As a way of ordering society in Europe, the nation state has a mixed record. Leaving aside conflicts between functioning examples of the form, it has frequently failed to convince all groups in a state that they are - or alternatively that the other lot are - rightfully part of the nation. But once you set the rules, you have to play. Put Ireland in the United Kingdom and the kingdom is no longer united. Move to make Ireland a separate entity, and Protestant Ulster wants out. Recognise this aspiration, and it becomes Catholic Ulster's turn to cry foul. This view of nationalism casts Britain more in the role of a broker - blundering if not honest - than a coloniser. Marianne Elliott does not go quite this far, but her magisterial analysis of the whole gamut of Ulster's history places great stress on the centrality of relationships within the region itself.
"Ulster" derives from the Ulaid, one of the Celtic dynasties of prehistory, but the term is a contentious one. That Elliott - a Belfast Catholic by background - should choose it for her title will in itself raise eyebrows. To Irish Catholics, "Ulster" properly means the nine-county northern province of Ireland established in the medieval period. The modern six-county territory of Northern Ireland has customarily been referred to as "Ulster" only by Protestants. Today "the Ulster people" usually means the Protestant people. But this tour de force of a book uses what has so often been a loaded term to focus our thinking on the internal relationships of the region.
For 400 years, as English authorities sought intermittently to govern parts of Ireland from Dublin, Ulster remained the most independent and Gaelic region of the country. Only at the end of the 16th century did English state building, by then a Protestant enterprise, begin to change this picture. It was aided in no small measure by spontaneous Scottish migration, not to mention Gaelic dynastic rivalries. Ulster's Gaelic population was small, and in the course of the 17th century the incoming Scots Presbyterians and English Protestants probably came to outnumber them. It was a century in which most of the region's great ethnic myths had their origin: the end of Gaelic Ulster (the flight of the earls, 1607); Catholic treachery, brutality and expulsionist intent (the 1641 uprising); Protestant treachery, brutality and expropriation (the Cromwellian and Williamite settlements); the Protestant foundation myth (the battles of Derry, Aughrim and the Boyne); and the institutionalisation of Catholic subjugation (the Penal Laws).
Like all foundation myths, these tell us more about the people who later used them than they do about the events themselves. Elliott deftly subverts the cherished beliefs of both sides. But in the 18th century, Ulster developed all the characteristics of an ethnic frontier. It became sharply divided on ethnic lines, notwithstanding the much-misinterpreted blip of the Presbyterian-led rebellion of 1798. These ethnic differences were specific to the region.
Only much later, and spasmodically, did Ulster Catholicism develop a truly nationalist dimension. Ulster had to be "invaded" much later in the 19th century - by southern, home-rule politicians and Christian Brothers' education - before northern Catholics fully identified their cause with that of all-Ireland nationalism. In 1920-22, they were again a generation behind southern nationalists in their political attachments. Despite events since 1969, Ulster Catholics are no more at home in, or welcomed by, the South than before. Their historical experience has differed greatly from that of their southern co-religionists, and the 19th-century industrialisation of the Belfast region created more differences. Their dialect, in the Irish and English languages, differs markedly from southern speech varieties. Why then has a common Ulster regional identity never developed?
Part of the answer is that the key difference between northern and southern Catholics before independence was that between a subjected minority and a subjected majority. Catholics in the North - making up barely a third of the population and suffering a historic legacy of relative poverty - could be marginalised.
Ulster Catholics, as Elliott illustrates time and again, were not natural rebels. They did, however, retreat into a deep sense of victimhood, that has pervaded and restricted their culture. Catholics for so long sensed and resented what one cleric in 1883 called "the withering sneer of scorn" that they had to endure in Ulster society that it became something hard to shake off. Seventy years later, the writer Joseph Tomelty regretted "the awful fatalism of the Falls Road". Folk memories of expropriated ancestral land abided in rural areas. It was hard for a Catholic to prosper in Ulster society, but it was made harder by the rejection of those Catholics who did succeed beyond the narrow confines of their own community - terms such as "Castle Catholic", "shoneen" and "West Brit" served to exclude them from the communities that they might have led.
In the absence of a more developed lay leadership, the Catholic clergy often remained the leaders of local communities. They discouraged revolutionary nationalism - which remained weak in Ulster until the recent Troubles - but they encouraged a separation and a resentment that was none the less bitter for being passive. The pervasive IRA violence of 1969-97 removed the crutch of victimhood, creating confusion in the minds of many and a Fanonesque elation in the minds of not a few. It also built new walls, in minds as well as on the ground.
The Catholics of Ulster uncovers with great insight and readability the history of a minority that has received remarkably little systematic study. Elliott resists the temptation to give us a straight narrative history. But by freeing herself somewhat from the chronological straitjacket, she is able to draw fresh insights from comparisons and analyses across time. An especially striking feature is how much effective use the book makes of folk and oral history sources, and of the work of English and Irish-language bards and poets.
It is, furthermore, a book that, by setting out the markedly separate history of "a minority within a minority" in Ireland, seeks not to sustain that separation but to hint at ways of going beyond it. What Ulster Catholics and Protestants have in common with one another, and what separates them so firmly from their chimerical metropoles in Dublin and London respectively, is their shared divide. Until they embrace that reality and agree on what "Ulster" means, the labels "Irishness" and "Britishness" will remain, in Elliott's phrase, as "fig-leaves disguising the underlying local quarrel".
Tony Hepburn is director, school of humanities and social sciences, University of Sunderland.
The Catholics of Ulster
Author - Marianne Elliott
ISBN - 0 713 99464 9
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 642