Men that God Made Mad, by Derek Lundy

Cracks in the Ulster legend
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Robert Lundy was governor of Londonderry in 1688, as the city prepared to resist the onslaught of James II's Catholic armies. Lundy - maybe a traitor, maybe just a hard-headed pessimistic professional - thought that the defenders didn't stand a chance, and urged surrender. The citizens threw him out, fought off James's besiegers, and thus established one of Ireland's most enduring historical legends.

Lundy went down in Ulster Protestant folklore as the archetypal betrayer, the enemy within, a necessary element in an ever-renewed sense of siege. To be a "Lundy" is still, among Unionist hardliners, the standard epithet for anyone believed a renegade or weakling. Anything from failing to back Paisley, through marrying a Catholic, to supporting the wrong football team can earn you the title.

Derek Lundy is a Canadian writer, best known for his books on the sea and sailors. But his family roots are in Belfast, in the cluster of terraced streets nicknamed the Holy Land. Lundy the Traitor may, or may not, be a literal ancestor: Derek can't be sure. He decided, though, to make governor Robert his imaginative ancestor, a key to his search for understanding in Ulster politics and his own origins. If nothing else, revealing his surname almost invariably proved to be a good conversational ice-breaker in pubs.

The book links Robert Lundy's story with those of two other Ulstermen who were Derek's ancestors, representing two starkly opposed sides of Ulster Protestant tradition. They are the 18th-century radical Presbyterian preacher William Steel Dickson, a leader of the revolutionary, republican United Irishmen, and Derek's grandfather, Billy. It was the outlook symbolised by Billy, an outspoken Unionist and, so his grandson thinks, a sectarian bigot, which set Ulster's political mould for the ensuing century.

Some great books about Northern Ireland have come from the intimate, painful understanding of insiders. Some have been written by complete outsiders, using their unfamiliarity to powerful effect: Sally Belfrage's 1987 travelogue The Crack is perhaps the best of these. Lundy's borderline status, not fully in or out, gives him a fresh perspective.

Men That God Made Mad is in many ways original and compelling. Lundy evokes both historical episodes and contemporary streetscapes with great force. Some things, though, don't ring true. Lundy does not always avoid the lure of cliché about Ulster's atavism, its dourness or, for that matter, its raininess. He's read a lot of local history. Indeed, anyone who knows that literature well will catch the echoes of many sources he doesn't cite; for, irritatingly, he keeps using phrases like "as one historian says" rather than naming the writer.

One allusion near the start perhaps symbolises the book's flaws. Lundy recalls how, as a child, he played with a boy called Bernard Ferguson, of his street's only Catholic family. Ferguson, he tells us, later joined the IRA and was killed: "I never found out whether it was the police, the army, or loyalist gunmen who had done it." A poignant story, but indices of the conflict's victims reveal no "Bernard Ferguson". One does, however, find a Thomas Ferguson, from the right address, murdered by a pub bomb in 1974.

There's no evidence he was in the IRA, and he was probably too old to be Derek's childhood friend. We do know who killed him: the two bombers were from the Ulster Volunteer Force. Most startlingly, they were just 16 years old. One, much later, reflected movingly on what he'd done and why. If I'm right that this is the true story, somehow muddled by Lundy's informants, it's a stunningly apt illustration of his main themes, and his failure to pursue it an index of how his book sometimes misses its mark.

Stephen Howe is professor in the histories and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University, and author of 'Ireland and Empire' (Oxford)

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