Ian Adamson was a highly complex person, with a whole range of roles as physician, politician, historian, and cultural activist. What I will say today will only scratch the surface of what was an exceptionally rich and full life.
Ian is perhaps best known through the series of books he wrote, starting with the best-known, The Cruthin, published at the height of the Troubles in 1974, and ending with the most recent, The Voyage of Bran, published last year. His work on the prehistory of Ulster proposes what amounts to an alternative narrative of origins for the unionist community in Ulster. He traces the story of the original inhabitants, not only of Ulster but also of the British Isles, what he calls the “ancient kindred” (known as the Cruthin or Pretani), from pre-history into the Early Christian period and beyond. He saw his narrative as a means to establish a meaningful dialogue with Ulster’s Gaelic past, with both “traditions” together forming a “common identity,” a theme he has developed over the past few years with Helen Brooker through Pretani Associates.
This considerable body of writing hides another key aspect of his involvement in publishing. His imprint, Pretani Press, was behind the publication of a broad range of significant texts. I am thinking of the Folk Poets of Ulster Series in 1992 which made the Ulster-Scots material of the “weaver poets” available to the general public for the first time since their initial publication; or again his edition of Ferguson’s Congal in 1980, the first publication of this major text since 1907; or again the translation of the Old Testament into Scots, produced in 2014. It is important to underline the intelligence of this targeted policy of re-edition. This material provided clear evidence of cultural continuities that reflected much of what he was saying in his own work with regard to the specificities of Ulster’s position as an interface between Ireland and Scotland; but – equally importantly – it also allowed him to highlight the complex ideological shifts that have taken place within a culture that is far from being as monolithic as its critics would have us believe.
However, what made Ian’s work special was that things did not stop with a publication. What mattered more was how he managed to turn material that might otherwise have seemed obscure into something that was relevant to the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland today. In particular, it is the creative and imaginative processes this material set in motion in the community that are important.
The example of a visit to France in the 1980s is a perfect illustration of how he worked.
One of my predecessors in Irish Studies at the Sorbonne, René Fréchet, was deeply impressed by Ian’s text, The Identity of Ulster, and invited him to present his work at the Sorbonne. Ian saw an ideal opportunity and, in collaboration with the Farset Youth Project, organised a trip with a group of young people from the Shankill and the Falls in Belfast and Tallaght in Dublin that would call in Paris and travel on through Europe in a bus. The idea was to follow in the steps of the 6th century monk, Columbanus, born in Leinster, trained down the road here in Bangor and who was destined to found a string of monasteries all over Europe. The connections Columbanus’ story opened up made him an ideal candidate for Ian’s particular brand of community relations. Ian was one of the rare people in this country to be able to see a direct cultural link between an Irish monk born in Leinster in the mid 6th century and a young unemployed loyalist in the Shankill in the middle of the Troubles in the 1980s. He was one of the rare people to be able to use the one to instruct the other in terms of his identity – to offer an alternative model to the sectarianism and violence that blighted everday life for so many. On the return journey, almost as an afterthought, he decided to stop off in the Somme, an initiative that was to lead to the creation of the Somme Association and the refurbishment of the Ulster Tower, a site that was to take on its fullest significance in the context of the 1916 commemorations
This trip is in many ways a résumé of the complex linkages that underpin Ian’s work. There is an interest in early Church history, the connection with Europe, the link in to the First World War and above all the overarching imperative of using this to educate young people who otherwise could never have imagined having such an opportunity.
The result of this multi-layered approach is that he has made an extraordinary contribution to the cultural debate here. Needless to say, his impact has been most clearly felt in certain sections of the unionist community. An obvious example is Rev. Ian Paisley with whom he had a close personal relationship. Indeed, Ian was Paisley’s advisor on history and culture from 2004 until the latter’s death in 2014. Ian’s influence can be seen in Paisley’s writings and Paisley gave him much-appreciated support on key projects like the refurbishment of the Thiepval Tower on the Somme and the insertion of Ulster-Scots – what Ian always refers to as Ullans – into the St Andrew’s Agreement.
But it is especially among the loyalist paramilitaries and former combatants that Ian’s ideas have had the greatest impact. Indeed, it could be argued that he effected a sea change in the loyalist imagination, extending their imaginative coordinates not only in terms of time but also space. The concrete results of this are to be found across the board in the work of the New Ulster Political Research Group, in a play like This is it! or in the work of Robert Williamson with the Dalaradia project which reflects many aspects of the educational programme of Pretani Associates, Ian’s most recent venture.
Thus, whether people like it or not, – and indeed many on both sides of the cultural debate do not! – his ideas have filtered into the collective imagination here. They have done so in a way that opens the loyalist imagination up beyond the Plantation, and the hyper-focus on the 17th century, challenging the stereotypes and the caricatures that have been used to confine it.
In short, Ian’s work was based on the premise that the past is not necessarily a trap; rather it should be used to open up opportunities for dialogue in and with the future.
Ian was first and foremost an Ulsterman. Although he worked all his life to ensure the maintenance of the Union, he systematically sought contact and dialogue not only with nationalists and republicans here in Northern Ireland but also with the Republic. He constantly sought to open channels of communication between the Irish State and the unionist and loyalist community here. I know that that he saw this particular dialogue as being one of the most important in his career. His efforts were readily reciprocated and we have evidence of this and the strength of the friendships thus established in the presence of the President of Ireland here today.
Before I conclude I would like to extend my sympathy to Ian’s wife Kerry whom he loved most deeply and who was for him a constant source of joy. Sadly, he has been taken from us all too soon. However, I am convinced that his energy – what I would call his imaginative legacy – will live on through the multiple projects that he initiated in such a wide variety of fields.
Ian Adamson was one the kindest, most interesting and disinterested men I have ever met. His spontaneous energy, his ability to see connections and opportunities where other people only saw walls, his capacity to circumvent problems and defuse tensions with a well-placed joke or an amusing aside; his encyclopaedic reading, his optimism, and inventiveness, these were some of his innumerable qualities.
He was for me a very dear friend- the kind of connection that happens only rarely in a lifetime. I feel immensely privileged to have known him and to have shared his friendship.
Professor Emeritus (Irish Studies), Sorbonne Nouvelle