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Irish 'Troubles' Told in Engaging Oral History

"We Wrecked the Place: Contemplating an End to the Northern Irish Troubles,"

Jonathan Stevenson

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Free Press, 294 pp., $25

Many of us on the outside may not know what troubles Northern Ireland has seen. But Jonathan Stevenson's "We Wrecked the Place: Contemplating an End to the Northern Irish Troubles," (Free Press, 294 pp., $25) is a revealing oral history of the low-intensity guerrilla war waged in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1994.

Stevenson begins with a look back through the past 350 years of Irish history. His readable overview unfolds a web of social, religious, economic, and political conflicts no British or Irish leader has yet been able to resolve.

What then follows is a thoughtful and unbiased discussion of the 26 years of the "troubles." The truly unique aspect of Stevenson's work is the fact that at the core of his analysis is an oral history, gathered from interviews with 32 paramilitary loyalists and republicans. This first-hand material was gathered while Stevenson lived in Ireland, having moved to Belfast in 1993, a year before the troubles ended.

Loyalists (or unionists) who favor unity with Great Britain, and their republican (or nationalist) counterparts, who resent what they see as British repression in Northern Ireland, each include a very small minority group of armed insurgents. One estimate is that at the height of the troubles there were no more than 1,000 paramilitaries.

And yet the attacks and counter-attacks of these groups, against each other as well as against civilians in Northern Ireland and England, have fueled the fear, animosity, and anger of hundreds of thousands in Britain, Ireland, and the international community.

The personal experiences of those interviewed were shared with Stevenson at a special time in Northern Ireland's history. All loyalist and republican paramilitary groups had declared a cease-fire. Terrorist attacks ceased. It was a time when the people of the region experienced the closest thing to a real peace they had felt in over a quarter of a century. This was particularly true for the younger generation born after 1968, who had never known anything but life under the troubles.

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Even hardened fighters on both sides of the conflict revealed to Stevenson that they too began to see that the bombs and bullets were not what would bring peace any closer to their homes and families. Only an end to the fighting could do that.

At present, most observers consider a permanent resolution to be a distant goal. Both loyalist and republican alike would do well to read and learn from Stevenson's book.

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