Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Behind Unbending Irish Factionalism

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Behind Unbending Irish Factionalism

Article excerpt

BITING AT THE GRAVE: THE IRISH HUNGER STRIKES AND THE POLITICS OF DESPAIR. By Padraig O'Malley, Boston: Beacon Press, 330 pp., $22.95

REMEMBER the abortive Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985? Remember the enthusiasmin Dublin, London, Washington - and the rage of both Protestant and RomanCatholic die-hards in Belfast? There was hope that the killing would stop atlast, that men and women of good will and common sense would triumph over thegunmen on all sides, including those in plain clothes of Her Majesty's SpecialAir Service.

Those hopes quickly ebbed in a subtle, perplexing way that PadraigO'Malley's brilliant interpretation of the Irish problem in the 1980s will helpus understand. The agreement was never broken: It lapsed, almost by default, asmuttering began among cynics and skeptics, the fearful and the fatalistic. Itwon't work, it can't work, they argued: The extremists are too strong, thereasonable folk too few. Some shrewdly placed bombs were cited as evidence,conditioned reactions and traditional slogans took over, and "the troubles"continued as before, with an "acceptable" level of violence, and no end insight.

Why? How? Eighteen years after British paratroopers killed 13 Catholics on"Bloody Sunday" in 1972; 22 years after Catholic civil rights marchers wereclubbed down by Protestant police; 68 years after rampant civil war finallyended with partition in 1922; 192 years after Wolfe Tone's insurrection failedin 1798; and precisely 300 years after the Battle of the Boyne cementedProtestant power in 1690, the Irish troubles continue - though on a relativelysmall scale, in a few clearly defined corners of the north. Why? How?

Most writers answer with long historical litanies, crammed with facts anddates, with socioeconomic analysis, and with references to inertia, stalemate,and the balance of political forces. Consider, for example, Tom Wilson's recent"Ulster: Conflict and Consent," a calm, academic study in the conventionalmode. Useful, no doubt; but does it get to the human heart of the matter?

O'Malley does. He digs beneath the data and beyond the headlines to probeinto attitudes, anxieties, assumptions, mutual misperceptions, all the issuesthat French historians in the 1960s began calling "the study of mentalities. …

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