A Difficult Birth: The Early Years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25 by Alan F Parkinson

Born in Belfast, Alan Parkinson has spent most of his academic career in England. His historical interests, however, have remained strongly rooted in his home place.

n his latest book, A Difficult Birth: The Early Years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25, he has given us a very valuable study of events here 100 years ago, which is authoritative, readable and balanced.

He provides both great detail and analysis. He is also willing to make judgments. In his comments on the birth of Northern Ireland, he is critical of the leadership provided by Sir James Craig, as well as the refusal of the Catholic minority to participate in the workings of the new state, and threats from the south.

At the same time, he shows an awareness of the very real difficulties which people faced in the circumstances of the period. National and religious divisions within the north and between north and south presented significant challenges. In these years other states were established in eastern and central Europe, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, and they also suffered from such divisions, creating serious majority/minority problems.

The book is divided into a small number of chapters. In his introduction he sets out the context, local, national and international for these events. The following chapters are ‘1920-start of the storm’, ‘1921-to forgive and forget’, ‘1922-Armageddon’s here!’ and then ‘Postscript-a brave new world’. While these chapters are organised chronologically, within each he examines various themes and issues.

He looks at controversial subjects such as the role of the Ulster Special Constabulary and the impact of the IRA. The influence of sectarianism is analysed. Notorious events from these years, including the McMahon murders and the Altnaveigh murders, are recounted.

The parts played by politicians such as Sir James Craig and Joseph Devlin are described. An important section records the recollections of ordinary citizens, including his father, about trying to go about their daily lives at this time.

A feature which comes clearly from his study is the impact of violence on the lives of many people. Violence from one side often led to violence by the other. Although not as violent as Dublin or Cork county, Belfast was the site of the vast majority of fatalities.

He records that the Catholic community suffered disproportionally in this violence, experiencing some 350 deaths in Northern Ireland over the period, June 1920-June 1922, counting for some 60 per cent of total deaths, although they were only a third of the population.

The author rejects the view that this violence can be described as a “pogrom”, the term originally used to describe large-scale attacks on Jews in Tsarist Russia. He is critical of the lethargic response of the unionist political leaders to the violence, but argues that there is little evidence that they planned such outrages.

He points out that there were also hundreds of Protestant casualties, as well as serious financial and commercial losses borne primarily by members of that community.

Of course, these years witnessed considerable violence in the rest of Ireland. The important recent book, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, edited by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi O Corrain, records the names of all those 2,346 persons who died as a result of political violence in Ireland, 1917-December 1921.

A table of fatalities by county shows that such deaths in the six counties, which became Northern Ireland, numbered some 15% of the total, although 28% of the Irish population in 1911.

There is a well-known comment by Winston Churchill in February 1922 that after the end of the world war the “dreary steeples” of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerged again with the “integrity” of their quarrel unaltered. In fact, both counties were among the least violent in Ireland during this period.

As this volume by O’Halpin and O Corrain reveals, the county with the least fatalities in relation to size of population in all 32 counties over these years, 1917-December 1921, was Co Tyrone, followed by Cavan, Fermanagh, Donegal and Down.

Another feature of these years is the absence of major permanent displacement of population in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, in Europe at this time, in new states with new boundaries, such as Poland where many hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans left, and later in other examples where partition occurred, such as India, with expulsion of millions, there was major permanent displacement and migration of population. This did not happen here, as the 1911 and 1926 census returns show clearly.

In the case of Northern Ireland there were some localised examples of population change, for example in Lisburn (following the Swanzy riots) where the Catholic population fell by 785 between 1911 and 1926.

In the same period, however, the Catholic population of Belfast grew by over 2000. In the six Ulster counties which became Northern Ireland, the Catholic population declined by around 10,000.

It can be noted that in the three other Ulster counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan, the Protestant population fell by nearly 16,000. Elsewhere in Ireland, these revolutionary years resulted in the “exodus” of substantial numbers of the Protestant population.

Following the Anglo Irish Treaty, the citizens of the 26 counties suffered deep division, not because of partition, but due to the failure of the treaty to deliver a republic.

The result was a devastating civil war which caused the deaths of over 1,500 persons in 1922-23, again much higher than the number of around 300 who died in Northern Ireland in 1922.

The author draws attention to the tough emergency legislation adopted by the Northern Ireland government in 1922 in response to the IRA campaign.

The northern Special Powers Act provided for internment and for the punishment of flogging on top of a custodial sentence for the possession of arms. Eventually some 700, mostly republican, suspects, were interned.

He also points out that the Irish government adopted even harsher measures against its opponents in the civil war. Southern emergency legislation included internment and the death penalty for the possession of arms (something the northern government had considered, but rejected).

Following trial by military tribunals, over 70 prisoners were executed by firing squad. By February 1923 there were 13,000 anti-treaty republican internees and prisoners. The murder of TD Sean Hales resulted in the Irish government’s summary execution of four anti-treaty republican prisoners.

Alan Parkinson’s book spells out well the tragic events of this time, a century ago. Northern Ireland survived these years as did the Irish Free State. Both have survived to the present, unlike other countries in Europe established in the early 1920s which collapsed a few decades later due to deep divisions and external forces.

Their survival is a matter that we can celebrate.

Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. His latest book is Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration (History Press)

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