Amidst the antiquated sea of top hats, 'No Home Rule' banners and random BNP members at Stormont the other week for the centenary celebrations of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, there was one prevailing, yet silent figure looming over proceedings.
Quite literally in fact, as the huge bronze statue of Edward Carson looked down on those assembled, one can only wonder what this godfather of Ulster unionism would have made of it all.
Paddy Scully’s one-man whirlwind travelogue through the labyrinthine and often contradictory inner workings of the divisive Dubliner’s mind illuminates some of the more complex facets of a man who would be the ‘uncrowned king of Ulster’.
‘If you’re Irish come into the parlour’ cheekily fanfares the entrance of our man, aforementioned 'king', reluctant Orangeman and rabble-rouser par excellence as he waits to sit for Sir John Lavery.
An easel, hat stand and chair triangulate the stage as ‘Ned’ stalks, broods, reflects. ‘This is my posing day, and this is a posing day’ he remarks to the audience, revealing something of the self-regard and sly humour of the man who was the first to bleed on the Ulster Covenant, the centenary of which so many have gotten into a lather about of late.
And Scully’s Carson is as much defiant Dub as he is loyal servant of the crown. His distinctive nose he tells us, the reward of a hurling injury at Trinity. His playful assaults on Parnell are wryly rejoined by Dr Johnson’s declaration that ‘we Irishmen do not speak well of each other’.
He might not entirely physically convince as Carson, but no matter, Scully beautifully conveys the pride, the conviction and more importantly the humanity of a man whose character has been much distorted by both orange and green in the intervening century.
This presentation of Carson might speak waspishly of republican sentimentality and the ‘blood sacrifice codology’ as ‘Finn McFool’ and ‘Kathleen Ni Hooligan’ but his keen sense of self-deprecation is intact when he considers the series of paintings Lavery is currently undertaking, including himself, De Valera, Griffiths and Churchill as a ‘gallery of rogues’.
He’s also a real-life Zelig of the early 20th century. Scully has a lot of fun name-dropping the Kaiser, Bram Stoker, Titanic, Winston Churchill (‘I doubt that boyo will ever amount to much’), even Barbara Cartland – there’s a cattiness to ‘old rawbones’ that history has seen fit to excise.
His distaste for Orangeism is teased out here too (‘old bones and rotten rags of the Orange mummy’, anybody?). So too is his strange antipathy for the north in general and even distrust of the wily and mildly sinister James Craig.
He’s on honeymoon with second wife Ruby in 1914 when the UVF bring guns ashore. Craig reassures him they’re to act as safety valve. Carson meekly whimpers something about ‘crossing the Rubicon’.
This is perhaps where we need to draw back. As engaging as the staged Edward Carson is, can we really be expected to believe that this tack sharp destroyer of legal defences and verbally dexterous orator was in the dark or naive about such actions? Or indeed his own part in the coming storm?
Carson entreaties us with his own version of an apologia of the horror that was to come, mitigating his own complicity. ‘We ended up with Home Rule not once but twice’ he cries out, as if he hadn’t seen it coming.
There’s an ever so unpleasant and modern parallel to all this and one can’t help remember the scores of supposedly intelligent and sane Labour politicians who complained they were hoodwinked over Iraq. Both lapses of sanity / intellect cost lives. Carson’s however, got him an iconic statue, a state funeral and an ill-founded reputation as a ‘fire and brimstone’ orator.
But there’s also a real sense of fatalism here. As if there could be no other way. Paddy Scully brings to bear in some of Carson’s quieter moments here, a sadness at his own lot, a an almost unwilling agent of history, driven as much by what he couldn’t stand – Irish Home Rule, as what he could. It’s a philosophical template that Ulster unionism still hasn’t quite shaken.
And so, the fin de siècle D4 vowels coming from the mouth of Ulster’s secular saint lay bare the inherent contradiction of the man. Irish to the bone, but unionist to the core. A man of humanity in whose name death and division were perpetrated on a small island. A colossal bitch, a bit of a gossip, but also implacable, principled – to the point of adopting a corner of the island he felt profoundly emotionally detached from. That’s the act, the sacrifice he will be most remembered for, for better or worse.
He was offered the PM role in the first Northern Ireland state but turned it down. ‘Belfast was not my city, and these were not my people,’ Scully’s Carson reflects sadly. He leaves the stage with an entreaty that the new Northern Ireland statelet should be a bastion of equality and a nation for all its peoples regardless of religion. He then walks away. We all know what followed.
With all the recent shenanigans and flapping about the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, it occurs that the hurling injury on the great man’s nose speaks more profoundly to Irish unionist heritage than a dozen speeches by bowler-hatted men. Lord Carson Signs Off is engaging, amusing and moving. A confection of bloody-mindedness, badinage and Barbara Cartland puts some real flesh on the bones of this most misunderstood of Irishmen.