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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars First definitive history of the IRA in Belfast 1920-21., 9 Dec 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms 1920-22 (Paperback)
In the emotional maelstrom that is Northern Ireland today there is no shared view of how the the Northern state came into being. Official histories which deal with Northern Ireland are usually told from a British or unionist perspective. The Irish view of how six Ulster counties emerged to become a province of Great Britain and it's Empire, is somewhat different. Memoirs and personal records of those who participated in events of that time were kept hidden and for the most part unpublished for fear of arrest and charges of sedition. Records of actual Old IRA activity in the North were kept in classified files of the National Army's Archives in the South. British or unionist information on those times was subjected to heavy censorship until recently. So, little has been written to comprehensively explain the extraordinary struggle faced by the original volunteers of the Old IRA in the Northern Divisions, initially engaged in the same War of Independence undertaken by their comrades in the South.
In his book, Jim McDermott goes a long way to remedy the dearth of knowledge of the period. He questions many assumptions and relates in fascinating detail, the rise and eventual demise of those old republicans in the Belfast Command - "a dispised minority of a despised minority".
Who were the Belfast Republicans of the early 20's? How were they organised? What was the real relationship with Michael Collins? Why did so many opt for a pro-Treaty stance? What was the nature of the Republican split in Belfast 1922? Above all, what did the IRA do then, and why were the survivors so silent about their involvement afterwards? These are some of the questions McDermott examines in his unflinching, moving history of Republicans at the time of Partition.
Through contemporary sources and his own compelling narrative drive and honest analysis, McDermott evokes a startling vision of that awful period. The chilling similarities with present day events confront us starkly and force us to revisit easy assumptions. It is a direct challenge to engage in our history and face the real issues of the conflict. Those old republicans had to face the realities of their predicament, not fully appreciated or even understood by their Southern counterparts. The most obvious problem was the fact that the Unionist Ascendancy had set it's face against any form of Home Rule, never mind Independence, and had harnassed a virtual cauldron of hatred to oppose any moves in this general direction. McDermott catalogues in detail the enormous resources made available to unionism and the paranoia instilled to produced the many bitterly sectarian groupings, such as the Cromwell Clubs, the Imperial Tigers, the UVF and individual crusaders like Crawford, Harrison and Nixon. Add to these the forces of the Crown in the form of the many regiments billeted in the North, the RIC, the RUC and all the A,B and C Specials and you start to get an idea of the strength of opposition facing Republicans in the North. Those in the North, fighting for a new dispensation in all Ireland, were acutely aware of the difficulties and growing isolation. Undaunted, they managed to carry out many successful military operations on orders from HQ, including the assassination DI Swanzy.
The book sets out clearly, the onslaught on the minority Catholic community in Belfast from 1921, in reaction to the War of Independence and the fear of change. We see the intimidation that culminated in the shipyard expulsions, local pogroms, shootings and burning of "disloyal" owned property. In well documented expositions, we are witness to atrocities such as the Arnon Street massacre, the murders of the Duffin brothers and the McMahon family. If there is to be a criticism of the book, it is the author's conscientious need to try and include the details of so many individual cases of needless loss of life, both Catholic and Protestant.
The original role as insurgents in a liberatiion struggle from Imperial rule is shown to be compromised by the need to defend whole districts from sectarian attack. McDermott, again, does not flinch from describing the often brutal response the Old IRA took, to meet force with force, such as the bombing of trams full of shipyard workers and reprisal shootings of special policemen and British soldiers.
The facts are that the Old IRA in the North were tested and were not found wanting.They probably saw more active service than their Southern counterparts. They were defeated by circumstances outside their control and dispersed to the four winds. Cold, unpalative reasons for this, are set out by McDermott's narrative. The continuing strains of and in Republicanism become more obvious as we read and the lack of focus and direction for generations makes sense.
The author's grandfather, Jimmy McDermott, played a major role in those early days, but like many of that generation he kept his own counsel and only discussed the momentous events on one rare occasion near the end of his life. This conversation, overheard by his grandson, was the spark that sent the author on a journey of exploration into that fateful time.
Jim McDermott has produced a powerful chronicle of Belfast Republicanism and a history of the 3rd Northern Division of the Old IRA. In it we can find the origins of many of the problems that beset us today - policing, sectarianism and mistrust of political institutions. This is the first definitive work on that period and it's scholarly research and presentation will undoubtedly be the spur to further, much needed work. He has done his grandfather and family proud - a tour de force.
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Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms 1920-22
Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms 1920-22 by Jim McDermott (Paperback - 30 July 2001)
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