This is more than understandable, and Moore is certainly not alone in his underlying portrayal and view. One of the challenges for authors researching partition – and, perhaps, Irish history generally – is the realization of different modes of thinking and streams of thought. To Moore, as for Robert Lynch, whose recent The Partition of Ireland 1918–1925 (2019) also offers notable recent analysis, the concept in inherently flawed, malevolent, and daft: all at the same time (the same half silly, yet half heinous tone – again a somewhat paradoxical combination – pervades Diarmaid Ferriter’s long essay The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics). Even a commentator as nuanced as Belfast-born Gerald Dawe, in his wonderful collection of essays The Sound of the Shuttle, refers to an ‘absurdly partitioned Irish state’, which ‘came to haunt the country with a vengeance, [ensuring] we have been paying for these bloody mistakes of the 1920s ever since and on all sides of the Irish Sea.’ For those of us who – until flights were grounded in March 2020 – live between Ireland and England, partition (and the border) is always liable to get personal.
The most striking quality of The Birth of the Border is its social and cultural range of history. After the first five chapters taking in the Government of Ireland Act, the Treaty, and the fiery birth of Northern Ireland, Moore offers a structural framing of the different areas of life and society marked by partition: Politics, Security, Law, Business and Trade, Religion, Education, Infrastructure and Services, the Labour Movement, and Sport. These sections combine to provide the core value of this book. The last two chapters are particularly assured, with a relevance in the themes raised: one by a movement with unitary potential that was badly split by partition (though also countered by the all-island basis of several large trade unions); the other which is many respects survived despite it, with several all-Ireland teams.
The focus on infrastructure tackles the fascinating, vexed issue of travel and railways in Ireland, which often foundered on the new northern state’s propensity to ‘assert its independence from Dublin in every feasible way’. Nevertheless, there were intriguing moments of cooperation too, with the Northern Irish government agreeing not to amalgamate northern railway companies with British ones, shortly before the Free State passed the Railways Act of 1924. As late as 1951 – amidst other objections – both governments agreed to rescue the Great Northern Railway, running it with a board nominated by the Irish and Northern Irish governments.
Moore is unafraid to dispense with a few sacred cows, including the old and incredible claim about the Gaelic Athletic Association being ‘non-political’. The Irish Free State’s introduction of a customs barrier at the border in 1923, with ‘lengthy form-filling and fee payments’, depressed GAA activities ‘possibly more than anything else’. This, of course, had a broader impact beyond sport, giving partition concrete expression in almost all the other areas discussed in Moore’s chapters. Though ‘vehemently opposed’ to partition, the three Ulster counties not in Northern Ireland got a considerably better GAA experience than the ‘six counties’ that were (Monaghan and Cavan reflected this with a dominance on the field of play with titles and championships). Moore’s description of a period of ‘hibernation’ for GAA enthusiasts in Northern Ireland is apt, while the sections on the all-Ireland sporting unisons may prove useful in future constitutional debates about how to reconcile northern ‘others’ to an Irish team. Particularly telling is that hockey, rugby and bowls were sports associated with upper middle-class Protestants in both parts of Ireland: the caste most securely able to withstand partition and engage on an all-island basis. Similarly, though soccer was partitioned, this was more on account of internal politics than national division.
While for many Irish people, north and south, partition is self-evidently ludicrous, cruel and painful, the problem comes down to the group based in ‘the north’ for whom partition was seen as necessary and inevitable. It should be incumbent on historians and researchers to locate more respectable Unionist readings of partition, rather than dismissing them: especially if those same researchers look favourably on the future unification of the Ireland, seemingly on its way down the line. That future Irish unification which we are likely to eventually build will not have been well-served by historians that polemically dismissed partition because it was not an event they wish had happened. We should return with curiosity and critical faculty to the works of A.T.Q. Stewart, Richard Murphy, and Patrick Buckland.
It is striking, for this reason, that the best published study of partition appeared back in the mists of 1983: Michael Laffan’s The Partition of Ireland 1911–1925. While Laffan agrees ‘There was nothing predestined about the settlements of 1920-1’, he is tonally more comprehending of why partition occurred, its imperial backdrop, and what forces shaped its anomalous imposition in Ireland than recent offerings. This is achieved without the patronising tone of so many modern histories of partition and the border (to be clear: Moore’s book is not one of these and is far more impressive than such works). It seems strange, given the publication year of Laffan’s work, just two years after the emotive and volatile period of the Hunger Strikes, how much more detached its tone appears than several recent histories published in modern times by authors born since 1969.
Despite this overarching conceptual challenge, Birth of the Border provides an engaging and worthwhile overview of this contested and definitive moment in Ireland’s history. It is a book that reflects the awareness that many institutions and individuals in Irish life planned for an ending to partition that never arrived. Despite all the talk, they are still waiting.