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Jonathan, who has died at the age of 79 from complications caused by the coronavirus, first inspired and enthused secondary school pupils in Belfast with his history lessons in the 1960s, then continuously, hundreds of Further Education and University students with his History lectures into the 21st century. He also reached out and enlightened and entertained a wider public, with his books and radio and tv audiences, with his scripts on Irish History. It was a life well spent, doing the things at which he excelled and relished.
He was born in 1941, the second year of the Second World War, in Dublin, the capital of the 19-year old Irish Republic. He later claimed : "I owe my eyesight to Adolf Hitler because I was only two pounds weight when I was born and I should have been given oxygen treatment, but there was no liquid oxygen in Dublin due to the fact that Ireland was a neutral country and Churchill wouldn't allow any liquid oxygen to get to Ireland. What they didn't know in 1941, is that pure oxygen blinds babies. So I owe my eyesight to Adolf Hitler."
"threadbare gentility", in a Protestant family, a union of the families of Whiteside and Bardon. He recalled : 'In the early 1950s, shortly after long-playing records had been invented, my father, Eric Bardon, arrived at our home with a turntable which, with some difficulty, was duly attached to the radio. Since he restricted his purchases to just two or three LPs a year and, like the rest of the family, had very limited knowledge of classical music, he took care to consult an expert before buying. That expert was a customer of the Munster & Leinster Bank in Donnybrook, where my father was a teller for many years.'
'One day , my father dismounted his bicycle with delight. We gathered round to watch him take from a paper bag not one, but three records he had been advised to purchase : the complete Handel's Messiah, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir and the soloists Vyvyan, Proctor, Maran amd Brannigan. Not being able to tell a crotchet from a quaver, I nevertheless got to know the oratorio extremely well by playing the vinyl discs endlessly.'
Their 1930s house was in Booterstown, a small coastal town in the County of Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, about 7 km south of Dublin, "quite close to the posh part of Dublin 4" and from the age of 5 - 11, he attended the Booterstown Church of Ireland National School, situated in the grounds of St Philip and St James’ Church.
He recalled from his childhood, the first book to make an impression on him was 'The Year’s At The Spring : An Anthology of Best-Loved Poems'. His father, who bought his copy in 1921, sat him and his two younger sisters down on the sofa and "read the poems to us, while we gazed intently at Harry Clarke’s sumptuous illustrations."
Another of his childhood favourites was 'The Book of Indians' by the American author, Holling C Holling. He recalled : "My uncle gave it to me on my eighth birthday in 1949. It combined stories about native Americans with accounts, richly illustrated with brown line drawings, about how they hunted buffalo and other wild game, built their tepees and log houses, made canoes and decorated clothing from birch bark, and used their skill to live off the land. I no longer have it, but I remember the very last line : 'Be a good Indian' ".
The canon was a friend of the Taoiseach of the Republic, Éamon de Valera whose house was only a couple of hundred yards from our school" and de Valera managed to persuade Canon Batemena "to soften the tone of the church bells on a sunday morning." In 1957, the Canon, asked de Valera to open a new wing for the school and was photographed standing behind the Taoiseach.
At the age of 11 he started to attend 'The High School' in Dublin. It was a Church of Ireland, private secondary school in Rathgar, which had been founded in 1870 by Erasmus Smith Esquire, as a school 'To prepare boys for business and the professions' and its most illustrious pupil had been W.B. Yeats, who entered the school in 1881 after his family had returned to Dublin from London.
As a teenager his twin passions were 'cycling' and he would "bicycle immense distances" and 'fishing'. The one thing he hated at school was its organised sport : "I was appallingly bad at rugby. Appallingly bad at cricket" and found the sports field an "absolute misery."
As a consequence he would bunk off games and "would mingle with elderly men at the end of Dun Laoghaire Pier." These were retired workers from the gasworks. Sometimes he took his little oil lamp with him and joined them :
"In the winter dark, while rats formed a great semi-circle around us waiting for us to throw them an undersized whiting or two. One man gave me a vivid account of the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 and how members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police battered people all around him when he was listening to Jim Larkin in O'Connell Street."
When it came to recent Irish history, his own father, who was born in 1906, had told him how, at the age of 16, in 1922, he had witnessed the violence in Dublin the early years of the young Republic, when IRA militants led by Rory O'Connor occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in an effort to light a fuse to bring down the Anglo-Irish Treaty and restart the fight to create an all-Ireland Irish Republic. The battle, which began with an assault by Provisional Government forces on the building, ended in their decisive victory, but with the loss of 80 dead and 280 wounded. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfYYW1g2TFU&t=0m06s
His Grandfather, James Bardon, also maintained his strong views about more Irish history and in reference to The Government of Ireland Act 1914, passed when he was 44, would say "Damn Home Rule." A view he still expounded when Jonathan was in his twenties in the 1960s.
Jonathan lost his religion at the age of 15-16 and said he just "stopped believing. It began to feel to me to be a lot of nonsense". However, he continued attending church and took part, with his friends, in its social life, where he helped organise dances and acted as the DJ. He said that he "was a spotty, gangly, awkward youth. Not much good in chatting up girls but, through his two sisters, had a number of female friends." His continued allegiance to the church was also helped by the fact that "protestantism in Dublin was a very genteel, non-threatening variety."
As the sixth form approached at school he found that "Through my fishing, I bought and borrowed quite academic works on fish and sea life. I knew the names of upwind flies, which came off rivers and lakes and was more interested in zoology than history." He considered Justice Kingsmill Moore's 1960's 'A Man May Fish', " arguably the best book on fly fishing ever written in the English language" and he himself was having articles published in 'Trout And Salmon Magazine', which he considered something of a bible for anglers. Before submitting his work for publication he had already developed the method of : "Read your first drafts out loud to yourself, as if you were giving a sermon – a great way to show up areas in need of improvement."
"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." In fact, the Headmaster, Dr Reynolds, said that his marks in Science weren't good enough anyway. It was in the same year, 1959, that he "was given a book token and, determined to cash it in straight away, I bought a history book almost solely because I liked the dust cover. It was 'The Defeat of the Spanish Armada' by Garrett Mattingly. I was transfixed from the outset. The author taught me that good history is not enough : the historian also has a duty to tell it well, to hold the reader’s attention."
"a lot of history books at home of a fairly imperialist type, produced in the late 19th century early 20th century, Elizabethan heros, from Kabul to Kandahar, Lord Roberts and all of that, deeds of derring-do."
"I spent a great deal of time talking to him. He would sit beside the fire with an enormous coal shuttle which, I discovered later, was a shell form the Western Front which he had brought back. At the age of 40 he'd joined up and fought with the Royal Engineers on the Western Front; had survived; went to Iraq; built bridges; became a captain in British Army; wrote a memoir : 'An Irishman in Iraq : 10 years in Mesopotamia', which he wrote on the banks of the River Tigris in 1930 as he waited for his boat to come to take him home." It survived as a family heirloom in the shape of a fragile typescript. https://vimeo.com/60668553#t=15m31s
In 1960, he took his place at Trinity College Dublin to read for a degree in History and when he took his Finals three years later "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."
"The real story is, when I was canning strawberries in summer holidays in England, I met this girl, who was a student at Queens University. She was from North Antrim and I just decided to pursue her and came up to do a diploma in education in Queens University in Belfast." The affair didn't last, but while he studied for a year he met many of the people who became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and between 1963-64 was sublet a room by the student activist, Eamon McCann, who was President of the Literary and Scientific Society and the University's debating society.
"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."
In September 1964, he and a couple of friends decided to go to Divis Street where rioting had erupted after Ian Paisley led a protest against the flying of a tricolour from Republican offices. "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."
Of his pupils he later said : "I just missed Van Morrison, but did teach Brian Keenan". In fact his other pupils included the actor Ciaran Hinds, playwright Martin Lynch, Graham Reid, the writer of the 'Billy' plays, the painter Sam Mateer, the Loyalist politician David Ervine, the author and journalist Walter Ellis, the one-time Sinn Fein Publicity Director, Danny Morrison and Ronnie Bunting, the son of a political ally of Ian Paisley, who went to become a founder member of the INLA and was later shot dead.
He recalled : "I began to teach Irish history to them, with the encouragement of the Principle. I discovered that they knew very little about the history of their own city. I didn't know much about the history of Belfast either, but you could say that nucleus of the book I eventually wrote on the history of Belfast came from me dipping in to find out stuff to bring into the classroom to tell them about the shipyards and the growth of Belfast and its turbulent history." He said that this investigation of the history of Belfast led him on a intense voyage of discovery with many hours spent in the Linen Hall and Central Library in the city. https://vimeo.com/60668553#t=31m35s
Jonathan made his first steps into radio broadcasting at the age of 22 and recalled : 'When I came from Dublin to live in Belfast in 1963, Broadcasting House seemed to me to be the only truly modern building in the city. I discovered later that the only other structure in this striking and appealing Art Deco style was the Bank of Ireland in Royal Avenue. Little did I know that before the year was out I would be in a BH studio for the first time – with Eamonn McCann, John McGuffin, Michael Farrell and Graham (now) Stephen Rea. This was to broadcast live an extract from a late night revue then running in the basement of the Whitla Hall.'
"I was rushed to hospital to have my appendix removed. After the operation I found 6 veterans of the battle in my ward. One of them had also fought in the Boer War. I recorded as many of their memories as I could." He was also "asked, as a very young teacher, to write a book on Irish History and was given to period 400 - 1450 and that was published as 'Struggle for Ireland, 400 - 1450' in 1970'" Written for 12 year olds, it would be almost 30 years before he revisited writing for school children, in the form of radio and television scripts for school broadcasts.
"just right" for him from the start, partly because, in addition to teaching, he did a lot of socialising and organised debates and outings. Increasingly, however, he found himself surrounded by the civil unrest in Belfast which had started when the campaign by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to end discrimination against the Catholic/nationalist minority by the Protestant/unionist Government and Police Force, led to increasing violence and the deployment of British troops on the streets of Belfast in 1969.
There were no sectarian incidents at the College and the students, who were split roughly equally along catholic-protestant lines, continued to attend. He said that "Teaching Irish History at the time very contentious stuff, which included the Covenant and the 1916 rioting. I had actually set the syllabus for the exam board A level. From the point of view of the students he thought : "They would say : "Now he's a southerner. He's ethnically a Prod. So, I could be sort of acceptable on both sides." Despite the escalating trouble he still rode his BSA Bantam to work.
He recalled that in 1972 : "When you're teaching in the centre of a war-torn city; so many people suffering and dying, one of our students was killed in the Abercorn Bombing, for example, and there were many others. And there were also quite a few of our students involved on both sides."
He remembered that one night he was teaching an evening class and "Jethro Tull was playing in the Ulster Hall, amazingly in the heart of the Troubles. I was talking about the French invasion of Holland in in 1795" He started by saying that it was : "So bitterly cold that Parson Woodford recorded, in his diary, that the contents of his chamber pot under his bed had frozen solid. Suddenly the British Army came under fire as the French galloped across the ice on the Zuider Zee" and there were burst of gunfire outside the window and it continued and eventually the Evening Superviser came in and said : ""I think we ought to close down the class a bit early" and we managed to get all of the students out of that college mostly in student cars rather than staff cars." https://vimeo.com/60668553#t=43m24s
James Hawthorn, who had started work in Belfast in 1951 as a maths teacher, had joined BBC Radio as an education broadcaster in 1960, was by 1970s The Head of Education Output and decided to commission a number of broadcasts on Irish history, which Jonathan conceded was : "a very brave decision at that time." Jonathan recalled : "Soon after, Douglas Carson was appointed to join his staff. Soon after he was ensconced in the BBC, Douglas brought me in as a script-writer for his series, 'Modern Irish History: People and Events'. Each programme was to draw on just one pivotal event, usually over no more than one twenty-four hour period. For a young script-writer the objectives were exacting. For most of the programmes I had no choice but to turn to primary sources. In the process, I learned more about historical research then than I had in four years as an undergraduate. The challenge was to lift young listeners into another time and place."
He went on : "Douglas went to every production in the Lyric Theatre then in Derryvolgie Avenue, the Arts Theatre and the Group Theatre to seek out suitable acting talent. He insisted that I should be present during recordings". " Many times I peered awkwardly and shyly through the glass at accomplished actors such as Stella McCusker, Mark Mulholland, Jack McQuoid and Harold Goldblatt. One morning there was a fresh arrival, a tall young man from Ballymena who was to take part in a programme on Robert Emmet. His name was Liam Neeson and he did not even have the main role."
In 1982 he was approached by Anne Tannahill, the Editor of the Blackstaff Press and recalled : "She said : "Would you like to write a History of Belfast ?" She meant a little short book, but I wrote like fury and it came out as quite a fat book in the end." In his 'Belfast : An Illustrated History', he traced its beginnings as a river-crossing, through its centuries of radical politics and commercial enterprise to its, 'then', present state.
It was a prelude to his next project, a 'History of Ulster', which came about when he "was asked by Brian Mawhinney, when he was Minister of Education, to chair a couple of curriculum committees on 'Education for Mutual Understanding' and on 'Cultural Heritage' and as a result of that I got a years sabbatical and sent to the Public Record Office in Balmoral Avenue and from dawn to midnight for an entire year I was researching and writing."
"The first thing that I noticed when I was student at Trinity College, getting books on Irish History, the academic works were were very dry, rather inaccessible and the popular ones and the 'Black and Tans' and so on were well written, easy to read, often historically, very dodgy. I felt what was needed was history which was well researched and where people would want to turn over to the next page and the book which really inspired me was Tony Stewart's book, 'The Ulster Crisis'. It read like a thriller from start to finish, yet superbly well researched. That to me to me became a kind of model."
'one policeman for every six families, or put another way, one policeman for every two Catholic families' or : that 'the sectarian riots in Belfast during 1864, 1872 and 1886 produced more casualties than all the nationalist risings in 19th-century Ireland'. In the book he dealt with the inevitable high points, such as 1688-90, Derry and the Boyne, but also the less usual aspects, such as Ulster's experience of the 1798 Rising. When it came to Belfast, its greatness as a Victorian industrial metropolis was brilliantly delineated and he provided a notably balanced view of the early civil rights episodes.
In terms of his motivation he said : "Quite a few historians had felt that people in Northern Ireland needed to know about their past, but it should not be an interpretation they get off gable walls and from family members and from the streets." He felt that in writing this history historians had a role to play in constructing a shared future and in doing this "you can't eliminate the past or skate over ugly periods of history. The truth had to be told. That is what I tried to do in writing a 'History of Ulster'. All kinds of slaughter that occurred, vicious sectarian conflict that occurred had to be chronicled and weighed up."
Now in his fifties, he was doing more work for the BBC and had become "a more frequent visitor to Ormeau Avenue as a member of the Broadcasting Council and to gave brief interviews on 'Good Morning Ulster', 'Evening Extra' and other radio programmes". In 1992, after the launch of the 'History of Ulster', the producer, Douglas Carson asked him what I would like to write next ? He recalled : "After thinking a bit, I responded: ‘I really want to write a History of Ireland’. "But, Jonathan", he answered, "when you wrote a full History of Ulster you were doing something which had not been done before. If you wrote a history of Ireland, you would be joining a choir.""
In 1993, working for Ulster Television he provided 9 authoritative scripts for its series 'Understanding Northern Ireland', narrated by the actor Deny Hawthorne : 'A Violent Birth' ; ' Protestant North'; 'Divided in War and Peace'; 'Reform and Reaction'; 'Civil Rights to Civil Strife'; 'Direct Rule'; 'The Anglo-Irish Agreement'; 'The Problem Unresolved' and 'The Downing Street Declaration' which he ended with the words : "America had embraced Northern Ireland. Could Northern Ireland embrace peace ?"
At the age of 57 in 1998, he joined the School of History at Queen's University and remained there until his retirement in 2007, while continuing to be active both in academia and the media. In 1999, for example, he gave a paper at the Annual Conference of the Irish Association entitled : 'Northern Ireland : A place apart, or a variation on a theme ?' in which he said : "From a European - indeed a world - perspective, Northern Ireland is a variation on a theme. Until the end of the 1980s there was a widespread tendency to regard the Northern Ireland 'problem' as being a curious and unique historical survival. The coming down of the Berlin Wall ten years ago and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc indicated otherwise. There the new-found freedom allowed long-dormant ethnic rivalries to gush to the surface."
In the 1990s he was invited to join the newly created 'Community Relations Council' and chaired it from 1996-2000 and was awarded an OBE in 2002 for 'Services to Community Life', in recognition of his deep commitment to reconciliation and peace-building in Northern Ireland.
In 2005 he was commissioned by BBC Radio Ulster, in the wake of its 30th birthday celebrations in 2006, to produce short 5 minute dramatised programmes broadcast every week day 2006-07 under the title 'From the Ice Age to Northern Ireland's Peace Settlement : A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes'. When he re-edited, restructured and supplemented it for publication as 'A History of Ireland in 250 episodes' in book form in 2009 and he "Officially this book began in 2005 but the gestation has been all my adult life." At the time, he said that he threw himself "into writing 240 five-minute scripts. The episodes, heard in sequence, were to provide a narrative history of Ireland up to 1939. A second series would take the story up to 1963. My long-term dream of covering the history of the whole island in an original way was becoming a reality." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gi4hGpidY5Y&t=2m41s
Also in 2010 he was also commissioned by BBC Radio Ulster to write 60, five minute programmes to trace Ulster's connection to Scotland from earliest times under the title of 'A Narrow Sea' and broadcast every day, early in 2011, they all bore Jonathan's mark of fastidious research and listener appeal : Episode 1 : 'The Classical World learns about Scotland & Ireland'; Episode 31 : 'Seven Ill Years'; Episode 56 : 'A question of identity: the Ulster crisis 1912-14'; Episode 57 : 'Inventors, bankers and political leaders'; Episode 59 : 'The Hamely Tongue'; Episode 60 : 'Identifying the Ulster-Scots'.
'A Narrow Sea : The Irish-Scottish Connection in 120 Episodes' in 2018. He made no apology at deliberately aiming to make history as accessible as possible to as wide an audience as possible and said : "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."
In 2014 BBC Radio 4 broadcast his 'Short History of Ireland' over 120, fifteen minute episodes starting with 'The First Plants, Animals and People; Stone Age Ireland' and ending with 'Forget the Unhappy Past; Crying for a Happier Life.'
"I love the binding, the different fonts, the one colour plate and the smell" was : His 1867 copy of "A rather tattered copy of 'Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh', 'The War of the Gaedhil with the Gall' or 'The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen' translated from the original Irish Text by James Henthorn Todd."
His most memorable quote from history was Winston Churchill's on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th, 1921 at 2.10 in the morning : “Michael Collins rose, looking as if he was going to shoot somebody, preferably himself. In all my life I have never seen so much passion and suffering in restraint.”
In 2015 Jonathan said : "I have had a wonderful life. A very happy childhood. Teaching, particularly in Further Education, was for me, just he ideal job. Particularly as I was able to indulge my passion for writing at the same time and I'm quite convinced that if I just sat and wrote history books, they would be very different from the ones I have written, because you have constant interaction with students that ask you questions and you think : I should be answering those questions when I'm writing. I've lived a good life. I love living in Northern Ireland."
"The historian never gets to the absolute truth. The good historian strives to get there all the time."