Derry: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23

Historian Adrian Grant delves a century into the city's past and, with new facts and parallels to today, manages to makes a gripping read from events we already know the outcomes of

In these days of Brexit, debate, confusion and uncertainty around borders – hard, soft, frictionless or otherwise, we might all be forgiven for seeking to escape at times in a reminiscence of the past, when everything was all so different.

Except maybe it wasn’t…

In today’s context Adrian Grant’s engrossing study of Derry (both county and city) in the years both preceeding and following partition in 1921 simply could not be more timely or prescient. On page after page of this beautifully presented book Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s maxim of ‘plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’ (the more it changes, the more it's the same thing), is called to mind as so many arguments and issues from today’s politics are played out in the events of a century ago.

Although an academic historian, Grant’s approach has created a book of real pace and energy that propels the reader towards the inevitability of partition, via the Ulster Covenant, the First World War, the Easter Rising and the rise of Sinn Fein – all told from a uniquely Derry perspective.

There is a strong human element to the stories told, with many names and characters still known and familiar here, but placed in the context of unfolding national events that arguably impacted on Derry City and its hinterland more dramatically than elsewhere.

Given the demographics of the city as overwhelmingly Catholic, and the large hinterland that it serves in Inishowen and Donegal, the proposal to draw a border that ensured that Derry remained in Northern Ireland and not the Republic, had a seismic impact, which still resonates very directly in national politics for both Britain and Ireland.

This book takes the reader on a rich and vivid journey through the events leading up to, and beyond partition, uncovering a wealth of new or little known information and painting a picture of a city and its surrounding areas divided politically, not just between nationalism and unionism, but also within those communities at times as arguments around violence and constitutionalism unfold.

At various points in the book, events such as parades, bonfires and football matches provide the flashpoints for community confrontation and tension, and demonstrations and protests descend into rioting and communal violence. We read of attempts to manipulate electoral rules and boundaries, and are reminded repeatedly of the economic backdrop of malaise and deprivation against which all of this is taking place. 

Over and over again you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the Derry of the late 1960s that we are reading about, as the seeds of the modern Conflict are so clearly there in the events of one hundred years ago.

61zSzhcH9LL

It is also striking that voice of Derry appears to have been so absent, or ignored, in any of the real decision making around partition. Whilst the events on the ground in the city were focused around inter-communal arguments and conflicts, political leadership from the city seems to have made little impact at the national level.

Even revelations in the book such as ‘Derry’s Civil War’ in June 1920, seem to have made little impact nationally. The book reveals, in gripping detail, how ongoing sporadic violence in the city erupted into a bloody series of attacks in which saw 20 people dead as ‘the Crown forces had lost complete control of the situation’.

Attacks from loyalists were allegedly undertaken with collusion from the police, and the IRA even established a headquarters in St Columb’s College – from where they sought to administer their own judicial control of the area and restore order in what the Irish Independent described as ‘War, pure and simple’. Even in these events, we can see the foreshadowing of the Free Derry period of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Despite the gravity and scale of the violence, we learn later on that Collins and the pro-Treaty leaders in Dublin never really seem to have had any great engagement with Derry, referring all concerns around partition to the soon to be established Boundary Commission.

The book also reminds us that the original proposal to partition Derry City into Northern Ireland was imposed upon the first nationalist controlled corporation in the city’s history. With PR elections in place and nationalists working hard to educate voters on the system, the nationalist block achieved a one person majority, resulting in Hugh C O’Doherty becoming the first Catholic Mayor of Derry since 1688.

Although this representation wasn’t delivered in time to keep the city outside of the proposed border, they hoped that they would have the power to change this with Boundary Commission. These hopes were quashed when the Northern Ireland Government abolished PR in 1922 and allowed the Londonderry Corporation to ensure a unionist majority and regain control of the Corporation before the Boundary Commission had even met.

These events are detailed with real verve in the book and it builds to a gripping read as we all know how it ultimately ends, but there are so many nuggets of new information and insight along the way which illuminate these events of the past, whilst echoing so many of today’s issues.

As Brexit has brought the whole question of the border and Derry’s relationship with Donegal and the wider Republic under discussion, it is fascinating to revisit these original debates and the very real concerns that were raised, and in many cases realised, on all sides.

In this book, Grant has ultimately gifted us a useful warning around today’s events and the clear dangers of repeating the past if we don’t remember and learn from it. But even more than that, this is a great read that brings the history of our place and our people to life in a real, vibrant and thoroughly enjoyable way.

Derry: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 by Adrian Grant launches in the Minor Hall at Ulster University's Magee Campus on Thursday, December 6 at 7pm. The book is published by Four Courts Press and is available now: http://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/2018/derry/.