Underexplored periods of history can often the most revealing in the sense that a certain section can help explain a later, cataclysmic event.
Something that this books does, with mixed success.
While the likes of Uinsean MacEoin have written extensively about this period (most notably in his tome The IRA in the Twilight Years), but Dr. O'Neill's focus on Belfast allows for a different focus; telling the story of a Battalion that was initially split during the Civil War (with two people genuinely believing themselves to be Belfast O/C), and how this small battalion survived throughout nearly fifty years of attempted unionist suppression, right up to the events of August 1969.
Crucially, Dr. O Neill establishes the tensions not only between the IRA and local communists, but also between Dublin GHQ and Belfast long before the events of 1969, in which both of these strands would mould and exacerbate the situation. This is important to remember, as it means the antipathy towards Cathal Goulding's Marxist ideology was rooted in historical precedent (one that went back to the 1930's) as opposed to it being a simple clash of Catholicism vs. communism.
As well as this, the theme of Belfast vs. Dublin would be something that was repeated throughout the recent conflict. It seems that those who helped set up the Provisionals in 1970 were simply aping an old tradition that would cause endless issues throughout the years.
The issue of defence during August 1969 is discussed as well. Despite some disingenuity from Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, it's made clear that the ones who helped defend the Falls Road were Not acting under orders from the Goulding IRA, but were veterans who had reported back in spite of Goulding still being in charge. And even more intriguingly, it's revealed that those who met to depose Billy McMillan as Belfast O/C (John Kelly, Billy McKee amongst others) had nominated Sean Garland as his replacement.
Given that Garland was known for his famous "fight for freedom is a class struggle" speech, it wouldn't have been a secret where his political allegiances lay so it's surprising to read (especially given the deep bitterness that developed as the years went on). And what moments like this demonstrate is that there never is a "clean break" with events like this. People will clean up and revise their past in order to make it seem like there was one moment which was the final straw. All too often, the splits are messy and cross over into personal lives.
However, while the book certainly helps in providing us with a framework in which to rethink the tension that existed within the IRA, it's not a book without flaws: there is an underlying assumption that the reader is familiar with the names of those involved, such as Harry White. As a result, the endless parade of names and lack of introductions can be hard to keep up with, especially when some drop off and new ones appear seemingly out of nowhere.
The writing can err towards monotony as well, with an endless list of arrests, hunger strikes and unionist retaliation listed with little in the style nor the structure to deflect from the endless repetition.
Finally, there is often little in the way of context to help the readers understand the actions and motivations of the people involved, often relying on newspaper articles and statements which, while helping in some regard, do not offer an overall insight.
On this note, it's not Dr. O'Neill's fault. He as already pointed out that:
A lot of the history has been lost. It has probably been told within families, but there is no public voice. Nobody has been able to speak to them all, most of them are dead. A lot of that is knocking around in other people’s heads if it was talked about at all. There is the old rule that silence is golden. I’ve heard a few people say that their father maybe only opened up about things a year or two before they died, and that they wished they had done it before then. A lot of that information might be lost, which is why we need to do things like this.Despite being hamstrung in these regards, Belfast Battalion does a sterling job of adding to the understanding of our recent history.
John O'Neill, 2018, Belfast Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969 Litter Press ISBN-13: 978-1999300807
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212