More than just Troubled
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.
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.