Book Review:

de Baróid, Ciarán. BALLY Murphy and the Irish War. Pluto Press, London and Minneapolis. 1989.

Written after years of experience in the community of Bally Murphy, Bally Murphy and the Irish War was intended by De Baróid as an illustration of the Anglo-Irish conflict and its effect on a single nationalist community in Belfast. De Baróid is attempting to produce an analysis focused not on the larger political approaches to the conflict, but on the actual experiences, attitudes, and reactions of "people on the street" to those political machinations.

Bally Murphy is thus focused on an important but difficult aspect of any conflict. De Baróid must be able to analyze the intentions of the government (politicians and military), the interpretations of those affected by the government (mostly the people on Northeast Ireland), and the actual results of all actions. The author is therefore forced (by his approach) to discover the not just what a group is doing at any given moment, but what it is thinking, and what it thinks the other groups are doing and thinking. Successfully analysis of numerous interwoven perspectives is a monumental task.

The analysis of such interwoven reactions requires De Baróid to tell his story in almost entirely chronological order, with the exception of Bally Murphy's creation and occasional foreshadows in the footnotes. Nominally his entire text is a history of the last two decades of Bally Murphy; in actuality it is a history of every significant political (and military) move made by the British and a history of Irish reaction to British politics.

De Baróid must therefore, at times, draw his narrative to realms almost entirely foreign to Bally Murphy, primarily the politicking of the British Parliament and Prime Minister. Motivations and intentions are dissected as well as eventual actions. Identical levels of analysis occur with nationalist leaders and militants (within and outside Bally Murphy). Finally, again, he must explain what the followers, nonmilitants and others do, and why they do it.

De Baróid shows great skill in the analysis of nationalist leaders and militants, presumably because he has spent more time closer to them than he has with the Prime Minister. His grasp of the British and (South) Irish governments is a little shakier, however. For many actions undertaken by the British (and usually rubber-stamped by the southern Irish), De Baróid offers little in the way of genuine explanation. The last two chapters especially resort to only commenting on the apparent irrationality and/or dishonesty of the British and complacency of the southern Irish, with minimal attempt at explanation. It is as though De Baróid had lost the will to explain the situation, and resorts only to describing it.

References to British "racism" (especially the "hysterical British racism" of page 307) also deserved more explanation than given by Bally Murphy. Apparently the reader is assumed to be familiar with the rationale (or at very least the manifestations) of British racism towards the Irish. I think it a safe assumption, however, that many American readers are unfamiliar with racism between two such morphologically similar groups. Whether it's a good sign or not, American readers probably require an explanation of racism based on something other than skin coloration.

De Baróid should be commended, however, on his honest reporting and appraisal of militant nationalism, especially its failures and internal conflicts. Pro-resistance journalists always risk whitewashing civilian deaths. It is also a common flaw to dismiss internal debates (or firefights, as the case may be) as the result of deranged radical factions, replicating the very methods of dismissal through contempt often utilized against entire revolutionary movements.

Instead, De Baróid reports on essentially pointless armed conflict between the Original and Provisional Irish Republican Armies, as well as tactical errors made by leaders (primarily the OIRA's withholding of weapons from the nascent Provos in 1972). The often fatal inexperience of the early Provos with explosives is notable and important, with its effects on public opinion (which often didn't care if the explosion was intentional or not), and the rough indicator of IRA prowess (with explosives and covert operations) it provides.

He also portrays intergroup rivalries and conflicts in the British forces, especially the tension between the British armed forces and the Ulster Defense Regiments. Those tensions are portrayed much less sympathetically, almost as if to show the villains of our story have no redeeming features.

The portrayal of the "common people" of Bally Murphy is reasonable, although slightly romanticized in the early chapters (with constant references to the resilience and charity of the besieged nationalists). De Baróid manages to give an honest evaluation of the public's reactions and responses, recognizing when their actions are futile and when they are productive. He does, unfortunately, whitewash the nature of some riots by blaming the provocations of the Orange Order (as in Chapter 6), probably in attempt to avoid the eternal question of when and if riots are justifiable means of expression.

Such lapses in otherwise solid logic undermine De Baróid's cause, however. By avoiding any mention of some the most difficult questions of the conflict, he could give the impression he only has answers to those situations that can be unequivocally blamed on the British. Every "random" riot hurts the nationalist cause, however, and a concerned writer should address the cause of the riots if he does not want the Irish to seem irrational in their expressions of anger.

In the end, De Baróid provides a useful case study of a community during extended conflict and the reorganization of that community. The aforementioned resiliency and integrity displayed by Bally Murphy (as a whole) in light of intentional attempt to destroy the community (with Brigadier Kitson's approach) is valuable in itself, in addition to being a portrayal of British actions in Northern Ireland. A heavy dependence on interviews does not detract from his report, and instead gives the book an interestingly "close" feel.

Although certainly appearing to be biased towards the nationalist side of the conflict, De Baróid suggests an unusually personal approach to the conflict in that he lists obviously accidental deaths as casualties of war. He is not viewing the war from an entirely political perspective; he apparently views it a social problem as well. Every death that may be tied to the war is a tragedy not just because a soldier died, but because a human being (who would not have been at risk in a peaceful world) is gone. In a sense, that is a humanist perspective, not a nationalist one, one that sees every a possible value in every human life. Such an belief (let alone a journalistic approach) to war is rare, and important to acknowledge.

Filed at 03:51:10 AM EDT on 05 May 1992 from Toledo, OH