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Another outstanding book from Jonathan Bardon
on 15 May 2013
Jonathan Bardon has established himself firmly in the front rank of chroniclers of Ulster. His "A History of Ulster" is an outstanding work, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what makes the place tick.
In this book, he focusses on one particular episode, which, more than any other, has made Northern Ireland the mess that it is. Indeed, considering what happened back then, it's a miracle that the wee place isn't even more messed up than it currently is. It tells the tale of the desire on the part of the English (well, James I of England who was also James VI of Scotland, so he had a foot in both camps) to render Ulster, the most Gaelic part of Ireland, less hostile by replacing its native population with more amenable, more civilised people from England and Scotland - and most importantly, people lacking the Popish superstition of those natives. The Irish were simply to be pushed off to poorer, less desirable parts, in a sort of early version of ethnic cleansing. This never actually worked out as much as intended (the settlers needed the local knowledge of the natives), but the intent was there. There follows a generally sorry tale of appropriation, rebellion, bloodshed and famine, both natural and man-made. The book ends with a truly panoramic and breathtaking final chapter, which takes in the legacy of the Plantation in all sorts of unexpected ways, including the origins of the "Scotch-Irish", whose learnt lessons of opening up unknown territory in Ulster occupied by hostile locals were to be invaluable in the colonies in the New World.
Dr, Bardon tells his story in an interesting manner, using many contemporary quotations, and with a historian's professional detachment, which makes the contents all the more absorbing. It takes you back to a different time to people of a very different mindset, one that has vanished in England, but that lingers on in Norn Iron to this day. As a native of Belfast, I was fascinated to find out why we have, for example, a Chichester Street and a Waring Street, how my anglicised Irish surname came to be and how my grandmother's story attributing her combative nature to being a born in a wee house on the Shankill in 1898 as soldiers lay outside shooting was probably quite true.
This is an invaluable book and, like Dr. Bardon's earlier tome, a must for anyone wishing to understand the North of Ireland. As Dr. Bardon puts it in that last brilliant chapter, the Plantation was bad enough, but its coincidence with the struggle between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation made it even more disastrous. Things have finally, hopefully, started to change; we still have a long way to go, but I'm hopeful that at last we're on the way.