The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 – Timely history of our island

Book review: Charles Townshend’s assessment layered and fair, writes Diarmaid Ferriter

Townshend brings a weight of experience to the task of dissecting the origins and impact of the division of Ireland a century ago. Photograph: Getty Images

Townshend brings a weight of experience to the task of dissecting the origins and impact of the division of Ireland a century ago. Photograph: Getty Images

For almost 50 years, British historian Charles Townshend has specialised in the political and military history of Ireland and of Anglo-Irish relations, beginning with his 1975 book The British campaign in Ireland, 1919-1921. His new study of partition is the third in his trilogy on the Irish revolutionary decade, following Easter 1916 (2006) and The Republic (2014); he thus brings a weight of experience to the task of dissecting the origins and impact of the division of Ireland a century ago.

This is largely a study of high politics; a layered and mostly fair assessment of the dynamics, deals, prejudices and delusions that created the Border in Ireland. Its crucial strength is that it provides detailed context, beginning with the emergence of distinct nationalist and unionist mobilisations in the early 19th century; through the home rule episodes of the 1880s, 1890s and 1910-14 period; on to the first World War and its aftermath; and finishing with the suppression of the report of the Boundary Commission in 1925 that effectively cemented the Border. He draws heavily on a wide range of published works and distills that material skilfully.

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