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7 Books to Help You Understand What’s Happening in Ireland

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The history of Ireland and Northern Ireland is complex, full of revolution, colonialism, and sectarian violence. Though there have long been tensions and fighting over the British colonization of Ireland, the most recent period of intense violence (usually referred to as The Troubles) occurred from the 1960s to 1990s and was considered “officially” closed after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. However, while an official ceasefire was in place, the deep seated divisions remained. Rioter Aisling Twomey has written before about books that address this period of history, as well as discussing how Brexit has impacted this issue. Over the past few months, as the UK finalizes its logistical separation from the European Union, violence in Northern Ireland has begun to flair again.

Of significant concern is the Northern Ireland Protocol, a part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that would avoid the creation of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Despite this promise, though, Brexit has created harsher checks at both land and sea borders, as well as exacerbating existing tensions of access to good and services in Northern Ireland. Add to this the fact that religious and ethnic tensions in Northern Ireland have never truly gone away, and many are concerned that the recent flares in violence are part of an emerging, longterm conflict.

Below are a few books, both fiction and nonfiction, that dive into the history of this conflict, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century. While it’s a small starting point, having some understanding of the history of the area will provide a context to understanding current events.

Note: There is a lack of diverse voices in these books. Though many have been affected by the sectarian conflict in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are few books available by women authors and authors of color, especially in nonfiction.

Nonfiction

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Keefe is a brilliant writer of narrative nonfiction, and his book on The Troubles and Northern Ireland is no exception. At face, this is the story of Jean McConville, who was taken from her home in Belfast in 1972 and was presumed to have been executed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and whose remains were found on a beach 30 years later. But it’s also a wider story of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the various political and cultural struggles in the area in the second half of the 20th century. Keefe weaves the story of what happened to McConville with the personal stories and political actions of many top members of the I.R.A. such as Marian and Dolours Price and Bobby Sands, in a story that is both an overarching account of a particular time in history and an intense, firsthand account of the decisions of the young leaders of the IRA.

Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women, and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles by David McKittrick, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, David McVea, Seamus Kelters

Many books address Ireland’s political, economic, and legal issues and the struggle for Irish independence. Lost Lives, however, is a look at the Northern Ireland Troubles from a much more personal angle. Here, the authors list and examine every death, no matter the age or politics of the deceased, that occurred during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. From members of the IRA to British soldiers to young children, each death is listed and cataloged in order through the use of investigative research to paint a human portrait of the cost of sectarian violence. 

War and an Irish Town by Eamonn McCann

While many of the books on this list were published after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, McCann’s book debuted in 1974, when the conflict was still very much raging. Having grown up Catholic in Northern Ireland, McCann mixes reporting on the events of The Troubles with his own personal stories and draws a connection between what was seen on the news and how it affected him and his positions on Irish nationalism. McCann is an activist in Derry and his first person accounts of his time as a community organizer there provide a window into the personal beliefs and struggles of those fighting for a united Ireland. 

The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan

Those looking for a comprehensive history of The Troubles will want to pick up this book. At nearly five hundred pages and published in 1997, it spans from the civil protests and violence of the sixties to the breakdown of the 1994 ceasefire agreement. Whether you’re looking to dive more into this 30-year period or want a foundation for more recent books, this history is broad enough to provide a factual base while still accessible to those who are newer to the topic. 

Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland by David McKittrick, David McVea

Another book that attempts to offer a comprehensive view of the conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The authors start with a chapter that offers background dating back to the 1920s, before moving into the latter half of the 20th century and continuing up to the Good Friday Agreement. In addition to a narrative written in straightforward prose, the book also contains a chronology and charts of data regarding the violence of these years to help contextualize the events of the 20th century and the struggle for Irish independence.

Fiction

Sometime novels helps us connect with the feel of a particular time, even if the facts have been fictionalized. The two books below get at the psychological toll of The Troubles and life in Northern Ireland.

Milkman book cover

Milkman by Anna Burns

One of the hardest parts of exploring the history of a conflict is understanding how it impacted the psyches of everyday people. For those living through The Troubles, the sectarian and intensely local violence meant that there was no escaping or remaining neutral in the conflict. In Milkman, we see a loosely based-on-Belfast city in the 1970s through the eyes of unnamed characters. The main character (Middle Sister) is believed by her ever-watchful community to be having an affair with the Milkman (a renouncer of the state), when in fact he is stalking her. Middle Sister stands out in her community and the ways in which her every move is monitored and reported on and the consequences being associated with the Milkman have for her gives a sense of the paranoia that followed those in Belfast and similar places as they went about their lives during The Troubles.

Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

Tessa is living in modern-day Belfast, where the IRA has gone underground but never fully disappeared, and where she works as a producer for the local outlet of the BBC. One day, when covering a gas station robbery, Tessa is shocked to see her sister Marian pull a black mask over her face on the television screen as part of a group of IRA fighters claiming responsibility for the robbery. While the police are convinced that Marian has joined the IRA, Tessa believes that her sister has been coerced and still eschews the group’s violence. To find out the truth, Tessa sets out on a dangerous road that draws her into the still-simmering tensions of Northern Ireland. 


The books featured here are but a fraction of what’s been written about the history of Ireland. If you’re looking for more books on the subject, check out Book Riot’s archive of Ireland-related articles.

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