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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


The Unkindest Cut: A Cartoon History of Ulster, 1900-2000
John Killen

Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000
166pp. Pb.: 10.99; ISBN 0-85640-682-1.



John Killen's The Unkindest Cut provides a partial cartoon chronology of the media's coverage of events in Ulster. The book is neatly divided into six chapters, starting with an Overview that includes 16th century and 17th century caricatures of how the English perceived the Irish. The remaining five chapters cover the last 100 years, commencing with The Foundation of the State. This chapter covers events leading up to the Government of Ireland Act in December 1920, the act that partitioned six of the nine counties of Ulster, establishing Northern Ireland as a separate entity from the newly-formed Free State of Ireland. The next chapter, A Protestant State for a Protestant People, portrays the beginnings of what would be a long, violent tug-of-war over the partition of Ulster. Ulster at War and The Postwar Years are chapters that continue with conflict over partition, and include insights on the roles and relationships between Britain, Ulster and Ireland during WWII. The final chapter, The Troubles 1969-2000, is graphically concrete in covering the events leading up to the peace process. Each chapter includes a selection of cartoons from a wide range of publications, from the mainstream to the fringe, accompanied by a short descriptive paragraph of the events being caricatured.

In reporting conflict events, the print media believes they are objective, and seemingly seeks different perspectives on the events to confirm such objectivity. Killen shows us the political cartoonist is under no such obligation. While a newspaper's coverage can use selective and subtle language in describing and analyzing those events, in order to provide a conflict frame for its audience, space dictates what the political cartoonist communicates. Thus, political cartoons can reveal within one pen-sketch the publication's political agenda.

Killen's pictorial chronology, moreover, demonstrates how political cartoons contribute to, if not shape, the views of the reading public. Cartoons capture in a few strokes of the pen what we inwardly and, at times, silently feel about ourselves and the other-for example, our reaction to the meanings of a cartoon is invariably a chuckle. Indeed, political cartoons reflect their intended audience's view of the subject-a view that has possibly been a construction of and by the publication. Thus recognition and possible agreement of how the media has framed the conflict contributes to how we see ourselves and the other. While Killen does not directly address the topic of ethnic conflict, this collection of political cartoons illustrates our ethnocentric tendencies, for the political cartoon is intended to affirm what its readers feel to be true, including all the stereotypes, prejudices and biases. The political cartoon rarely allows for alternate frames and definitions of the conflict.

The Unkindest Cut is simultaneously humorous, poignant, and thought provoking. Killen will be serving at least two reading audiences with this contribution. It is a snapshot "about" Ulster and hopefully will leave uninformed readers asking questions about Ulster. It should also leave informed readers asking questions about themselves.


Linda McLean Harned



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