Ian Adamson obituary: doctor, linguist and former lord mayor of Belfast

Adviser to Paisley, Adamson was a polymath and a politician who drew factions together

Ian Adamson of the Ulster Unionist Party: wrote several books proposing an alternative narrative of the North’s unionist community.

Ian Adamson of the Ulster Unionist Party: wrote several books proposing an alternative narrative of the North’s unionist community.


Ian Adamson

Born: June 28th, 1944

Died: January 9th, 2019

Ian Adamson, former Ulster Unionist Party lord mayor of Belfast, who died in his native city, was a polymath, physician and politician. He was a member of the International Medical Association of Lourdes, and personal physician and adviser on history and culture to the late Ian Paisley. In death, he continued bridging the North’s divisions. Members of all the mainstream political parties, senior loyalists, and senior republicans, attended his funeral.

He was a medical doctor, specialising in both paediatrics and immunisation against tropical diseases, also a historian, linguist and man of wide culture. The International Medical Association of Lourdes conferred membership on him for his work for disabled children in west Belfast.

He was an apostle for Ullans, rejecting the term Ulster Scots for the language. Lallans for him meant recognising the continuity with Lallans, language of Lowland Scotland because, for him, Ulster was an interface between Ireland and Scotland.

As a scholar, he wrote several books proposing an alternative narrative of the North’s unionist community. These traced the original inhabitants of Ulster and the British Isles from pre-history into the Early Christian period and beyond. These inhabitants he called Cruthin or Pretani. He wanted his narrative to be a means of establishing dialogue with Ulster’s Gaelic past, so both traditions could form a common identity. In it, he drew on the work of nationalist historians such as Eoin Mac Néill, and on ancient Gaelic texts.

Historical vision

His publishing house, Pretani Press, published, among others, the “weaver poets” of Co Antrim and Co Down, working men of the Enlightenment period who wrote in Ulster Scots: Samuel Ferguson’s long poem Congal: and a Scots translation of the Old Testament.

His work influenced a section of loyalism, opening their historical vision beyond the Plantation and the events of the 17th century. He challenged stereotypes he felt had confined that imagination.

He was sympathetic to Irish, seeing it as part of one Gaelic language with variants spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. That Irish variant needed rescue from republicans. He held that, in the North, East-Ulster Irish should be taught, with additions from the Gàidhlig of Scotland. For a time he served on the board of Iontaobhas Ultach, set up to promote Irish on a cross-community basis. He only knew a little Irish, but indulged the myth that he was a fluent speaker.

Ulster’s past

His commitment to Ulster’s past led him to once bring a bus-load of young people from the Falls, the Shankill and Tallaght on a journey through Europe in the footsteps of St Columbanus: a monk born in Leinster and schooled in Bangor, who founded a series of monasteries across Europe. On his way back, he visited the site of the Battle of the Somme. That inspired him to become a founder of the Somme Association, commemorating those who died there.

He had very practical concerns, too. In the early 1980s, he was one of the founders of the Farset Youth and Community Development Project, established on the peaceline in west Belfast.

Samuel Ian Gamble Adamson was born in June 1944 in Conlig, Co Down, one of three children and only son to John Adamson, and his wife Jane (née Kerr). His parents ran the village’s general store. His father, who had an inquiring mind and read widely in all sorts of subjects, was from Bolton in Lancashire, and his mother from Kilmarnock in Scotland. Adamson received his education at Bangor Central Primary school, Bangor Grammar School and Queen’s University.

As a child, Adamson was a bookworm, who showed evidence of varied talents. When his father bought a job-lot of old telephones, Adamson rigged them up, so it was possible to speak to anyone in any room of the family home.

He had a dead-pan humour. He served as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for five years, representing East Belfast. Once he made a short contribution in Welsh. A Sinn Féin member congratulated him on his fluency in Irish. Adamson corrected him. “It was in that most ancient of British languages, Welsh,” he said.

He is survived by his wife, Kerry, and sisters Isobel and Alexis.