Book review: Acts of Union and Disunion, by Linda Colley

I bought this on a whim last week and have now almost finished reading it. It’s based on the BBC Radio 4 radio series of the same name, which dealt with the various acts and processes that have either bound together or forced apart the different constituent parts of what I for brevity’s sake shall call the British Isles. The presenter/author, Linda Colley (professor of history at Princeton), also discusses the role national myths and symbols (the sea, the monarchy, the empire) have played in this, and she underlines their flexibilty and contingency. That last point may seem obvious to most people who’ve looked at the history of Ireland, but is perhaps less present in the minds of some of the English, judging by certain Conservative politicians and their recent comments on the First World War.

The obvious ‘hook’ for the series is the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, which is referred to several times. Comparatively, there’s disappointingly little on Ireland (or at least, not much that you won’t already know, unless you’re a complete Irish history novice). I was, however, struck by one turn of phrase:

In many ways, this new state, which evolved into the Republic of Ireland, was an impressive achievement, a democracy that has endured. But its 1937 constitution proved another compromised act of union. It laid claim to ‘the whole island of Ireland’. It also declared that Gaelic was Ireland’s national language and that Catholicism was its national religion.

(My italics.)

I wonder how de Valera would have reacted to hearing his ‘baby’ compared to the hated 1800 act of parliament that made the whole of Ireland and Great Britain a unitary state, and which Irish nationalists spent most of the nineteenth century trying to reverse?

Colley does point out that the Act of Union was meant to be linked to Catholic emancipation, the ultimate aim being to reduce sectarian tension in Ireland by making both sides feel more secure within the larger union. She rightly castigates George III:

He is often described as the king who lost America. He can with more justice be viewed as the monarch who helped to sabotage a moderately enlightened settlement with Ireland.

She moves from this onto other links between Britain and Ireland, finishing up by discussing the Home Rule movements and Irish independence.

All in all, I’d recommend the book to a general reader. (It would be unfair to criticise it just because its focus isn’t exactly where I’d have liked it to be.) The e-book is a bargain on Amazon at the minute. Alternatively, you can still listen to the radio series online:

You can find out more about the Act of Union, the Home Rule movement, and de Valera’s 1937 constitution in the Irish History Compressed e-book.

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