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19 December 2016

2016 year of commemoration has given many people a real thirst to uncover historical truths

We can understand our traditional enemies by reading about them, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The year of commemoration of the Somme has had many positive effects
The year of commemoration of the Somme has had many positive effects

I was brought up in Dublin by my historian father to understand that the history of Ireland should be the history of all the people in Ireland. That was a revolutionary notion, for post-partition Ireland separated history as much as territory.

As a friend from the Republic remarked in wonderment the other day, she got through her convent-school years without being told anything about either world war.

All Irish history in the nationalist world was parochial and to do with the struggle against the British oppressor, so it stopped with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Apart from anything else, the educational establishment didn’t want to mention the civil war that followed.

In the same way, those in control of the curriculum in state schools in Northern Ireland avoided teaching students anything about the history of their island.

Fast forward to now, when many people in both jurisdictions realise the truth of what my father spent decades preaching.

The year of commemoration of the Somme and the Easter Rising had many positive effects.

There was a growing realisation that one cannot understand the past by regurgitating myths.

Irish nationalists have been discovering their family links to members of the British Army, as Unionists find out about their Republican relatives.

The nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography that came out in 2009 from the Royal Irish Academy was evidence of how far the teaching and writing of Irish history had come.

Written by hundreds of historians, it covered the lives of 9,700 noteworthy men and women born in Ireland, or outsiders who had significant Irish careers.

The word “inclusive” is much overused, but that’s what that dictionary set out to be.

It included actors, artists, clergy, criminals, industrialists, lawyers, musicians, politicians, saints, scientists, trades unionists and writers.

It also set out to be as objective as is humanly possible and tell people’s stories straightforwardly and honestly.

A by-product of the dictionary is the recently published Ulster Political Lives 1886-1921, which looks at 50 people, some famous, some unknown, crucial to aspects of the history of the nine counties.

As the editors explain in their illuminating introduction to the history of the period, there was much more to it than simply the Catholic/nationalist-Protestant/Unionist clash.

There were many other groups and individuals that were major players in the development of the Ulster politics of that period.

Splits in Westminster political parties frequently had consequences in Ulster, as did events down south.

The usual suspects are here: key politicians like unionism’s Edward Carson, James Craig and Edward Saunderson, and nationalism’s Joseph Devlin and Cahir Healy.

There are the revolutionaries: Frank Aiken, the Armagh gunman who ended up as Minister for External Affairs in the Republic, Bulmer Hobson, the Quaker from Belfast who became the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s most impressive strategist, and Winifred Carney from Bangor, who was by the side of her boss James Connolly in the General Post Office in 1916, and while a Republican socialist activist in the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1920s married a Protestant socialist Unionist who had joined the UVF in 1913 and fought throughout the war in the British Army. Other fascinating characters include Lindsay Crawford from Lisburn, founding editor of the evangelical Irish Protestant, a founding member of the Independent Loyal Orange Institution who wrote its radical egalitarian manifesto, Alice Milligan from Tyrone, the cultural nationalist whirlwind and friend of Roger Casement, William Trimble of Fermanagh’s Impartial Reporter and the trades unionist Mary Galway from Moira, who organised low-paid textile workers in Belfast.

What these biographies show so clearly is how much more there is to Ulster political history than the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone that so depressed Winston Churchill.

I often think we Irish have far too much history for our own good, but we might as well get the most out of it by appreciating its richness, complexity and vibrancy. The editors, James Quinn and Patrick Maume, warn in their introduction against the historic tendency of “supporters of one viewpoint to assume that its opponents were self-evidently delusional and need not be taken seriously.”

If you’re trying to understand people from a different tradition, this book is a good place to start.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards