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Book review: A Pocket History of Northern Ireland (Richard KILLEEN)

Book review: A Pocket History of Northern Ireland (Richard KILLEEN)
by Allan LEONARD
29 December 2020

Occasionally I am approached for an image to be used in a book publication. Recently, this was for one that I made of a mural celebrating the television series, Derry Girls. Disclosure: I granted permission, with payment, for the image in A Pocket History of Northern Ireland, by Richard Killeen and published by Gill Books.

A Pocket History of Northern Ireland is an addition to the “pocket history” series by Gill Books. The format is a hardcover, 5”x6” volume with two-page chapters of about 250 words each, laden with archival and contemporary imagery (about 300 images in this volume). This is a traditional chronological history, with the first two pages providing a 17th and 18th century background, continuing with the Act of Union 1801. The contents are organised into six parts: (1) The Union Unravels; (2) Consolidation; (3) Decline & Fall; (4) 1969: The Troubles; (5) Lone Suffering; and (6) Turning the Tide. There are 25 chapters over 256 pages; the book took me about three hours to complete.

With any book on the history and politics of Northern Ireland, those familiar with the topic will consciously or subconsciously gage the ideological perspective of the author. There is no issue with the accuracy of what Killeen presents; the facts are all there. But there is an apparent lens of a southern Irish person. Positively, there is an equal disdain, if not disgust, of both ‘militant republicanism’ (see chapter: Enniskillen) and the ‘psychopathic’ elements of loyalism (see chapter: Shankill Butchers). But a southern bewilderment of the quagmire of northern politics is also obvious. Killeen guides the reader through the elements of the post-ceasefire multi-party talks that resulted in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

There is a separate chapter on Bernadette Devlin, as expected. What I didn’t expect was how frequently she was referred to in subsequent chapters: a sympathy I haven’t seen in other concise histories of Northern Ireland.

Derry Girls mural. Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Speaking of surprises, it heartened me to see my image of the Derry Girls mural as the final image of the book. Killeen’s tone in this last chapter is spot on — while Northern Ireland remains segregated and dissident republicans are still murdering (including that of the talented young journalist, Lyra McKee), the northern tradition of producing excellent literature and arts continues (including Anna Burns’ novel, Milkman, and the award winning television comedy, Derry Girls).

Perhaps an updated edition of A Pocket History of Northern Ireland will add a chapter on legalisation of abortion as well as same-sex marriage, and how a new generation of ‘peace babies’ are forging a different agenda from the shibboleths of the past.

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