Big Book review

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—Despite the lengthy criticism by Michael Quigley of Ontario of a Big Book review which I wrote about two excellent books in HI 28.4, July/August 2020, on the partition of Ireland 100 years ago, books which he does not say he has read, I am not convinced that there is any issue of substance between us. Any reviewer is likely to summarise and reflect, critically where necessary, the content of the books they are reviewing, but, unlike the authors, they do not have the space to nuance everything or to spell out at length notorious facts.

I am criticised for stating in one place that the sectarian violence of 1920 erupted in reaction to IRA attacks elsewhere, and in another place that Belfast shipyard workers reacting to IRA attacks elsewhere engaged in the expulsion of thousands of Catholic shipyard workers ‘encouraged by Carson’ (my italics). Cormac Moore’s Birth of the border, referring to the assassination of RIC Divisional Commissioner Gerard Smyth, states: ‘His death and funeral were the catalysts for the violence that spread to Belfast in July 1920’. James A. Cousins in the other book reviewed, Without a dog’s chance: the nationalists of Northern Ireland and the Irish Boundary Commission, 1920–25, puts it another way, that ‘the fighting intensified after the killing of an RIC officer in Cork’. Marianne Elliott in her book The Catholics of Ulster writes that ‘the July funeral in Banbridge of an RIC Commissioner shot in Cork sparked off a series of expulsions of Catholics from their homes and workplaces’. I don’t see a material difference in any of these formulations by three different historians and a reviewer.

In a 2006 lecture where I picked out Carson for the Myles Dungan-edited series Speaking ill of the dead, I said: ‘In 1920, Carson made an unforgivable incendiary speech which led to Catholic workers and “rotten Prods” (i.e. trade unionists) who were “the Trojan horse of the IRA” being driven out of the shipyards’.

In his letter and postscript, Michael Quigley seems to regard the remarks that he criticises in my review as evidence of historical revisionism. He is quite mistaken.—Yours etc.,



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