Book Review: Past And Present: History, Identity, And Politics In Ireland

Past And Present:  History, Identity, And Politics In Ireland, by Brian Walker

The wonder about a book like this one is that the way that the author attempts to de-mystify claims of ancient animosity between the Irish and Scot-Irish in Irish history, particularly in Northern Ireland is applicable to a great many other conflicts as well.  Throughout this book the author shows the change in rhetoric over time and the fact that recent conflict between Protestants and Catholics springs from the context of the Irish Republic and its founding as well as the failures of elites and leaders to encourage a peaceful approach of coexistence.  History is used as a club against one side or the other as ancient atrocities are remembered and ancient grudges are nursed by people who could choose to do better themselves.   And that is a lesson that would be well-remembered by any other contemporary group that similarly views itself as a victim of history and refuses to take responsibility for thriving and overcoming continual conflict with other groups.  The author dishes out some tough love to the people of Northern Ireland, but it is advice that others should heed and follow as well for there are no shortage of peoples who whine and groan about being victims of history while failing to better their own condition.

This book is a short one at a bit more than 100 pages and it is divided into four chapters that examine different aspects of the conflict in Northern Ireland as it has changed over time.  The author begins with an acknowledgements and introduction section that call upon the people of Northern Ireland and their leadership to take responsibility for their actions.  After that the author discusses the rise and change over time of the religious and political traditions celebrating the ultimately successful Protestant defense of Derry from 1689 to 1989 (1).  After this the author discusses lessons of Irish history and the complicated legacy of the 1798 rebellion and the character of the United Irishmen (2).  This leads to a look at public holidays and the change in the political nature of such festivals from 1920 to 1960 as Republican politics influenced behavior in Northern Ireland (3).  Finally, the author discusses the burden of the past and why it has been a problem for Northern Ireland in a way that it has not been for other nations in the same boat (4), after which there are notes and an index.

The history of the relationship of the Irish and the Scot-Irish in Ireland is a complex one, but it is one that has no easy answers.  Rather than being an account of a monolithic conflict, this book does a great job at helping the reader to recognize the occasions when Scot-Irish and Irish both wanted more freedoms under British rule and worked together to seek them before politics (and religion) separated them.  The author explores when and why the celebrations in Derry about the siege of the city and the successful victory at the Battle of the Boyne became more important in the face of changing demographics that made the city more heavily Catholic than it had been before.  It is a difficult thing to recognize the way that some unscrupulous political leaders benefit a great deal from hyping up conflict between peoples who could get along well enough without too much trouble, but this book does demonstrate the problem that political elites have when they seek to encourage conflict as a way of preserving power in a false dialectic.  This book itself may be about a subject not everyone will care about personally, but it has relevance for a great deal besides its narrow topic.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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