get slightly warped, depending whether you are from north or south of the border.

For example, King William in the north is understood to be a staunch defender of the faith, “Who saved us from pope and popery, brass money and wooden shoes,” whatever that may mean.

Here is a true story, which will show you what I mean:

Sir James Craig Afterwards Lord Craigavon), who with Sir Edward Carson was responsible for the establishment of Northern Ireland and the parliament at Stormont, Belfast, was in London a short time after the new parliament buildings had been opened by King George V, and was told that a painting of King William of Orange and his wife Mary would be put up for sale by one of the well known London art dealers.

Sir James gave instructions that the painting (which was by a Dutch artist, Pieter Van Dermealen, who had come to London in 1670, and died in 1696), was to be bought on his personal account.  In due course the painting arrived in Belfast, with appropriate beating of drums was hung in one of the committee rooms, where ministers or senior civil servants received deputations from local Authorities.

The picture was a disappointment to some, as it showed “William” on a brown horse and not the white horse which graces many an Orange banner and walls in the province, but apart from that, everybody was happy, until one day, when a deputation of Councillors visited the room in question.  While awaiting the arrival of the Minister with whom they were to discuss their business, they whiles away the time examining the picture, the gift of Sir James Craig, when one of their number asked the civil servant who was with them, “What’s the monogram or coat of arms in the left hand corner of the painting represent?”  “That’s the Apostolic blessing.”  “And what’s that?”, was the next question.  “As you must know”, said the official, “Mary had to have the Pope’s permission to marry a protestant”.

The Minister arrived to find the meeting in an uproar, and a demand that the picture be taken down and destroyed.  He pointed out that such action would attract wide publicity, which must be avoided at all costs, and if they would leave it to him, he would arrange for a local artist to skilfully paint out the blessing and blend it into the background in such a way, that no-one would know that it had ever been there.

The painting still hangs at Stormont and the blessing has been forgotten, except by a few who are still alive and remember that very stormy meeting long ago.


Update Monday 2nd March 2020

This picture featured on a BBC program last night (Britain's Lost Masterpieces).  You will be able to watch in on the BBC iplayer for the next month or so at this link:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b07yqgl3/britains-lost-masterpieces-series-1-3-belfast

They looked at all the symbolism on the picture, and even at some of the things that have been painted out (including rosary beads in the hand of the hermit character in the front of the painting).  Pretty much all of it relates to Catholic guilds etc.  It reinforces the fact that there is nothing so simple or so misrepresented as the 'Orange' myths built up around King William in this part of the world, or the sheer prejudice and bigotry that ruled through people like the two Glasgow Councillors mentioned above.  Their story gets some elaboration in the BBC show too.  It is worth a watch if you are interested in the sadly corrupted view of the world that brought about 30 odd  years of trouble in this little province.


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