Magazine article The Spectator

Tricky Ground Well Surveyed

Magazine article The Spectator

Tricky Ground Well Surveyed

Article excerpt

Tricky ground well surveyed

Harry Mount


by Marianne Elliott

Penguin, L25, pp. 642

The Catholics of Ulster make for a pretty big subject even if you only look at it since the Reformation, which would seem sensible enough. If you go back further, to the birth of Christ, and even into prehistory, as Marianne Elliott does, there is going to be a huge amount of information to deal with. Still, once it becomes clear what terrible rows are inevitable over Catholic and Protestant versions of practically everything that has happened in Ulster, you can see how calming it must be to deal with a period before questions of religion interfere.

Protestants and Catholics have even argued over which religion was followed in the early Irish church, i.e. before the Reformation. The Protestants argue that the early church was essentially Protestant, because it was free from Romish influence until it was imposed in the 12th century and so, at the Reformation, the church was in fact returned to its primitive purity. They might find support for this otherwise tortured argument in the fact that, although St Patrick was the son of a Roman nobleman, Ireland is the only example in Western history of Christianity emerging in a culture untouched by Roman conquest.

As Professor Elliott moves into later centuries, the rows can only get worse. She herself says she is tired of the mental contortions that are required when you say anything about Ulster. And then she swiftly subjects herself to a bout of these contortions, explaining that she is an Ulster Catholic of humble stock and so is bound to call Londonderry `Derry'. Once she has nailed her colours to the mast like this, it is hard not to go through the book trying to see if those colours are orange, white and green. For the most part Professor Elliott is impressively even-handed: it is difficult, she writes, to find evidence of Irish resentment against the 17th-century settlers - particularly since some 20 per cent of them were Catholic - and there was a good deal of intermarrying; the penal laws, instituted in the late 17th century, have also been thought more penal than they were; and, for all the accounts of brutal landlords during the famine, `nationalist literature often ignored the petty tyranny of the large Catholic tenant farmer or shopkeeper'.

Every now and then, though, in one of the few objectionable aspects of this fine book, she indulges in a little inverse snobbery. She is surprised that working-class Protestants continued to elect landowners to power `with whom they had little in common' in the years 1921-73. …

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