The Big Books

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

A DIFFICULT BIRTH: THE EARLY YEARS OF NORTHERN IRELAND, 1920–25

ALAN PARKINSON
Eastwood Books
€25
ISBN 9781838041625

POLITICAL CONFLICT IN EAST ULSTER 1920–22: REVOLUTION AND REPRISAL

CHRISTOPHER MAGILL
Boydell Press
£75
ISBN 9781783275113

Reviewed by Seán Bernard Newman

For historians of Northern Ireland, the lack of scholarship on anything and everything is a constant source of frustration. The centenaries present us with a window of hope that public focus on Ulster and Northern Ireland might translate into published scholarship, books and articles. Alan Parkinson’s and Christopher Magill’s books are two such pieces that shed light on the often unseen and unknown history of revolutionary Northern Ireland.

Too often seen as disconnected—even entirely separate—from the revolution in the south, west and Dublin, Northern Ireland is beginning to be placed firmly within the island of Ireland’s revolutionary story. The revolution did not pass Ulster and Northern Ireland by: Ulster had the lowest deaths by province but Belfast had the highest deaths across Ireland by district, and the region felt the waves of violence wash over it. Ulster’s unionist revolution from 1912—forming and arming a private army of 100,000, mobilising over 90% of the Protestant population in Covenant, fomenting mutiny, causing the attorney-general to draft charges of treason against peers of the realm and commoners alike, and establishing an Ulster Provisional Government—looks increasingly like the catalyst and opening phase of the wider Irish revolution. Likewise, the revolution did not end with the defeat of anti-Treaty forces in the Free State; it carried on until unionist nerves settled with the suppression of the Boundary Commission report in 1925.

Irish history labours under false exceptionalism. The politics of Northern Ireland make that even more the case in Ulster and Northern Irish history, where research more often than not leads down an academic cul-de-sac. Only recently did historians—Robert Lynch with his The Northern IRA the most obvious of them—connect the wrangling of post-Treaty Provisional Government politics in Dublin with sectarian violence in the townlands of Ulster. When Michael Collins intimated—and even explicitly orchestrated—the Joint Northern Offensive in April 1922 to quell fissures between pro- and anti-Treaty IRA, the fallout rained down across Ulster. Okan Ozseker’s Forging the border encompasses the whole north-west, on both sides of the Derry/Donegal border, and is unusually ‘transnational’ in its approach. With the North–South connection so rarely explored, it is unsurprising that only Timothy Wilson’s research places partition-period Northern Irish history in a European context. We use the term ‘Balkanisation’ when referring to the break-up of a political entity into its smaller constituent parts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, journalists and academics used the term ‘Ulsterisation’ to describe the collapse of Europe’s multinational empires, and so it makes little sense for historians today to keep up the conceit of the Northern Irish (and Irish) Sonderweg. Instead, historians need to define the links between events, ideas and movements in Ireland and Northern Ireland to understand comprehensively what happened and why during Ireland’s pan-island revolution.

In 2021, the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland, attention shifts to the later phase of the revolution and the region’s role and place in it. Both Parkinson and Magill offer much-needed balanced and well-researched studies on the foundation of the Northern Irish state and its machinery—let us hope that many more follow.

Parkinson’s earlier Belfast’s unholy war is a seminal text, so A difficult birth was eagerly anticipated. Historians often analyse revolutionary Northern Ireland outside a broader Irish context and certainly outside a contemporary European one. What parallels can be drawn between the violent state formation in the six counties and the collapsing multinational empires of central and eastern Europe after 1918? Parkinson promises early on to assess events through those prisms and the longue durée of communal violence in Ulster. Chronological and rich in description, A difficult birth is a highly interesting and accessible read but falls short of the promised analysis. Parkinson is an accomplished writer, however, and excels at using local and individual accounts to paint a much larger picture, with extensively researched detail in every paragraph. Readers will finish A difficult birth knowing the fine points of ‘what’ happened in the streets and townlands between 1920 and 1923, although perhaps not ‘why’.

The killing of Alexander McBride in Belfast on 12 June 1922—part of a night of ‘outrage’ committed against Catholics by those to whom Parkinson refers as ‘rogue cops’—took place three months after the better-known McMahon killings on 24 March. Attacks on 12 June 1922 targeted Catholics in wealthier parts of Belfast, and Parkinson describes events in engaging and fascinating detail but fails to tie these and the McMahon killings together. The targeting of well-heeled Catholics by ‘rogue cops’ demonstrates an economic motivation to some violence; wealthy Catholics affronted the sense of sectional superiority of loyalists (superordination), singling them out for attack. Parkinson fails to point this out, and explanations and analysis setting out ‘why’ events took place are, frustratingly, lacking in much of A difficult birth. Parkinson misses an opportunity here to compare attacks against wealthy members of the Catholic minority in Belfast with the ‘Big House’ burnings of landed and wealthy minority Irish unionists in the south and west; as in Belfast’s unholy war, this book hesitates to analyse any similarities in sectarian violence across the island.

Through a telling of rioting in Banbridge and Dromore on 21–22 July 1920—triggered by the killing of County Down native Colonel Gerald Smyth by the IRA in Cork—and its spread to Belfast in the form of the shipyard and factory expulsions and ‘flittings’ of nationalists from their homes, which in turn provoked extensive economic sanctions (‘the Belfast Boycott’) from the First Dáil, Parkinson successfully highlights the connection between events in the North and South. Explanations such as these are crucial to our understanding of the Irish revolution as a pan-island phenomenon, with events North and South intrinsically linked.

In parts, A difficult birth reads like a revised edition of Belfast’s unholy war, but overall there is plenty of new material to ensure that readers do not feel short-changed. Despite lacking original analysis and thorough explanations of ‘why’ the foundation of Northern Ireland proved so difficult, Parkinson’s latest offering is an extensively researched and richly detailed ‘must-read’, not only for those interested in Northern Ireland but also for those keen to understand what happened across the island during the revolution.

In contrast to the experienced Parkinson, Magill’s Political conflict in east Ulster is his first published book. Of all the undiscovered dark spots in Northern Irish history, the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC)—the focus of this work—remains among the least researched and most challenging to explore. Magill follows the well-trodden path of historians of the Irish revolution—localised micro-histories to tease out broader themes and analysis. Political conflict in east Ulster follows the vein of Peter Hart’s The IRA and its enemies, albeit focusing on Ulster unionists in counties Antrim and Down.

The rich analysis is placed within a comparative evaluation of violence throughout contemporary Europe, leaning heavily on Timothy Wilson’s Frontiers of violence; whereas outrage and violence in Europe’s various borderlands often included sexual assault and mutilation, similar instances in Northern Ireland were rare. Northern Ireland’s well-established and fixed communal boundaries contrasted with the emerging—often linguistic—divisions in Europe, where exemplary/denunciatory violence forged new communal borders. In post-First World War continental Europe, depravity and sexual assault in areas such as Silesia created new communal boundaries where they did not exist before. Those boundaries had existed in Ulster for centuries, and inhabitants understood that symbolic violence against one community member was directed against all the community—when a ‘B’ Special company raided one nationalist home, it symbolised an attack against all nationalist homes.

With a conceptual framework set up, Magill explores the events and outrages in east Ulster during the later revolutionary period and explains the role of the USC as agents of Ulster unionist counter-revolution. Although others argue that the events in Northern Ireland from 1920 to 1923 consolidated the unionist revolution from 1912, Magill concentrates on the violent behaviour of loyalists and the USC, not on the theoretical definitions of revolution and counter-revolution.

Whereas Parkinson rarely ties events together, Magill explains clearly the patterns and motivations of violence. In places, the analysis would be more convincing with fuller and further examples; Chapter 5’s explanation of USC violence relies too heavily on the Cushendall outrage of 26 June 1922, and analysis of the nature of violence rests on a few examples, despite other cases—that support the conclusions—being readily available in the archive.

Magill’s most original and significant intervention in the history of revolutionary Ireland is the research and exploration of the social composition of the USC in Chapter 4. Organisationally, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is the direct antecedent of the USC, but that leads to a misconception that the UVF personnel transferred lock, stock and barrel to the USC. Political conflict in east Ulster picks that misconception apart. Through detailed archival work Magill, surveying previously unused and closed recruitment files, explains that the ages of more than 40% of County Down ‘B’ Specials made them ineligible for UVF membership before the First World War. Perhaps expanding the research to ‘A’ Specials (with attractive wages appealing to older men with families) or to border counties (with a greater sense of existential threat) would change Magill’s conclusions, but that does not lessen the importance and significance of the research. Taking Political conflict in east Ulster as a jumping-off point and comparing the research with D.M. Leeson’s The Black and Tans or Robert Gerwarth’s and John Horne’s War in peace offers the prospect of comparing the USC with the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve and Auxiliary Division and interwar paramilitary groups respectively.

Any historian who attempts research on the USC cannot fail to be impressed with Political conflict in east Ulster. Lack of availability of sources and obstacles in gaining access to the closed USC archive frustrate historians and severely hinder our understanding of the USC—a central and influential organisation in Northern Irish history. Magill takes on this unenviable task, and his first book is a signal achievement that deserves to be widely read; it is to be hoped that a paperback is forthcoming and will impact public understanding of the USC and violence in east Ulster during the Irish revolution.

Both authors set out to draw connections between Northern Ireland and Ireland during the revolution; an essential task is to challenge Northern Irish and Irish historiographical exceptionalism. By that measure, Magill—making pan-Ireland and pan-European comparisons—succeeds far better than Parkinson. A difficult birth, however, clearly explains how IRA assassinations of Ulster-born policemen outside the province caused sectarian unrest, leading to tensions between the Northern and Southern governments. Parkinson’s and Magill’s books make important contributions to our understanding of Northern Irish and Irish history, but more publications like them are needed to really get to grips with the past. It is to be hoped that many more will follow, not just during the centenaries but also during the years and decades to come.

Seán Bernard Newman was awarded a Ph.D in History from Birkbeck, University of London.

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