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Historian Jonathan Bardon's knockout experience in Belfast, and how lung cancer makes him fearful for NHS after Brexit

The Dublin-born writer and educator puts a high premium on the past and how we can all benefit from studying our origins

Jonathan Bardon at home in north Belfast
Jonathan Bardon at home in north Belfast
Jonathan Bardon's most recent book A Narrow Sea
Ciaran Hinds
Contemporary: Actor Sam McCready

By Laurence White

Eminent historian Jonathan Bardon, whose books are regarded as essential reading for anyone wanting to learn about the complex past of this island, particularly this northern portion, had a rather dramatic introduction to the tensions which bubble beneath the surface here.

In September 1964, a year after he had come to Belfast from Dublin, he and a couple of friends decided to go to Divis Street where rioting had erupted after the late Rev Ian Paisley led a protest against the flying of a tricolour from republican offices.

Jonathan, now 77, recalls: "I didn't know anything about what was going on or what it was about. We had gone along out of idle curiosity.

"We watched the rioting for a time; stones and bottles were being thrown and water cannon deployed. I was stopped by what I suppose was a reserve police officer who had heard my Dublin accent when I was talking to my companions. He asked me where I was from, and when I said Dublin he knocked me out cold.

"When I woke up a sergeant told me to go home and not be so foolish again. I went to hospital and ended up with a huge bandage on my head."

Fortunately, this experience did not dampen his affection for Belfast, which has been his home since.

Born in 1941 into a quite genteel Church of Ireland family in a middle-class district in the south of Dublin - his home was one of the first to be all-electric - he has fond memories of his native city. Life there was quite segregated; he went to Church of Ireland primary and secondary schools and most of his social life as a youngster were with co-religionists. "We were all in the cubs and scouts and tended to stick together, although I did have Catholic friends as obviously Catholics were in the majority where I lived.

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"My mother was a keen golfer and bridge player and most of her friends were Catholics. Her and my father, a bank clerk, were not very religious although they did bring us to church every Sunday. Oddly enough, at primary school I won an essay competition on the topic The Errors of Catholicism."

But religion was not to play a large part in his life as he gave it up in his mid-teens and to this day remains an avowed atheist.

So, how did his family get on in the fledgling state with its overwhelming Catholic ethos (Eamon de Valera, who was President and Taoiseach, lived a short distance from Jonathan's primary school)?

"It was a generational thing. My father was largely apolitical but my grandfather was a very determined unionist. He had joined the British Army at the age of 44 at the start of the First World War and served on the Western Front. I remember going to his home and there was an enormous coal scuttle beside the fire made from a shell casing he had taken back from the war.

"My mother and father's brothers regarded England as the place to work and several got jobs there in the medical profession. They also served in the Army and Royal Navy during the Second World War."

It was in his early teens that he discovered a hobby which was to become a lifelong obsession - fishing. "I used to cycle out to Dun Laoghaire pier and sit fishing with these old guys who would tell me about past events which happened in Dublin. I was quite obsessed with fly fishing and could recite the Latin names of various flies."

Keen fisherman Jonathan with his prized stuffed trout caught in Co Galway
Keen fisherman Jonathan with his prized stuffed trout caught in Co Galway

The father-of-two - he has a daughter and son from his first marriage: Jane, a radio and television producer in Darwin, Australia, and Daniel, a teacher of English in the Middle East - has remained an avid fly fisherman and last year caught one of his largest fish, a 4lb trout in Lough Corrib, Co Galway.

"Realising that my days as a fisherman are drawing to a close, given my age, I had it stuffed and put in a Victorian-style case in my hall."

After his first marriage broke up Jonathan later remarried and "acquired" four stepchildren and has now five stepgrandchildren. Both his wives are called Carol.

Fishing, in a way, led to his career choice. Indeed, his first writing was for Trout And Salmon magazine, something of a bible for anglers.

"At that time I wanted to study zoology but I was told there was no one at my school who taught that subject and it was then that I chose history. Little did I know then the important role that would play in my life."

Jonathan's first exposure to people from here came when he went to Trinity College. "My first real friend from Northern Ireland was Victor Blease (who many years later was to become chief executive of the NI Housing Executive). I remember staying at his home in east Belfast and looking out over Belfast Lough and the Harland & Wolff shipyard and seeing the great gantries where the Titanic was built. There was nothing like that in Dublin.

"At that stage the standard of living in Northern Ireland was very much higher than in the Republic where there was great poverty in some areas, with barefoot children. There were plenty of impoverished people in Belfast but the welfare state was in place, which provided better aid than anything in the Republic."

He adds: "Northern Ireland was seen as a place of opportunity where there was a better chance of getting a job - but only for middle-class professionals. There were no jobs if you were a labourer, but when I graduated later from Queen's University I got a job as a teacher. There was a shortage of them. Indeed, I was one of only two applicants for my first job at Orangefield Boys' Secondary School in east Belfast."

So how was he, a Dubliner, regarded in this staunchly loyal part of the city?

"I was looked upon as something of a curiosity by both the pupils and staff. I was nominally a Protestant, but a bit exotic because I was a Southerner."

He pays tribute to the headmaster at that time John Malone, who he regarded as a great educationalist and something of a visionary. "He had close relationships with headmasters in the Catholic-maintained schools sector and the school had quite a liberal outlook.

"Some of the older staff members had served during the war, had seen the world and were naturally tolerant. Many of the younger teachers had working-class origins but had benefited from the 1947 Education Act which allowed them to progress and they were full of energy and excitement. Some may have privately held hardline views but didn't express them."

Jonathan Bardon at home with his wife Carol
Jonathan Bardon at home with his wife Carol

Among his contemporaries on the staff were Douglas Carson and David Hammond, both of whom went on to become BBC producers, as well as actor Sam McCready and local historian Thompson Steele.

He lists a number of his pupils, which certainly formed a pretty broad cross-section of life in Northern Ireland. They included actor Ciaran Hinds; playwright Martin Lynch; Graham Reid, writer of the Billy plays; painter Sam Mateer; actor the late John Hewitt; loyalist politician the late David Ervine; author and journalist Walter Ellis; one-time Sinn Fein publicity director Danny Morrison, and Ronnie Bunting, son of a political ally of Ian Paisley who went to become a founder member of the INLA and was later shot dead.

Jonathan left Orangefield in 1968 to become a lecturer and later senior manager in the Belfast College of Business Studies, now Belfast Metropolitan College. Between 1998 and 2007 he was employed in the School of History at Queen's University.

His interest in historical writing was sparked while still at Orangefield. "I noticed that many of the pupils were the sons of men who worked in some of the great industries in east Belfast like the shipyard and the ropeworks but they knew very little about the history of what was once a world-renowned industrial powerhouse."

He realised that he also knew very little about the city, and that led him on a intense voyage of discovery with many hours spent in the Linen Hall and Central libraries in the city. A decision by James Hawthorne, then head of education output at BBC NI, to commission a number of broadcasts on Irish history - "a very brave decision at that time" - later led to Jonathan writing 48 20-minute dramatised documentaries on Irish history through the ages. All of them were written in his own fair hand by fountain pen. They were followed by A Short History Of Ireland - 240 five-minute dramatised documentaries for radio, later extended by another 60.

Then followed The Narrow Sea, 60 documentaries exploring the historical connection between Ulster and Scotland and which later became his latest book, covering the period in 120 bite-sized chapters. This is typical of his style, which is deliberately aimed at making history as accessible as possible to as wide an audience as possible.

He explains: "Academics get rewarded for the quality of their research which is reviewed by their peers. Therefore they do not, in general, write for the general public because it is their peers who will decide their career prospects."

He cites ATQ Stewart as a guiding light: "His writing made you want to keep turning the pages."

Perhaps his own most famous work is A History Of Ulster and he admits that he realised its importance when it received favourable reviews in heavyweight broadsheets and from distinguished historians. He gives credit to Michael Burns and Anne Tannahill of Blackstaff Press, his initial publishers, and now Gill Books in Dublin for their interest in publishing history.

So, does he think history should be compulsory in schools?

"I do, certainly up to GCSE level. It is vital for an understanding of the world around us. You don't just study the history of your own area or own country - it must be a wider history. Under the old system of teaching you learned about the Egyptians and Vikings when you began studying history and as you grew older the topics became more modern. That had a lot of merit to it but perhaps it was a bit too much Europe-centred."

When should the history of something be written?

"It is never too early. Take Lost Lives, the book which chronicles the deaths of everyone killed in the Troubles. That is very recent and the book is constantly revised. My History Of Ulster was published in 1992 and a large chunk of it covered up to that date.

"A novelist can write a book and it stands for all time. But history is not static. There is constant revision as more evidence is brought to light. History books, no matter how good they are, eventually go out of date."

As a man who was chairman of the NI Community Relations Council from 1996-2000 and was awarded an OBE in 2002 for services to community life, how does he view the rather toxic political atmosphere in Northern Ireland at present? "I was delighted that my number one choice in the European election, Naomi Long, was elected as an MEP. Maybe it is an indication that young people want to move forward.

"My fear is if we get a hard Brexit, the damage which will be done to the Northern Ireland economy could provoke bitter inter-communal tension. What future will there be for the aircraft factory in a hard Brexit? Farmers will find things much harder, as will other businesses.

"It costs £22bn to run Northern Ireland annually and only half of that is raised through taxation here. Brexiteers may be more reluctant to provide that subvention in future if they remain in power. That would have very serious consequences for the NHS, for example. We are too dependent on people giving us money from outside the province.

"I have a very high opinion of the health service here, having had a lot of recent experience. I have lung cancer which was discovered in May/June a year ago and there have been some difficulties treating it, particularly because my left lung collapsed."

Did he ever imagine that history would make him a well-known and respected figure?

"Absolutely not. I only got a moderate degree from Trinity, a 2:2, as I was an over-anxious student and a poor examinee. My interest has always been in telling the story of past events to non-specialists. I only entered the academic world later in my career."

A Narrow Sea: The Irish-Scottish Connection in 120 episodes is published by Gill Books, price £18

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