IN HIS EPILOGUE to War and Peace Tolstoy admitted to an awe of history --ity, its willful refusal to be tamed by those who want to know for sure what will happen, when, and why. He also discussed two contrasting modes of historical interpretation -- the kind that dwells on important figures, kings and generals and presidents, and the kind that emphasizes the more impersonal social and economic forces that gradually exert sway over us all. And who knows, he asks repeatedly, whether the emergence of a given leader is not itself the result of those forces that have, in a way, enabled someone in particular to be heard, to be found worth following?

Northern Ireland has for years seemed bereft of any leadership at all -- a place thoroughly possessed by contradictory and implacable religious tensions and class loyalties. The British, for so long an alien and oppressive force, are now left the thankless, costly, and dangerous job of trying to keep order in the face of deadly murderous confrontations between Protestant and Catholic militants, neither of whom seem inclined to give an inch. The Protestants are the majority and are relatively better off. The Catholics make up about a third of Ulster's population, and are, in the main, poor, afflicted with joblessness and an especially awful housing problem --wretched slums such as George Orwell described as he wandered through England during the 1930s. As is not uncommon, those with money and power don't want to surrender what they have -- and are expert at manufacturing excusing self-justifications, often thinly disguised versions of arrogance and hate.

In recent years, the Catholic poor, have signalled basta -- no more silent acquiescence. The IRA is, of course, notorious, but it does not operate in a vacuum; thousands of ordinary Catholics, sick and tired of their fate, crave serious political and economic changes, and search vainly, it seems, for a means of achieving them. And there is an element of the Protestant majority that has shown no reluctance to use violence to intimidate any kind of social protest, however moderate.

In August of 1976 a Catholic woman and her three children got caught up in one of the violent episodes that almost daily plague Belfast. The three young ones were killed by a runaway car, whose IRA driver had been shot by British troops. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it seemed, a social movement was born: the Peace People -- those of both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds who had, finally, become not only fed up with senseless violence, but willing to take a stand for their beliefs. Two women, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, both Catholic, the former an aum of the three dead children, began to speak up, protest, collect signatures, organize marches, collar those who stood by apathetically, inertly and urge them to similar action -- all on behalf of a nonviolent campaign to register opposition to the murderous strife that has plagued Ulster these recent years. The result has been a significant historical shift -- no panacea, but at least a beginning of reconciliation for a region essentially caught in a civil war.

No historian or social analyst had figured that two such ordinary, modest women, aided by a thoughtful journalist, Ciaran McKeown, could have rallied so many people to their side, against high odds -- threats from various paramilitary groups, Protestant and Catholic -- and gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But then, no one would have given Rosa Parks, the quiet, lowly seamstress, much of a chance when she protested the segregated seating in the buses of Montgomery, Alabama, during the middle 1950s. An enabling historial moment sometimes beckons unlikely though utterly deserving participants for a dramatic, combatant role.

Richard Deutsch is a French journalist (Le Monde) who has lived in Belfast for years and knows Ulster well. He offers his readers a brief, pointed account of that region's history, then uses tape-recorded interviews and his own shrewd, direct observations to construct portraits of two brave and decent women, who have stood witness to the truly Christian side of a people long haunted by awful religious fears, envies, hates -- all upheld in the name of God, no less. There is no "answer" in this book -- not the kind that politicians will find pragmatic. Even Gandhi perished in the flames of unrest, despite the brilliance and steadfastness of his commitment to non-violent social reform. Still, generations of political and ecclesiastical manipulations have given Ulster nothing but misery and more misery; it is good to know, through this written account, that a benevolent, redemptive history, mediated through Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, and countless others like them, is not yet out of the question for Ulster.