Review of On Bloody Sunday: A New History of the Day and its Aftermath by Julieann Campbell (Monoray, £16.99)
Free Statism & The Good Old IRA by Danny Morrison (Greenisland Press, £15).
Free Statism & The Good Old IRA by Danny Morrison (Greenisland Press, £15).
The Treaty by Gretchen Friemann (Merrion Press, £14.99) “Compromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof,” observed the American diplomat James Russell Lowell. “It is a temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.” The unwise compromise of the Anglo-Irish Treaty haunts Ireland to this day. Most of its Irish signatories naïvely hoped it would be a staging post on the road to a 32-county republic while the British viewed it as a pragmatic way of solving “the Irish problem” once and for all. As we know to our cost, neither the Irish delegation nor the British negotiators were correct. The temporary fix soon came unstuck, generating a civil war, in which some 2,000 people were killed including the charismatic guerrilla leader who had masterminded the battle against Britain’s forces. By creating a disunited Ireland, it also ensured continuing conflict. Despite the treaty’s bloody consequences, and probably because of them, few histories deal with the intimate details of the prolonged negotiations in the final months of 1921. It appears to have been accepted that Frank Pakenham’s well-sourced 1935 study, Peace by Ordeal, was good enough.
Review of Albert Reynolds: Risktaker for Peace by Conor Lenihan (Merrion Press, £19.99) Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach from February 1992 to December 1994. During that short period in office, in which he headed two uncomfortable coalitions, he played a major role in the Irish peace process. He was a co-signatory with Britain’s prime minister, John Major, of the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which affirmed the right of the people in the Six Counties to determine their future. It stated that the United Kingdom would agree to the reunification of Ireland if a majority in the north favoured it. This was a giant step forward at the time and, seen in retrospect, it was a transformative moment, putting politics at the forefront of the conflict: the force of argument would replace the force of arms. Of course, it took time. Five years was to pass before the Good Friday Agreement cemented in place the principle of consent. By then, Reynolds had left the Dáil. Yet his contribution to peace undoubtedly remains his greatest legacy. What I could never understand was what moved Reynolds, who had never previously betrayed much, if any, interest in the north, to make it his foremost interest once he became Taoiseach. Supposedly, he did so because he thought the end to violence would prove good for business in both the north and south. It’s hard to buy that as his sole motivation, but Conor Lenihan, the author of this “first complete biography” of Reynolds, is unable to offer a better reason. It is an example of the book’s overall failing. It does not begin to tell us what made Albert tick beyond his abiding love for business. Then again, perhaps that says it all. He saw everything through a commercial prism. He joined Fianna Fáil without a political background and without a political vision. But, having embraced the party, he certainly exhibited a great deal of political ambition. The outline of his story is simple enough. Born in Roscommon, the youngest of four children, his father ran various small businesses, including a farm and a dancehall. His mother, a powerful influence in his younger years, was convinced he had academic ability and sent him off to boarding school, later expecting him to go into banking.
The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall (National University of Ireland, £17.50) One of the false assumptions by historians who should know better and political commentators who know so very little is that the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) was a stepping stone on the path to peace in the north of Ireland. In fact, it was nothing more than a naïve, misguided and futile device designed to bring the IRA to heel and to frustrate Sinn Féin’s nascent embrace of electoral politics while promoting the prospects of the SDLP. It therefore failed on all counts. John Bowman’s assertion, on the book’s back cover, that the AIA “changed the tectonic plates of the Irish-British relationship” is hyperbolic nonsense. But that does not mean that this memoir by one of the agreement’s key negotiators, the British diplomat Sir David Goodall, is without merit. Indeed, once we dismiss the notion that the November 1985 treaty signed by the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Irish Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald was of historical significance, there is much to appreciate. His insider account of the protracted negotiations from a Whitehall perspective is utterly fascinating.
The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell: The Man Who Shot the Informer James Carey by Seán Ó Cuirreáin (Four Courts Press, £17.95) and The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge and the Murders that Stunned an Empire by Julie Kavanagh (Grove Press, £18.99) The assassinations of Lord Frederick Cavendish, chief secretary of Ireland, and Thomas Burke, the under-secretary, have been scrutinised many times by historians down the years. The fatal attack in Phoenix Park in 1882 by the Invincibles, a radical splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), is regarded, at least by some, as one of the major reasons for the failure of the British parliament to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Whether it played such a crucial role or not, it certainly upset Queen Victoria and convinced her prime minister, William Gladstone, that yet more repression was necessary in Ireland. But, as I say, there is little new to explore in both the details of the killings and their seismic political aftermath.
Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush by Owen O’Shea (Merrion Press, £10.99) In outline, this is a simple story. Just one ambush among many by the IRA during the Tan War in which five men were killed. It was unusual in only one respect, the absence of reprisals. Otherwise, the fatal shooting of three Royal Irish Constabulary officers and two Black and Tans was, given the times that were in it, unremarkable.
Heroes of Ireland’s Great Hunger by Christine Kinealy, Jason King and Gerard Moran (Quinnipiac University Press, £21.95) It was several years after the Holocaust that we discovered the secret heroes who risked their lives to help Jews avoid capture by the Nazis. Now, 170 years after the Great Hunger, comes a book recording the achievements of people who were willing to sacrifice their lives to help the starving, powerless poor of Ireland. They are a diverse group, ranging from kindly landlords to pioneering doctors. They include visitors to these shores – among them, Quaker philanthropists, a Polish explorer and an American missionary – and others for whom Ireland was a country far across the ocean, such as native Americans and Canadian nuns. What linked them was their compassionate response to an unspeakable tragedy. Page upon page, story upon story, this is an uplifting anthology of altruism. The British government may have abandoned millions of people it regarded as its citizens to their fate, but, amid death and disease, here were individuals who refused to turn their backs. No laissez-faire for them. Rejecting the principles of political economy, they chose the principles of humanitarianism. Although historians of An Gorta Mór have known about some of these good Samaritans for years, their contributions have not been accorded the recognition they undoubtedly deserve. James Hack Tuke is an excellent example. His writings have proved to be valuable source material for academic studies, but his efforts on behalf of the victims of what should be known as the “fake famine” cry out for broader public attention.
'What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division' by Kevin Meagher (Biteback, £20)
Anois ar theacht an tSamhraidh: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution by Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston (Beyond the Pale Books, £19:95) In order to civilise you, I must kill you. To make the killing worthwhile, I will expropriate your land and steal your resources. To make your life better, I will enslave you and demand you speak my language.
Whatever You Say, Say Nothing by Gilles Peress, and Annals of the North by Gilles Peress and Chris Klatell (£300). Published by Steidl. I can see the beads of sweat on the courier’s forehead as he hauls a large box from his van to my door. A grunt, and he drops it gratefully at my feet. On the side, in large letters, it says: “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” I am baffled. I’ve been expecting a book with that title, but there must be some mistake. This is… well, what?
Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (HarperCollins)
Where Grieving Begins: Building Bridges after the Brighton Bomb by Patrick Magee (Pluto Press, 2021)
6000 Days by Jim (Jaz) McCann. (Elsinor Verlag, 2021.) IN the concluding part of this book, Jim McCann celebrates the birth of his first child by writing: “I had overcome imprisonment... not only was I going to share it with my loved ones. It was fulfilment, it was ecstasy.” After the previous 250 pages, in which he recorded his trials and tribulations as a prisoner in the H-blocks, we, the readers, are with him. We can understand his euphoria. We not only admire the fact that he survived 6,424 days in jail but that he managed to do so in such appalling conditions. But it is the next sentence that makes this prison memoir so exceptional. “There had been special moments like Bobby [Sands]’s election, the escape, that first Christmas parole, but this capped them all.” This linking of his intimate domestic concerns and the wider struggle encapsulates McCann’s overall theme: republicanism unites the personal and the political.Aged 20, McCann was sentenced to 25 years by a Diplock Court (no jury, one judge) for attempting to kill an RUC officer. He would go on to serve 17 years. At every stage of his imprisonment, through the blanket protest, the dirty protest and all the resulting brutal beatings and casual punishments, he was sustained by the fact that his refusal to bend had a political purpose. That he did so while fearing the inevitable violence that would be meted out to him made his stand all the more courageous. Not that the modest, phlegmatic McCann even hints at his defiance in terms of his own bravery. Instead, he reserves such praise for Sands and his nine comrades who died while on hunger strike, especially Joe McDonnell. It was a uniquely sobering moment for McCann. He writes: “Bobby’s death, and Joe following him on the stailc [strike] was a turning point in my life. I had been convinced that justice always prevails and those that fight for what is right always win through... Now reality was hitting me... being right did not necessarily equate with gaining justice.”