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Book review on “A Shorter Illustrated History of Ulster” by Jonathan Bardon

“A Shorter Illustrated History of Ulster” is a book written and produced in 1996 by Irish historian Jonathan Bardon. This book is a follow-up to Bardon’s earlier produced “History of Ulster”, with the chief differences between the books being that, as the title would suggest, “A Shorter Illustrated History” is a more concise, less detailed effort, which uses a vast array of images, maps and drawings, which are not present in the original.

The book undertakes the task of retelling the entire history of Ulster from as far back as history can recall, to the days when it was penned in 1996. The book is structured chronologically, as is the only viable option when an author is undertaking the task of writing a complete history of a specific region. Bardon throughout the book focuses on the political, cultural and economic history of the province.

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Roughly the first half of the book deals with the part of Ulster’s history before the creation of the Northern Irish state, with the latter half primarily dealing with the six counties. In the earlier chapters, Bardon gives a basic outline on very early Ulster, but his approach in summarising these early events is an indicator of how the book as a whole is constructed. The first aspect to look at is his use of sources. Throughout the book, Bardon uses both primary and secondary source material. An early example of secondary material can be found in Chapter two dealing with Viking invasion, Norman conquest and Gaelic recovery, where he uses the words of Norman chronicler Gerald of Wales to help make his point valid. “They showered down a hail of arrows and spears at long-range…………came up to the knees and legs of their pursuers”.

This use of primary source material is seen again and again throughout the book, examples including personal correspondence, newspaper reports, medical reports, etc. Perellos’s writing gives a fine example of Bardon’s use of primary material. “He held a great court in their fashion which to us seems very strange for someone of his status…..his table was of rushes spread out on the ground while nearby they placed delicate grass for him to wipe his mouth”

One of the positives of the book is the clear and lucid style it is written in. Bardon is a natural storyteller and the reader is kept engaged and enthralled throughout. “On a clear day, Norman barons in South-West Wales could see the hills of Ireland across the sea, seeming to beckon them on a further conquest”.

As well as the writing style, the use of illustrations in the book adds a tremendous amount to the enjoyment of reading the book. He uses maps, images, drawings and plans to great effect, with barely a page in the book without an illustration to illuminate the reader’s understanding of the subject matter.
In creating this shorter abridged book, one gets the feeling that Bardon had a select audience in mind. One could contend that the book would be a perfect basic history for secondary school students of history, or indeed just for the general readership who would undoubtedly find other studies on Ulster, such as John Henry Whyte’s book, “Interpreting Northern Ireland”, too hard to digest.

This means that historical specialists in the field would not find the book very useful as a reference in their own studies. In writing a book that covers a complete history, especially in this abridged version, it is natural that some complex events and issues are not dealt with in a manner and length which does not truly represent their magnitude. Specialists would not be happy with the simplification of important events, but that is the nature of the beast in an undertaking of this kind. Another problem with the book is the lack of notes throughout. It is frustrating reading letters and other source material and not being able to find where they came from. This is another clear indication that Bardon intended this book to be used more by a general readership.

Bardon suffers another difficulty in keeping the book inside the confines of the title. This is seen in later chapters, with the forming of Northern Ireland and the annexing of three of the counties of Ulster into the Republic of Ireland. Once this occurs, Bardon barely acknowledges the existence of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Of course, the main issues after the formation of Northern Ireland are occurring within the six counties, however, for the sake of continuity Bardon could have continued to keep the reader informed of the important events in the whole province of Ulster.

The book naturally has to delve into events happening outside Ulster, which is an absolute necessity in order for the reader to fully comprehend the history of Ulster. Bardon pays close attention to places such as England, Scotland, Ireland as a whole and Europe in a wider context. Scotland in particular is rightly given plenty of space, considering their existence in Ulster formed much of the complex social and religious tensions, not only with the Gaelic Irish but also later with the Anglican English. “They were confronted by alien planters adhering to a variety of Protestantism far distant from their own Catholicism and by crown officials who took sporadic and ineffective but irritating measures against the Catholic church”. A lot of these tensions still exist today between Anglicans and Presbyterians in the North.

An example of wider European and global events affecting Ulster can be found when in Chapter eight. This dealt with the Dail’s demands for a united self-determined Ireland in the wake of the end of World War I. “Wilson, himself of Ulster Presbyterian extraction, was baffled by Europe’s ethnic complexity and had no wish to embarrass Britain, the United States’ closest wartime ally, by agreeing to the Dail’s demands”. Bardon also provides an interesting comparison between events in Northern Ireland and places in Europe such as former Yugoslavia, where Croats and Serbs have a very similar relationship with each other as do the Catholics and Protestants in the North. “Yugoslavia had intermarried for centuries and share the same language. Separated only by religious affiliation and cultural traditions, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims are divided in ways similar to those tearing Protestants asunder in Ulster”. Northern Ireland has often been thought of as a kind of unique problem by some people, so by pointing out these similarities, Bardon is educating the reader to the fact that this situation also occurs elsewhere and in this case in an even more violent way.

One of the first questions one can find oneself asking when reviewing a book on Ulster is whether there is a balance in the way the author has presented his work. Because of the tension and passion which goes hand in hand with writing about a subject matter so close to home, there can be a tendency for writers to be biased in their work, whether that is their original intention or not. Bardon does a wonderful job in presenting this book in a balanced and fair manner. There are examples in the book where he poses questions to the reader, rather than drawing his own conclusions. “Such views are still widely accepted today- were these theories of racial separation justified”.

This assertion of a balanced, unbiased piece of work is contested by Bruce Stewart in his review of the book. “Of course there can be no doubt that the book has an ideological agenda, but it remains gracefully indulgent towards alternative readings of the past at variance with the brand of liberal unionism that pervasively informs its chapters”. This judgement on Bardon’s work is totally unfounded and there are plenty of examples in the book to prove this. When discussing the Great Famine, Bardon gives the reader the facts and does not draw conclusions or attribute blame. “Altogether the British government contributed less than half the cost of famine relief, the rest being raised from Ireland itself.

Overall the balance of Westminster’s contribution was some £7 million: from one point of view, no European state had ever taken such a vigorous action to cope with a natural disaster; but another view is that this sum was paltry when it is considered that landlords were able to collect around 75 percent of their rents, that the ports were not closed, that the United Kingdom’s annual tax revenue in the late 1840s was around £53 million, and that £69.3 million were expended on fighting the Crimean War.”

This is a clear example of how Bardon stays neutral as possible and the balance which he very successfully finds in the book made it not only a pleasure to read but also a fantastic book for students and general readers to understand the basics in the complex history of Ulster.


Bardon, Jonathan, A Shorter Illustrated History of Ulster, Belfast : Blackstaff Press, 1996.
Davenport, John, A review of A Shorter Illustrated History of Ulster, New Hibernia Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, (Spring), 1998, pp. 150-151.
O’ Tuathaigh, Gearoid, Review of A History of Ulster, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 220-222.
Stewart, Bruce, Review of A History of Ulster, Books Ireland, No. 175 (Mar., 1994), pp. 46-48.
Whyte, John Henry, Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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Book review on “A Shorter Illustrated History of Ulster” by Jonathan Bardon. (2021, Feb 18). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from