John Hume: Irish Peacemaker

Edited by Sean Farren and Dennis Haughey

You couldn't understate John Hume's enduring legacy in the North. Civil rights activist, founding member of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and guiding light through the long decades of The Troubles, Hume vigorously opposed violence in all instances, which meant that, depending on where you stood, he was a either a principled figurehead or a deluded tool of the British state.

From the beginning his political rise was tied to the fight against political and economic oppression in Derry and the North as a whole. Hume got his start in the credit union movement, the first beach head in his lifelong quest to address the wider structural inequalities of his city and state.

From there on his course was set. His life was defined by his civil rights activism and, less remarked upon elsewhere but important here, by the unforgettably inspiring example of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States.

It was Hume’s talks with Gerry Adams in the 1980s, then a vilified figure censored in the press and on the airwaves, that led to the first stirrings of what would become the peace process. Those talks would ultimately lead to the Good Friday Agreement and an enduring political settlement that had eluded the North for decades.

Farren and Haughey's book is introduced by President Bill Clinton, who played his own vital role in bringing peace to the region, and is a reminder of how far the Nobel Prize winning Hume traveled from his origins.

Farren and Haughey give us a portrait in full, retiring the sainted effigy and emphasizing instead the skillful pragmatist. Hume had to deal with, and frequently mollify and appease, the British Government, the Ulster Unionists, militant Republicans, the Irish government, the president of the United States, the Senate and Congress. His work never ended.

Given the scale of the task before Hume, it was inevitable that it would tell on his health. For years bullets had been sent to him in the post. The family received threatening letters and phone calls, and at times they were warned by the security forces to leave the house because it had become too dangerous to remain. This aggression came from both sides of the political divide, but Hume never wavered.

In the North attitudes seem to harden rather than mature. For some Hume will always be the useful idiot who failed to understand that the armed struggle would lead to a more permanent political settlement. For others it was his deep resistance to this idea that made him the transformative politician that he was.

This complex and considered book is the most fitting tribute to his life and legacy yet published.

Four Courts, $35.

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Hero Who Became an American Hero

By Timothy Egan

If Americans still don't understand the near genocidal history of British colonialism in Ireland they no longer have an excuse. Timothy Egan, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and celebrated New York Times columnist lays out the details of the eight century long enterprise with such lucidity and scholarship in his new book that even the ghost of Roger Casement would be dumbstruck.

If colonialism was the defining economic enterprise of the 19th century, Ireland was the laboratory where many of its worst excesses were enacted and studied. And the legacy of those excesses marked all who participated, from the titled aristocrats to the evicted or banished peasants.

Horrified by the Anglo Irish gentry and the British government’s seeming indifference to the Great Hunger, Thomas Francis Meagher, the son of a wealthy family in Waterford, helped lead a failed uprising against British rule.

For his pains he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony for life, a fate worse than death for many. Meagher escaped, however, and within six months was being garlanded in New York City, where he was cheered as a revolutionary hero who had taken up arms to defend the Gael.

Meagher's experience of life changing oppression taught him valuable lifelong lessons. He stood opposed to anti-Catholic Know Nothing bigotry, he led the newly formed Irish Brigade into some of the most famous battles of the Civil War.

All the while he nurtured the dram of returning to Ireland with his battle hardened Irish American troops, on a mission to liberate the island from the British once and for all.

Egan has crafted a remarkable portrait of one of the most famous Irish Americans of the 19th century, and in the process he has painted an unforgettable portrait of the oppressed society that produced him.

HMH, $30.