BOOK REVIEW / Lies of the land: A history of Ulster - Jonathan Bardon: Blackstaff Press, pounds 29.95 / pounds 14.95

Roy Foster
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:20

IS ULSTER comprehensible? As Gertrude Stein might have said, is it even Ulster? The concept is bedevilled by difficulties of acceptable nomenclature. 'Ulster' was the original nine-county Gaelic province. 'Northern Ireland' is the truncated six-county statelet. 'The North' is the lost land of the Republic's platonic 32 united counties, aspired to in perpetuity and dreaded in reality. The name you use betrays whether you think it should exist at all; discussion of the problem is often fiercely hijacked into epistemology.

But of course it exists whether one likes it or not, though siege-and-delivery Protestant Unionism and redemptionist Catholic nationalism remain locked into different languages, and Ulster's overreaction to symbolic issues leads easily to despair. General Freeland, watching an Orange parade in 1970: 'Grown men] Pathetic] Ridiculous]' An SDLP member of Belfast City Council, wearily facing down the antics of his Paisleyite colleagues: 'For heaven's sake grow up.' Reggie Maudling, immortally: 'For God's sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.'

One of the many achievements of Jonathan Bardon's massive history is to clarify the culture that provokes such reactions, and, indeed, to explain the formation of the disputed entity itself. Comprehension is aided throughout by a skilfully recurring comparison, more relevant every day: the dissolution of Yugoslavia. There, too, communities had been psychologically separated along fissures of religion, dispossession and historical antipathy, but as long as an uneasy equilibrium was externally imposed, the outside world remained largely unconscious of the internal pressures. In the heady days of 1989, it was easily assumed that barriers must now come down in Northern Ireland as they had ostensibly done in Eastern Europe; but pessimists feared that instead Yugoslavia would follow the Ulster path, and so it apocalyptically proved. The parallel casts a certain light on the history of the province: it makes the threatened civil war of 1912 look less like bluff and today's precariously maintained crisis management a less pathetic achievement.

But there is much more to Bardon's history than this. It represents an enormous feat of accumulation and synthesis, enlivened by telling quotations and surprising statistical conjunctions: such as that, in 1922, Northern Ireland had 'one policeman for every six families, or put another way, one policeman for every two Catholic families'. Or that the sectarian riots in Belfast during 1864, 1872 and 1886 produced more casualties than all the nationalist risings in 19th-century Ireland.

Over 900 pages, Bardon surveys all nine counties from 'the earliest times' with judiciousness, humanity and unflagging energy. Justice is done to the inevitable high points, such as 1688-90, Derry and the Boyne. But less usual aspects, such as Ulster's experience of the 1798 Rising, receive equal attention. So, even more valuably, does 'normal life', since it is in uneven economic development, specific political practices and a highly particular religious psychology that many historical answers must lie. The rise of the linen culture is dealt with engrossingly, and its revivals (the most recent through the high fashion industry of the 1980s); the greatness of Belfast as a Victorian industrial metropolis is brilliantly delineated; and there is a notably balanced view of the early civil rights episodes.

Certain themes declare themselves. Whatever one thinks of Partition or the way it evolved, the separate nature of Ulster emerges incontrovertibly from an early stage. Even the ambitions of 16th- and 17th-century 'rebels' were usually localist rather than nationalist, and after Jacobean plantation and settlement by English and lowland Scots the notion of any Catholic-nationalist initiative from the south was early on seen as an 'invasion', crossing a delineated frontier. Those indigenes marooned within it suffered accordingly, and the sectarian political and social geography of the 18th and 19th centuries created fault-lines which endure.

If this book does nothing else, it contradicts the condescending view that 'left to themselves' both sides will settle their differences - a theory peddled, for their various reasons, by authorities as diverse as A J P Taylor and Gerry Adams. Lloyd George's sidekick, Tom Jones, though sympathetic to Irish nationalism, found in 1921 that it was 'impossible to make (Sinn Fein) admit the reality of the Ulster difficulty . . . if we left Irishmen alone, they would quickly settle their squabbles. You know the sort of stuff.' There were other, more sinister, fantasies too; by 1946 de Valera was openly discussing the forced removal of populations, with Ulster Unionists 'repatriated' (after 300 years]) to Britain, and 'the North' re-settled by returned echt-Irish emigrants from British cities. Eastern European parallels heave into view once more.

As in Eastern Europe, however, historians must look at the regime which exacerbated such attitudes and which drove people into their mutually exclusive fantasies. Bardon does full justice to the sclerotic satraps who presided over 'the province' in its half-century of devolved government. Gerrymandered political boundaries, electoral exclusions and structural discrimination against a third of the population sustained a world where the cabinet secretary at Stormont spent much time telephoning Fortnum & Mason to order Lady Craig's favourite marmalade. Even when the ice age cracked in the 1960s, the quality of leadership remained inadequate; the ludicrous Dawson Bates, devoted to rooting out Catholic telephonists and gardeners from the precincts of Stormont, may have been replaced by Brian Faulkner attempting to drum up industrial investment abroad, but Faulkner's memoirs are still nave enough to boast about the jobs he was offered by the multinationals in the process. Faced with the complacent corruption that had crept under the carapace of the Northern Ireland establishment, it is easy to believe that they brought down upon themselves the psychotic sanctimoniousness of the Provisional IRA and their 'paramilitary' opponents.

But no people, anywhere, deserved the sadistic carnage dealt out from the early 1970s, mercilessly iterated by Bardon in his last section. Naming the names of those slaughtered and maimed, year after year, brings it home inexorably. Superimposed on a broken economy and a massive dependency culture, apparently unaffected by real changes in administrative structures or brave efforts at political re-ordering like the Anglo-Irish Accord, the old furious pattern burns on and on.

This book makes an impressive attempt at explaining why, though with such a wide lens quibbles about salience and exclusion are inevitable. The publishers (themselves an enduring ornament to Ulster's intellectual life) deserve prizes for setting, appearance and accuracy, but one longs for illustrations of (at random) the topography of Belfast's historic Victoria Channel, or contemporary engravings of 18th-century linen production, or the evocative photographic archives of 19th-century rural life in Ulster. More substantially, there is little here about Ulster's art, drama and literature; it seems extraordinary to find an index with no mention of Seamus Heaney.

Another, less specific omission is the whiplash humour, the uniquely sardonic tone, of Ulster discourse - at best an ironic reaction to what the poet Tom Paulin has called 'the corrupt civility of the south of Ireland', at worst a pawky pride in its own bigotry. Bardon uses, to great effect, Lord Brookeborough's famous boast that he had no Catholics working on his estate: but Fermanagh tradition insists that the Premier used to return home every evening to a meal prepared by his Catholic cook.

Co-existent with a perversely treasured bigotry is the easily kindled warmth of a tribal society - once you get inside. This sustains life, along with the spurious glamour of the 'hard men' and the no-go areas, and the clamped-down prejudice of the lumpenbourgeoisie. Bardon closes on a note of restrained hope; one tempting conclusion might be to declare a plague on both political fantasies and concentrate on the uniqueness of Ulster's own cultural traditions, and the chances of cooperation on that level. If so, this book will take its place as an important part of the process.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments