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Making Sense of the Troubles: a History of the Northern Ireland Conflict

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  1,283 ratings  ·  114 reviews
First published ten years ago, Making Sense of the Troubles is widely regarded as the most comprehensive, considered and compassionate history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Written by a distinguished journalist and a teacher of history in Northern Ireland, it surveys the roots of the problems from 1921 onwards, the descent into violence in the late sixties, and the ...more
Paperback, Fully revised and updated, 404 pages
Published August 30th 2012 by Penguin (first published October 1st 2000)
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Paul Bryant
Sep 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british-history
In 1972 a total of 498 people were killed in Northern Ireland, which had a small population of around 1.5 million. It was a very violent place. The total body count of The Troubles is 3,739 between 1966 and 2012 (but the murders have not been in double figures since 2004.) Now – can anyone tell me how many people have died in Iraq’s complex internal wars since 2003? Is anyone counting? And that’s just one example. How long have you got?

Really, as civil wars go, it was not much to write home abou
Peter Colclasure
Sep 28, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Catholics and Protestants kill each other for several decades. Then they stop.

This is the fourth book I've read about the Troubles since an Irish history class in college piqued my interest. Occasionally, in bars, I'll try to engage my fellow Americans in a discussion of this conflict, only to watch their eyes glaze over in boredom. Here's why you, as an American, should care about a convoluted war on the rainy edge of Europe that ended 15 years ago:

1. It proves that racism has nothing to do wi
This is exactly what I was after: a concise and easy to follow summary of the Troubles. I was born in the 90s and I've always felt that this was massive gap in my knowledge; I've grown up knowing how huge the impact of the Troubles have been and still are, but never feeling I had any understanding of it all. Too young to remember it at all, and too old (it seems) to have been told much about or informed in other ways. So I turned to this book, hoping for an informative introduction. In some ways ...more
Good for accuracy, not so good for background

Making Sense stays true to its objective, to tell ‘a straightforward and gripping story … in an accessible way’. It is a straightforward read.

But is it a good read? Yes, if you don’t want to be bogged down with pre-Troubles history (too simplistically outlined in the book) or don’t need to understand the ideologies of unionism and nationalism per se. In this way, Making Sense feels written for a general English/benign foreign audience.

However, if you
Sep 25, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a chronological summary of more than 100 years of the troubles of Northern Ireland. In essence, "This is what happened in the 1920s, this is what happened in the 1960s, etc."

The chronology can be summed up like this: sectarian violence, despair, hope for peace, distrust of the peace process, sectarian violence... cycle repeats ad nauseum with a rotating cast of characters through the decades.

I felt the book would have been much improved had it opened with a scene far in the future,
Apr 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Rob Adey
Jul 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Like the Gaddis Cold War book, this is a great history primer: it explains what happened clearly and carefully, covers the key figures and what they did etc., without the mass of detail that might overwhelm the reader who – shamefully – saw all this stuff on the news for decades but had a minimal idea of the context. ...more
Apr 11, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book started out slow, but then it picked up about halfway through. It provides important information for understanding the troubles in Northern Ireland. I learned so much about this part of Northern Ireland's history. I will definitely keep what I learned in mind when I am visiting Northern Ireland this month.
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
I was looking for a clear, concise and easy-to-read history of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and Making Sense of the Troubles definitely delivered on that point. The book is as unconvoluted as a history of such a turbulent, eventful period can be. It covers a timespan of roughly 90 years, describing how the conflict came about and how decades of tension eventually escalated into a civil war that lasted for the better part of a century. Very informative for someone who only has a layman's knowle ...more
Lewis Ward
Jul 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hard to see how it could be improved. Despite the grimness and forbidding complexity of the topic, a page-turner. Well balanced between analysis of political developments and bald descriptions of atrocities, with the occasional stories of individual victims all the more powerful for their relative sparseness. Objective perspective on the psychology of both sides without ever offering any apology for paramilitary violence.
Nov 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I knew very little about the troubles. After visiting Belfast and taking a black taxi tour, I wanted to learn more. This book was fantastic: comprehensive, not overwhelming, and the perfect length. I highly recommend it.
Apr 11, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As I finished this book, 'The Two Towers' was on in the background:
"It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Thos
Mac McCormick III
Jan 11, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I am a complete novice when it comes to the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so I come to the subject with an open mind and as a book with blank pages waiting to be filled in. I was born just a few years after the “The Troubles” began and while conscious that they were occurring, I never really knew much more about them than the violence that was reported on the evening news. I knew that there were problems but I didn’t know what those problems were. Throughout my education, mentions of ...more
This is the second book I've read on the Troubles since a television show piqued my interest. Although I've read two books I still don't understand it and I probably never will but that was no fault of the book. It was detailed and I really appreciated the writing being sectioned by eras/dates. I also appreciated the chronology at the end and the charts. I rarely read non-fiction and I NEVER read history. Until now.
Jon Peder Grønsveen Opsahl
Nov 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
After visiting Belfast I got very interested in learning more about the Troubles. This book gives a good overview of the history. It does not dive too deep into specific events, which I think is a good thing when you wish to get a more general impression. Absolutely recommend if you wish to learn about the history of the Troubles.
Ben Gartland
Jul 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic and balanced history of The Troubles. I learned a ton. The authors did a great job of of incorporating historical context into the book so that events of the 70s could be traced back to decisions made back in the 20s. Highly recommend for anyone looking for Irish/UK history.
Jun 27, 2017 marked it as abandoned  ·  review of another edition
Was looking more for insight into how the troubles started (first 30 or so pages) than a shot by shot of what the troubles were (the other 400 pages).
Feb 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Crisp, unbiased, in-depth exploration of the political history of Northern Ireland. Well written, interesting and insightful.
David Brunning
Mar 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really interesting read, makes a great job of taking the reader through a really complicated and difficult time.
Vanessa Meachen
Growing up on the other side of the world from Northern Ireland, IRA bombings and shootings were regularly reported, in such a way that I always worried that if I ever went to England, the IRA would get me. The reporting was very one-sided - the words "sectarian violence" were used frequently but there was very little reporting of any violence carried out by the loyalist factions and not a lot of background of any kind. It makes me wonder whether, if the IRA had not been active in England, we wo ...more
Oct 05, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this one in anticipation of visiting Belfast over the weekend. Overall it’s a solid historical account of the troubles, although it trends at times into a “one d*** thing after another” type history book, which I commend for its thoroughness, but wouldn’t recommend if you’re looking for a more dynamic historical review. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, I can see why the authors went with this type of format, and the sheer quantity of one terrible event after another lends its ...more
Jake Goretzki
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016
Clear, focussed and readable (though a task). Also benefits from its periodic asides about the victims. The writers' other major project catalogues them - something I'm tempted to read when next looking for some post-Brexitschmerz perspective. Odd to read about it all as relative 'history' now. Many of the place names (Crossmaglen, Ballygawley, Warrenpoint, etc) still ring a grim bell.

[Oh, by the way: no mention, I'd add, of one Jeremy Corbyn's role in the NI peace process. I think that's becau
Sep 28, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I felt the text was redundant in its try, try again ‘plot’.
I feel I could have gotten most of what I did walk away with by just reading the cliff notes: ‘perspective, chronology, tables and glossary.’ I probably would have been less ‘in pain’ if I had done that.
I was discouraged by my perception of ‘the troubles’ as (another) failure by humans.
While I could empathize with the intensity of the peoples, I learned (again) that tradition is NOT always based on the traits I think it should be and I
Jul 10, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
if you realise one day that you know basically nothing about the 20th century history and politics of Northern Ireland, this is a good place to come.
100% mandatory reading for anyone interested in the conflict.
Jim Stewart
As someone who lives in the US and knew of the Troubles, I always realized that I never fully understood it. The good news about this book is that a gave me a better idea of what really transpired in that 30-year span from the late '60s till the so-called Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Since we in the US think of the civil rights movement as a black/white thing, it was interesting to hear that same expression used in the Catholic/Protestant conflict. (Although that said, it's unclear if it's rea ...more
Tommy /|\
Sep 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Rarely do I run across a historical account that has me thumbing backwards to connect various salient points. When I do, those are typically accounts that are so difficult o understand that the constant going backwards is necessary. In this case; however, thumbing backwards wasn't necessary for context, but rather a desire to reread a passage that is being mentioned in the current point to gather more detail than the small paragraph currently being read. McKittrick and McVea have written an exce ...more
Jul 19, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This title might be a little too optimistic for the contents. In the beginning of the book the authors do a good job of explaining details to a reader who might not be familiar with the entire history, but then let this fall away as the book goes on, introducing intricate details that I just wasn't familiar with. I think a certain amount of background knowledge is presupposed of the reader, which I didn't have. I definitely recommend finding some supplementary books to this one, to help really " ...more
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very good introductory book to the Troubles. It was equally informative and descriptive and ultimately left you with a quench for further detail. The authors note in their preamble that they sacrificed deep detail for succinctness and summary which worked well. I know a little about the Troubles following a visit there in recent times, but in the whole scheme of things my knowledge (pre this book) would still be considered scant and reflective of summaries as provided by others.

It is
Benjamin Eskola
Surprisingly balanced, in that it makes it clear that Catholics had genuine grievances that accumulated during 1921–69, and does not gloss over loyalist crimes, while also not defending republican violence, particularly against civilians. Does seem sympathetic to the idea (apparently introduced by SDLP leader John Hume) that the British position was essentially neutral, not imperialist, which seems hard to reconcile with the fact that Britain itself set up the institutions of Protestant/Unionist ...more
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