Review of “The Irish Question: Two Centuries of Conflict” by Lawrence J. McCaffrey

Although the subtitle of Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s The Irish Question is Two Centuries [i.e., the last two] of Conflict, he argues that to understand modern Irish history, you have to begin with the reign of Queen Elizabeth – the first to be called such in 1603, not the current queen. Under Elizabeth I, Ireland was a part of what became the British Empire. At that time, Protestants were battling, and winning, the religious war for supremacy in England. Elizabeth’s land grants in Ireland to her Protestant supporters gave them substantial political power, far in excess of what their numbers (about a fifth of the population) would seem to have merited.

Ireland became a part of England (it was not yet the United Kingdom) pursuant to the 1800 Act of Union, pushed through the Irish Parliament by Protestants controlling the assembly. The Crown and the Tory Party endorsed a series of enactments that became know as Protestant Ascendency, a form of apartheid that relegated Catholics to second class citizenship. For example, Catholics could not attend public (read, “Protestant”) universities.

But the divisions that caused so much civil strife in the 19th and 20th centuries were not solely religious. They were also geographic. Ulster (Northern Ireland) had a Protestant majority (about 2/3) and was staunchly pro British. The rest of Ireland, about 4/5 of the country, was predominantly (about 90%) Catholic, and had little sympathy for the “mother country.” But many, perhaps a majority, of both Catholics and Protestants wanted Ireland to remain a united country. Protestants wanted all of Ireland to be closely connected to Britain; Catholics preferred to separate from Britain.

The internal divisions led many to desire a partition of Ireland into two countries, a Protestant north and a Catholic south. This led to cross-religious disputes between Unionists and Separatists.

Lawrence McCaffrey’s excellent retelling of 200 years of Irish history takes us through the potato famine of the mid 19th century, the heated “home rule” controversies lasting almost an entire century, the politics of the English Liberal Party, the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland’s decision to remain neutral in World War II, the ultimate decision to divide the country, the rise of the IRA, and many other complex issues that helped shape the modern Ireland of the 21st century. The book was published before “Brexit,” and so it doesn’t take us to the present, but it provides a carefully researched account of how Ireland became the relatively peaceful, if divided, two countries you can visit today.

The structure of the book follows an adage I once heard for legal memoranda: (1) tell ‘em what you’re goin’ to tell ‘em; (2) tell ‘em; and (3) tell ‘em what you told ‘em. The first and final chapters are succinct yet comprehensive summaries of the middle 7 chapters. The book as a whole is well written and organized. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

Published by University of Kentucky Press, 2000

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