Jonathan Bardon Q&A: ‘good history is not enough: the historian also has a duty to tell it well’

‘Read your first drafts out loud to yourself, as if you were giving a sermon – a great way to show up areas in need of improvement’

Historian Jonathan Bardon’s works include A History of Ulster (Blackstaff Press, 1992); Belfast: A Century (Blackstaff Press, 1999); Beyond the Studio: A History of BBC Northern Ireland (Blackstaff Press, 2000); Dublin: One Thousand Years of Wood Quay (Blackstaff Press, 1988); A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes (Gill & Macmillan, 2009); and The Plantation of Ulster (Gill & Macmillan, 2012)

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Indians by Holling C Holling. My uncle gave it to me on my eighth birthday in 1949. It combined stories about native Americans with accounts, richly illustrated with brown line drawings, about how they hunted buffalo and other wild game, built their tepees and log houses, made canoes and decorated clothing from birch bark, and used their skill to live off the land. I no longer have it but I remember the very last line: “Be a good Indian”.

What was your favourite book as a child?


The Year's At The Spring: An Anthology of Best-Loved Poems, illustrated by Harry Clarke. My father, who bought his copy in 1921, sat us children on the sofa, read the poems to us while we gazed intently at Harry Clarke's sumptuous illustrations. Gill & Macmillan's 2013 reprint (slightly modified) is now my standard christening present (cultural capital, and all that).

And what is your favourite book or books now?

These are always the ones I am reading or have just read. The best Irish history book I have read for years is Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 by Ronan Fanning (London, 2013). Beautifully written and lucid throughout, this book has been altering my perspective: it shows how the position of the Irish Party became steadily more impossible even before 1912 was out. Speaking of which, I have just got into John Redmond: The National Leader by Dermot Meleady (Dublin, 2014) and I am enjoying it even more than his first volume (Redmond: The Parnellite).

Very recently, I finished Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings (London, 2013) – totally compelling (and, indeed, upsetting). I am half-way through The War Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan, which gives more attention to causes: an excellent book but I am a little worried by errors cropping up (Sir Henry Wilson did not come from Ulster; Erskine Childers was not executed by the British; and Kemal Ataturk was plain Mustapha Kemal in 1914).

What is your favourite quotation?

"Michael Collins rose, looking as if he was going to shoot somebody, preferably himself. In all my life I have never seen so much passion and suffering in restraint" – Winston Churchill on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th, 1921 at 2.10am.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Madame Bovary

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

How about Justice T C Kingsmill Moore, author of A Man May Fish (London, 1960)? It is arguably the best book on fly fishing ever written in the English language (and I have read nearly all of them).

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

I prefer print versions not just because of the smell, the feel and the look, but also because (for a historian, anyway) looking up references and generally dipping in to ebooks is so much more time-consuming. But ebooks win hands down when travelling and on holiday.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A rather tattered copy of Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with the Gall or The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen. The Original Irish Text, edited, with Translation and Introduction by James Henthorn Todd, DD, MRIA, FSA (London, 1867). I love the binding, the different fonts, the one colour plate and the smell.

Where and how do you write?

I do most of my writing in a small upstairs study which overlooks Belfast Lough. I can edit and polish elsewhere (Donegal, for preference) but a historian would need a removals lorry stuffed with volumes for reference in order to write away from home. Now in retirement, I make my writing fit around other activities essential to me, such as meeting family and friends, drinking wine, fishing, gardening, walking, talking, cooking and drinking more wine.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927) – a very fresh way of looking at one event from different perspectives.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Writing A History of Ulster (1992) involved around four years’ intensive research but, actually, a great deal had also been done long before, in stages, since graduation in 1963, primarily to gather material for use in the classroom. The most research per sentence was for Dublin: One Thousand Years of Wood Quay (1984)…but it only had 16, admittedly large, pages.

What book influenced you the most?

At the age of 16 I was given a book token and, determined to cash it in straight away, I bought a history book almost solely because I liked the dust cover. It was The Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingly (London, 1959). I was transfixed from the outset. The author taught me that good history is not enough: the historian also has a duty to tell it well, to hold the reader's attention.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

If that friend's child was brought up in Ulster I would give Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and David McVea (Edinburgh and London, 1999, new edition 2007). First, this would be a reminder of what horrors the 18-year-old had missed by only being 18; second, the recipient should get a feel for the terrible times his or her parents lived through; third, that the recipient might make comparisons with ethnic tensions in Ukraine, Bosnia, Georgia and elsewhere; and fourth, this is by far the best book on the Troubles.

To other 18-year-olds I would give Fatal Path by Ronan Fanning (see above).

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Middlemarch by George Eliot.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Start out by writing short pieces for local newspapers and magazines – I wrote articles on fly-fishing for Trout & Salmon, for example. Read your first drafts out loud to yourself, as if you were giving a sermon – a great way to show up areas in need of improvement. And never be too shy to get your partner and friends to read your drafts (I deliberately seek out non-historians as well as historians to give an opinion).

What weight do you give reviews?

A surprising number of local papers simply repeat the text of press releases sent to them by publishers – clearly, apart from informing readers that you have a book out, they are of no value. However, I certainly do value reviews, particularly in the broadsheets.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

It's the future of booksellers I worry about. The publishing industry will remain strong and ebooks will become ever more central to output. There will always be a steady demand for hard copy in paper and cardboard, declining (perhaps) for fiction, but growing for children's books, cookery, gardening and well-illustrated military histories (shot-by-shot at Kursk, etc, which has limited appeal for me).

What writing trends have struck you lately?

In the old days, when type had to be expensively set and proofed, the output of books on Irish history was strictly limited. Then, those who had spent four years on a doctorate, had mostly to be satisfied with a digest published in Irish Historical Studies. Today the opportunity to be published is much greater even if only a couple of hundred copies are printed per title. The regrettable trend I detect is that many of these authors, while (rightly) concerned to be scholarly, do not seem to put themselves out to be lucid, lively and just plain readable.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Don’t be ridiculous – I couldn’t possibly answer that.

What has being a writer taught you?

Good editors and good designers have to be treasured. I have been so lucky.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Rachel Carson (author of The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring), Laetitia Pilkington (author of memoirs of scandalous life in eighteenth-century Dublin), Jonathan Swift, Tom Holland (author of Rubicon, etc.), F Frankfort Moore (Belfast journalist and author of The Truth About Ulster, published in 1914), and A A Luce (author of Fishing and Thinking).

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The bit in Winnie- the-Pooh where Roo gets a balloon to give to Eeyore for his birthday but it is punctured by the time he presents it.

What is your favourite word?


If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

The event would be the vessels of the Spanish Armada foundering on the Atlantic shores of Ireland in 1588 and the adventures of one survivor, Captain Francisco de Cuellar – at least once a year I make tea in a volcano/Kelly kettle on the MacClancy crannog on Lough Melvin which de Cuellar defended against the forces of Sir William Fitzwilliam.