Unionism loses a towering intellect with the passing of Dr. Ian Adamson OBE

book identity of ulsterI first picked up Ian Adamson’s book ‘The Identity of Ulster’ (1982) when I was a student at university. There were not too many books on the shelves which dealt with Ulster history from a unionist perspective, and this one was refreshing.  It explained in layman’s terms the course of history as the author saw it and it provided a perspective which was new and made sense.

Adamson outlined a Protestant history which included the Battle of the Boyne, but in the context of a wider progression. For many his espousal of the Cruthin people, the ancient settlers of Ulster, as a community which, essentially, had migrated to Scotland under pressure from Gaelic incursion in the north, was new.

The Adamson thesis was that when the Plantation of Ulster took place in the 17th century, the new ‘Planters’ were actually the descendants of the old Cruthin returning to their ancestral heartland.

His thesis was challenging to nationalists, who argued that the Protestant settlement was a land grab with religous connotations. It was equally challenging for unionists whose history often started at the Plantation and the Battle of the Boyne.

The County Down born medical doctor quickly found that his thesis was not being accepted with open arms by academics, some of whom railed against it vociferously. But while there may have been disagreements over his presentation and conclusions, Adamson’s essential arguments remained intact and were actually much older; cross-channel heritage was espoused by others in the 19th century and in the early 20th James B. Woodburn’s The Ulster Scot was a seminal work in this regard.

For me, Ian Adamson’s work on the Cruthin and the identity of Ulster gave a new sense of identity, a wider sense of belonging. Suddenly my history did not start with the arrival of Planters who took the lands of the native Irish and continued to thrawt the destiny of the Irish nation by being thrang Scots and unionists.

This viewpoint that here was a new interpretation of history came to be shared with others too. When I was a student undertaking research for a dissertation on the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, it was clear from observation that Adamson’s work was well-read and was being absorbed at the Gawn Street headquarters of the organisation. The New Ulster Political Research Group (the political wing of the UDA) eventually came to a place where it sought ‘Common Sense’ – the name of its policy document of 1987 – and a common sense of identity too: one which sought to include Ulster’s Catholics in future political arrangements, and as such ground-breaking for its time.

The trend within loyalism of a desire for an independent Ulster was not something which Adamson overtly suggested, but the thought-process of some easily went onto that path whether he intended it or not. His work, in fact, provided a basis for that sense of national identity which would have been required if an independent state had ever come about.

As it was, however, Adamson saw the need for a unity which was never politically defined in a structural sense. Writing in The Identity of Ulster in 1982, he said “Today we must evolve in Ulster a cultural consensus, irrespective of political conviction, religion or ethnic origin, using a broader perspective of our past to create a deeper sense of belonging to the country of our ancestors.”

“Let us therefore develop the vision of a new and united Ulster to which all can give their allegiance,” he added in the conclusion of the book.

Within a few years, however, the Anglo-Irish Agreement had come about and division was again the order of the day, unionism circled wagons once again as it viewed the Agreement as putting them on the edge of the union politically.

Much political water has flowed under the bridge since then, but Ian Adamson never changed his thesis. Over the years in politics and public life, he was in a position to espouse it with sincerity and also to build relationships with others. The fact that tributes would come after his death from all political shades, including another former Lord Mayor of Belfast and senior Sinn Fein politican, Mairtin O’ Muilleoir says a lot about him.

obit ian adamson pic
Dr. Ian Adamson when he was Lord Mayor of Belfast

Anyone who had the good fortune to meet Ian Adamson found him a learned and soft spoken soul. He also had a fantastic humour and a wicked wit. I remember once while attending an international conference in Boston at which he was a delegate, we went out for an evening meal and were regaled our table with his version of Address to the Haggis, on that occasion modified to praise the lobster which he had ordered and which duly arrived in time for his oration.

On another occasion, while giving a speech and outlining how when he first published his work on the Cruthin, some people said that he had made it up. Without any hint of a smile he surveyed everyone in front of him and declared, “They were right, I made it up…” For a brief second or two a few jaws dropped before everyone saw the slight smile and realised the dry wit at play.

Last year I had the pleasure of being with him at a Burns Night dinner during which he talked of his own personal family background. One of his ancestors had taken part in the United Irish Rebellion and been hanged in County Down. Adamson said as a young boy he talked to his granny about the incident and asked her what she thought about it: “Served him right for getting involved in politics,” he recalled her saying. He often brought the house down with these and other examples of his fun and wit.

Behind the wit, was a fantastic intellect, of course. Dr. Ian Adamson OBE was, as I said in the obituary for the News Letter on Thursday, a towering unionist intellectual who helped build bridges that crossed the traditional divides while remaining true to his cultural roots and his political principles.

He described himself as “a British Unionist, an Irish Royalist and an Ulster Loyalist”.

The County Down man was behind the restoration of the Ulster Tower in France, which commemorates the province’s First World War fallen, and his efforts in bringing the remembrance of the sacrifice of the war to mind also helped build bridges in the modern community which he loved.

The 74 year was born at Conlig in County Down and educated at Queen’s University, graduating to a career as a highly respected paediatrician.

Dr. Adamson was a Specialist in Community Child Health (Community Paediatrics) and was awarded the fellowship of the Royal Institute of Public Health for his services to the health of young people in 1998. He was awarded a special commendation by His Royal Highness Prince Charles Prince of Wales.

He was also an Executive Board Member of the London-based Association of Port Health Authorities, 2005–11 (Chairman of the Border Inspection Post Committee, 2005–06 and Imported Food Committee, 2006–11).

But it was his contribution to culture and historical debate for which he will long be remembered.

His historical thesis expounded in his early publication The Cruthin was not readily accepted by academics, but it found a ready home in working-class Protestant communities in Belfast and undoubtedly influenced thinking within those communities, which ultimately assisted on the road to a more peaceful future.

Aware of the complexities of history, he could rest secure on his own unionist credentials while also recounting past generations of the family who had been involved in the 1798 Rebellion.

It is a measure of his ability to reach beyond divides and social strata that he could count international figures such as Van Morrison and Eddie Irvine among his friends as well as working-class men from Monkstown or the Newtownards Road.

The attendance at his funeral at Conlig Presbyterian Church last week was a similar testimony to the respect in which he was held.

His book The Cruthin sought to explore a common heritage shared by people in Northern Ireland beyond the traditional divide and led to initiatives such as the foundation of the Farset Youth Project and other community organisations.

Farset was the catalyst for the establishment of the Somme Association and Ian Adamson was a driving force in proposing the purchase of areas close to the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood in France so they could be developed as a memorial site.

He had found that the Tower was in a dilapidated condition and gathered support for the initiative to re-open it, including from the-then Belfast Mayoress, Rhonda Paisley. This was duly announced in June 1988, with assistance from Dr. Ian Paisley, the European Parliament, the French Embassy and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Commenting on his death on social media, unionist academic Dr. Andrew Charles said that “If Ian had stuck to medicine, the Ulster Tower may never have been preserved and instead have been covered in weeds and by trees”.

In 1989 he had become the founder Chairman of the Somme Association, out of which came the Somme Heritage Centre at Conlig in 1994.

Dr. Adamson was a Vice President of the Somme Association.

His many other initiatives included obtaining the co-operation of Cardinal Tomas O’ Fiaich to organise a group visit by teenagers from the Shankill, Falls, Tallaght and Inchicore to follow the footsteps to Europe of St. Columbanus of Bangor.

Adamson was deeply impressed by the history of the abbey at Bangor, founded by another Ulster saint, St. Comgall of Magheramorne, and the influence it had on western Europe. His book ‘Bangor. Light of the World’, was first printed in 1979, the second edition in 1987 having a foreword from Cardinal O’Fiaich.

A passionate supporter of the Ulster Scots linguistic tradition, he was also conversant in 14 other languages, including Lakota Sioux, Dutch, Turkish, Welsh, Irish, French and German.

A regular guest at the annual Aisling Irish Language awards in Belfast, he was a past recipient of the top Roll of Honour Award at the event.

In 1992 he helped found the Ullans Academy, an eclectic mix of unionists and nationalists whom their founder said were seeking to identify what united as opposed to divided them.

Among the group were former UDA leader Andy Tyrie, and in his later years Ian Adamson was patron of the Dalaradia Group, comprising working-class loyalists in County Antrim working to assist transformation of their communities after the Troubles.

An advocate of shared understanding, he said that while not encouraging bi-lingualism or even tri-lingualism, he thought Ulster-Scots should be part of the curriculum for young people to understand their backgrounds and what language in general was all about.

Ian Adamson’s political career started in 1989 when he sat as an Ulster Unionist member of Belfast City Council. He served as the Deputy Lord Mayor in 1994-95 and then Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1996-97. He was an MLA for East Belfast from 1998 until 2003 and became the UUP’s first Honorary Historian from 1989 until his retirement in 2011. He served as High Sheriff of Belfast in 2011.

He was personal physician and advisor on history and culture to Ian Paisley, DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, until Dr. Paisley’s death in 2014.

In 1998 Dr. Ian Adamson received an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen in the New Year Honours for his services to local government.

At an earlier garden party at Buckingham Palace, he proposed to his future wife, Kerry Carson, and the couple were married in April 1998.

His work as a medical practitioner on the Falls Road was recognised in July 1978 when he was appointed as a Member of the International Medical Association of Lourdes for his services to disabled children and young people of the Falls Parish.

At one time he lived on the Falls Road for a short period, and his interest in the long-term unemployed drove his work with the Farset Youth and Community initiative and other groups over the years.

His many other involvements included founding the Ullans Academy, the Ulster Scots Language Society in 1992 and the Ulster Scots Academy in 1994.

He was also a founder member of the Cultural Traditions Group, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the Ultach Trust. He served as a member of the Board of the Ulster-Scots Agency, 2003-12, and was President of the Belfast Civic Trust at the time of his death.

His published books include The Cruthin (1974), Bangor, Light of the World (1979), The Battle of Moira (1980), The Ulster People: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, (1991), William and the Boyne, (1995),  Dalaradia, Kingdom of the Cruthin, (1998), Bombs on Belfast. The Blitz 1941 (1984), and The Bangor Book (2016), for which he provided translations from Medieval Latin.

The funeral at Conlig saw figures including the Irish President Michael D. Higgins in attendance. He said of Dr. Adamson that he “never ceased to remind us that we are all but migrants in time and his scholarship highlighted our shared history, shared identities, shared vulnerabilities and migratory roots.”

Also there was former Formula One racing driver Eddie Irvine, who also grew up in Conlig and who was sponsored by Dr. Adamson at the start of his career. His sister Sonia was a close friend of Ian Adamson and has recounted how he gave her his university medical books when money was tight. She described him as “an inspirational man”.

Among the mourners at the funeral was music legend and personal friend Van Morrison, who sang Ian Adamson’s favourite song Into the Mystic at the service.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann led his party’s tributes to Dr. Adamson, saying he had made a huge contribution to cultural and political life in Northern Ireland and would be greatly missed.

Lord Alderdice, former Speaker of the Assembly, said his death was “a genuine intellectual, healthcare and political loss.”

Among those who also paid tribute to him was former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor MLA Mairtin O’ Muilleoir, who described Dr. Adamson as an “exceptional ambassador for a shared society and a united community here”.

He added that “Ian went places that other people would never go. I saw him like a traditional Irish matchmaker who brought people together who thought they would never be united.”

“He worked through some of the worst times of the Troubles. And he was also Lord Mayor during difficult days in the City Hall but I always found him to be a very genuine and a very kind man.”

His lasting legacy may yet be that sense of unity which he outlined historically and which his work, particularly among working-class communities, may help bring about. Although he is gone, it is important that legacy is built on if the type of future he strived to encourage is to become our reality…

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