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A Narrow Sea, by Jonathan Bardon

A Narrow Sea: The Irish-Scottish Connection in 120 Episodes, by Jonathan Bardon, Gill, 302 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717180592

The history of “the British Isles”, or “the archipelago”, or, simply if awkwardly, “these islands”, has for a long time been seen from Dublin as being principally a history of the relations between Britain, or perhaps England, and Ireland, even between London and Ireland. This is understandable, but there is another relationship between the two islands based on a physically closer connection than that between Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead.

If you drive northwards on any kind of a decent summer’s day along the east Antrim coast towards the villages of Cushendall and Cushendun (where you will frequently see young boys carrying their hurleys) it will be impossible for you not to notice the imposing presence on your right hand of a ruggedly beautiful landscape just across a stretch of water. This territory, famously hymned by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1977, is the Mull of Kintyre (Maol Chinn Tire), which at the closest point is only twelve miles from Co Antrim.

Scotland is so close to Ireland at this point, and so clearly visible on many days of the year, that it would seem absolutely inevitable that populations on either side of the sea (the Straits of Moyle) should have been curious about the other land and what it might have to offer them. Indeed Jonathan Bardon suggests that the first, post-ice-age, inhabitants of Ireland may have arrived by this route, from Kintyre and Galloway and also from the Isle of Man.

It seems that Agricola, Roman governor of Britannia after AD 78, considered invading Ireland from Galloway, but the invasion never happened, perhaps because of a threatened attack from the northern, unconquered parts of Scotland (or Caledonia). Scotti was the name given by the Romans to the Gaelic- or Goidelic-speaking populations of both Ireland and Scotland. Its use as a term to refer only to northern Britons came much later. (“Scots monasteries”, Schottenkloster or Schottenkirchen, which can still be found here and there in Germany or Austria, were originally Irish foundations.)

One tradition has it that an Irish king, Fergus mac Eirc, together with his sons, conquered a new kingdom in Argyll and brought the Gaelic language there. But Jonathan Bardon writes that the archaeological evidence to back up the theory of an Irish colonisation is absent and that the close cultural similarities which existed on both sides of the narrow sea were due to other factors. Travel between western Scotland and northern Ireland by sea would have been easier than overland travel from Argyll to northern Scotland or south to the Clyde.

Movement then was much easier by water. Travel by sea from the Mull of Kintyre to the Glens of Antrim was no more difficult than making a sailing from there to Islay or Jura. The Narrow Sea was not a barrier, it was a channel of communication and trade. Here there was a shared culture; constant interaction amongst these maritime peoples over time led to the people of Argyll adopting the Gaelic language of their close neighbours, the Irish in Antrim.

The Narrow Sea, based on a popular BBC Radio Ulster series of the same name, traces Irish-Scottish or Ulster-Scottish interactions in a series of 120 episodes which take us from prehistory to the momentous day in 1989 when the Glasgow football club Rangers, after 117 years of existence, signed its first Catholic player, Maurice “Mo” Johnston. On the way, we look in on Hugh Dubh O’Donnell being received with great ceremony at Edinburgh Castle in 1513 to sign an anti-English alliance with James IV; the carrying of Protestantism into the Gaidhealtacht with John Carswell’s translation of John Knox’s liturgy, Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh, the first book to be printed in Gaelic, and written in the literary standard language common to Scotland and Ireland; the failure to implant Protestant faith in Ulster, followed a generation later by the success – from one point of view ‑ of implanting Protestants; the unhappy sojourn of Jonathan Swift in Kilroot, near Carrickfergus, an Anglican in a sea of Presbyterians; the development of the flax and linen trade; the defeat at Ballynahinch, Co Down in June 1798 of the largely Presbyterian force of United men, sporting green ribbons, harp brooches and shamrocks, by the men of the Monaghan Militia, largely Catholics apart from their officers; the “invasion” of Scotland by Irish labourers, starting in the 1820s and increasing dramatically in the 1840s, a “set of low Popish Irish” according to the Free Church newspaper Witness, an “absolutely necessary” supplementary workforce for Scottish agriculture according to the Lothian landlord Robert Skirving; the life and death of the young Scot of Ulster ancestry who was posted as a soldier to Cork and then Dublin and who after his engagement to an Irish girl deserted – his name was James Connolly.

Reactions to the influx of Catholic poor into Scotland were at first a combination of alarm and compassion:

The streets of Glasgow are at present literally swarming with vagrants from the sister kingdom, and the misery which many of these poor creatures endure can scarcely be less than what they have fled ...

This was the Glasgow Herald in 1847. By 1849, after cholera had swept through Scotland’s industrial towns, the authorities were repatriating a thousand paupers a month, but the indigent and desperate continued to arrive. By 1853, the tone in the Herald had hardened:

They are landed by thousands ... We thus have to bear the expense of supporting the lives of perhaps the most improvident, intemperate and unreasonable beings on the face of the earth, who infest us in shoals and beg our charity because the land of their birth either cannot or will not support them.

Scotland, incidentally, also suffered potato blight and famine in the 1840s, though not over such a wide geographic area as in Ireland. The situation was also handled more effectively after the deaths of the first year, with relief efforts sponsored by local landlords and co-ordinated in an extremely efficient (and, incidentally, non-sectarian) way by the Free Church – and all this in spite of the considerable influence of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who believed that the Highland Celts, no less than the Irish, had to be taught a sharp lesson about their attitudes and values. In the longer term, the crisis in Scotland also greatly accelerated emigration, as it did in Ireland.

Jonathan Bardon does not shrink from giving accounts of the various sectarian outbreaks that were for a long time a regular occurrence in western Scotland, particularly around the Twelfth of July and August 15th (the Feast of the Assumption, when the Catholics marched). Nevertheless, he points out that such violence became more infrequent over time (except perhaps at Old Firm derbies) and Ulster [in fact mostly Donegal] immigrants and their descendants “were in time to blend contentedly with the indigenous inhabitants and to contribute notably to a burgeoning Scottish economy”. This certainly has some truth in it and due credit must be given to the Scottish education system in promoting a fair degree of social mobility. Nevertheless, economies tend not to burgeon equally for everyone and pockets of poverty, addiction, anti-social activity and general deprivation can have a remarkable ability to survive over generations. The largely “Catholic Irish” district of Glasgow known as The Calton, near the city centre, was credited some years ago with having, at fifty-four, the lowest male life expectancy in Scotland; the equivalent figure for the town of Lenzie in East Dunbartonshire, about six miles away, was eighty-two.

Jonathan Bardon’s lively and engaging history of the interactions between Ireland and Scotland over two millennia is a vastly pleasurable read and history at its most accessible.

Enda O’Doherty
16/5/2019

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