A concise study of modern Ireland

Sally Richardson reviews Ireland Since 1939 by Henry Patterson, Oxford University Press £9.99 pbk

TO COMPRESS sixty years of recent Irish history on both sides of the border into one modestly-sized volume is quite an achievement. Henry Patterson’s experience and understanding of his subject is evident in this extraordinarily cohesive and elegantly-written work.

Always in control of his material, he pulls together the strands that make up the history of two political entities with three centres of power -- Dublin, Belfast and London -- into a near-seamless narrative.

Patterson combines concision with readability, intertwining analysis with well-chosen detail and fleshing out the narrative with vivid pen-sketches of politicians and players.

The changing position of women is dealt with briefly in the context of the emerging women’s movement of the 1970s. More focus on women might have been attempted although the scarcity of women in high-level politics might have made this difficult.

However, professor Patterson’s analysis is marred by his hostility to republicanism. Although he acknowledges some of the injustices of the unionist-controlled six-county statelet, he doesn’t accept the inherently sectarian nature of the reasons for partition. The very fact that the issue of partition dominates much of the content of this book suggests, at the very least, unfinished business.

The choice of cover photograph -- squaddies on border patrol -- only serves to underline this point.

Republicanism should not be confused with the atavisim and tribalism which professor Patterson is rightly critical of. An unpartitioned Irish republic might well have avoided much of the economic stagnation and decline and social conservatism that until recently characterized both parts of Ireland.

Nevertheless this is a much-needed and valuable book. I shall keep my own copy by me for frequent reference.

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