Armed Struggle The History of The IRA -book review

Armed Struggle The History Of The IRA by Richard English is a well written and extensively documented study. Depending upon your point of view, the Irish Republican Army is either a heroic revolutionary movement, or a terrorist organization. Richard English is able to present the social and historical complexities of the IRA, without taking a political side.


Without a doubt, the IRA is one of the most successful guerrilla armies in history. With a small group of lightly armed people, it was able to successfully fight the British army to a standstill. The United Kingdom was forced to grant independence to most of Ireland on January 21, 1919.

It is that most part which lead to the split of Northern Ireland from the rest of the Island, and caused a split in the IRA itself.  This lead directly to what the Irish refer to as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.


Most Americans, even those of Irish heritage, have very little idea of the issues in Northern Ireland other than some sort of vague notion of it being some sort of religious war.  This book is fascinating, since it shows that while religion is one of the issues is is not at all the most important.

How did the IRA rebels allow Northern Ireland to be split off in the first place? Why fight a war of independence and then settle for a partial victory? The answer is that most Irish always considered the Northern Irish to be something different.

IRA leader Michael Collins himself stated that the Northern Irish were different. He considered them part Irish, part English  – not really fitting in anywhere. That was because most of Ireland was a rural nation, with Dublin being a city of professionals. Belfast, on the other hand, has always been a working class factory city. The people there seemed more like people from Manchester England than those from Southern Ireland.


It is this attitude that left Northern Ireland out of the independence agreement signed with the UK. The Northern Irish Catholics felt betrayed and became an unwanted minority in their own homes, since the majority of those in Northern Ireland are Protestant.

Armed Struggle The History Of The IRA covers in detail all The Troubles. There was Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972 where peaceful Catholic protesters were  massacred. There was the formation of the PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army). There were prison hunger strikes and deaths, and ongoing bombings in Ireland and the UK.


For an outsider is it difficult to follow exactly what happened during that time period. Armed Struggle The History Of The IRA explains and makes sense of these times.

Perhaps the most amazing part is that peace actually did come to Norther Ireland. On April 10, 1988 the Good Friday Agreement was reached which allowed for a sort of power sharing arrangement in Northern  Ireland.  For the most part it ended the violence. Of course, it is still a very uneasy peace. All sides are unhappy with the agreement, and all sides do not trust each other. However,  somehow the Good Friday Agreement has held together.

Most Americans do not realize that President Bill Clinton was one of the major reasons that the Good Friday Agreement happened.  Clinton was a driving force bringing peace to Northern Ireland. However, Americans were much more interested in his sexual escapades to pay attention to this achievement.

What will happen next in Northern Ireland? This is hard to tell. The PIRA still exists as to the Ulster Unionists. The sister of the IRA hero Bobby Sands (who died in a prison hunger strike) has said many times that this is not what her brother died for.

Perhaps the best way to describe Northern Ireland is to use a quote from the American novelist William Faulkner, who once said:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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