A History of Ulster. Jonathan Bardon and Nine Ulster Lives, G. O’Brien & P. Roebuck (eds.) (1:1)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Anglo-Norman Ireland, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Home Rule, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Medieval History (pre-1500), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Penal Laws, Plantation of Ireland, Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 1

A History of Ulster . Jonathan Bardon (Blackstaff Press, 1992, £14.95) and Nine Ulster Lives,  G. O’Brien & P. Roebuck (eds.)
(Ulster Historical Foundation, 1992, £7.95) (1:1)

Tony Canavan

On being presented with Jonathan Bardon’s A History of Ulster one recalls the Duke of Gloucester’s comment on being presented with Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, ‘Another damn’d thick square book!’ At almost a thousand pages, the book covers a history spanning nine thousand years right up to the most recent events. It is truly a mammoth production and  Bardon is to be commended on his effort and dedication.

To judge its success one must first know what sort of book it is meant to be. It may indeed, as the blurb claims, achieve ‘what few other books have attempted – a comprehensive account of the province’, but it is not one which presents significant new research or new thinking on the history of Ulster. As Bardon has himself said, this book is aimed at a broad non-academic readership stretching from harassed school teachers and their students to the local historian and general reader. In effect the book aims to introduce the people of Ulster (or more specifically, Northern Ireland) to the history of their province and this it does admirably. In Northern Ireland the curriculum in both Catholic and Protestant schools has been notably deficient in the history of Ireland or Ulster. Both have worked towards British oriented syllabuses; until recently it was no remarkable thing to have ‘done’ history without ever touching on Ireland. For most, history was something learned within the family or from murals on gable walls. In such circumstances, Bardon’s book is a pioneering work and one that should be welcomed.

As a narrative of the history of Ulster, the book is written in a lucid, articulate style bereft of jargon and conceptual meandering. Bardon tells a good story with an easy progression from one period to the other, whether it be the collapse of Neolithic or of Gaelic Ulster. The book is rich in detail of places and firmly rooted in the geography of Ulster, something pleasing to the local historian. Quotations throughout allow contemporaries to speak for themselves but also bring history to life.

For those inspired to read more, there is a diligent employment of footnotes, while a good bibliography will enable any reader to pursue further the background to particular events or further details on particular places. It must also be said that the layout, with each chapter divided by sub-headings, not only makes it easy to read but no doubt will assist its use in the class by the aforementioned harassed school teacher.

No book on this scale dealing with a topic which results in almost daily death and destruction can go without some criticism. Indeed the concept of a history of Ulster is one that will raise some eyebrows – why not a similar book on Munster or Connacht? – and might be condemned as a proposition with a built in assumption of Unionism. However, Bardon does not attempt to deal with the province in isolation from the rest of the island at any time, and this book might easily serve as an introduction to the history of Ireland.

There are inevitable omissions in the narrative and some events are dealt with too abruptly when some background information could have made them more intelligible – the Flight of the Earls in 1607 for example. The one vital missing element is the author’s own voice. In an admirable attempt to be even handed, he gives us a chronicle of events relying on contemporary quotations to give both sides of the argument – as in the 1912 Home Rule Crisis. But Jonathan Bardon’s own opinions on the veracity of contemporary commentators is not enunciated and the book is the poorer for this.

However, in the current context of Northern Ireland, where preconceptions about the past mould the politics of the present, even to state the facts  can be a radical, even revolutionary, act. Bardon succeeds in deconstructing many Ulster myths, such as the racial origin of the Ulster people, the arrival of the Normans or the decline of native Irish power. More importantly, he also tackles the difficult truths about the Plantation of Ulster, Ireland under the Penal Laws and the 1790s. His description of Ulster in the mid-nineteenth century and its subsequent economic growth does much to undermine the popular image of a prosperous, contented province. This is not to say that this book merely debunks all notions of Ulster; the section on Northern Ireland’s role in the Second World War, for example, would have benefited from the inclusion of Robert Fisk’s analysis of this period. Some descriptive phrases re Northern Ireland in the 1960s will certainly jar on the ear of the more critical reader.

Overall this is a good book and one to be recommended as a valuable work of reference as well as an introduction to the history of Ulster. Bardon guides us easily from the distant past of human settlement to the modern Troubles. He has been true to his brief throughout and in the period since Partition has continued to include references to the three counties – Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal – not included in Northern Ireland. Of the period of modern violence, from 1968 on, Jonathan Bardon concludes that we are too close to the events to assess them authoritatively. In the final section, he avoids any profound judgement on the future of Northern Ireland and instead concludes in a mood best described as downbeat optimism.

Other aspects of the province’s history are examined in the Ulster Historical Foundation’s Nine Ulster Lives. From the title one might expect to have a life from each county but instead we have a random selection – atomic scientist, Earnest Walton; military leader, Claude Auchinleck; classical scholar, Helen Waddell; painter, John Lavery; politician, Charles Gavan Duffy; printer of the American Declaration of Independence, John Dunlop; lawyer and politician, William Paterson; ecclesiast, John Abernethy; and soldier and politician, Owen Roe O’Neill. It would be pointless to complain about the content since any list is bound to displease someone or other, but to have only one woman included does smack of tokenism – surely some others such as Mary Ann McCracken or Alice Milligan might have been included. It is a bold stroke to start with a contemporary person, Ernest Walton, and then go back in time to the earliest, Owen Roe O’Neill. However although Walton’s work in atomic physics may have been of great importance and led directly to Hiroshima and Chernobyl, his life as depicted by Brian Cathcart is dull and so not such a good opener. This is a problem with some other pieces in the book. Certain individuals may have been significant for certain things, but the rest of their lives may have been quite uninteresting, or else the authors seem unable to tell a good story in an engaging way – it is not enough to know the facts, an author must be able to communicate as well. This is a pity for an otherwise interesting book. Felicitas Corrigan’s piece on Helen Waddell avoids this pitfall and is well written, refreshing and lively. She not only manages to give a potted history of Ireland but has the good sense to let Waddell speak for herself when appropriate, throwing light not just on her intellectual achievements but also on her religious beliefs and deep-seated sense of Irishness. Auchinleck and Lavery are also dealt with well. In particular Raymond Gillespie is to be commended for dealing clearly with the complex political situation in seventeenth- century Ireland and Owen Roe O’Neill’s place in it.


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