The Protestant working class and popular culture: the case of Ruefrex continued

ruefrex-pic-mcapromoYou might recall that a few weeks ago I posted a video by the band Ruefrex. Ruefrex are a perfect counterpoint to the tired argument that ‘Prods had no culture’. Indeed, careful observers of Northern Ireland music in the late 1970s and early 1980s would be hard pushed not to give the band credit for being an integral part of the ‘scene’. Sadly one of the reasons  that Ruefrex probably never got the recognition that the Undertones or Rudi enjoyed was because they didn’t ‘play the game’ on Terri Hooley’s terms. Ruefrex were always very much sceptical outsiders.

I had an enjoyable lunch and catch-up with ex-Ruefrex drummer and songwriter Paul Burgess last week to discuss a book we are currently co-editing. Paul is a lecturer in Applied Social Studies in University College Cork these days but last week he reminded me of the stick that Ruefrex got during the era when ‘Good Vibrations’ was set. He interestingly blew away the myth of the Harp Bar as being some kind of cross-community mecca for the youth of the day. He remembers the band being subject to sectarian abuse and even threatened by a shadowy figure wielding a gun; all due to the fact that the band were from the Greater Shankill area. Of course the fact that they were staunchly non-sectarian mattered little to some of these bigots. Again it also seemed to boil down to the fact that they didn’t fit into the punk scene – they didn’t dress like punks (so much for individualism of punk!) and were accused of being ‘spider-men’.

Unlike some other bands of the era Ruefrex didn’t shy away from singing about the contemporary situation and reassessing various strands of Ulster Protestant culture which, unfashionably, they were reticent to betray completely. This cultural doggedness however is one of their strengths and anyone who is interested in the contemporary history of Belfast’s Protestant working class and loyalist community needs to recognise the importance of Ruefrex in describing and shaping that history.

I’m sure Paul won’t mind me quoting something he said in the liner notes to the band’s 2005 Cherry Red ‘Best Of’ entitled ‘Capital Letters’:

Paul Burgess

We evoked the wrath of both communities, although it was probably more politically incorrect and damaging to be portrayed as the ‘Prod’ band as opposed, say, to That Petrol Emotion as the “oppressed” RC one. You’ll still find – in regard to arts and cultural undertakings – that the Ulster Protestant community must overcome these initial prejudicial comparisons with the perceived cultural oppression of South Africa, Israel and the like. You can only sing with credibility about your own experience and culture. Or, of course, reject it and adopt some bogus stance.

Paul was pleased last week to have found a DIY video on YouTube for one of Ruefrex’s songs, ‘Days of Heaven’. He felt that the person who uploaded it had understood the essence of the lyrics and their description of the Belfast Protestant working class experience in the 1970s and early 1980s. The video and lyrics are below:


Days of Heaven

A burned out pub, a playground for the bored,

a Cyclops skylight offers sanctuary.

A boy peeps through the corrugated iron,

from his safety of his world within a world.

Far away from sirens in his shell,

days of heaven, nights of hell.

Little fortresses of common love,

footballs burst on glass-topped backyard walls.

‘Johnny 7’, ‘Hunts’ and ‘Hide ‘n Go’

“Best prices paid for copper and for lead.”

But with darkness the stones and rubble fell,

days of heaven, nights of hell.

A generation built from red-bricked streets

all proud, and hard, and honourable men.

One same purpose, that of right and wrong,

family and jobs their main concern.

Another side the newsmen seldom tell,

days of heaven, nights of hell.

Funnily enough, a week or so before Paul told me about this video I had made a very unimaginative video for the ‘controversial’ Ruefrex song ‘The Fightin’ 36th’ which paid homage to the 36th Ulster Division; many of whom died during the Battle of the Somme. The psychological impact of this episode was immense for Ulster Protestants in particular and in the Cherry Red release there is a brief passage from Geoffrey Bell which states:

They are not bitter at the slaughter of their own people,

in a battle judged necessary by those not of their class,

not of their country. They are not angry, not bitter, do not protest, they are proud.

Such is the tragedy of the ordinary Ulster Protestant.


The Fightin’ 36th

A silence fallswith front line dawn,

and Private Samuel Dodds

needs God to lean upon.

The sun shines down,

the gas clouds clear,

the Woodvale cricket club

are keeping quiet their fear.

The shells pour down,

the whistles blow,

the Cloughmills L.O.L.

have nowhere left to go.

Through hell fire’s rage,

with bayonets fixed,

the cry was “no surrender”

from the fightin’ 36th.

There were many who didn’t get Ruefrex, notably Elvis Costello who called the band “Orange bastards”.

Make your own mind up about who was keeping the spirit of ‘punk’ alive in the face of intolerance…Ruefrex+one+by+one+gv



  1. Extremely confused and paranoid article. “Non-Sectarian” Protestant band who sing about 36th Ulster division, oppressed by “Roman” Catholics, oppressed by Protestants, oppressed by “shadowy figures”.

  2. I remember Ruefrex well and loved their songs. So refreshing to hear mention of one of the bands that wouldn’t play by the Good Vibes rule book and have therefore been written out in the ‘new history of punk bands in Belfast’.

  3. I think it speaks volumes when a band can wear black arm-bands on tv to commemorate IRA hunger strikers without any adverse effect on their careers or legacy while another non sectarian band write a few songs against IRA violence and get branded “Orange bastards” by their musical peers and are forgotten about. As a teenager i grew up in a loyalist area of north Belfast but as a music lover i socialised in town going to gigs and ‘student’ discos and made lots of good catholic friends and consider myself to be pretty liberal but yeah i saw that a lot of people had misconceptions about me because of where i lived. Because all working class protestants are perceived by others as being conservative with right of centre politics they will never be fully accepted by the politically correct leftist media. It adds to the very real feeling of unfairness among working class protestants. In Belfast city centre Irish & Irishness is seen as the neutral position, it’s perfectly acceptable for pubs & shops to display this position as it supposedly encompasses us all. You’ll even see some Republican iconography in our traditional pubs but they daren’t display anything connected with the city’s unionist past for fear of being seen as a sectarian loyalist dive bar. I see myself as both British & Irish but Unionism, let alone Loyalism is unacceptable in the commercial centre. It is seen as something to be kept in the “loyalist” slums. It doesn’t bring in the tourists you know. This unfairness is seen in sport too. You take any working class protestant that has played for an all Ireland team in their chosen sport and it is universally accepted as a good thing and a positive step for peace. Take Wayne Mccullough, our rugby player and even the three or four ‘prods’ that represented Ireland in the last Olympics as proof, and i agree it’s a good thing. Unfortunately though when someone like Rory McIlroy hints at wanting to play for GB & NI in the Olympics or wraps himself in a Northern Ireland flag after a win there follows a fair bit of negative press in the media. Questions are asked if Rory fully understands Northern Irelands history or has he been brainwashed by growing up in a ‘Protestant town’. It’s not seen as a positive move or as helping community relations to the point that he can probably never be seen showing his NI pride so openly again. We also hear that he is better off playing for Ireland as that is supposedly the neutral stance. After all, we are told that Ireland represents us all apart from those stupid idiotic loyalists but sure we can do without them anyway. The media deems it perfectly acceptable for young working class Protestants to play in an all-Irish team under the tricolour and stand for the Republic’s national anthem yet in a Northern Ireland sporting context we are told of the need for neutral flags & anthems for fairness sake. These perceived double standards DO make working class unionists feel like second class citizens. I believe this anger makes them more inward looking and more isolated from the rest of society. This can only be a bad thing.

  4. From the early 90’s, another Protestant working class band from north Belfast (Ballysillan/Shore Road i think), The Blairmaynes. Probably should have made it but didn’t… I wonder did their name have anything to do with it!? 😉

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