The first episode of the BBC 2 Northern Ireland documentary, An Independent People: The Story of Ulster’s Presbyterians, aired last night. The series, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Presbyterians in Ulster, will feature two more one-hour episodes.
Telling a story spanning four centuries in three hours is a tall order.
But judging from the first episode, the series is well on its way to delivering a welcome historical perspective on a tradition that has been maligned and misunderstood, as well as celebrated.
You can watch a preview of the series, presented by William Crawley, here. (The episode is not easy to find on the BBC i-player, as when I tuned in earlier today it was not listed under either the Northern Ireland or the Religion & Ethics sections. Your best bet is to search for ‘An Independent People’ or click here)
While the first episode focused primarily on the 17th century, it was interspersed with some contemporary scenes, including footage of the election of Roy Patton as Moderator at last year’s General Assembly.
Tomorrow Patton will make a little bit of Presbyterian history by becoming the first Moderator to make an official visit to the National University of Ireland at Maynooth.
Given Maynooth’s Catholic roots and historic association with the training of Irish Catholic priests, readers may be surprised to learn that Patton is being hosted by the University’s new Centre for the Study of Irish Protestantism (CSIP), which launched last year.
I’ll be speaking on ‘The Churches and Reconciliation in Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities,’ along with Trevor Morrow, who is speaking on ‘The Ulster Covenant, the Reformed Churches and Irish Identity.’ The colloquium begins at 7.30 pm (Tuesday 12 March) in the Iontas Building on the North Campus.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the first programme, the framing of the BBC series as the story of Ulster’s Presbyterians seems to me somewhat unfortunate. Although Presbyterians are scarce on the ground outside of Ulster, Patton’s visit to Maynooth reminds us that they have an island-wide presence – and a church organised on an island-wide basis – which should not be forgotten.
That said, the first episode took a wide geographic scope as it explored the first century of Presbyterianism in Ulster, transporting viewers to Geneva and Scotland– as well as Dublin.
Much of its focus was on conflict, both in Ireland and Scotland, including the mass killing of Protestants in 1641, the Cromwellian invasion, the Siege of Derry, and the Williamite war.
Those familiar with the heroic portrayals of Cromwell and King Billy on gable walls might be surprised to learn that Cromwell threatened to send Presbyterians ‘to hell or Connaught’ along with the Catholics; and that life got worse for Presbyterians after they lent their support to William III. Like Catholics, from 1690-1714 Presbyterians were subject to ‘penal laws’ that severely restricted their religious and economic freedom.
The programme closes with a vignette about James McGregor, who as a 12-year-old fired the canon that announced the lifting of the Siege of Derry. McGregor later became minister of Aghadowey Presbyterian Church. Times were so hard for his congregation that he went more than two years without pay. Finally, in 1718, McGregor, his family and his congregation immigrated en masse to the United States. (The segment begins at about 51 minutes into the programme.)
By telling such stories, the programme was able to convey something of the human experience of Presbyterians (emphasising fortitude and independence of mind), while at the same time balancing those stories with a frank recognition of the historical role of religion in conflict. It’s a delicate balance, and I’m curious to see how it will be handled in the next two episodes.
The second episode looks to focus on emigration, which will surely include consideration of the stunning influence of the Scots-Irish in America.