BOOK REVIEW / Football and dances among bullets: George Boyce on the legacy of division in the troubled history of Northern Ireland: A history of Ulster - Jonathan Bardon; Blackstaff Press pounds 30

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'FOR GOD'S sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.' With these words Reginald Maudling summed up what the history of Ulster means to many - perhaps most - people. But if they embark on Jonathan Bardon's magnificent enterprise they might well change their minds, or at least examine their prejudices. Bardon begins in 7000BC and ends at the present, and his first paragraph or two will grip the reader: topography, archaeology and history are pointed up, and Ulster presented as a 'place where successive peoples and cultures met, clashed and blended'.

Bardon's narrative sweep might have benefited from an introductory chapter setting out the various ways in which regional history can be written. But he does this through the sure method of historical specificity, and he shows that Ulster experienced a series of different relationships to Ireland and - equally importantly - to Great Britain. The key phase is the industrialisation of the north-east part of Ulster in the 19th century, and the development of an industrial society in Belfast and Lagan Valley. Not even the most significant event before that - the plantation of Ulster by British settlers in the early 17th century - rivals the making of Victorian Belfast. The 'general crisis' of the 17th century shook Ireland as a whole; and the French Revolution, while it affected the north most deeply, had resonances throughout Ireland.

There were no unique Ulster politics until after the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, no 'Ulster Question' that lasted from time immemorial to the present. The distinctiveness of the region's society, economy and political life is a modern phenomenon, though of course one with some of its deepest roots located in the past. The experience of self-government since 1921 made it more particular still.

The bulk of the book is concentrated on the post-Union period. But Bardon keeps the broader view in front of his reader, through offering signposts to help clarify the long march of everyman in Ulster. On page 75 he points up the 'legacy of division' when Queen Elizabeth I's vacillations over Ireland, her uncertain policy 'prolonged Ulster's agony' in the wars of religion. Then on page 147 we find another signpost, this time one that points out that the fundamental distinction between peoples in Ireland and Ulster is based not on 'blood', but on religion. On page 401 there is a fascinating and long overdue discussion of Ulster surnames, which reinforces this point, but makes it all the more unfortunate that Bardon feels it necessary to use that misleading and highly overworked expression 'ethnic' in a wholly inappropriate context.

A long history of Ulster is necessarily a kind of high- and low-intensity study. There are times when Ulster was in the forefront of Irish politics and of Anglo-Irish relations, as in the last decade of the 18th century, when the United Irishmen were at the centre of Irish radical thinking. There are times when Ulster was the eye of the storm, as in the crisis of 1912-14. But for long periods she was in the background, or was the passive recipient of events that originated elsewhere, as in the Land War of 1879-82 and the German bombing campaign in the Second World War. Bardon's ability to keep all this in proper perspective is nowhere better demonstrated than in his discussion of the impact of the Great Famine of 1847-49 on Ulster, a subject which has attracted specialist research, but which deserves a much wider audience, if only to make the point that suffering was not confined to the south and west of Ireland, as some would like to think.

As Ulster approached the modern age the question inevitably arises: were her politics bound to be cast in a sectarian mould? Were Unionism and and Nationalism, with their special Ulster character, destined to become her dominant ideologies?

Bardon explores the social and economic basis of Ulster's political life. He reminds us that there was a landed gentry in Ulster, and one that was often at odds with its (largely Presbyterian) tenantry. But he rightly emphasises the importance of urban developments, and the role of the professional and business classes in the making and leadership of the Ulster Unionist movement.

He shows how the old sectarian divides were inculcated into the patterns of social and economic life in the north, and how Ulster Liberalism - a shaky plant, perhaps, with its tender roots resting in a Presbyterian political elite and a Roman Catholic electoral following - gave way to the sectarian politics of the 1880s. There is nothing very novel in his description of these developments; but they are presented in a plain, honest way, with no concession to those who see Ulster politics as a conspiracy of some group or class (usually the 'bourgeoisie').

The last part of Bardon's history raises in particular form the question of how best to write the history of a region. After 1921 Northern Ireland came into existence as a distinct political entity, the creation of a British government anxious to let slip the burdens of Ireland and Ulster alike. The making of Northern Ireland gives Bardon's work a sharper focus, and he shows how the fact of statehood shaped social and economic life in the province.

Northern Ireland's peculiar institutions, the close yet distant relationship between her communities, the compromises that made a reasonably civilised life possible, the tensions that put consensus politics beyond reach, are all explained with the subtle touch that is essential if these characteristics are not to be ludicrously portrayed (as they too often are) in misleading terms such as 'colonialism'.

Bardon loves his adopted country, but he does not shrink from detailing all the dreadful catastrophes that have destroyed the lives of so many people, British, Irish and Ulster, since 1969. This story must be told; yet it is a pity that Bardon does not find space for other aspects of life in Ulster: the cinema, the dance hall, football, above all the Belfast Festival of the Arts, which originated in Queen's University in the 1960s, and which still flourishes today, bombs and bullets notwithstanding.

Bardon does not ignore the 'lost' Ulster counties, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, which went to the 'South' with partition in 1921. His book would have benefited from a more detailed examination of life in these border areas, and especially Catholic-Protestant relations, particularly in the field of education. How have the 'old decencies' survived in areas contiguous to the most disturbed parts of Northern Ireland? Is the picture as rosy as it looks? What is it like to be an Orangeman in Cavan? Where did Donegal's Protestants go to? But it is surely churlish to pick holes in what is after all a portrait painted on a very wide canvas.

Bardon has put the history of Ulster on the map. His book will be acclaimed by future generations, when Reginald Maudling and his ilk lie howling.