History teaches us that sometimes we must break free from its shackles

In the long and bloody centuries of sectarian conflict in the north-east of the island, history books may attribute entire towns to one way or the other based on religion.

Human complexity is much deeper. Neither side has a monopoly on evil or righteousness, as is inconvenient for the preachers of each faction.

I am reflecting on the darkness of my past after reading a historical novel set in northern Antrim during the Rebellion of 1641.

book, The Last Veena of Dunlasby David Dunlop, brings to life the hopes, fears and harshness of the time, and also offers some in-depth explanation of why 21st-century Northern Ireland works as it did.

It’s tempting to bury the most uncomfortable parts of our history in Northern Ireland. But in that ignorance grows something that repeats the barbarism of the past over and over again.

Centuries later, it should be clear that these issues are inevitable. Ulster historian ATQ Stewart observed how “folk history” is assigned to both sides. That version of what happened has its roots in the truth, but it is a partial and partisan truth.

in his 1978 book except one place – About cycling around Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles – Waterford travel writer Dervala Murphy writes about the importance of getting the facts straight.

“Errors of the past must be remembered and acknowledged before they can finally be forgiven and forgotten,” she wrote.

“What’s the point of somehow patching things up through war-fatigue, and stuffing the skeletons back into their respective communal cupboards for another 10 or 20 years? Those skeletons need to be identified and buried thoroughly, and then the cupboards can be left open to air. ,

A disturbingly repetitive aspect of Ulster history is the cycle of stagnation followed by the cycle of violence.

The rebellion of 1641 saw the inhumane killing of Protestants, most infamously in Portadown where 100 settlers were stripped naked and forcibly removed from a bridge in Bain, then shot as they tried to swim.

As the rebellion faltered, bloody retaliation by the British army – war crimes in today’s parlance – began. And in the years that followed, Cromwell arrived.

The cycle of being at the helm of a community and abusing that position to deathly extremes has been repeated over and over again – most recently in troubles. Often this happens in a hyper-local setting: it’s about who controls the city, the region, the street.

We consider communalism to be the exact opposite of logic. This often happens—as has been shown recently when a group of drunken loyalists sang a song of joy in the death of Michael McArvey.

But communalism is not always completely irrational. The fear of the other side being too powerful in a locality or more broadly may be set up in something that is not entirely irrational – a vaguely inherited feeling, often consciously informed by historical knowledge. When the communal balance is disturbed in an area.

Just because sectarianism isn’t always without logic, doesn’t mean it’s any less obnoxious or undesirable – but it does help explain why many in Northern Irish society behave as they do.

In peaceful times, that fear mostly manifests itself defensively – voting to keep the other side out – rather than approaching violence.

But that changes once the killing starts. The Last Veena of Dunlas U.S. Congressman Richard Neill recently described them, expressing the terrifying complexity of “Planter and Gale” along with the primitive fear felt on both sides.

The book’s author, former history teacher David Dunlap, gives examples of how such phrases fail to capture reality hundreds of years after the Plantation of Ulster.

A Protestant whose passion is Irish music and culture, his ancestors in the Macduinsliebe clan came from near Downpatrick – but were chased to Scotland in 1177 by the Normans of John Decorcy, where they lived for four centuries before returning to North Antrim.

The book’s real protagonist is a Catholic priest—not because the novel shows all Catholics that all Protestants were heroic, but because he grapples with the morality of the choices he faces between bloody sectarian slaughter.

He is a reminder that past cycles of violence do not determine how we will behave; That choice is ours and we will bear the responsibility for it. It’s easy to go with the herd. It’s not necessarily wrong, and sometimes the bunch is right. But where communal interest and morality differ, we have to face decisions.

In 2017, eloquent former SDLP leader Seamus Mallon described how we have the potential to be “good ancestors”.

The following year, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Mallon gave his most powerful speech.

Advanced over the years, Northern Ireland’s first nationalist deputy first minister urged nationalism to allow federalism to “breathe” without fear.

It could not have happened, he said, “if the danger is always there – sometimes openly, and sometimes not – that they are not here.”

He recounted the death of “a man I knew well – a good man” who was shot at his tractor on the ground in South Armagh, which his family had farmed for 400 years, killing Granted because he was in Republican eyes as a “member of the British occupation forces”, he served two nights a week as a police reserve.

Mr Mallon recalled: “After he died in the field his blood ran to the soil … Was that Irish soil, or British soil, or was it the soil of the people of this island?”

A fine tribute to Seamus Mallon came from a rival politician – unionist Ken Maginis, who said: “I will trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I would not say that of many other politicians on his side or the other side.”

The past cannot be ignored, but we can decide whether it binds us or not.