Marianne Elliott's provocative book The Catholics of Ulster: A History takes an in-depth look at the roots of the sectarian strife and prejudice between Catholics and Protestants that continues to rip apart Northern Ireland. With the fragile Northern Irish peace accords again in jeopardy, Elliott's book is both timely and controversial, as its historical tour of the Ulster Catholic community tries to debunk some of the myths of Irish history. Elliott's research is exhaustive, and her prose is gripping. There will be a strong response by Irish historians to this new history of Northern Ireland.
The Catholics of Ulster starts out in 7000 B.C., when primitive man arrived on the shores of Ireland. Elliott then moves to the conversion of Ireland to Christianity and the later English invasions of the island. She disputes the notion that there is any such thing as a Gaelic Catholic race and examines the historical persecution of Catholics from the 17th century onward. Elliott makes a conscious effort to challenge the historical propaganda of modern Ulster Catholics. One myth, according to the author, is that the Irish Catholic nobility was wiped out in Ulster through exile and dispossession from their lands. Elliott shows evidence that many Catholic nobles converted to Protestantism. On the Potato Famine of the 1840s, Elliott argues that the British government and the English landlords did not exacerbate the famine that killed one million Irish. Moving into the 20th century, she puts forth the idea that the modern Irish Republican Army does not have broad popular support among Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Elliott is a professor of history and director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. She was also on one of the committees involved in the 1993 peace efforts in Northern Ireland. Elliott writes in her introduction that she herself is an Ulster Catholic and grew up in public housing outside of Belfast. The Catholics of Ulster was a difficult book for her to write, says Elliott, because she rediscovered all her youthful prejudices and had to reexamine them.
Besides its scholarly qualities, The Catholics of Ulster contains a number of vivid personal accounts from the centuries of conflict in Northern Ireland. During the horrible bloodshed in Ulster in 1641, details of both anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant massacres are highlighted. These massacres form the basis of much sectarian propaganda on both sides today. In the section on the Potato Famine, the descriptions of suffering are tragic and sure to stir modern readers.
The strongest part of The Catholics of Ulster is the conclusion, which covers Northern Ireland since the partition of Ireland in 1921. Elliott walks the minefield of Ulster history, using first-person accounts of prejudice and discrimination, as well as official records, to provide support for her analysis of the social and economic position of Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Though Elliott is firmly opposed to the armed tactics of the IRA, she gives a thorough analysis of "the Troubles," the post-1969 violence that goes on today, and the often harsh policies of internment by the British government that resulted in more IRA recruits. In the last pages of the book, there are excerpts from interviews with Ulster Catholics about discrimination in Northern Ireland today. These comments resonate long after the book has been put down.
The Catholics of Ulster is a powerful history of the civil war in Northern Ireland. By tracing the historical roots of the violence, the reader can understand much of what is happening today. At the end, Elliott holds out the hope that it is possible that the people of Northern Ireland may be able to address their fears and prejudices so that a peaceful solution can be found.
Dylan Foley lives in Brooklyn, New York.