Category: Northern Ireland

Collins The looming exit from the European Union by England will undoubtedly be watched by the whole world, which has been kept in suspense by the referendum in 2016 and failure of former British Prime Minster Theresa May to garner enough votes for a formal separation.  Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared it will happen and on January 31, 2020, he will be proven right or wrong on the matter.  In Northern Ireland, there is fear and uncertainty regarding how the move by England will affect Ulster County, the loyalist stronghold composed of majority that stands firmly behind the Crown.  The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) will be following as well to see how the move will affect its goal for a united Ireland free of British interference.  Time will tell how the departure from the European Union will affect both Britain and other nations.  Recently, I decided to do some further reading on Northern Ireland and I came across this book by Tim Pat Coogan about an Irish revolutionary I was previously unfamiliar with.  His name was Michael Collins (1890-1922) and this is the story of his group of assassins known as the Twelve Apostles and their fight for freedom from Downing Street by famed author Tim Pat Coogan.

I believe that readers will find this book enjoyable if they have a sound base of knowledge regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland.  In fact, the author Tim Pat Coogan, has written extensively about the “Troubles”, and in his book “1916: The Easter Rising“, he explains the movements of the IRA and the seizure of the General Post Office and other critical facilities in Dublin.  That uprising is considered by many to be the defining moment in the Republican goal of a united Ireland and liberation from British rule.   The execution of IRA members in the wake of the uprising turned them into the martyrs and set the stage for the decades running battle between Loyalist and Republican forces.

Collins is the focus here and the author wastes no time in getting into the story.  From the beginning it is clear that Collins is man with strong convictions and had no repulsion to using violence as a tool of effecting change.  He was a complex character but firmly committed to the expulsion of the Crown.  I warn readers that this book does not have a happy ending. In fact, the story is gritty and acts of violence occur throughout.  But I do believe that if you choose to read this book, that is something you already know and have accepted. Collins and his group that are known as the Twelve Apostles carry out acts of aggression that will shock many readers.  The events in the book take place between the years 1916 and 1922 and their savagerys rival violence seen even today.  As for Collins, Coogan remarks in the introduction that:

The Jewish leader Yitzhak Shamir both studied the methods of Michael Collins, and used the code name Michael as his own nom de guerre. And in the state of Israel which Shamir helped to form, I was made aware of a guilty foreboding on the part of those Israeli citizens who knew their history, that one day the Arabs too might produce a Michael Collins – and that if they did, there would not be a supermarket left standing in Israel“.

I completely agree and shudder to think of how the Gaza strip would be today if a Collins type figure had in fact existed and acted on behalf of the Palestinians.

In America, the murder of a policeman or elected official spurs outrage and swift action by law enforcement.  Nearly every criminal will tell you that no one wants to be charged with murdering a cop.  But for Collins and the Apostles, everyone was fair game.  No one escapes the wrath of the IRA and its band of enforcers are eerily similar to the mafia’s own Murder, Inc., based out of Brooklyn, New York.  The Apostles have a hit list and they go through it with deadly precision as part of their mission to obtain Ireland’s freedom.  Coogan tells the stories in all of their detail and at times, it felt as is a movie was being filmed. The assassinations and attacks are brazen and deadly, with an increasing body count that will cause some readers to sit in disbelief.

In December, 1921, the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, resulting in the creation of the Irish Free State, which was composed of 26 out of 32 counties in Ireland. The remaining six in Northern Ireland chose to leave and remain in firm support of England.  Collins became head of the Irish Free State and held the position until his own death in 1922.  The treaty was rejected by hardliners within the IRA and tensions led to the Irish Civil War of 1922, in which the IRA split into factions.  Collins now found himself at odds with those he had once stood next to in the fight for Ireland’s freedom including Éamon de Valera (1882-1975) who leaves and then re-enters the story at pivotal moments.  De Valera late formed Fianna Fáil in 1926 after separating from the anti-treaty Sinn Féin party.  Incredibly, he lived until the age of 92, when he died from complications of pneumonia and heart failure on August 19, 1975.

If you want to know more about the uprising in 1916 and the residual effects in the years that followed, this book is a must read.  However, it ends after Collins’ death, which comes after the Apostles have parted ways in the wake of the Irish Civil War.  Readers looking for a longer account of the conflict will be satisfied with Kevin Toolis’ “Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul” and Peter Taylor’s “Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein“. Both are highly informative and give excellent explanations about why the IRA continues to fight. And for a more personal story, I highly recommend Dennis O’ Hearn’s Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands“, which is the definitive biography of the iconic IRA figure. Tim Pat Coogan has done it again with an excellent account of the activities of Michael Collins and the origins of the long running feud known as The “Troubles”.

ASIN: B073YFPTRR

Northern Ireland

Sands1The hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981, captured the attention of the British Government and earned the IRA sympathy around the world.  On May 5, news broke that IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) had died after 66 days of refusing to eat.  Sands and his fellow strikers were determined to be recognized as political prisoners and earn several other concessions from Margaret Thatcher’s (1925-2013) government.  London had refused to give in and Thatcher had earned the nickname of “The Iron Lady”.  Today, the “Troubles” as they are known, continue in Northern Ireland.  The IRA remains committed to its goal of a unified Ireland and the removal of the British Crown from Ulster County.  Sands had risen among the ranks in the IRA and during his incarceration, his reputation as a leader and intellectual grew every day.  This book is a collection of his writings which were smuggled out in parts (The IRA prisoners at HM Prison Maze were engaged in a long running standoff with guards and were being kept in bare minimum cells with mainly a mattress and bucket to be used as waste disposal).

Gerry Adams, the former leader of Sinn Féin, provides a foreword in which he fondly remembers his friend and former fellow inmate Sands.  As the book moves on to Bobby’s words, we already know a bit of information about him.  However, for a more complete biography, I strongly recommend Dennis O’Hearn’s ‘Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands‘. It is by far a thorough and highly engaging biography of Sands. The writings here begin after Sands has been incarcerated for quite some time. He is already well into the hunger strike, has stopped bathing and living in a cell that could only be described as hell on earth.  The day begins like most others with he and the guards having their daily battles.   Sands is frank and does not mince words when he describes what is happening.  It is graphic and it is gritty but he clearly intended for readers to truly understand the treatment he and other IRA members were receiving at the prison.  Other former prisoners and priests also sounded the alarms about the inhumane treatment at the prison, but officials within the Northern Ireland and British governments steadfastly denied the accusations.  What is clear from Sands’ writings is that there was no love lost between to the opposing groups with the IRA members routinely using the term “screws” to describe the guards.

It is hard to imagine just how extreme living conditions were at the prison.  Sands describes the lack of heat and sanitary conditions.  Some readers will be disgusted and repulsed by what he says.   Putting the hunger strike aside, living conditions at the jail were more than enough to induce psychosis in even the most rational individual.  In fact, at several points in the book, Sands questions his own sanity and realizes that his mind will never be the same again.  Yet, he never wavers from his cause and stays committed to the IRA beliefs. And whether you agree with the IRA or support the Crown, Sands’ stand is more than many of us would be willing to endure.

About mid-way through the book, we are able to read a series of poems that he wrote about his time inside and the IRA cause.   He was highly talented but as one would expect, the poems are all political and focused on the Troubles.  Regardless, they are good and showcase the many skills he developed that he was never able to use outside of prison.  And while I do believe he would have remained an IRA member, perhaps his time in prison and maturity would have resulted in a different approach to resolve the Troubles.

Later in the book, we shift back to Sands’ journal that was kept mostly on toilet paper due to the lack of any type of writing materials.  As we move on to the spring of 1981, Sands reports frequently and makes sure to note his weight which by that time had dropped to a shocking 127 lbs.  After several entries they stop, presumably as Sands entered the final stages of his fight.  Had he lived, I am sure he would have put together a book that would have contained far more than what we have here. However, what he did leave us is a trove of insightful notes that show the progression of his mind and why he believed in the Republican cause.

The book is a bit short but it is focused on the strike and is not an autobiography.  Readers who have been following the Troubles and are familiar with Sands’ life will appreciate this collection of his writings from the final months of his life.

ASIN: B07QPV3MGH

Northern Ireland

20190518_112659Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province.  The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands.  In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981).   I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London.   However, I did not know much about his life.   I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find.  Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.

Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).  Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful.  However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction.  Hearns sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.

From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down.  Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland.  He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings.  His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant.  But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions.  As Hearns shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.

The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right.  Hearns follows Sands’ early life, showing his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history.  I think Hearns showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes.  To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and Hearns gives him a platform to spread his ideas.  Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography.  Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.

His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book.  As Hearns tells this part of Sands’ life,  we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined.  The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived.  But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”.  A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.

Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave.  The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).  As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. Hearns covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.

As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA.  Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it.  Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course.  But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting.  At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27.  In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland.  To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise.  But to some of his enemies, as Hearns shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this.  I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA.  His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.

ISBN-10: 1560258888
ISBN-13: 978-1560258889

Biographies Northern Ireland

cooganSeveral years ago, I visited Dublin to finally see Ireland for myself.  And while I admit that I was not swayed by the Irish breakfast, there were many other things about Dublin that made up for the first morning and I left Dublin with a sense of warmth and humbleness.  During my visit, I stopped by the General Post Office (“GPO”) to send out a few postcards. As I stood on line with other tourists, I marveled at the beauty of the building.  After some time, I and the other customers departed and went our separate ways.  But I do not believe that many of us on line that day, recalled or were aware of the historical significance of the post office.  On April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”), staged an uprising across Dublin to force an end to the rule of the British Crown (“the Crown”) across Ireland.  The GPO was one of many occupied buildings but is recognized as “ground zero” for the various seizures that occurred.  The events of that day have become known as the Easter Rising and contained within the pages of this book, is the story from start to finish by author Tim Pat Coogan.

Recently I have covered a couple of books on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland’s Ulster Province.   Each makes reference to the 1916 uprising but are primarily focused on the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”).  I knew that at some point I would need to examine the Easter Rising and this book did not disappoint.  It came as a recommendation on Amazon and I purchased it rather quickly.   Having finished the book, I can firmly state that Coogan created an invaluable tool to learn the truth about the long and violent struggle by Republicans for a united Ireland.

Reviews on Amazon.com are generally positive with the only drawback being that the book is geared towards readers with a good amount of knowledge of Ireland’s history.   I do concur that the book is not an easy read but I do believe that readers who choose to explore this book already have a strong interest in the subject matter and will be somewhat familiar with the events at the GPO.  Regardless of the reader’s knowledge, it is an enjoyable read.  Coogan sets the right pace from early on and the book picks up speed as we move closer to the deadly climax.

While the book is focused on the uprising, there is far more to the story than meets the eye. In fact, not only do we learn about Coogan’s life growing up in Ireland, we also learn about the social conditions for most Irish men and women.  Life in Ireland was hard, famine was real and being Catholic was a cardinal sin. London had meddled in Irish affairs for several hundred years and calls for a United Ireland grew exponentially.   Protestant rule was enforced through gerrymandering and outright discrimination.  For Republicans, there was only thing to do and that was to force the Crown out of Ireland. To some, it was the only hope of an Ireland in which poverty was gone, religion did not divide society and the whole country was united as one.

Through Coogan’s work, I have come to learn the names of the Republican martyrs who whose legacies live on.  The names of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and James Connolly (1868-1916), among others, are now etched into my memory.   The uprising proved to be their downfall but in death they have become revered as the fathers of the Irish Republic.  Coogan provides samples of Pearse’s written correspondence to family members and short speeches he gave prior to this death, giving the reader a better idea as to who he was and his ultimate goal for Ireland.  To the Crown, the IRB was a group of agitators whose actions were insubordinate, treasonous and outright disrespectful. And to some Irish, particularly those of the Protestant faith, it was further confirmation that they were vindicated in their distrust and rejection of Catholics.  London took the position that the rebellion had to be resolved and Britain retaliated sharply.  Ironically, the crackdown by the Crown had many unintended effects that changed the course of Irish history.  Readers will find this part of the book highly interesting.

Coogan created what is with without a doubt, a definitive account of the Easter Rising.  There are many characters involved and certainly a lot of information to process.  But I think that readers who have the patience and interest to make it through the book will find that it is well worth the effort.  The troubles in Northern Ireland could reignite at any time and the war between the Republicans and the Crown could once again become full scale.   Inevitably, foreign nations will intervene and try to broker peace.  But in order for peace to prevail, all involved must understand what is truly at stake and why each side has the strong convictions that they do.  For those that live outside of Ireland, it may be necessary to first go back and learn the truth about the Crown’s presence in Ireland and the birth of the effort of Republicans to see it come to an end.

ASIN: B01ER6Z83Q

Northern Ireland

Rebel Hearts.jpgThe conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestants and Republic Catholics, is the longest running feud to date.  The planned exit by England from the European Union has resulted in suspense and apprehension throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.  The Irish have undoubtedly been watching closely as any movement by England will have a ripple effect that will eventually reach their shores.  Belfast remains a major tourist attraction in the north, similar to its southern counterpart Dublin, and receives millions of visitors each year.  History buffs may recall that Belfast is the city in which Harland and Wolff built the world-famous RMS Titanic for the White Star Line.   But behind the fame of the doomed ocean liner, lies a dark side that has taken more lives than anyone could have ever imagined.  Belfast and Londonberry (“Derry”) have served as the battlegrounds for the deadly war between Nationalists and Republicans forces.  Across Ulster province, six of the nine counties are protected by the British Crown (“the Crown”) and unofficially by the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association.  The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) stands firm as the opposition force founded to defend the minority Catholic population from what they believe to be the refusal of the Crown to let Ireland become a united country. Kevin Toolis is a journalist and screenwriter born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish parents.  In this eye-opening and chilling book, he travels back to the country of his ancestors, seeking to understand what drives the men and women of the IRA.

I believe that anyone interested in this book probably has a fair amount of knowledge regarding the IRA and “the troubles” as they are known by the Irish.  Toolis does not simply relay their well-known attacks but instead seeks to understand the mindset and conviction of those who have taken the pledge to see the Crown removed from Irish soil.  He interviewed many high-ranking members, some of whom are now deceased such as Martin McGuinnness (1950-2017), families of fallen IRA members and even those on the other side of the conflict.  And what he has come away with will shock readers who live outside of Ireland and are not of Irish ancestry.  To outsiders, the conflict seems surreal and the deaths of so many beyond needless.  It is a conflict that has no restrictions on violence and the ideology that fuels both sides is as strong as any found throughout the world.  However, as I read the book, I did find myself aghast at the ease in which so many accepted jail and death as part of the plan.  As the author shows,  to nearly all of the figures, taking up the IRA flag is seen as an act of honor, even if it means certain death and/or prison time.  It is a thought process that neither I nor many readers outside of the United Kingdom will be able to associate with.  But for those that remain in Northern Ireland, the troubles have never gone away.

The author provides a clear and thorough explanation for the origins of the conflict and the imposition of the Crown more than 400 years ago when Oliver Cromwell led the Crown in the War of Three Kingdoms, setting the stage for British rule.  As the book moves along, we are introduced to the IRA through polarizing and deadly figures.  The uprising of 1916 by Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) marked a new era in the Republic of Ireland.  His life and last moments are revisited here, showing the reader the level of conviction behind the Republican cause.  The IRA has been home to a large number of larger-than-life characters including the late Bobby Sands (1954-1981), whose hunger strike and death at HM Prison Maze, Long Kesh earned the IRA a major publicity coup against the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).  Sands’ legacy and spirit are alive and well as a martyr in the cause for a united republic.  Toolis moves through IRA circles with bravado and fear, knowing full well just how dangerous the interviewees were.  But his journalist background, allowed him to continue his research as he descended deeper into the IRA’s soul.

The book is far more than just a collection of missions carried out by the IRA.  Here we learn the names and personal stories of several figures who became popular and infamous in IRA lore.  Some were heroes, others informers and the rest, tragically became casualties of war.  Regardless of their roles, each has their own story to tell about their life in Ireland and whey they feel that the Crown should no longer remain in power in the north.  One thing that did stand out is that in nearly every story, a common theme is terrible poverty and discrimination as a result of the majority Protestant rule.  In fact, not one person in the book that Toolis interviewed, came from a family of extreme wealth.  The opposite was more often than not true, and their prospects in life were grim.  But the IRA and the dream of a united Ireland, was enough to lure many into committing acts intended to drive the British away once and for all.  Frankie Ryan, Mairéad Farrell (1957-1988), Sean Savage (1965-1988), Daniel McCann(1957-1988), Joseph MacManus and Patricia Black (1972-1991) are just some of the names listed in the long register of IRA members who died tragically on behalf of the IRA.  Their goal to force the Crown to leave Ireland has not materialized but the IRA continues to stick to its core mission.

At first glance, it is easy to write off the voices in this book as delusional militants whose numbers were never any match for the Crown of the British military.  The six counties in Ulster province are still under the Crown but the IRA is recognized world-wide as the Catholic voice across the north.  As I read the stories of the figures being interviewed, I continued to ask myself if there was any possibility that they could have taken a different path in life.  For some, it almost seems that they were destined to join the IRA.  In fact, as a few explain, it is what they grew up with and a part of life that became accepted.  But those of us looking from the outside in may ask is the heartache and death truly worth it?  Those part of the IRA will undoubtedly say yes it is.  Even those that have been forced to bury siblings and even children, remain committed to the IRA’s cause: a British-free and unified Republic of Ireland.

Those who decide to read the book through pure fascination with the violence and gore that occurs will miss the point of the book.  What Toolis has done is to allow us to see how and why young men and women who could have led ordinary and long lives, made the decision to join a cause that many of them knew from the beginning would result in prison and death. Their rationale for answering the call to arms and joining the IRA will provoke a range of reaction in readers.  Some of us will be empathetic while others may dismiss them as nothing more than rebel hearts.  But regardless of our own personal opinions, these are their stories and the reasons behind their decisions and actions.  We do not have to agree with them but we can make the effort to understand their position. Furthermore, we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in their place.

The British side of the question is not left out and the Crown does make an impact in the story through counter-intelligence missions spearheaded by MI5 and the Special Air Service (“SAS”), police action through the Royal Ulster Constabulary and informers within the IRA’s ranks. Deadly games of espionage, double-agents and collateral damage, turned Northern Ireland and even London in battlegrounds to force change to 10 Downing Street’s foreign policy toward its Irish neighbors.

Today there is a form of peace in Ireland but the Provisional IRA, which split for the traditional IRA in 1969, continues to operate.  Time will tell if peace will continue or if the troubles will once again be re-ignited.  As Britain struggles to find a suitable exit from the European Union, many eyes are on Ireland and the fears abound of the possible deadly impact of London’s final decision.  There may indeed come a day when the Crown is finally removed from Irish soil and the dream of a united Irish Republic becomes reality.  Protestants will have to make life changing decisions and for some that might include the use of violence.  We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and a British exit from Ireland will be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion.  But until that day comes, the IRA remains a force to be reckoned with and a voice for an oppressed minority seeking to change social conditions that have caused thousands of deaths. They are supported throughout Ireland and even here in the United States.  But if peace will have a chance of prevailing through a long term solution, we must first understand those that have served and died in their commitment to the IRA.   Some of those incredible and heartbreaking stories are captured here by Kevin Toolis in this breathtaking journey into the heart of the IRA.

ASIN: B00ZON5LIE

Northern Ireland

Sinn fein2Britain is steadily moving towards the anticipated and dreaded exit from the European Union on March 29, 2019. For Ireland, the move comes with a mix of emotions, including fears of the re-ignition of a conflict that resulted in several thousands deaths over the span of several decades. The IRA has long been recognized as the extreme group responsible for dozens of bombs and acts of terrorism across Norther Ireland and London.  But the reality is that many groups were involved in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.  I have been following Brexit since the referendum was held on June 23, 2016. The vote to leave the European Union sent shock waves throughout the world and left many wondering what would happen to both England and Ireland in its wake?  I wanted to know more about the conflict in Northern Ireland and decided on this book by author Peter Taylor.  And what I found inside its pages, has opened my eyes to a feud that would have dire consequences should it commence again.

Taylor explains early in the book that his first challenge was to decide on where to begin.  He decides on 1916, when Patrick Pearse and his “Irish Volunteers” laid siege on the General Post Office in Dublin, proclaiming the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.  Their philosophy was modeled after Sinn Fein, created in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, a journalist in Dublin.  Six days of fighting ensued before Pearse gave orders to surrender.  On May 3, 2016, he was executed at the age of thirty-six. His life and legacy continue to live on after his death but I do not believe even he could have predicted the events that followed in Northern Ireland.

Taylor is beyond reproach in telling the story of the rise of the Catholic movement for Irish independence from British Rule.  In 1919, the Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the name it carries to this day and in 2910, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 officially partitioned the country into Norther Ireland and Southern Ireland, allotting six counties to the north and the remain twenty-six to the south. In the north, Protestants are the majority and live comfortably under British rule.  The Catholics are the minority and seek to be free of the control by the Government in London.  Discrimination becomes a tool of the trade, relegating the Catholics the lowest level in society.   Tensions begin to build and it is not long before both sides engage in violence.  Fianna Fail was established in 1927 after breaking away from Sinn Fein and in 1996, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was created in response to the growing threat from the IRA.   London soon realizes that Northern Ireland is a powder keg and sends in British troops to restore order.  These various groups became entangled in a battle that was nothing short of all out war.  And as we see through Taylor’s words, it nearly tore the entire country apart.

I warn the reader that violence is prevalent in the book.  However, no story about the IRA, UVF and British Army conflict can be told without discussing it.  Here, Taylor does not mince words and the acts of violence might even disturb the most hardened of readers.  What I found to be even more shocking aside from the acts alone, were the ages of the young men and women involved, some of whom were no more than twenty years old.  But they believed in their causes and were determined to fight to the death in support.  As an American, it is with some difficulty that I was able to put myself in their position.  I have visited Ireland, seeing the General Post Office in Dublin while embracing all that the Irish have to offer.  But this story is not about the Irish breakfast or a pint of Guinness.  This is the bloody story of sectarianism in its most violent form.

Many of the fighters on all sides are no longer alive having succumbed to death, old age and in some cases a hunger strike, as was the case in 1981 at Long Kesh, now known as HM Prison Maze.  But in this excellent account of the conflict, their stories come back to life allowing the reader to go deep inside the mindset of the IRA and its followers.  In hindsight, we have the privilege of examining the actions of all involved.  But at the time, all believed that they were acting in good faith.  And even in some of the interviews that Taylor conducts, the soldiers and activists stand firm in their convictions.  The tense atmosphere, intimidation and fear that engulfed a nation is captured brilliantly by the author.

The British Government plays a huge role in the story for obvious reasons.  And although London is slow to react to the building tension, but once it does, the story picks up pace and its intervention adds another layer of tension of the already explosive conflict.  The administrations of Harold Wilson (1916-1995), Edward Heath (1916-2005), James Callaghan (1912-2005) and Margaret Thatcher (1923-2013) all tried their hand at moving the conflict towards peace. Thatcher would prove why she had been nicknamed the “Iron Lady” following the hunger strikes at Long Kesh in which Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) died after being on strike for sixty-six days.  The failures of London and the eventual success at achieving peace are covered extensively by Taylor in full detail, putting together all the pieces of a tragic story.   One of the highlights of the book is that in his interviews, he was not afraid to ask the difficult questions of the interviewed.  His approach and the unfiltered answers, give the book even more authenticity as Taylor takes us back in time, recounting a story that should never be forgotten.

Today, Ireland seems peaceful but beneath the surface, old tensions exist and in Northern Ireland, sharp divisions remain between Protestant and Catholic.  Time will tell if the old rivalries will be resurrected and the IRA and UVF re-engage in deadly conflict. The hope is that calm prevails and he world can breathe a sigh of relief in a united Ireland.  What is certain, is that a willingness to maintain peace will be needed by all sides. Wisdom and foresight will prove to be invaluable tools along with unwavering patience.  The people of Ireland face an uncertain future but I remain confident that peace will prevail in the hope that all involved do not wish to see a return to the past.  For anyone who is trying to understand the Northern Ireland conflict, this is a great book to start with.

ASIN: B00K4SC5UG

Northern Ireland