History can be depressing but not all the time. Sometimes it’s enlightening and even fun.
In the Irish Times this morning there’s a report that Michael Collins called on the help of British forces during the Civil War to shell the Four Courts, where anti-Treaty forces had been in place for three months. That’s Michael Collins who played such a vital and daring part in the war on British forces during the struggle for independence. The charming, good-looking, fearless Michael Collins who arranged for British agents to be killed on the morning of the first Bloody Sunday. Come the Civil War, he’s not only intent on killing his fellow-Irishmen, he’s got the British to help him.
That’s the depressing bit. The enlightening and even fun bit emerged in a book I’ve just finished reading. (You can hear a review of it on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh on Sunday 4 December, when I’m on the book programme with Alex Kane. And yes, both he and presenter William Crawley are both very nice men.) Where was I? Oh yes - that book. It’s called The Two Unions and it’s by Alvin Jackson. It compares the union of England and Scotland with the union between England and Ireland. The first worked, Jackson figures, because for the Scots, “the union was sufficiently capacious and flexible to allow the flourishing of distinctive Scottish institutions and patriotic sentiments”. But now that its various props of empire and monarchy are no longer what they were, now that Britain is involved in unpopular foreign wars, that there is regimental amalgamation, denationalization of state asset and industries, all bets are off.
As for the union with Ireland, Jackson figures that it never really was able to accommodate things Irish and so was doomed. The official union of England and Ireland in 1801 “was fundamentally about salesmanship with secret backhanders, inducements and penalties, the purchase of seats and the epic dispensation of hospitality”, Jackson is particularly good at selecting telling descriptions. He quotes a Scottish judge, Lord Stott, who described Terence O’Neill as “a pathetic figure, like a drunk man who had reached the melancholy stage”. And then there’s Andrew Nutting, a Conservative MP, on the Ulster Unionist parliamentarians who graced the House of Commons from the early 1920s to the early 1970s: “As a smug, offensive and mediocre collection of bible-bashing hypocrites they would be hard to beat”. He’s also pretty good on the insatiable appetite of the Irish for royal honours and titles, an appetite that’s as voracious today as it was in the nineteenth century.
Alvin Jackons is a smart, wonderfully learned and witty man. His book would make a splendid Christmas present for anyone interested in Irish (or Scottish) history. After you’ve got them my own book, of course.