From union to partition

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Irish History in Perspective series Nationalism and Unionism: From Union to Partition By Eilis Brennan and Sandra Gillespie Cambridge University Press Pounds 5.95

This final instalment of a three-part series covers the decisive period from the Act of Union to partition and, therefore, provides a useful supplementary text for those making an in-depth study of relations between Britain and Ireland in the key stage 3 study unit Britain 1750 - circa 1900.

Although the Government of Ireland Act represents a conclusion to 19th-century Irish politics, it also represents the beginning of an important chapter that is not satisfactorily condensed in the postscript: "From partition to the peace process". A fourth book which could support study unit 4, the partition of Ireland and its impact, would be a welcome addition to this established and well-presented series.

Any chronicler of this period is faced with the three-dimensional character of Irish history which can be as difficult for the teacher to reconstruct as it can be for the pupil to follow. First, there is the continuum of Irish nationalism from the early days of the United Irishmen to the Fenian rising of 1867, and the emergence of the radical republicanism which bore fruit in the founding of Sinn Fein in 1905.

Second, there is the parallel experience of the Irish Protestants whose pro-unionist sympathies were strengthened by the industrial growth of north-east Ulster from the middle of the century. The authors show how economic development and sectarian rivalry went hand in hand; in 1864 nearly half of the 500 shipyard workers were Catholic, but by 1887 the number of Catholic employees had decreased to 77, even though the total workforce had increased dramatically.

The third dimension is that of English politics, and the authors deserve credit for their intelligible account of the inextricable knot of Home Rule and the fortunes of the Liberal Party during the last quarter of the century and to the First World War. Although the overviews which precede each chapter are helpful, a timeline would have been a valuable addition.

Less prominent organisations are given due mention. The authors rightly highlight O'Connell's Catholic Association which forged the enduring link between the Catholic Church and nationalist aspirations and, in a later chapter, there are short sections on movements based on socialism and women's rights. Visual evidence effectively presents the many strong leaders who became folk heroes, with the Protestant origins of such as Wolfe Tone and Charles Stewart Parnell adding a poignancy to the developing story, summed up for many by the (undated) poster "Hands off Priest!" showing Erin - the personification of Ireland - tied in a noose.

Lord Carson and James Craig, the chief campaigners against the Third Home Rule Bill, emerge as a formidable partnership whose strong convictions were matched with intellectual and organisational abilities despite Carson's remark "James Craig did all the work and I got all the credit".

The leaders of the Easter Rising, despite a double-page of sketch drawings, are the subject of less background detail and de Valera is accorded only passing mentions in the chapter on the rise of Sinn Fein and the first D il Eireann.

A combination of primary and secondary evidence is effective in demonstrating in what ways the Rising was a watershed - "I never knew such a transformation of opinion as that caused by the executions" (Tim Healy, 1916).

The attractive layout using coloured paper, clearly headed sub-sections and a wide range of contemporary visual sources, which serve as the basis for much investigative work, makes this an appealing text for pupils of a broad span of ability. Assessment tasks are designed more to reinforce understanding than to test recall of facts and a teacher's resource book is available.

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