Introduction: Bob Hunter’s Ulster
By John Morrill
Robert J. Hunter was born in 1938, on 22 October, an auspicious day for any Ulsterman, and died just before his 69th birthday, on 24 September 2007. He was educated in Dublin and then spent nearly half a century in the north of Ireland, teaching in Magee College and in Coleraine. He was a man of profound learning. He was a man with a deep sense of la comédie humaine and the ironies of human life. He could be a curmudgeon. He was a wry observer of his own paranoia. He was a man to whom things happened which were slightly sad and very funny, and he could turn any minor tragedy into a major source of laughter. Typically, when I last saw him, a fortnight before he died, he pulled out an envelope containing a card I had written in response to a query he had put to me some time in the 1980s, when I was external examiner at the then New University of Ulster. He had asked me to send him the size of the shot used in the different artillery pieces in the civil war and I had sent a list. He pointed out that the envelope had been twice opened and re-sealed and he maintained, with a delicious half-conviction, that it must have been intercepted and opened by Special Branch, and that we had both been marked men ever since. Entering into the spirit of this fantasy, I refrained from pointing out that I had manifestly added information about the demi-culverin, as an afterthought that required unsealing and resealing. He liked to tease himself.
He yearned to write big books and to complete great projects. Even when I saw him for that last time, in great pain and exhausted, he wanted to impress upon me that if only he was granted another eighteen months to live, his great projects would be completed. He needed to say it, at some level he may have believed it; but the truth is that while he lamented all the obstacles that people and events had thrown in his path (the denial of a doctorate, the shabby treatment meted out to him by the University of Ulster, especially in his later years, the daily enforced commute from Derry to Coleraine by a deteriorating public transport system), in truth he himself had always erected the biggest of those obstacles. He set himself impossible goals and could never recognise the magnitude of the achievements he did have. He lived with terrible and unnecessary regrets. In a mid-career c.v. prepared as the New University of Ulster morphed into the University of Ulster with the merger of the NUU with the Ulster Polytechnic in Jordanstown and Magee College in Derry/Londonderry, Bob wrote that ‘I still retain some hope of producing these books’, listing ‘The English and the Ulster Plantation’, ‘a study of Derry, the principal plantation town’, ‘an edition of the Ulster Port Books 1612–15’ and ‘essays on the Anglicization in Ireland’. In the event, most of these are now being completed by others as a memorial to him after his death but the frank truth is that he would never have published them himself. The perfectionism, rooted in a range of insecurities, that made him such a remarkable scholar, also inhibited all sense of ripeness.
Amongst the temperamental reasons why the bigger projects were never brought to conclusion, Bob’s radical commitment to teaching must be prominent. In a long letter written in the early 1980s to Brian Manning, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the new University, Bob pleaded for the integration of the School of Humanities with Extra-Mural Studies, the creation of structures for lifelong learning for the province. He went on to detail his own teaching in Omagh, Strabane, Portstewart, Derry, Buncrana, Clogher, Letterkenny (all in historic Ulster but some not in post-1921 ‘Ulster’), teaching undertaken for TCD, for Magee College, for Queen’s University Belfast and for the Inishowen Adult Education Board and he spoke with passion about his work with 80 adult-learners in Omagh helping them to reconstruct their history or more accurately histories. He pleaded to be allowed to teach one semester at Coleraine and one in Derry and to be funded to set up a project in Inishowen like the one he had overseen in Omagh. (He clearly chose not to recognise the partition treaty of 1921 or at least he preferred to overlook the North’s lack of responsibility for counties ripped away from the province). It was not to be, of course. But it reminds us that, as Keith Lindley, in his funeral address, said, ‘Bob was a victim of his own popularity’ with students of all ages.1 The selfrevelations in this letter to Brian Manning include not only the tipping of the teaching/research balance in favour of teaching but also the deep commitment to what Keith Lindley called ‘a meticulous eye for detail and relevance’. Both are vital, and first and foremost in that search for relevance was a search for a sense of place, the interaction not only of inhabitants and colonists, but their interactions in very specific landscapes.
Bob was not a man of Ulster; but he was a man born close to the soil. He was born on 22 October 1938, a farmer’s son brought up on a farm close to Ashbourne, County Meath, 17 miles north of Dublin, a village, then, of less than one hundred dwellings midway between Dublin and Navan, south of the Boyne Valley. At one end of its high street was a memorial commemorating a notable engagement in 1916 in which British forces finally surrendered to the volunteers led by Thomas Ashe. It is a monument with a notable dual image – on one side the figure is in the form of Christ, on the other an insurgent.2 It was a village where people knew their history.
The farm was not small (171 lush Meath acres) but his father was disabled and money hard to come by. Bob had to work long hours and return to a house with few amenities, certainly no electricity or running water. A friend from childhood speaks of a family that was proud, independent, frugal, one of the few Protestant families in the farming community.3 Bob grew up very much as the only child of elderly parents, much loved and over-protected, the cause of some of the later insecurities. At the age of 13, he won a Church of Ireland scholarship to Wesley College, and for five years he made the 30-mile round-trip from Ashbourne to school. He had almost three hours to kill between the end of school and the 17:30 Navan bus which dropped him back into Ashbourne, just in time for tea and the Archers on an old battery radio before an evening of reading. He spent those afternoon hours in the YMCA library in Middle Abbey Street, and came across to his contemporaries as ‘bookish and preoccupied’. And it was in that library that he formed a lifetime’s fascination with maps, with what old maps could unintentially tell us as well as intentionally tell us. This deep concern with material culture and a sense of place went deep, almost certainly informed by childhood on a farm and in a spartan farmhouse. One contemporary remembers that as a schoolboy, walking from school to the YMCA, Bob would regularly stop at every travel agency and collect as many brochures as possible so that he could find out about, and visualise, exotic places hither and yon.
He moved on from Wesley to TCD, still commuting from home (by bus or bicycle) until he won the first foundation scholarship in History in 1959, and completing a distinguished undergraduate career by winning the Dunbar Ingram Prize in 1960 and the Alison Phillips Medal, although a First Class degree (still almost as rare as a hen’s tooth) eluded him. He wrote for (and edited) student magazines and boasted of his journalistic achievements in later c.v.s.4
In 1961, he began research at TCD for a doctorate with Theo Moody on Plantation (1607–41) in the counties of Armagh and Cavan, and from 1962 he combined research with piecemeal and part-time work at Magee, then linked to TCD, and Queen’s University Belfast. His papers contain carbon-copies of letters of applications to universities across the island of Ireland as he looked for a permanent position in the golden age of many posts, already complaining (as in a c.v. dated 1964) that ‘material gathering has now reached an advanced stage. The demands of lecturing have this year imposed a halt, but I hope after the intensive round up of sources during the coming summer to complete the thesis in about a year.’ This hyper-conscientiousness was to be a blessing and a curse over the next 45 years. In the event, the dissertation was submitted five years later for a TCD PhD. It was awarded an MLitt as a superior kind of antiquarianism. The magnitude of this injustice can now be seen by us all, since the dissertation, warts and all, is being published simultaneously with this collection, edited by Dr David Edwards. But for a humble and anxiety-ridden personality like Bob’s, it was a devastating blow. Nothing could kill his passion for history and for the love of the chase, but it further limited his ability to complete and to let go of his work. What is surprising is not that he never completed the books he so much wanted to write, but that he published so much.
This volume brings together a selection of his more significant scholarly works. There are many more, however these are, on the whole, shorter (one to three pages in length) or designed for the wider public, not strictly academic.5 The most extraordinary of these is the lavishly-illustrated 80 page account of the Strabane barony during the Ulster Plantation. This was one of those projects on which Bob had worked with local enthusiasts and ‘amateurs’ (as Bob called them) and indeed there are eight authors altogether of 28 short sections, ten written by Bob and four others cowritten by him and one or more of the others. This too has now happily been republished and is a handsome pendant to this volume.6 To those scholarly essays previously published, I have added one major unpublished essay which was in an editable form. It offers a summary of Bob’s view of the impact of plantation on two counties about which he otherwise did not write – Antrim and Down – and precisely because a central theme of his work is to look at the distinctive impact of plantation on people and land in each part of Ulster, the essay is of first importance. It is also one of his best pieces. There is a saying in Cambridge that students need to learn supervisor hand as well as secretary and court hands; and Bob’s handwriting was deceptively elegant, concealing many ambiguities. I am grateful to Ms Nvard Chalikyan for her help in deciphering this text. That her own homeland of Nagorno Karabakh (Armenia) has a history of occupation and plantation even more bloodstained than Ulster was a help. He would have made something of the irony.
There were other manuscripts of unpublished lectures and essays in Bob’s papers that were considered for publication, but none was complete, and all broke off at a certain point into jottings and bullet-points, at which juncture footnoting also broke down. There is an especially interesting lecture on ‘The origins of tobacco in Ireland, 1600–41’ but seven pages of text degenerate into seven more of jottings. That this ‘hobby’ and ‘sideline’7 should get such thorough treatment from Exchequer Papers (TNA, E190), State Papers Ireland, English and Irish Port records, Carew Papers and much else, is evidence of what constituted a ‘hobby’. Amongst the many very short essays not included here, but representative of the breadth of Bob’s interest are pieces on ‘a detail in Donegal transport history’ (1964), ‘the disruption of a Munster plantation exercise’ (1970), ‘a seventeenth-century Mill in Tyrhugh’ (1970), an account of ‘Dublin to Boston, 1719’ (1971), ‘Carew’s Survey of Ulster, 1611’ (1975), ‘John Gwillim and the Dublin Book Trade in 1614’ (1991), and ‘Scotland and the Atlantic: the voyage of the Jonet of Leith, December 1611’ (1993). He also contributed seven short entries to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including lives of the Protestant settlers and native chieftains.8
There were then, tangential ventures into other subjects but always an overwhelming tug back to the story of Ulster between the Flight of the Earls and the rebellion of 1641. This collection reflects the centrifugal force of Plantation Ulster and two of its aspects: patterns of settlement in particular rural and agrarian contexts, and the planting of towns. Both involve a strong sense of material culture and the physicality of cultural engagement. One of the longest essays is a study of a relatively small number of gravestones surviving from the colonial period in just one of the counties (Tyrone). Each had been sought out on heroic expeditions. One friend reports a trip to Inishowen in search of one such gravestone, a trip delayed by cups of tea in Bob’s house in Clarendon Street, L’derry9 and a stop for fish and chips in Moville. By the time Bob and his companion reached the graveyard and, clambering over a wall armed with shovels, began to hack at the ivy covering the grave, it was getting dark. A crowd, suspicious and not a little hostile, gathered. But then a voice from the back called out: ‘that’s Bob Hunter who lectured me in Coleraine’. Hostility dissolved and collaboration took its place.10
He had a lifetime passion for libraries and for the preservation of records of all kinds. He fought tigerishly to preserve the old library at Magee, and I was one of those who suffered as a result of not observing the injunction referred to by Keith Lindley in his funeral address for Bob: ‘those in the know found themselves warning others “don’t mention the library”’. When Bob’s financial fortunes were transformed by the sale of his family farmland for housing development, he became a generous benefactor of a number of libraries, not least in a substantial donation to the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Library. And he had a very substantial and significant library of his own. I was given a guided tour two weeks before Bob’s death and can testify that while the house itself and all its furnishings were much neglected (to put it mildly), the library was magnificently housed. (The chaos and disorder is wonderfully captured in the story of what happened when an RUC officer, investigating a burglary next door, came round to see if Bob had seen or heard anything that might help the investigation. Bob opened the door and the officer, looking beyond Bob, called out to his colleague: ‘you had better get round here. You should see what the bastards have done to this house …’).11
What is published in this volume is, then, the nineteen essays of real substance that Bob produced over a 40-year period from 1964 and the onset of a horrid cancer in 2005. We have arranged them thematically rather than chronologically and between them they cover seven counties in historic pre-partition Ulster together with a cluster of articles on the print trade, focused on Dublin. There can be no doubt that they are emphatically more than the sum of their parts. While Bob was undoubtedly (in terms of a famous distinction made by Laurence Stone in relation to himself and Geoffrey Elton) a truffle-pig rather than a parachutist – that is he found treasure buried deep in the records more than he took in the big picture with a sweep of the eye across a vast landscape, there are insistent themes that come through the very different questions he asked of very different types of evidence for different parts of the province. And so very often, the devil (and the delight) is in the detail. He noticed in Cartwright’s muster roll of 1630 not only a concentration of English and Scottish names, but also, as he put it ‘the interesting appearance of a body of Welsh names in the estate of the servitor Robert Davies and occasionally elsewhere’.12 The precision of that sentence, and especially of the appropriately cautious ‘occasionally’ should be noted. More dramatic is the discussion in the course of his analysis of Donegal Plantation records of the development of clusters of new buildings (long vanished) along riverbanks (‘a village of twelve houses and cottages at Ballybofey “inhabited for the most part with British” … [and an] estate on the opposite side of the River Finn “near unto the ford”’ (still an identifiable location)), evidence that he walked the area before he wrote about it.13 And so he was able to notice that a small fouracre plot withheld from the grant made to a former sheriff, Sir Richard Hansard and retained for the Crown, consisted of the land immediately along the riverbank at the confluence of the Deele and the Finn, a crucial strategic point.14
This preoccupation with telling detail, the synecdoches that open up the social and cultural history of the Plantation are to be found throughout these essays. Writing about Sir William Cole and the construction of the new plantation town of Enniskillen, he worried away at the sources until they revealed that:
The town itself mainly followed the line of one main street. By the 1740s, when the first map to survive was published,15 there was an intersection not only, necessarily, at the Diamond, but also (nearer the Church) at Middleton Street and Paget Street, but the pre-1641 settlement can scarcely have exceeded fifty houses, many probably of one storey with attic accommodation lit by dormer windows above a second floor which would have been one and half storeys. The detail of one house survives, building having proceeded apace.16
The careful use of adverbs and subjunctives allows the careful underlying scholarship to retain its integrity.
Once a detail had been found which needed interrogation, he would research and read away exponentially until he was able to achieve analytical precision. Here he is resolving a puzzle about the date of building of the substantial house at Richhill, County Armagh. Surviving estate evidence is unhelpful, so Bob focused on the chimneys:
Chimneys with recessed semi-circular-headed panels were mainly current in England during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, but the style had a long history. It may have been in the brick style buildings of Francis I (1515–45) around Paris, and earlier in the Loire (Chateaudun, on a wing begun 1502), while Blois itself has a wing finished in 1503, with Gothic tracery in the chimney panels. Though it seems to have a French origin, in Britain it is English and not Scottish, perhaps because French brick styles did not find much favour among the stone-building Scottish patrons and their masons. The style was thus already time-honoured when used at Swakeleys (1629–38), Scole (1655), Moyles Court (Hants, 1660), and in Ireland it must be considered an English style, seen at Brazeel House near Dublin (probably 1650) as well as Richhill. In England a few examples are later seventeenth century, and one (without imposts on the panels) occurs on an early eighteenthcentury building (c. 1715) at Bourton-on-the-Hill, Glos. The close comparison between Richhill and Brazeel and the English midseventeenth- century group – Swakeleys, Scols, Moyles Court – are the strongest reasons for considering Richhill a house of the later seventeenth century.
He concludes his account with comments on imitation houses built in New England.17 Here is virtuoso (and relentless) scholarship indeed.
Places and built environment were tactile reminders of the history he studied. But people mattered too: and not just the nobs. Let us return to Enniskillen:
Now as for the town, [Sir William Cole] had taken bonds from twelve burgesses to build their houses this next summer, while ‘divers carpenters and other artificers that purpose to settle there’ were about the works then in hand. He had himself provided for the making of 300,000 bricks and ‘tile proportionate’, with ‘good store’ of timber for the works of the corporation. For all this work in fact, quite a number of craftsmen – possibly even from London – must have been engaged by Cole; Irish labourers may also have been employed there. Some hint as to who might have had a part in laying out the town comes from a witness to an Enniskillen deed in April 1616; one John Widdowes. Widdowes, or Woodhouse, now in Ireland, was a man with a new scientific training of the age with some link to Gresham College in London, and may have been at this stage in some way in Cole’s employ.18
So locating people in their precise time and space was another passion and imperative. No-one has captured with such precision the interlocking economic, geopolitical and cultural forces bearing down on Rory O’Donnell between 1603 and 1607 which culminated in his catastrophic miscalculation in leaving Ireland;19 or got close to the heart of the mental worlds of disappointed military adventurers like Ralph Bingley, destabilising a world that was in danger of being pacified, rendering him redundant. Bob revelled in detail and in how unexpected conjunctions or contingencies explain puzzles in the past.20 Here he is unravelling how we need to get beyond simple lists of freeholders to understand why what happened was not what was supposed to happen. He looks first at a list of six names proposed for 3,000 acres of Fishmongers’ Company land in 1617. Some were military men, like ‘Captain’ Vaughan, others were merchants owed money by the company (Thomas Haward or Hayward). Some never arrived to make good their claim, some were objected to by the Irish Society, and there was great squabbling among them about who got the best land, aided by the fact that one of them was a skilled cartographer. Painful and painstaking reconstruction allows Bob to conclude that
What happened presents a pattern of substitution, with many of the actual freeholders not being exclusively linked to the estate but rather mainly being people who lived in or near Derry and having also other interests. Thus although Captain Vaughan was indeed denied a freehold, his relative James received one – at Ballyrory – but immediately in 1619 he sold it to Thomas Skipton who, himself a building contractor it would seem, was at this point establishing himself with many acres of land on both the Goldsmiths’ and Grocers’ estates a few miles opposite Derry and who, a persistent tradition has it, had been killed by some of the Irish in the early 1620s. Certainly he was dead by 1624, leaving a son, also Thomas, a child under age who in the 1630s was to attend Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and then to follow the law at Gray’s Inn in London. These were not the conditions for establishing a subplantation of settler tenant farmers in the southern part of the estate and it looks likely that the former owners, the O Harrons, remained in occupation as rent payers of some kind up to 1641.21
Wow! And so it goes on. Bob revelled in the detail and sometimes was overwhelmed by it. But most of the time it gave him an entirely unique and persuasive ability not simply to describe but to evaluate a society at a pivotal point in its history, an irruption with profound consequences for the present as well as for the past.
Bob was a driven man, who set himself impossible goals and set up even more obstacles in his own path than others put there. He yoked a droll precision to a deep love of communicating what he knew to very different audiences. He had a gift for friendship, a generosity to those who had ‘the root of the matter in them’, a passion for truth. Only twice did he try to pull all that he knew together, first in the essay we publish here for the first time as chapter 1 and simply entitled ‘The Ulster Plantation’, an essay co-written with Raymond Gillespie around 1984 and intended as the introduction to a collection of photocopied documents being prepared for the Teachers’ Centre in Belfast. The other is a mere 676 words written by Bob for a BBC website. The text is still to be found online, as is a recording of Bob reading those 676 words, and summarising his life’s work.22To hear again that voice, so characteristic, so inimitable, at once warm and wily, slow and deliberate and yet so anxious to say more than there is time for, so full of droll precision, is a vital way to remember him as it was to get to know him. We print off the words themselves below. But we encourage anyone who knew Bob or, having read this book, wishes he or she had known him, to listen to him reading these words. They are at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ british/plantation/transcripts/sm01_t01.shtml.