52 books / 52 weeks – Michael Collins & The Troubles

Review – Michael Collins & The Troubles,
by Ulick O’Connor

A Keeper? Probably

Well, I know a LOT more about the Irish revolution than I did a week ago.

Admittedly, what I knew a week ago was almost nothing. When I was in high school, history class somehow always ran out of school year around about 1870. If the material had been paced better, I’m sure my teachers would have taught us about World War 2, and even World War 1, before finding time for a (still) controversial period of somebody else’s history. I had heard, vaguely, of Eamon deValera and Parnell, enough to know they were involved in the Irish fight against England, and that there were some sort of events known as the Easter Uprising and Bloody Sunday (and I knew about that partly because of the song).

Ulick O’Connor does not even try to play the historian’s or biographer’s game of blank slate objectivity. He’s pro Irish, all the way and no matter what. The book starts well before The Troubles, well before Michael Collins was born, with the story of how the British Secret Service spied on O’Connor’s great grandfather Matthew Harris during the 1870’s and 80’s. Then we’re taken through the ins and outs of Irish politics, and British politics as they related to Ireland, over the next thirty years; and somehow O’Connor makes it all understandable and mostly interesting (I’ll admit that sometimes I got a little weary of the parade of names and the fine points of policy). Ulick O’Connor stresses repeatedly how important these century-old events were to later movements of civil disobedience and anti-imperialism.

Oddly, though perhaps unavoidably since O’Connor needed time to explain the background, Michael Collins doesn’t appear until halfway through the book, at the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin and the siege of the post office – a catastrophe for the people directly involved, but apparently crucial in kickstarting the rest of the Irish revolution. Before long, Collins, still in his twenties, is one of the main revolutionary leaders, the organizer of IRA assasinations – particularly Bloody Sunday. (All fully justified, O’Connor assures us.)  We follow Collins’ career in detail from then on until his assassination in 1922; then a brief wrapup of Irish history since those days, and the story’s over.

(But what genre is this book? I’m not really sure, though probably it doesn’t much matter. We hear less about Michael Collins’ life before 1916 than we do about the backgrounds of various other Irish leaders; Wikipedia gives much more detail there than O’Connor, and Collins isn’t even seen for the book’s first hundred pages. So it must be a history, not a biography. On the other hand, once Collins makes an entrance, he is the primary focus, and the book pretty much stops with his death, before the Irish Civil War is finished, before Ireland is officially its own country. So it must be a biography, not a history. Oh well.)

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