Off the Shelf: The Border The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics

Off the Shelf: The Border – The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish PoliticsBy Diarmaid Ferriter,
Profile Books ISBN 978 -78816-179-4 2019 184 pp. Review by Terrence J. Kenneally

In the aftermath of the horrors of the Great Famine, the grim, distrustful relationship between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom deteriorated into a generation-long argument about “Home Rule.” The unprecedented nature of the Irish problem with most Irish people wanting to break away from England made it extraordinarily difficult for either side to come up with a compromise.

For many years actual independence seemed inconceivable. And then, as these bitter disputes continued, it became clear that under no circumstances would the Protestants be a party to any of it. The result was Partition.

This month’s Off the Shelf book is about what partition created – the border. Written by Diarmaid Ferriter, one of Ireland’s best-known historians and a columnist for the Irish Times, this is a wide-ranging history of Irish Partition from 1920 to the present day and the emergence of Brexit.

For more than 100 years, many in Northern Ireland, the majority of Irish in the Republic and, of course, most Irish Americans have been waiting for the day when Ireland would become once again one country. Ferriter’s book could hardly be timelier as he writes in his review of another book on the same topic, “The Unity train is coming and it is time for all to be prepared to board it.”

The mix of the fallout from Brexit and Tory incompetence (courtesy of Prime Minister Boris Johnson), coupled with the emergence of Sinn Fein as the most dominant party in Northern Ireland, with Mary Lou McDonald leading the way, there is a sense of inevitability in the masses.

But that is getting ahead of myself. Ferriter’s book has a chronological precision to it as one would expect from a historian. In just 144 pages, it takes readers from 1920 to last week’s headlines dealing with Brexit issues.

He discusses how the Catholic minority was kept as one third of the population, but treated as if they were pariahs. For much of its history, the border was a ‘hard one,’ meaning one had to go through a checkpoint each time you went south from Northern Ireland into the Republic or north from the Republic into Northern Ireland, until the ‘soft’ or ‘invisible’ border came into being as a result of the peace process before Brexit.

There was reason to believe that the 1955 reflections of Hubert Butler on the Partition question were close to being vindicated. Butler has suggested that the border ‘might become meaningless and drop off painlessly like a strip of plaster from a wound that had healed, or else survive as some modified form as a definition which distinguishes itself but does not divide.’ (Butler, Crossing the Border). 

Brexit, however, rendered such optimism redundant. The border remains profoundly relevant these days, and the challenge according to Ferriter is to lift the oppressive weight of Anglo-Irish history. The Border is an invaluable new addition to the growing canon of border literature and is a TOP SHELF read.

*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Assoc. in Rocky River, Ohio. Mr. Kenneally received his Masters Degree in Irish Studies from John Carroll University and has taught classes in Irish History and Irish Literature. He may be reached at [email protected].

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