Review of The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter

The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish PoliticsDiarmaid Ferriter - The Border book cover
Diarmaid Ferriter
Profile Books


A combination of the Decade of Commemoration in Ireland and the shenanigans around a Brexit deal have led to a renewed focus on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and a corresponding rise in the number of books and articles being published about the topic. I already reviewed Peter Leary’s Unapproved Routes here a couple of years ago. (In fairness, Leary’s book is based on his PhD, written before the Brexit referendum, so he can hardly be accused on jumping on a bandwagon.) Among the recent crop of Brexit-inspired histories by Irish writers is The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics by Diarmaid Ferriter.

Ferriter is one of Ireland’s best-known and respected historians, with a double career as academic historian and public intellectual. (He was, for example, on an advisory committee for planning the 2016 Easter Rising commemorations.) He specialises in wide-ranging, well researched doorstops on modern Irish history, such as The Transformation of Ireland 1900–2000 (2004, 896 pages), Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s (2013, 704 pages) or A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (2015, a mere 528 pages). This book, however, is a good deal shorter, the main text not quite making it to 150 pages – and even that is only achieved by a small page format and fairly large font size. So this is definitely something aimed at the casual reader.

Its focus is clear from the title and sub-title. Ferriter begins by analysing the factors that brought about partition and the establishment of the border along county lines, and the inconsistencies and impracticalities of this. He then continues with a potted history of the island, which only differs from a hundred other histories of Ireland in increased emphasis being given to the border. That politicians in Westminster knew or cared little about the intricacies of Irish geography or politics is well known, but Ferriter is also good at pointing out southern politicians’ often unrealistic or self-contradictory attitudes to the border. I didn’t find anything new here, though occasionally he has unearthed a nice quotation from a piece of fiction or memoir to underline a point. Mostly, the narrative is quite standrard “big-picture” stuff. I criticised Leary’s book for being rather “bitty” but at least he had some genuinely interesting and illuminating details.

The final chapter, titled “Brexit, Backstops and Brinkmanship”, brings the story almost up to the present day, and also marks the place where we say good-bye to Ferriter the history professor and hello to Ferriter the newspaper columnist. You can probably guess his attitude towards the British government’s Brexit policies, and to be honest, if you’ve read more than one newspaper a month over the last year or two, then you can predict what he’s written too.

In summary, this reads like something commissioned by the publishers and brought out in a hurry to capitalise on the current political situation. Ferriter knows so much about Irish history that I can’t say it’s a bad book but on the other hand I don’t think it’s an indispensable one.

Review of The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter by