Reviewed by: Christopher Whatley
Author: Jonathan Bardon
Publisher: Gill & Macmillan
Price (RRP): £24.99


The concluding lines of this history of British settlement in Ulster focus on the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, which sparked into action in 1969.

“The unchained dragon,” Jonathan Bardon writes, “leaped from its cage as fear, suspicion, atavistic hatred and memory of ancient wrongs gushed to the surface, inaugurating 30 years of destruction, conflict, forced population movement, mutilation and slaughter.”

Happily, after the loss of some 3,651 lives during three decades of terror and sectarian violence, Ulster seems now to be almost at peace – as indeed has Ireland been for long periods over the past four centuries. Inescapable, however, is the legacy of British conquest.

It is visible in the very existence and form of plantation towns like Carrickfergus and Enniskillen, and in the rural landscape where are to be seen numerous castles built in the English manner (there is an identifiable Scottish baronial influence too). Perhaps the most enduring memorial is Derry/Londonderry, possibly the last walled city to be built in Europe (work began in 1614), the fortifications of which are still in place.

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Ulster’s plantation dates back to 1571 with the failed attempt by the provost of Eton school and vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Thomas Smith, to bring civility, order and the Protestant faith to the ‘barbarous’ peoples of eastern Ulster. Remarkably, given Ulster’s close associations and the cultural similarities it shared with parts of mainland Britain, at the end of the 16th century this was the most Gaelic and least anglicised of Ireland’s provinces.

English resolve to control Ireland beyond the Pale (an eastern region already administered by England) stiffened under Elizabeth I, and afterwards James VI and I, when war with Spain heightened the threat to England’s western coast.

Bardon is in no doubt about the brutality of Ulster’s colonisation. The Gaelic elite were all but eliminated, as was the Irish language, which was little spoken in Ulster by 1901. Examples abound of the destruction in the 17th century of Catholic churches, friaries and shrines.

Church land was confiscated. In 1697 the first of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws was passed by the Irish parliament. Protestantism was in the ascendant. In the vanguard were Scottish Presbyterian settlers, many of whom – the Scotch-Irish – later migrated onwards to North America. Nevertheless, the Catholic church in Ulster resisted and over time it grew in strength.

This was a major factor contributing to the sectarian tensions which have scarred Ulster society periodically since the 1780s. During the 19th century migrants in search of work in Ireland’s biggest manufacturing centre and port, Belfast, transferred what had been largely a rural conflict to the urban context.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the degree to which natives and newcomers fused – through marriage for instance.

This is one of several points that Bardon is keen to make, in order to puncture or at least modify commonly held assumptions about Ulster’s past. He draws upon and acknowledges the recent work of Ireland’s academic historians in this regard.

For the nonspecialist reader this is a thoroughly engaging introduction to Ulster’s history. It might raise hackles, but it is undoubtedly a book that can be read to advantage by anyone seeking to understand better the making and unmaking of the United Kingdom.

Christopher Whatley is professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee
See also...


Neil Hegarty on the key moments of Ireland's history