The long view

Shayla Walmsley reviews Violence and Nationalist Politics in Derry City, 1920–1923 by Ronan Gallagher, Four Courts Press, £9.95 pbk and Ireland: The Union and its Aftermath by Oliver MacDonagh, University College Dublin Press, £13.95 pbk

VIOLENCE AND Nationalist Politics in Derry City illustrates the old dictum that the exception elucidates the rule.

The trend in recent decades to forego the obvious main event and look instead at what would once have been considered marginalia has its advantages: it’s hard to imagine the great working class histories without it. So instead of looking at Dublin and Belfast, Gallagher looks at Derry, the bastion of a Catholic majority yet at the same time of Orange mythology, and a city under the municipal control of nationalists/Sinn Fein for a brief shining moment from 1920–1923.

But the main show keeps overshadowing the margins. The Treaty debates of 1921–2 split the IRA in the north, including Derry, for example; and it was Belfast’s abolition of PR for local elections in 1922 that laid to rest the hope that the Boundary Commission would hand Derry over to the Free State.

The upshot? That isn’t quite so clear. Gallagher is emphatic that what has since been understood as sporadic sectarian conflict in Derry was, at least partly, righteous anger at another bout of gerrymandering. But it isn’t clear whether, when he tells us that when the corporation stopped short of declaring for Dáil Éireann, it was for “the thought of lives being lost” or, as he says a moment later, because they “fell short of the goal of national republican principle.”

Gallagher’s book is short and conscientious – especially given that it relies heavily on newspaper sources. The disadvantages of this method are obvious: think of a history of England in Daily Mail headlines. But to give Gallagher his due, when he quotes reports from the (much more estimable) Derry Journal, he identifies where there are no supporting sources. This author would survive Hutton.

Compare Derry’s three-year hiatus with the vast scope of Oliver MacDonagh’s Ireland: the Union and its Aftermath, first published in the 1960s and re-issued a year after the author’s death.

The risk – given that history changes almost as quickly as events – is that after 30-odd years, the book will no longer be relevant. No danger here. This is top-line political history of the old school, and none the worse for it.

But there are caveats. The first is MacDonagh’s tendency to push too far the idea that Britain and Ireland were ‘Siamese twins’ (one of his chapter headings) after the Act of Union of 1800. More than a century later, for instance, the new state was “remarkable for its fidelity to British models.”

The second is that, as a result, he underplays the very real differences – the role, for instance, of oppression, aspiration and ideology, and of culture that the historian Jonathan Steinberg has defined as ‘more than the arts pages of the Sunday papers’. MacDonagh perhaps tries too hard, as the introduction tells us, to avoid carrying a ‘sobbing list of themes for Irish research’.

In the same introduction, WJ McCormack points out that "Ireland has no Platonic existence in MacDonagh’s version of the nineteenth century, no suffering or inviolable essential existence on its own.” Perhaps it’s in the nature of revisionist schools to overstate the case.

A postscript written for the second edition, published in the 1970s tried to make sense of the events of 1968–73. MacDonagh takes as his starting point the Whiteboy movement of the 1760s. After all, there is something to be said for the long view.

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