I hadn’t really been doing book reviews on here, but I happened upon Malachi O’Doherty’s new biography of Gerry Adams (Gerry Adams: an Unauthorised Life) in Eason’s and so…
While I read a lot of text online, I still prefer the tactile experience of an actual book to a back-lit digital page. And although I order books online, I’d rather buy them in bookshops where I can, so when I have a nosey at what is in stock it is usually with an eye on whether I am going to buy it. By now, I’ve accumulated a reasonable enough library of books on Irish history and politics. I even have Sean O’Callaghan’s book on James Connolly (although I didn’t actually buy it, it was a present from my brother Michael – I suspect he doesn’t particularly like me).
So, before buying it, I’d had a flick through O’Doherty’s biography. O’Doherty is a veteran journalist who has published various books on the conflict in the north and whose opinion of republicans, in particular, is fairly well established. So I didn’t expect many surprises in the narrative arc of a biography of Adams.
What caught my eye a few pages into the book was a reference to Jimmy Steele leading the Campbell College raid of 1935. The passage acts as a bit of scene setting where the context of the IRA in late 1960s is contrasted with that of the 1930s (as a critical backdrop to the events of 1969 and increase in intensity of the conflict after August that year). This is illustrated with the example of a 1960s OTC cadet taking a bus along the Falls Road with a .303 Lee Enfield and a box of bullets to do some target practice in the countryside without fear of anyone (particularly the IRA) taking an unhealthy interest in making him part company with either the rifle or ammunition.
The first thing that struck me is that same thing probably happened in the 1930s, so the intended contrast is pretty much an illusion. There were no contemporary incidents or anything to suggest that an OTC cadet wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing in the 1930s without much fear of having his rifle and ammunition snatched from him. In many respects the IRA’s interest in Campbell College was a response to the widespread attacks by unionists on Catholics in various districts of Belfast in the summer of 1935 (rifles were repeatedly shown to be a much superior weapon at keeping crowds out of districts where they intended to inflict destruction). For someone who has repeatedly written on this sort of topic, O’Doherty seems to evidence an inordinately weak appreciation of the context here.
The second thing that then struck me was that Jimmy Steele didn’t lead the Campbell College raid. At the time he was Belfast Battalion Adjutant, while Tony Lavery was Battalion O/C. As Adjutant, Steele supplied a report on the raid to IRA GHQ which was captured in Crown Entry and the text quoted at length in the press. He and Lavery had went up to Campbell College in person to call off the raid when it was clear there were problems, but neither could be described as having led the raid itself. The source for Jimmy Steele leading the raid is Wikipedia, by the way. There is no citation given on Wikipedia for where that information came from but at some point in the future someone will probably try and be helpful and reference it back to O’Doherty’s book.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s pedantic, I know. And I’m sure the obvious retort would be that the corrections are irrelevant as the general sentiment and emotional framing of events in Belfast in 1969 is more important than the finer points of who did what. But therein lies the problem with O’Doherty’s book. So much of the output on the recent conflict in the north mistakes opinion and propaganda for truths or verifiable facts. History, and biographies, to be considered as such, should, at an absolute minimum, be about detail and accuracy. Ultimately, it isn’t the detail that is irrelevant, it is the opinion. And if the detail has to be corrected, what value is the opinion?
So marks out of five???
I didn’t even buy the book.