More than just Troubled

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

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.

Nevertheless, this book has many chapters that make engrossing reading. Among them is Mary O’Dowd’s delightful “Women in Ulster, 1600-1800”. O’Dowd demolishes “the popular perception of Gaelic Ireland as a society that encouraged independence in women”. High-born women were treated ruthlessly as diplomatic fodder. When Red Hugh O’Donnell cast aside his wife Róise O’Neill in 1598, her father, the earl of Tyrone, could hardly complain, as he had done the same kind of thing several times over. In 1607, in the Flight of the Earls, Rory O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell, left his wife Bridget behind, though he brought with him his infant son and a wet nurse. Tyrone did take his fifth wife, Catherine, with him, almost certainly against her will, as she had been heard to complain of the “many violences” that her husband “had done her in his drunkenness”.

A century and a half later the flourishing domestic linen industry, by giving women a pivotal economic role, reduced the gap between the sexes. Elizabeth Shipboy, of Coleraine, and Mary Ann and Margaret McCracken, in Belfast, for example, ran their own clothing businesses. O’Dowd notes that some Presbyterian congregations tolerated premarital sex as long as the couple married afterwards – in the 1780s and 1790s some 19 per cent of brides were already pregnant when they were plighting their troth.

Can Diane Urquhart, 188 pages later, continue the story of women in Ulster after 1800 to the same standard? The answer, emphatically, is yes. Very deftly, she handles a dizzying quantity of statistics on marriage, fertility, illegitimacy, prostitution, child abandonment, infanticide, and maternal and child mortality, and with compelling comment on moral codes and fascinating material on fertility control.

Religious structure

Sean Connolly’s elegantly written “Religion and Society, 1600-1914” demonstrates with depressing conclusiveness that by the beginning of the 20th century the “religious structure of Ulster society was still largely determined by the defeats and victories of three centuries earlier”. In another chapter he collaborates with Andrew Holmes to produce an engaging survey of popular culture between 1600 and 1914. Indeed some of the best presented, most innovative and informative chapters are collaborative efforts.

“People and Population Change, 1600-1914”, by Liam Kennedy, Kerby Miller and Brian Gurrin, is almost certainly the most magisterial chapter. With exemplary explanation these three draw on an astonishing quantity and range of studies published over the past 40 years or so (more than that if Ken Connell’s The Population of Ireland 1750-1845 is included). This invaluable chapter charts how Ulster, a war-torn and thinly populated province of no more than 200,000 inhabitants in 1600, lagging behind Leinster and Munster, expanded its population tenfold by 1841, shifting the island’s demographic centre of gravity northwards. The trio of writers, though recognising the “dearth of empirical source materials (representative baptism, marriage, and burial registers)”, embark on a clear, detailed and enlightening consideration of the reasons for population increase and why the demographic balance between Catholics and Protestants kept tipping backwards and forwards.

“Migration and Emigration, 1600-1945”, by Donald MacRaild and Malcolm Smith, dovetails nicely with this chapter and takes the story further on.

Philip Ollerenshaw provides an overview of business and finance in Ulster between 1780 and 1945. He manages to distil into one clear survey accounts of the rise and fall of the domestic linen industry; the short-lived factory-based cotton industry; how Ulster emerged by 1870 as the world’s leading linen-producing area; railway building; the story of Belfast’s two shipyards; Derry’s heyday as a specialist in shirt making and embroidery; and the reasons why so many of the province’s export industries ran into trouble after the first World War. He is especially informative on banking, bookkeeping and stockbroking. All of this is skilfully compressed into fewer than 17 pages.

Ollerenshaw should have assigned himself additional space, if only to provide a more detailed and vivid picture of Belfast during its extraordinary Edwardian zenith. After all, Liam Kennedy, Peter Solar and Alan Greer get 31 pages between them to write (with flair, thankfully) about agriculture and the rural economy.

Readers should not be put off by number-packed tables at the start of Graham Brownlow’s “Business and Labour since 1945”. This is a lively, trenchant and, in places, excoriating analysis of the persistent weakness of Northern Ireland’s economy in recent times. Brownlow’s cracking section on the “mirage” of the economic revival of 1998 to 2008, characterised by “a bloated public sector and weak RD” and “the excessive reliance on the UK taxpayer for the prosperity of NI”, is not to be missed.

Controversially, Oxford University Press, in this and similar volumes, has plumped for footnotes (so recently the compositor’s nightmare) rather than endnotes. This works well, as it immediately alerts those who want to find out more, especially as the contributors have been at great pains to make these footnotes comprehensive and completely up to date.

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