More than just Troubled
Ulster eras: Tillie and Henderson shirt factory workers in Derry, 1955. photographs: bert hardy/picture post, bob thomas/popperfoto
Ulster eras: a first World War postcard. photographs: bert hardy/picture post, bob thomas/popperfoto
HISTORY:A collection of essays gives a broader and less distorted view of Ulster’s story than you might get through the prism of recent bloody events
Ulster Since 1600: Politics, Economy, and Society, Edited by Liam Kennedy and Philip Ollerenshaw, Oxford University Press, 355pp, £35
The editors are surely right to observe in the preface that “to view the last 400 years in the North through the prism of recent bloody events is to impoverish and distort our understanding of the lived experience of people in Ulster”.
This book sets out to rectify that, but its subtitle, Politics, Economy, and Society, is a little misleading. Politics, given three chapters out of 20, has to take an unaccustomed back seat. Graham Walker, for example, gets only just over 15 pages to cover political events since 1960, a Herculean task of reduction that he accomplishes rather well.
This volume is really an economic and social history. Viewed as such, and because of the high quality of so many of its chapters, it surely has to be one of the most significant histories of Ulster published in the past couple of decades.
Each contributor has been given the opportunity not only to present the outcome of his or her own research but also to draw together the work of other scholars in the same specialist area – much of it scattered across a wide range of often rather obscure academic journals – and to present the reader with a synthesis, an overview. This is the great merit of the book: each chapter provides an audit of research on a clearly defined area, a showcase, a distillation of the scholarly work of many.
However, this raises the question: who is this book for? The intelligent general reader, keen on history but new to this subject area, will need to be persistent. Unfortunately, Raymond Gillespie, in the very first chapter, “The Early Modern Economy, 1600-1780”, dives into his topic without sufficient explanatory comment to ease the way for a newcomer. The problem in this case is that if the chapter is tough going for the newcomer, does it actually add very much for those who are already au fait with the subject? It might have been better if the second chapter, “Politics and Society, 1600-1800”, a lucid survey by Thomas Bartlett, had been placed first.
Inevitably, many of the 25 contributors write principally with their academic peers in mind, given the way that university departments, especially in the UK, are funded. Seizing the reader’s interest is therefore not always a high priority, and sometimes this shows.