Review 1

As author James (Seamus) O’Brien notes early in Against The Wind, his fascinating memoir of growing up in Ireland in the 1950s and beyond, politics was a dish served regularly at the family dinner table. Like his father, a dedicated unionist (brick and stone layer) he took to it with relish, fuelled by a constant struggle to make ends meet.
In common with many Irish, he sought work in England when the economy slumped, and his tales of London’s building sites are marked by racism as much as camaraderie and good humour. The money was good – post-WW2 London couldn’t have rebuilt without the “Paddy” workers – but his heart remained in Ireland, and inevitably this meant solidarity with the north’s struggle against British rule.
The section on his weapons training, and for a while instructing, with the IRA may be more reminiscent of Dad’s Army than fervent assassins, but it hints of the road that the hardline republicans would eventually follow. How this could have happened is explained through the author’s knowledge of his country’s political history and the inside story of why a generation of young Irish were so committed to the cause.
Capturing the cadences and frequent humour of Irish speech, set amidst widespread, often heart-breaking, hardship and superbly illustrated with archival documents, including his own union cards – somehow kept over the years – this is a wonderful grab-bag of recollections.
It provides many insights into ordinary Irish life at a time when the republic itself was battling to survive, its northern cousin was increasingly rocked by violence, and the wider post-war world was emerging from colonialism.
O’Brien weaves together the many threads of history and his own life to produce an informed, often bizarre tale – was smuggling condoms once an imprisonable offence? – that will interest many readers well beyond the globe’s enormous Irish diaspora.   Robin Osborne. Journalist & media/communications adviser.

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