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Saturday 19 June 1999

Shedding the Irish Catholic baggage

Ruth Dudley Edwards had to make a radical change in her mindset when starting to research her new book The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions

I had a sobering moment two years into my researches on the loyal institutions. An Orange friend and I were talking about yet another foul-up by the Orange Order when I remarked a propos a particular event: "Of course, that's where Aughrim was lost." There was a pause and then he said: "But we won Aughrim."

We both found the cultural confusion funny, but it made me realise I still had a long way to go before I could be reasonably sure I had learned how to look at the past from the point of view of an Ulster Protestant. Irish Catholics grossly underestimate how huge are the differences in assumptions, attitudes and values between them and Ulster Protestants.

Hard though I've tried, I still have blind spots and lapses. A few weeks ago, The Sunday Times asked me to review Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy (by Tom Reilly, published by Brandon). Now I have cherished my antipathy to Cromwell (damn it, one has to be allowed some prejudices), not only because of the massacres in Drogheda and Wexford, but because I have visited innumerable great cathedrals and village churches in England where headless statues and ruined wall-paintings are a testimony to puritan excesses. But - as I admitted in the review - Reilly, a Drogheda amateur historian, turned my preconceptions upside-down and forced me to accept that Cromwell's reputation had fallen victim to royalist and nationalist propagandists and that by contemporary standards he had behaved rather well in Ireland. The review came up in conversation with David Trimble, who was grinning when he told me that a protester outside Boston College objecting to his honorary degree had a placard reading:" WHO NEXT? CROMWELL?"

"Mind you," he said rather sniffily, "I don't know why Reilly's book was such a revelation to you. I realised all that when I was doing my A-levels and compared the storming of Drogheda with the sack of Magdeburg where tens of thousands of Protestants were murdered by a Catholic army; it put the two events in perspective."

I always try to be sympathetic to my subjects, although certainly never uncritical. In my time I've worked to see history and life from the standpoint of extreme Irish nationalism (Patrick Pearse), revolutionary socialism (James Connolly) and anti-Zionist Judeo-Christianity and communist-fellow-travelling (Victor Gollancz), not to speak of seeking to understand and explain why the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office persists in believing they can tidy up a messy world and the Economist, after 150 years, is still fixated on the idea that reason can prevail.

My proudest moment was when Paul Foot, the Trotskyite journalist, told me - one of nature's conservatives - that he knew from my life of Gollancz that I was a socialist.

Trying to see life from the point of view of the loyal institutions (Apprentice Boys, Orange Order and Royal Black Institution) was even more difficult. Though I'm an atheist, a critic of Irish nationalism and had many Protestant friends, I was stunned to find how much Irish Catholic baggage I carried unconsciously.

What made it possible for me to write a book that has been recognised as fair by the dozen or so members of the loyal institutions who have had a chance to read it, is that I immersed myself in their culture. I went to innumerable parades, listened to upwards of a hundred ordinary and extraordinary people telling me about themselves and developed warm friendships with Orangemen who were severely critical of their institution's failings, kept me closely informed about all the twists and turns of internal squabbles and told me the jokes and funny stories as well.

I also read in profusion the booklets, brochures, news-sheets, rule-books, pamphlets and song-books that are read by Orangemen in Ireland and abroad who never open any book except a bible. As much as possible, I try to tell the story in the words of the people I am writing about.

I can't now remember what kind of book I intended to write. It has ended up as a mixture of anthropology, eyewitness reportage, politics and history. Looming over the whole book is the Drumcree tragedy, for I have been close to Orangemen during almost the entire period when - through rigidity, naivete and disunity and their innate hopelessness at public relations - they fell into a republican trap and ended up demonised around the world and confronting the state to which they are so loyal.

Of all my books, this is the one that I have cared about most; it is no accident that parts are intensely personal. I am desperately anxious that these mostly decent, honest people - maligned and traduced by brilliant propagandists - should have a fair hearing. All they ask is that people see them as they really are. In true Cromwellian tradition, they want their portrait painted warts and all.

The Faithful Tribe is published on Monday by HarperCollins. It will be reviewed next Saturday by Bob McCartney.

"It combines Dudley Edwards's ability as a gifted historian with her skill as a journalist to produce a hugely important and authoritative book that reads as compulsively as a thriller."
John Spain, Irish Independent

"A hurtling journey, often hilarious and sometimes monstrous, through newspapers, class, politics and sex; not just the double biography of two extraordinary men, but a sideways history of Britain in the fifties and sixties"
Andrew Marr

"The depth of her learning and the breadth of her sympathy, make this a compelling book, the product of genuine free thinking and spare, fine writing. Few books published this year will have the charm, learning, wisdom and humanity of The Faithful Tribe"
The Times

This is the help-manual I longed for when I was a young student of Irish history but eventually had to write myself. It’s still the reference book I use most often.’ 
Ruth Dudley Edwards


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