In the long and bloody centuries of sectarian conflict in the northeast of this island, the history books can ascribe entire towns to one side or the other based on religion.
But human complexity is much deeper. No side has had a monopoly on evil or righteousness, as uncomfortable as that is for each faction’s propagandists.
I have been reflecting on the darkness of our past after reading a historical novel set in north Antrim during the 1641 rebellion.
The book, The Last Harp of Dunluce, by David Dunlop, brings to life the hopes, fears and harsh lives of the time, and also alludes to something deeper about why 21st century Northern Ireland operates as it does.
It is tempting in Northern Ireland to bury the most uncomfortable parts of our history. But in that ignorance flourishes something which makes the barbarism of the past more prone to repetition.
After centuries, it should be clear that these issues are unavoidable. The Ulster historian ATQ Stewart observed how a “folk history” is handed down on both sides. That version of what happened has its roots in truth, but it is a partial and a partisan truth.
In her 1978 book A Place Apart — about cycling around Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles — Waterford travel writer Dervla Murphy wrote about the importance of getting the facts straight.
“The errors of the past have to be remembered and acknowledged before they can finally be forgiven and forgotten,” she wrote.
“What is the point of patching things up somehow, through sheer war-weariness, and stuffing skeletons back into their respective sectarian cupboards for another 10 or 20 years? Those skeletons need to be identified and given a decent burial, and then the cupboards can be left open to air.”
One disturbingly repetitive aspect of Ulster history are the cycles of stability followed by cycles of violence.
The 1641 rebellion saw the inhuman murder of Protestants, most infamously in Portadown where 100 settlers were stripped naked and forced off a bridge into the Bann, then shot as they tried to swim.
As the uprising faltered, there were bloody reprisals — war crimes in today’s language — by British forces. And in the years following that, Cromwell arrived.
The cycle of one community being on top and abusing that position to murderous extremes has recurred again and again — most recently in the Troubles. Often this happens in an ultra-local setting: it’s about who controls a town, an area, a street.
We think of sectarianism as grotesquely contrary to reason. Often it is — as demonstrated recently when a group of drunken loyalists gloatingly sang a song revelling in the death of Michaela McAreavey.
But sectarianism is not always wholly without logic. A fear of the other side becoming too powerful in a locality or more widely can be founded in something not wholly irrational — a vague inherited sense, often not consciously informed by historical knowledge, of threat when the communal equilibrium in an area is disturbed.
Just because sectarianism is not always without logic, does not mean that it is any less unpleasant or undesirable — but it helps to explain why many people in Northern Irish society behave as they do.
In peaceful times, that fear mostly manifests itself defensively — voting to keep the other side out — rather than in anything even approaching violence.
But that changes once the killing starts. The Last Harp of Dunluce articulates the primeval fear felt on both sides, as well as the bewildering complexity of “planter and Gael”, as US Congressman Richard Neal recently described them.
The book’s author, former history teacher David Dunlop, exemplifies how such phrases fail to capture reality, hundreds of years after the plantation of Ulster.
A Protestant whose passion is Irish music and culture, his ancestors in the MacDuinnsleibhe clan came from near Downpatrick — but were chased to Scotland by John DeCourcy’s Normans in 1177, where they lived for four centuries before returning to north Antrim.
The book’s real hero is a Catholic priest — not because the novel pretends all Catholics were heroic any more than all Protestants were heroic, but because he grapples with the morality of the choices confronting him amid the bloody sectarian slaughter.
He is a reminder that past cycles of violence are not determinative of how we will behave; that choice is ours and for it we will bear responsibility. The easy thing is to go with the herd. That is not necessarily wrong, and sometimes the herd is right. But where communal interests and morality diverge, we face decisions.
In 2017, the eloquent former SDLP leader Seamus Mallon spoke of how we have within us the capacity to be “good ancestors”.
The following year, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Mallon delivered what was his most powerful speech.
Advanced in years, Northern Ireland’s first nationalist deputy first minister urged nationalism to allow unionism to “breathe” without fear.
That couldn’t happen, he said, “if the threat is always there — sometimes openly, and sometimes not — that they don’t belong here.”
He recounted the death of “a man I knew well — a good man” who was shot on his tractor on land in south Armagh that his family had farmed for 400 years, murdered because he was in republican eyes “a member of the British occupying forces” as he served a couple of nights a week as a police reservist.
Mr Mallon recalled: “His blood as he died in the field went down to the soil… Was that Irish soil, or British soil, or was it the soil of people who belonged in this island?”
One of the finest tributes to Seamus Mallon came from a rival politician — from unionist Ken Maginnis, who said: “I would trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I wouldn’t say that about many other politicians, on my side or the other side.”
The past can’t be ignored, but we can decide whether it binds us.