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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .

Rituals and Riots: Sectarian Violence and Political Culture in Ulster, 1784-1886
Sean Farrell

Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000
254pp. Biblio. Index. Hb.: $34.95; ISBN 0-8131-2171-X.

Rituals and Riots provides new insights into the sectarian violence and political culture in pre-famine Ulster. Sean Farrell begins the discussion with the troubles in Armagh and mid-Ulster in 1784-1798 and finishes with the Belfast riots which took place some hundred years after Armagh. The theoretical framework focuses on the concept of moral economy first introduced by E. P. Thompson. Moral economy emphasises the role of community, their perceptions of legitimate history and communal action, and also the cultural context of violence. In Northern Ireland sectarian moral economy centred on an exclusivist definition of loyalty and citizenship (p.13). Farrell argues that the Protestant community based their worldview exclusively on sectarian moral economy in order to hold on to superior status. On the other hand, the Catholic worldview was based on sense of dispossession. It gained its legitimacy from a particular view of Irish history, a narrative which focused on the status and power lost to Protestant conquest. Catholic understanding of Ireland's future was not based on moral economy, quite the contrary they tried to resist the status quo created by Protestant sectarian moral economy.

Farrell's book discusses the history of violence in Ulster. It aims to clarify the sources and reasons for the violent outbursts and moreover go beyond the institutional explanations. This means that communal expectations, contested worldviews and sense of fear among the communities have much greater effect on the appearance and collective support for violence than is often acknowledged. The six chapters of the book discuss, for example, the differences and similarities of the Orange Order and Catholic resistance in 17th and 18th century. They also examine how violence is not just tribalism but carefully constructed in ritual contexts and tied to local and national political life. Farrell illustrates how rituals shaped the style and substance of party violence, experienced during and after the sectarian festivities. A particularly interesting chapter of the book focuses on urbanisation and riots in Belfast and Derry. Urban territories and segregation changed the nature and the geographical place of violent confrontations from rural Armagh to the cities of Ulster.

Generally, the book is a compact and illustrative work on the use of violence in organising community relations in pre-famine Ulster. Farrell is critical of several previous areas of research on the topic and in many points is able to convince the reader with new, well-founded explanations. However, at times I was left with a feeling that deeper discussion would have been required. Riots and Rituals is a book with an historical approach, but it has much relevance in understanding the contemporary Northern Ireland. It was rather frightening to notice that the same circle of violence, politics and confrontation has been on-going in Ulster since the 16th century. Cynically we can ask, when do we learn the lessons of history?

Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto
Department of Regional Studies and Environmental Policy

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