REMEMBERING THE TROUBLES Contesting the recent past in Northern Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

JIM SMYTH (ed.)
University of Notre Dame Press
$40
ISBN 9780268101749

Reviewed by: Brian Hanley

Brian Hanley is an Irish History Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

This book is a welcome reminder that it is possible for historians writing about Ireland’s long war to be fair-minded, even-handed and empathetic. In that alone it stands in marked contrast to much contemporary journalism. Jim Smyth in his introduction (and also in an elegant chapter on the place of Milltown Cemetery in republican memory) and Ian MacBride in his overview of the debates concerning the memory of the ‘Troubles’ help to explain why remembrance is such a complicated matter. Chapters examine republican and loyalist memories, the British Army’s experience, commemoration and a family memoir.

Ruan O’Donnell and John Mulqueen look at rival republican accounts. It is striking that on any occasion when republicanism has become a mass phenomenon it has done so as a coalition. As O’Donnell shows, the early Provos contained diverse constituencies attracted by a very powerful central message: ‘Damn your concessions, England, we want our country’, or simply ‘Brits out’. Their template was that of the (still widely accepted) myth that the War of Independence had ended with the British Empire ‘on its knees’. Within that coalition a broad range of ideas could co-exist, at least while it seemed that the war was being prosecuted successfully. For the modern Provisionals there is a problem of remembering a war that was designed to force the British from Ireland but ended instead in stalemate. So today it is routinely depicted as a defensive struggle aimed at gaining concessions from the British rather than driving them out. While there are political imperatives for presenting it as such, this hardly chimes with the historical evidence.

Mulqueen examines the way in which the Official republicans memorised their struggle. In doing so he uses the term ‘Marxist-Leninist’ liberally. But the Officials in their ‘mass’ phase (1970–5) were also a coalition and describing them as ‘Marxists’ is problematic. Indeed, as sharp an anti-communist as Archbishop John Charles McQuaid would conclude, after a ‘very relaxed and cordial’ discussion with two Official leaders in late 1971, that perhaps the ‘Marxist’ label should not be applied to them, as they were primarily interested in ‘social justice’. Ultimately, as with many of the policy shifts of the Officials, sleight of hand was apparent in the eventual adoption of Marxism-Leninism. How much that reflected the Fenian tradition rather than Bolshevism is open to question, though both allow for a significant amount of deception (even of their own supporters) once the ends are considered justified.

James W. McAuley looks at loyalism, noting the importance of Great War remembrance to the paramilitaries. It might have been worth examining the (perhaps under-appreciated by outsiders) extent to which the loyalist commemoration is also driven by rivalry between the UVF and UDA. In remembering the First World War, the modern UVF claim an organic link not just to the original Ulster Volunteers but also to the 36th Ulster Division, something resented and contested by the UDA. It is also striking how largely working-class organisations see no irony in commemorating a rebellion against Home Rule that was led by aristocrats determined to destroy a government that was introducing reforms that benefited workers. In contrast, loyalists show little appetite for commemorating British working-class radicalism; there are no Peterloo or Chartist murals. Perhaps in the forthcoming commemorations we might see some attention given to that section of Protestant working-class Belfast, written out of unionist (and many nationalist) accounts, the so-called ‘rotten Prods’ who risked life and limb defending their Catholic workmates in the shipyards during 1920.

And what of the memories of those who never explicitly identified with any armed organisation? A clue to some of them is found in Cathal Goan’s chapter. A native of Ardoyne, Goan is a former director general of RTÉ. In 1974 his father, Séamus, a bread deliveryman, was forced by the IRA to drive a proxy bomb to the headquarters of the BBC. Séamus Goan wrote an account of the experience, which his family only became aware of after his death. In it he graphically illustrated the trauma that the conflict could visit on non-combatants and the contempt that some activists could have for them; Goan was warned that his ‘f…ing wife and children will get it’ if he failed to transport the bomb. Unknown to his captors, Goan himself had been jailed for IRA membership during the 1940s. Despite his anger, he gave deliberately misleading information to the police, for whom he had ‘complete and utter detestation’, having in 1969 seen RUC men ‘light petrol bombs for Orange hooligans to throw at my home and those of my neighbours’. Tracing such memories may be difficult but it is necessary if we are ever to gain a more complete understanding of the conflict. The book is focused on debates within the North but it would have been worth giving some space to remembrance south of the border as well. The northern war remains a live and divisive issue in southern politics, reflecting both its real impact on the Republic (over 100 killed there during the 1970s alone) and its usefulness as a political weapon. Unfortunately only Margaret O’Callaghan engages with this subject in an illuminating chapter on the 1976 Easter commemorations. Nevertheless, this book is recommended to all scholars of the modern Irish conflict.

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