The Northern Star, The Narrow Ground, and ‘the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’.
Brian Feeney, Seamus Kelters, David McKittrick, and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives, remains the one indispensable book about the Troubles, spare and unsparing, methodical but eloquent, a most necessary record. Lost Lives comprises a catalogue and a chronology of violent death, but as ATQ Stewart observes in The Narrow Ground, the roots of conflict in Ulster (1977, 1989) most people in Northern Ireland witnessed violence second hand, mainly on the television news. Part memoir, part reportage, Henry McDonald’s Colours, Ireland – from Bombs to Boom (2004) never quite figures out what, precisely, it is trying to do; its first two chapters, however, on football hooliganism and on the punk rock scene in late 1970s Belfast, unsettle familiar political narratives of the Troubles, and revisit teenager domains that archive-bound historians don’t notice, yet which intersected with the conflict nonetheless. The rival sectarian football supporters who clash on Saturday afternoons in chapter one, gather together in punk venues in the next chapter, on the same Saturday nights, in ‘rebellion against tribalism’. Punks rejected both paramilitaries of all stripes and what the band Stiff Little Fingers in their anthem, ‘Alternative Ulster’, called ‘the R-U-C dog of repression’. But that curious ecumenical moment dissolved in 1981, the year of the hunger strikes, when the author’s friends dumped their Sex Pistols badges ‘for ones with the image of Bobby Sands’. McDonald’s undimmed enthusiasm for the bad music of his youth is endearing and probably misled him into overselling its cultural and political import. Still, his perspective is fresh and suggestive, and no trace of his Alternative Belfast is anywhere to be found in The New History of Ireland.
Eamonn McCann’s War and an Irish Town (1974) is written with wit, verve, and clean-cut prose. At the start of his long career in radical socialist politics, and as a journalist, McCann was in the proverbial thick of it on the streets of Derry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was one of the main organizers of the Duke Street civil rights march on 5 October, 1968, for example, which the police ‘bat[t]oned into disarray’ and which is often read as the ‘beginning’ of the Troubles. The book gives an insider’s sometimes wry account of unfolding events and of behind the scenes politicking within and between political parties, clubs, and committees – including one, the James Connolly Society, which ‘it was suspected … existed mainly in [its chairman] Finbar’s mind’. McCann has the good journalist’s eye for detail, ‘colour’, and the absurd, like a protestor’s placard declaiming ‘Hitler – Franco – Beattie’ – the third name identifying councillor William Beattie, the Unionist lord mayor of Derry. Throughout, the ideological point of view is strong and explicit: the ‘green Tories’ of Eddie McAteer’s Nationalist Party are treated with youthful contempt, and the reflex, middle-class, ‘moderation’ of the civil right leadership with radical disdain. The Nationalist Party did not survive the crisis of 1969, and was superseded by the SDLP. McCann’s brand of anti-sectarian class politics were likewise marginalized; however, he recaptures that lost (and very lively) pre-August 1969 moment brilliantly.
The socialist revolution, still less the punk mini-culture, could not withstand the powerful forces, once aroused, of ancestral enmity between the two ‘communities’ in the north of Ireland. Of course, that dynamic had occurred before, most notably in the 1790s. At the end of Stewart Parker’s play, Northern Star (1984), Henry Joy McCracken, contemplating the wreckage of the United Irish project from the vantagepoint of 1798, looks back to a Belfast at the start of the decade, pulsing with Paineite energy and political self-confidence, and remarks that we cannot love his home town ‘for what it is, only for what it might have been’. The 1790s witnessed the advent of armed republican struggle, and the formation of the Orange Order and popular loyalist mobilization; by 1984 neither had lapsed into history, and according to his first stage instruction, Parker’s play is set in ‘[Ireland, the continuous past]’. Brian Friel had his knuckles rapped twice by history professionals for the historical inaccuracies in his play Translations, which is a bit like upbraiding oranges for not being grapefruit. But artistic licence aside, Parker stated freely that Northern Star ‘is not an historical play’. However, a close reading demonstrates that he had done his historical homework quite thoroughly. The anachronisms are intentional. When McCracken’s sister, Mary Ann, says ‘let them paint you on gable walls in forty shades of green’, she references 1970s murals and a Johnny Cash song. When United Irish prisoners in June 1798 are subjected to interrogation as ‘hooded men’, the unmistakable allusion to the torture of ten suspects rounded up for internment without trial in August 1971 is entirely to the point. Northern Star is about the contemporaneity of the 1790s in the modern Troubles.
To Parker’s McCracken Belfast is ‘a ghost town [which] now and always will be, angry and implacable ghosts’ – or, as ATQ Stewart described them, the ‘undead’. Stewart, the only academic historian considered here, took a mischievous and irreverent view of his profession, its scholarly gatekeepers, and their ‘very strict’ house rules. In the 1989 introduction to The Narrow Ground, he relates how 12 years earlier he ‘still had a very restricted view of the obligations laid upon the academic historian, and pre-eminent among them was the need to dissociate my work completely from contemporary passions and prejudices’. He managed nevertheless ‘to shake off the academic training’ and write a book about ‘the interaction of past and present’ which is opinionated, bold, and contrarian. That was quite an audacious thing to do at a time when po-faced technicians (or ‘scientists’ as they sometimes still called themselves), armour-plated with scholarly apparatus, eschewed value judgements and insisted upon a bogus ‘on-the-other-hand’ style of exposition.
The Narrow Ground’s argument fuses topographical determinism, pop Jungian collective memory theory, and the eternal verities of The Book of Ecclesiastes. Thus: ‘the Ulsterman carries the map of … religious geography in his mind almost from birth’; and ‘patterns of behaviour which are of great antiquity’, are explained by ‘long folk memories of how such things are done’. To Stewart the past is most certainly not a foreign country, and they don’t do things differently there either. For instance, ‘the texts and woodcuts in John Derricke’s Image of Ireland, published in 1581, depict activities startlingly similar to those which are still occurring in the twentieth century.’ Above all, he stresses continuity and ‘well-established precedent’: ‘the planters found themselves from the very beginning in a state of siege, which has continued in one form or another ever since’. Fittingly enough, the book concludes by drawing on Ecclesiastes, ‘All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.’
Needless to say, Stewart did not invent the idea that the Irish are locked into history. In States of Mind: a study of Anglo-Irish conflict, 1780-1980 (1983) Oliver MacDonagh opens his section on ‘Time’ by describing the meeting in 1921 of prime minister David Lloyd George and Eamon de Valera. Lloyd George naturally wanted to get down to the business of negotiation, only to be lectured by de Valera on the wrongs done Ireland by Cromwell. ‘I made no impression’ commented the prime minister, ‘and when I tried to bring him back to the present day, back he went to Cromwell again.’ To the Irishman, observed MacDonagh, ‘the seventeenth century lived on in that it generated still unexpiated and irredeemed injustices. The mere intervention of years, however many, could do nothing whatever to change the ethical reality.’ But perhaps the best-known iteration of that theme in Irish history is Winston Churchill’s passage on the impact of the Great War: ‘the position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.’ Here, Stewart affirms, Churchill ‘came close to defining the essential character of the Ulster problem’.
Although, then, he did not invent the idea of an unresolved past, he did elaborate and propound it, with analytic sophistication and literary elan, as no one had ever done before, or would do again. This book is a pleasure to read, to be sure, but is it right? Does it contain, in the words of the Rev. Ian Paisley as he brandished it from the pulpit, ‘the truth about Ulster’?
The objections to The Narrow Ground’s theses are several. First, the signature conceptual achievement of modern historiography is the recognition of the pastness and difference of the past, whereas Stewart asserts ‘in Ireland past and present [are] indistinguishable’, and, in full Ecclesiastesian mode, ‘Human Nature does not change, except in the forms through which it is expressed’. Second, the explanatory power ascribed to rituals, patterns, and cycles of history, extending even to ‘intrinsic’ and ‘immutable laws’, flies in the face of the modern emphasis on the role of contingency and human agency in the shaping of events. Third, the entire book can be read as a procession of unverifiable assertions – on ‘Human Nature’, for example, but especially on such supposed group (or herd) psychological conditions as ‘the community’s unconscious mind’, or ‘the Protestant subconscious’. And finally, it may be challenged on the grounds of substance and interpretation.
The disarming of the RUC in late 1969, claims Stewart, ‘loosed a deluge of violence which led to the deaths of many policemen and soldiers, and hundreds of civilians. The police were quickly re-armed, but the damage had already been done – less from the disarming than from the general doubt cast upon the effectiveness and impartiality of the RUC.’ The disarming came as ‘a profound shock to society.’ Society? Impartiality? In fact, it is clear from Eamonn McCann’s account that in the eight months or so before the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 the police, always, to the Catholic nationalist mind, part of the problem, had become the problem. But no matter, ‘Westminster guaranteed the rights of the minority, and if they were in anyway infringed, then Westminster and not Stormont [or its police force] was culpable.’ This is sophistry by the pure drop. As Breandán Ó h-Éithir noted in The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) ‘Britain did not blow the whistle when it saw the foul, but was a foul really committed?’ ‘You must agree, whatever your allegiance.’ Ó h-Éithir goes on, ‘ATQ Stewart is pure magic. With footwork like that … the selling of countless dummies and the side-step out of the tight corner, he is a natural for the out-half berth on the Ulster Old Believers XV.’
And yet for all its overstatement and faulty reasoning The Narrow Ground is on to something. The study of Irish history does disclose patterns of behaviour. In the early nineteenth century, when he was a boy, the home of the novelist William Carleton in the village of Clogher, county Tyrone, was raided in the wee small hours by a party of Yeomen, an armed, voluntary, part-time, Protestant, auxiliary police force. They made a search for firearms, and abused his father as ‘a rebellious old dog’, albeit ‘there was not an individual that night in this gross and lawless outrage with whom we were not acquainted, nor a man among them who did not know everyone of us intimately.’ In his poem ‘The Nod’ Seamus Heaney recalls the B Specials, an armed, voluntary, part-time, Protestant, auxiliary police force, in late 1940s Bellaghy, south county Derry:
Saturday evenings too the local B-Men,
Unbuttoned but on duty, thronged the town,
Neighbours with guns, parading up and down,
Some nodding at my father almost past him
As if deliberately they’d aimed and missed him
Or couldn’t seem to place him, not just then.
In the wee small hours of 9 August, 1971, I was awoken in my home in west Belfast by a sound I had never heard before. It was the sound of women banging metal bin lids off the ground, warning of the introduction of internment without trial. How did the women know to respond in that manner? How did I know that that was what they were doing? Perhaps because I had read about women banging pots and pans in west Belfast in the early 1920s to warn of ‘raids’ in Michael McLaverty’s novel Call My Brother Back. Or was it folk memory – ‘the unconscious mind’ of my community, kicking in?
Jim Smyth is Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include: The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century (St. Martin’s, 1992); The Making of the United Kingdom 1660-1800: State, Religion and Identity in Britain and Ireland (Longmans, 2001); Cold War Culture: Intellectuals, the Media and the Practice of History (I. B. Tauris & Company, Ltd., 2016); and Remembering the Troubles: Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017). His Henry Joy McCracken was published by UCD Press in 2020.