Book Review: Ulster Lament by Marina J Neary

History is a funny thing. Reading about it in books can boil down an era, a movement, an ideology to a few words. Living through history, on the other hand, is a collection of so many moments and influences, people who are involved and people who are just trying to go through their lives. It’s made up of so many different people, and portraying that is a difficult task. Marina J Neary’s Ulster Lament, though, manages to capture a moment in Irish history that feels exceptionally real.

1. Thoughts on the plot

This book follows Peter Greenwood, son of Major Greenwood. He was born with a limp, raised in relative isolation in Ballycastle, Ireland, and decides to go to Belfast to study journalism. In the midst of meeting new people, some of whom are friends and some who are not, he runs into the Irish nationalist movement. When interviewing retired Captain Pryce, Peter gets swept up in both the Pryce family and their enemies in nationalist cause. He must use his literary skills to cover up their crimes, but will his loyalty to the English crown remain staunch, or will the ulster lament sway his thoughts.

I will admit to knowing less than I should about the rise of Irish nationalism. It was very interesting, therefore, to see how it was described in this book. It was, for me, like looking through a lens to the early 20th century, but with the added element of two competing ideas about Ireland. I thoroughly enjoyed Peter’s exploration of the subject, as it mirrored my own; he knew very little at the beginning and managed to uncover a great deal by the end. The story itself was very interesting in that it was about a university student just as much as it was about the nationalist movement. Very well crafted.

2. Thoughts on the characters

I really enjoyed Peter’s journey, especially as he interacted with other characters. I found both his thoughts and the other characters’ actions a well-crafted mirror of my experiences of reality. I think that Peter’s willingness to go along with things made him the perfect narrator for this story, especially as he began to change and stand on firmer ground as far as his beliefs went. I think Peter’s open acceptance of Robbie was really the point where things began to turn, just as his changing ideas about Alec were pivotal to the plot. The characters were great, and really made the story.

3. Favourite part

I think Peter’s final interaction with Alec was my favourite part, simply because I’d been waiting for him to do it for a good portion of the story. Well done, Peter.

4. Critique

As much as I really enjoyed the exploration of the various sides of the nationalist movement at the time, I think the ending of the story didn’t really leave me with the feeling of Peter having changed his stripes, as it were. He did his bit, thought a great deal about the situation—or else the story wouldn’t have happened—and then just went on living his life. Perfectly acceptable in a story about a university student finding his way, but I had hoped for a bit more on his personal beliefs. 

Overall, I would say that Ulster Lament was a very good book and literary exploration of a slice of history, depicting it in such a way that was not overwhelming, but real. Just normal people living their lives in the times, as it were. As it always it.