When I was a teenager, I wanted to join the IRA.
OK, I know that seems precocious at best and at worst, agonizingly stupid; as in, so aggressively stupid it makes you cringe (obnoxious in the way that eating a mealy apple can be). Like I said, though, I was a teenager. I did a lot of stuff that way. I wanted to wear a balaclava, play with Semtex, mortars, and Armalites incinerating Injustice and Tyranny in a glorious ball of righteous flame and being the good guy.
I guess there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under Heaven. No good guys, no bad guys: only guys. My desire to be IRA has transmuted into a passionate (and, vastly more politic in the company of strangers whose sympathies remain unplumbed) interest in the history of the Emerald Isle during the recent unpleasantness, referred to by the Irish as, simply, ‘the Troubles’. This was what they called nearly five decades of bloodshed and fear – as if they were whispering to one another about the domestic disputes of their next-door neighbors, heard vaguely through a thin tenement wall. A hell of a euphemism.
I won’t try and boil down the immensity of the topic here. I suspect that most people have at least a passing interest in the topic, having heard about it periodically throughout the 20th century. If you’d like to delve deeper into this fascinating portion of the human strudel, I have an armload of recommendations for you.
OK, Seamus. We’ll start strong. Making Sense of the Troubles by David McKittrick and David McVea. If you’re getting into this, then this Northern-Irish journalist and historian are your best friends. I’ve started this list with them, and in due course you’ll see I’ll end it with them as well. This text is immensely and startlingly readable, while at the same time being a most comprehensive and impartial resource, by virtue of which it is, in my eyes, the more exceptionally admirable. I returned to it time and again in my period of most diligent study. Each section is broken down into manageable bites. Never overwhelming, never academic or pedantic. It’s just facts, reasonable surmises and conclusions. The straight dope. In fact, to be conversational in the topic, possibly all you’d really need.
Here’s where you can choose your poison with a bit more liberty and ease. I suggest taking in some cinema. The 2006 film The Wind That Shakes The Barley is excellent, taking place during the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War. The film takes its title from a ballad sung from the perspective of a volunteer in the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. During that struggle, the rebels often carried barley oats in their pockets as provisions for when on the march. After the rebellion, large anomalous barley fields appeared in untenanted areas and by roadsides, marking the “croppy-holes”, unmarked mass graves into which the slain rebels were unceremoniously cast.
Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916 by Peter De Rosa is quality historical fiction about the ground-level planning and nitty-gritty tactical details of the Easter Rising, from the storming of the GPO to the acquisition of an arsenal. Recounts as well Roger Casement’s attempts to convince the Germans to send weapons and funds to the Irish Republican Brotherhood on the strength of the argument that the more successful a rebellion on British soil was, the more difficult it would be for them to wage an effective war abroad. A good carrying book. I loan my copy out every chance I get. (Right now it’s in Pittsburgh.) Once you’ve finished it, watch the 1996 film Michael Collins, directed by Neil Jordan, Starring Liam Neeson as Collins (AKA “The Big Fella”) and Alan Rickman as Éamon de Valera.
The IRA: A History by Tim Pat Coogan is a great comprehensive text. Pretty self-explanatory. Sometimes Coogan can be a little less than objective, but as for myself I find that perfectly understandable. It can color the reading experience. If you like this tome, you may also enjoy On The Blanket, a much shorter work regarding the televised hunger strikes in the famous H Block of Long Kesh prison (also called the Maze) in protest of inhumane conditions and to be afforded Prisoner Of War status, as they viewed themselves as enemy combatants of the British, not subjects. Coogan has written a number of other works on the subject of Ireland’s 20th century, but I cannot recommend them based on personal experience.
Another film: Jim Sheridan’s 1997 film The Boxer starring Emily Watson and Daniel Day-Lewis as a former volunteer in the Provisional IRA. Most interesting to me in its depiction of the Falls, the overwhelmingly Catholic projects of Belfast. Also, Bloody Sunday, a 2002 TV film about the 1972 massacre that’s both good and exhaustive.
The American Connection by Jack Holland deal specifically with the role of the United States, whether as entity or nonentity, in the Troubles. There are definitely a few copies of this title in the store as of this writing. A bit dry, but an interesting vivisection of the role our country played, especially given that the US claims more citizens of Irish descent than there are Irish in Ireland. I believe the figure is something in the ballpark of 30 times more. Worth the reading for the description of President Clinton’s meeting with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, and the subsequent sputtering and choking in Parliament which that official validation produced. Satisfying.
A couple more I’d like to recommend, though they are uncommon. War and an Irish Town by journalist and organizer Eamonn McCann about the rising in Derry when he was working as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. A little cheeky, by his own admission, but a very in-depth account of that specific conflict. Also, for a look at another turning point in the history of contemporary Ireland, try Enniskillen: The Remembrance Day Bombing by Denzil McDaniel. I also recommend looking into the bombing in Omagh as an indicator of the current public opinion regarding the Troubles. As well, there is Troubles, by JG Farrell, a historical novel taking place at the time of the Irish War of Independence. I am currently reading this book myself and I’ll choose to withhold judgment for now, but I know for certain we have at least one more copy in the store if you’d like to try it out. Also, we sometimes have autobiographies and essays by Sinn Féin president and MP Gerry Adams.
Also, Our European History section here at Logos is sprinkled with histories of modern Ireland that will give a good overview of the hundreds of years of colonization, absentee landlords, Home Rule, Cromwell, the 1798 rebellion and so forth that will add another layer of depth to your understanding of the contemporary history. Personal preference would have me recommending a Penguin edition (or Pelican, or Peregrine), but really, you can take your pick.
Also, while you’re in the neighborhood, you should stop by Joyce’s Dubliners and give “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” another go now that you know a bit better who Parnell was and why he mattered. Plus, you’d get to read “The Dead” again. Which would be smart.
I said I’d finish with McKittrick and McVea, and so I shall. Having already lauded their objectivity in this most divisive of issues, I wish to recommend at least looking through this next book, the book which most disorientated my from my teenage desire to be an IRA man. Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women, and Children Who Died Through the Northern Ireland Troubles is a 1600+ page book which is simply a list of each and every person whose death is attributable to the troubles, who they were, how they died, and who survived them. Loyalists, Provos, RUC, tourists, mothers, shoppers, veterans, infants, all 3600 dead at the time of its writing are accounted for here in this monumental and devastating memorial for the victims of the war. A hard book to read, to be sure, but many’s the night I’ve spent discussing it with friends. Purely as an undertaking, it is unparalleled, to my knowledge, in the whole of history; what other record exists of a single war , documenting each single death? This staggers me. The rumination on humanity and inhumanity implicit in this book, as well as the effort to reinstate the value of an individual life in the dehumanizing context of war, in which each human life is too often reduced to little more than a number, a Malevich slate. It is at least worth knowing about the existence of this truly great and genuinely profound work, if only to consider the feat of compiling it. Not a book to be read cover-to-cover, necessarily – but if you do it, then your Jameson’s on me when I’m off work.
Not being funny, you drink free that night.
Well, I hope this sets you on the path and finds you well on your way with the road rising to meet you. Please feel free to come by and recommend relevant books that I’ve overlooked here, if you’re of a mind. I realize many of the books mentioned here are not always stocked, but if you are interested and can’t find the exact title you’re looking for, I urge you to mention it to us, and we’ll see what’s up our sleeves.