A voice of reason amid confusion and violence

<i>The Catholics of Ulster: a history </i>by Marianne Elliott (Allen Lane, &pound;25)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"The state of Northern Ireland," writes Marianne Elliott in her monumental new work of scholarship and timely revisionism, "came into being... amid confusion and violence." Confusion and violence were a legacy from the past and a blueprint for the future as chance after chance was lost to establish an equitable society in the benighted North of Ireland.

"The state of Northern Ireland," writes Marianne Elliott in her monumental new work of scholarship and timely revisionism, "came into being... amid confusion and violence." Confusion and violence were a legacy from the past and a blueprint for the future as chance after chance was lost to establish an equitable society in the benighted North of Ireland.

Why was this? In an extreme case of "us and them", clashing tribal allegiances came to the fore. What this study does above all is expose the shaky basis of a good many sectarian assumptions on both sides, as well as tampering with certain truisms of the nationalist version of history.

It's not that Catholic grievances, any more than Protestant fears, were completely without foundation. Rather, distortions and simplifications entered into each faction's entrenched perception of the other. Whenever the liberal impulse looks to predominate in Northern Ireland, some atavistic enormity will always rise up to scupper it. This, at least, has always been true in the past.

The Catholics of Ulster does not include church history in its brief. Instead it gives an account of the fortunes and instinctive ideologies of the people who define themselves under that heading. It goes back briefly to pre-Christian Ulster to set the scene for the next 2,000-odd years, showing that Ulster Catholics are not, and never were, the unadulterated Gaels of popular belief. One might go further and claim that it would be hard to isolate any individual whose ancestry did not include a strand or two from the opposing camp. The roots of the shamrock and the orange lily, if you dig deep enough, will be found to be intertwined.

However, the great divide occurred. From the 17th century on, the Catholics of the North experienced a downward social trend that fostered resentment and - partly through its enshrinement in literature - became self-perpetuating.

After the uprising of 1641 and the massacre of something like 12,000 Protestants and settlers, "identity" began to be defined in sectarian terms, with "heretic" and "papist" as complementary terms of abuse. Dispossession and disaffection continued in the wake of the Williamite wars, with the Catholic population increasingly pushed off the richer land and into the wilderness. Justifiable lawlessness quickly became a Catholic trait, while the concept of liberty was thought of as Protestant.

Among the myths that Elliott dispels are the ideas that "hedge schools" were exclusively Catholic (they weren't) and that the penal laws forbade the celebration of Mass (they didn't). A significant number of Catholics actually prospered during the 18th century.

Yet, at the same time, religious segregation was becoming a fact of life. An incident described in the book, when a Protestant regiment of Volunteers marching home from church succumbed to taunts from Catholic bystanders and opened fire, killing two, seems dishearteningly familiar. The date of this incident was 1788, and the place Drumbee. In the words attributed to the Co Tyrone novelist William Carleton in Seamus Heaney's poem "Station Island": "O holy Jesus Christ, does nothing change?"

The refurbishment of the Catholic church during the 19th century, and its development as a social and political structure, contributed to the Ulster schism - with its twin icons of intolerance, the Presbyterian Rev Henry Cooke and Cardinal Paul Cullen. The failure of every attempt to set up a system of integrated education, thanks to the attitudes of such clerics, has meant a continuation of the divisiveness that permeated society.

Only in recent years, in a new, more liberal atmosphere and with goodwill on both sides, has some kind of resolution of the conflict begun to seem a possibility. The Catholics of Ulster, with its fair-minded approach and scrupulous attention to historical accuracy, should make an important contribution to this most desirable process.

The reviewer edited the 'Oxford Book of Ireland'

Comments