In the early years of the Northern Ireland Troubles a great many of the most widely read histories were written from a nationalist, republican or left republican perspective. That was the view of history which tended to predominate.
Now, with the exhaustion of the IRA campaign, and the realisation by Sinn Fein leaders that the decisive sections of the British ruling class would prefer to withdraw but that the problem to be confronted is that of Protestant opposition, the theoretical foundations on which this outlook has been based, have been systematically eroded. Republicanism faces more than a military impasse – it finds itself in an ideological cul-de-sac also.
Inevitably there has been a backlash. In recent years an alternative school of opinion has grown up. An established group of Northern authors have chosen to reinterpret events from a broadly pro-union viewpoint. One example is the Cadogan Group which has brought together economists, historians and some politicians to present an intellectual case for unionism. It has to be said that a good number of their counterparts on the broadly nationalist side have gone along with many of their conclusions, especially on matters of history.
Both are agreed on the historical permanency of the division between Catholic and Protestant and are at one in their pessimistic view of the prospects for any united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers emerging in the future.
In answering the limitations of the old, generally pro nationalist versions of history, this new school have leaned in the opposite direction, presenting a no less one sided account.
These people are surrounded in a deep fog of confusion about current events, especially when it comes to the national question. Rather than unlock the past and use it to help illuminate the present, by their efforts they only manage to re-seal it in their own confusion.
The key to understanding history and to unravelling the complexities of the national question is one and the same – a class analysis and class approach. To work out a programme today it is necessary to see things not just as they are but as they have developed historically. In the past, Militant had to rebut the over-simplifications and distortions of pro-nationalist historians. To this must now be added the task of answering some of the arguments of this new revisionist school of history.
Displayed on a large UDA mural in East Belfast is the figure of Cuchulainn, a legendary hero of the Ulster sagas, tales of Ulster from the period of Ireland’s iron age. At first sight a figure from Ireland’s Celtic past is a surprising choice for a UDA mural.
In fact this mural can be linked to one of the most extreme and potentially one of the most reactionary of the efforts to reconstruct history. Organisations like the UDA which have declared for independence as the solution, have searched for some theoretical, some historical justification for this position.
They have found it in the writings of people like Dr. Ian Adamson a local Unionist politician and sometime historian. For some considerable time – from the start of the Troubles at least – he has produced publications examining the history of Ireland, especially of Ulster, all designed to prove that Ulster people have a distinct identity which sets them apart from the rest of Ireland.
For a long period no-one took much notice of this line of argument. But when the UDA among others begin to toy seriously with the idea of an independent Ulster, Dr. Adamson’s ideas begin to receive a broader hearing in loyalist circles.
All along Protestants were being told by nationalists that they should come to their senses and realise that they were just as Irish as their Catholic neighbours. They should forget about Britishness and join in a United Ireland.
Here was someone with a novel reply. Yes Protestants and Catholics in the North have a common stock, a common identity. A common identity – with each other that is – but a separate identity from the people of the South. So it is Northern Catholics who should come to their senses and see that they are one people with Protestants but different from Southerners. They should unite with Protestants, not for a united Ireland, but for an independent Ulster. As Dr. Adamson concludes his book, The Ulster People:
“Ulster’s historical and cultural heritage was not only extremely rich and varied, but contained within it the proof of the common identity of the Northerners.” 
To prove this he begins by debunking the myth of the Irish as a ‘pure’ Celtic people. Even after the Celts invaded Ireland they were, he argues, a small minority, much as were the Normans after they invaded Anglo-Saxon England. The earlier Neolithic or Bronze age peoples, among them those known as the Cruthni who were numerous in Ulster, remained the majority.
Dr. Adamson goes on to list what is known of the battles between Ulster and other parts of Ireland and the resistance put up by Ulster to conquest by those groups of Celts who were known as the Gaels.
It is into this picture that the “Hound of Ulster” Cuchulainn fits. Because of his physical appearance, short with dark hair, Adamson has him as a pre-Celt, a Cruithin. According to one legend, The Táin, when Queen Maeve of Connaught invaded Ulster, the fighting men of Ulster fell ill with the ‘pangs’ and Cuchulainn had to defend the ancient kingdom on his own.
As Ulster’s King Conor recovered from his ‘pangs’ he summoned his warriors with the words:
“I swear that unless the sky with all its stars should, fall upon the earth, or the ground burst open in an earthquake, or the sea sweep over the land, we shall never retreat one inch, but should gain victory in battle.” (our emphasis) 
From the fabled figure of King Conor and the mists of pre-recorded history across the centuries to Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, whose response to nationalist claims on northern territory was the blunt phrase ‘Not an Inch’ – can this be a common identity?
Dr. Adamson points to a distinct sense of northern-ness through history. He also lays emphasis on the close ties between the peoples of Ulster and those of Scotland. There is evidence that the Cruthni and the Picts of Scotland were one people. Close connections were established during the early Christian period between Ulster and Scottish monasteries.
After Elizabethan forces defeated the Earls of Ulster, large areas of their territories were settled by planters of English or Scottish stock. This began in 1609 and involved much of Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Derry and Armagh.
Antrim and Down were settled differently. These lands were taken by swindlers who bought them cheaply and then offered them to voluntary settlers. Those who took up the offer were mainly refugees from Scotland, members of Protestant sects who were persecuted for their democratic anti-monarchist tendencies during the reformation at the end of the seventeenth century. They brought with them their language, which in a significant number of cases was Scots Gallic, and their custom, both of which left their mark on these areas.
From this is developed the idea of the Scots-Irish as a distinct identity. During the eighteenth century Scots-Irish ‘dissenters’ were persecuted alongside Catholics under the Penal Laws. At least a quarter of a million emigrated to
North America where their distinct character seemed to make the label ‘Scots/Irish’ fit. Can it be that it was in displaying their ‘stern and stubborn’ Ulster character, that Davy Crockett, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson and many other famous ‘Scots-Irish’ made their mark on United States history?.
All this is very interesting and certainly a grain of truth runs through it. But like all truths, once they are taken too far they become untruths. Dr. Adamson presents an extreme view. Groups like the UDA go further, the tiny fascists groups in Northern Ireland go further still. Alongside the more extreme ideas of these people, there is a tendency in the historical mainstream which has swallowed many of these arguments and in whose writings the idea of a separate and common Ulster identity is reiterated.
But to place a dot here and a dot there on the graph of history and then to draw a line between them and across the centuries to the present is not a sound historical method.
When it comes to debunking the nationalist myth of a pure Celtic race it is well said, and it needs to be said, but it has been said before. Here is what the marxist historian T.A. Jackson in his classic Ireland Her Own argues on the question:
“The Gaels, who reached Ireland in comparatively small parties, at different times, came from various points – Spain, Western France, and Belgium – after a long period of wandering in the grassland belt of Europe ...
“... In Ireland they found an aboriginal population which was likewise of mixed descent. The Gaels did not exterminate the aborigines; in time they fused with them. Any theory, romantic or fascist, which supports a ‘pure’ Gaelic blood as a determinant of Irish Custom, is completely worthless.” 
That regional differences existed in Celtic and pre Celtic Ireland is beyond dispute. So is the fact that the Northern area under the Kings of old Ulster based at Navan Fort fought to retain control of their territories as did later clan leaders.
This was the nature of pre-feudal society, not just in Ireland but across Europe. The clan system was a system of primitive communism, that is production almost entirely for consumption by the producing community, a society without private property or hereditary wealth. It is true that in its later stages, even before the Anglo-Norman conquest put this system to an end, this was breaking down and the elements of a system based on class division and private property were beginning to emerge.
However it was a society in which the concept of a centralised state or of national identity did not and could not exist. Although there was a High King of Ireland this was a far cry from the centralised monarchies seen in medieval feudal Europe, or established in England by the time of the Anglo-Norman invasions. Beneath the High King was a loose system of shifting alliances between various clans.
Territorial differences existed not just between north and south but between and within all the ancient Earldoms and Kingdoms. The subsequent Ulster plantations did accentuate differences between Ulster and the rest, especially as they introduced a substantial Protestant population. But other invasions left their mark on other parts of the country too. The Vikings not only invaded but, as also was the case in England, they set up permanent settlements in places like Dublin, Cork, Wexford and Limerick.
Anglo-Norman conquest led to direct control over the area known as The Pale around Dublin, some three centuries before the final conquest of the rest of Ireland. This first ‘plantation’ in Ireland gave that area a distinct character also.
By the end of the seventeenth century the conquest of Ireland was complete. The country was united as a colony of England and was given a subservient parliament based on a narrow and sectarian franchise, with scant powers and which was to meet only every second year.
Every remnant of the old clan system was eliminated, replaced by feudal social relations in which land was very often in the hands of absentee English landlords. Penal laws, introduced in 1642, were levelled against Catholics and against Dissenters who made up the majority of the non-Catholic population of Ulster.
Restrictions on trade of woollen manufactures and other goods hampered any development of Irish industry. The surplus drawn from the land by absentee landlords went to investment in England not Ireland. Only in Ulster was there a partial exception. There, the custom which had once applied throughout the whole country, whereby the tenant had security and a limited interest in his holding, was retained.
The one industry which was allowed to develop was linen. It was given royal subsidies to help it compete with the French and Dutch. Linen production was concentrated in the north, and throughout the eighteenth century, was a rural cottage industry. Flax was grown along with food, was spun and woven in the home and then taken to the expanding linen markets, at first of Dublin and then Belfast, for export.
By the late eighteenth century the seedlings of an Irish capitalism had emerged, especially in the North. Power driven machinery to spin cotton, introduced to Belfast in 1770, provided that city’s first experience of the industrial revolution.
But whatever industrial development took place was hamstrung and handicapped by the restrictions imposed by the colonial rulers. Even the linen industry suffered badly from the blockade imposed on the American colonies after they declared independence in 1776.
Out of all this a national consciousness, based on the diversity of the Irish people, grew and developed, spurred on by the suffocating effects of English rule and colonial domination. Irish culture in the form of an interest in books and theatre, began to develop. This was especially the case in Belfast where the most forward looking citizens, mainly of Presbyterian stock, promoted a revival of Irish music.
The artisans, craftsmen and small scale manufacturers of the north were united with the downtrodden peasantry of the rest of the country in a common desire to lift off the yoke of colonial oppression, to end landlordism, repeal the penal laws and to allow Irish goods to trade as determined by an Irish not an English parliament. The American War of Independence and even more so the French revolution stimulated the desire of the Irish to have their own nation state free of foreign influence and domination.
This growing sense of nationhood had its highest political expression in the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791. One of its key leaders, Theobald Wolfe Tone, expressed its aim as:
“to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past divisions and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.” 
In 1798 the United Irishmen rose in rebellion seeking to drive out the English garrison and to emulate the great liberating events of the French revolution. When Wexford was seized and held by the insurgents they adopted the new calendar of revolutionary France.
The leader of the rebellion in Antrim was Belfastman Henry Joy McCracken, arguably the greatest of the main leaders. As McCracken’s forces marched from just north of Belfast to try to seize Antrim town, they did so to the stirring rhythms of the Marseillaise.
The rebellion failed. Wexford was retaken. The risings in Antrim and Down were put down. A French force which landed in Mayo arrived after these defeats and despite the brilliance of its commander, General Humbert, proved to be too little too late.
From revolution to counter-revolution. The British response to the rebellion, once they achieved the upper hand, was a merciless campaign of retribution to subdue the Irish in their own blood. The rising which lasted from May to September was followed by an Autumn of court martials, hangings, shootings, imprisonment and transportation.
The defeat came about through a mixture of disorganisation, hesitancy, over-caution and treachery on one side and brutal repression on the other. Acting on the information of informers, the government was the first to act. The entire leadership was arrested before the rising had even begun. In the North they used the weapon of divide and rule, sowing division between Protestant and Catholic. The garrison in Ulster promoted the newly formed Orange Order as a counter-weight to the United Irishmen.
In general, outside of Antrim and Down, the rising displayed the classic characteristics of a movement based on the peasantry; it was sporadic, localised and disorganised. The emerging Irish bourgeoisie, the class who stood to gain most from it, demonstrated only timidity and a general lack of confidence in its ability to succeed.
Hence these immortal words of Henry Joy McCracken written to his sister while in hiding only days before his capture:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. You will no doubt hear a great number of stories respecting the situation of this country, its present unfortunate state is entirely owing to treachery, the rich always betray the poor.” 
This was Ireland’s attempt at a bourgeois revolution. It is impossible to say what would have happened if it had succeeded. The eventual defeat of Napoleon and the victory of reaction in Europe might have led to a new war of conquest. Or independence might have been maintained. In that case the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, the ending of feudal land relations and the establishment of a centralised nation state might have been carried through.
Ireland then would have become a single nation state based on the assimilation of all its peoples, as with the nation states then formed and still to be formed in Europe. A single and independent nation – yes. But a unified nation free of division, welded to a single culture and way of life as romantically put forward by nationalists – no.
In every bourgeois revolution the forces which come together to attempt to carry it through are an amalgam of various class interests. There are the merchants and manufacturers who seek freedom to develop their enterprises and increase their wealth. There are the peasants who want to own the land they work. And there are the labourers and artisans, the embryo of the future working class, who are the most consistent democrats and who want to take the revolution furthest.
These were the people who made up the Levellers and put forward elementary communistic ideas during the English civil war. Similar ideas were present also in the ’98 rebellion. Belfast linen weaver Jemmy Hope was a close friend of McCracken and became a leader of the United Irishmen in the town. He survived the rising and his memoirs show his awareness of the rival class interests involved:
“Ulster was the seat of politics; in which there were three parties: those whose industry produced the necessaries of life, those who circulated them, and those whose subsistence depended on fictitious claims and capital, and lived and acted as if men and cattle were created solely for their use and benefit, and to whom a sycophantic clergy were ever ready to bow with the most profound respect. The town of Belfast was the centre of this factitious system, and with few exceptions, the most corrupt spot on the face of the earth.” 
For a brief moment of history the bourgeois revolutions brought together all the class interests which stood against feudalism and colonialism, at times with sufficient force to break the old order, at others not. They did so under lofty ideals and in the name of the whole nation, but the reality of what victory brought was not rule by all the people, but capitalist society and capitalist rule. As Engels said of the French revolution it was fought to establish the ‘Kingdom of Reason’. In fact it established the ‘Kingdom of the Bourgeoisie’.
Victory in 1798 would have led to those forces which coalesced around the green banner of the United Irishmen coming apart and re-forming over time around the opposite poles of the class struggle – Capital and Labour.
Instead history took a different course. The rebellion was defeated. Reaction triumphed. Instead of independence the 1801 Act of Union incorporated Ireland into what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The building which housed the old toothless Irish parliament facing Trinity College in Dublin was occupied instead by the Bank of Ireland. Reaction in Ireland was reinforced in 1815 by the final demise of Napoleon and the triumph of the Grand Alliance of Emperors and Kings who were restored across Europe.
In the period leading to 1798 and that which followed, one of the great laws of revolution and counter revolution in Ireland was established. It is a law which held good throughout the nineteenth century, through the period of partition and which holds good right up to the present.
At times when the tempo of revolution is on the ascendant all strata of the oppressed, exploited and downtrodden tend to unite, while those divisions of region or religion which have at times stood between them, tend to be pushed to the background. This law holds good also in reverse. In periods of set-back, retreat, defeat, and especially when these features are sustained, the old historic divisions tend to come to the fore in a modern form.
For those historians who are rewriting history from a generally pro-unionist point of view, and who accentuate regional and religious differences as the norm, this law is a closed book. They display no feel for the changing tempo of events; for the ebbs and flows of the revolutionary process, the very factors which make or un-make historical progress.
1. Ian Adamson The Ulster People, Pretani Press 1991, p. 104.
2. Ibid., p. 19.
3. T.A. Jackson, Ireland Her Own, Lawrence & Wishart 1971, p. 25.
4. Ibid., p. 117.
5. Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, Blackstaff Press 1988, p. 177.
6. Jemmy Hope, The Memoirs of Jemmy Hope, B&ICO Publication 1972, p. 17.
Last updated: 4.1.2011