During the long and bloody centuries of sectarian conflicts in the northeast of this island, history books can attribute entire cities to one side or another on the basis of religion.
But human complexity is much deeper. Neither side had a monopoly on evil or righteousness, however inconvenient this may be for the propagandists of each faction.
I was reflecting on the darkness of our past after reading a historical novel set in north Antrim during the 1641 uprising.
Book, Dunluce’s last harpwritten by David Dunlop, brings to life the hopes, fears and harsh life of the time, while also hinting at something deeper about why 21st century Northern Ireland works the way it does.
It is tempting in Northern Ireland to bury the most inconvenient parts of our history. But something flourishes in this ignorance that makes the barbarism of the past more prone to repetition.
As the centuries have passed, it should be clear that these problems are inevitable. Ulster historian ATQ Stewart observed how “folk history” is being passed down by both sides. This version of what happened has its roots in the truth, but it is a partial and biased truth.
In his 1978 book Place separately — on cycling through Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles — Waterford travel writer Dervla Murphy wrote about the importance of establishing the facts.
“Mistakes of the past must be remembered and acknowledged before they can finally be forgiven and forgotten,” she wrote.
“What’s the point of patching things up somehow, just war weariness, and shoving the skeletons back into their respective cult cabinets for another 10 or 20 years? These skeletons need to be identified and properly buried, and then the cabinets can be left open to air out.”
One disturbingly recurring aspect of Ulster’s history is cycles of stability followed by cycles of violence.
The 1641 rebellion witnessed the inhuman massacre of Protestants, most notorious at Portadown, where 100 settlers were stripped naked and forced down the bridge to Bann, then shot as they attempted to swim.
As the uprising petered out, bloody reprisals—war crimes in today’s terms—by the British forces followed. And in later years Cromwell arrived.
The cycle of one community at the top and abusing that position to murderous extremes has been repeated over and over again, most recently during the Troubles. Often this happens in an ultra-local setting: it is about who controls the city, the district, the street.
We think of sectarianism as grotesquely contrary to reason. This is often the case – as recently demonstrated when a group of drunken Loyalists gloated over the song while reveling in the death of Michaela MacAreevy.
But sectarianism is not always completely devoid of logic. The fear that the other side will become too powerful in any locality or in a wider sense may be based on something not entirely irrational – on a vague inherited feeling, often not consciously reinforced by historical knowledge, threats when the social equilibrium in any area is broken.
The fact that sectarianism is not always illogical does not mean that it is less unpleasant or undesirable, but it does help explain why many people in Northern Irish society behave in this way.
In times of peace, this fear mostly manifests itself in defensiveness—voting to keep the other side out—rather than in anything even close to violence.
But everything changes when the killings begin. Dunluce’s last harp expresses the primal fear felt by both sides, as well as the bewildering complexity of “the planter and the Gael,” as US Congressman Richard Neal recently described them.
The book’s author, former history teacher David Dunlop, shows how such phrases do not reflect reality hundreds of years after the Ulster Plantation.
A Protestant passionate about Irish music and culture, his MacDuinnslabe ancestors came from around Downpatrick but were expelled to Scotland by John De Courcy’s Normans in 1177, where they lived for four centuries before returning to north Antrim.
The real hero of the book is a Catholic priest, not because the novel pretends that all Catholics were no more heroic than all Protestants, but because he wrestles with the morality of the choice that confronts him in the midst of a bloody sectarian carnage.
It is a reminder that past cycles of violence do not determine our behavior; this choice is ours and we will be responsible for it. The easiest way is to go with the herd. It’s not necessarily wrong, and sometimes the herd is right. But where common interests and morality diverge, we face solutions.
In 2017, eloquent former SDLP leader Seamus Mallon spoke of the ability within us to be “good ancestors.”
The following year, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Mallon delivered his most powerful speech.
The elderly Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, a pioneering nationalist, called for nationalism to allow the trade union movement to “breathe” without fear.
It couldn’t happen, he said, “if there’s always a threat—sometimes overtly, sometimes not—that they don’t belong here.”
He spoke of the death of “a man I knew well – a good man”, who was shot dead on his tractor on land in the south of Armagh that his family had been cultivating for 400 years, killed because in the eyes of the Republicans he was “a member of the British occupying forces” . forces” as he served a couple of nights a week as a police reservist.
Mr. Mallon recalled: “His blood, when he died in the field, fell into the ground … Was it Irish soil, or British, or was it the land of the people who belonged to this island?”
One of the best references to Seamus Mallon came from rival unionist politician Ken Maginnis, who said, “I would trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I wouldn’t say that about many other politicians, both on my side and on the other side.”
The past cannot be ignored, but we can decide if it binds us.