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Belfast Books Blog

Book Review of Brian Hughes 'Defying the I.R.A? Intimidation, coercion and communities during the Irish Revolution' Liverpool University Press

Hughes, B. (2016). ‘Defying the I.R.A? Intimidation, coercion and communities during the Irish Revolution’. Liverpool. Liverpool University Press. Available at 

Defying the I.R.A’ sets out to examine the relationship between the I.R.A and the civilian population during the Irish war of independence. The majority of historical accounts of this time have tended to focus solely on the belligerents. An effect of this has been to place unnecessary distance between the experiences of readers who have lived through our most recent ‘troubles’ and those of our grandparents.

In this aim, Brian Hughes book succeeds well – the focus here is primarily on the day to day lived experience of ordinary people in extraordinary times. The chapter ‘Collecting the Rates’ for example illustrates this skilfully by describing the difficulties presented in maintaining civil order at a time when both the state and the I.R.A collected rates as well as running parallel (if diametrically opposed) judicial systems of tribunals, magistrates etc.

The book owes a significant debt both to the work of Stathis Kallyvas as well as Peter Hart in providing some of the historiographical framework. Kallyvas has written of the logic of violence in a civil war context; Hughes further contextualises this by describing the near impossibility of civilians striving for neutrality during this period. This is particularly relevant when he writes of the experience of Unionists or Loyalists during this time. Any position shy of active or tacit support for the I.R.A could be (and often was) taken as suggestive of collaboration. Hughes writes well of the burden placed on members of the RIC or former members of British armed forces who were placed in impossible positions of isolation or hostility even in areas where I.R.A violence was perceived to be at a low level. All too familiar to a modern reader will be the notion that whilst political violence leaves an enormous toll in terms of death and injury; this is dwarfed by the legacy of lives thwarted, blighted or destroyed. And this legacy continues long after the violence has come to its official ‘end’.

The work of Peter Hart (particularly his controversial 1998 book ‘The I.R.A and its enemies’) receives a good deal of coverage here and this is particularly instructive when reconsidering incidents like the Dunmanway killings. Hart was criticised at the time for his suggestion that the killings had no military context but rather represented a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Protestants in the Bandon area of Co. Cork. Hughes, with the benefit perhaps of a broader canvas, suggests, that whilst ethnic cleansing (though he does not use the phrase) may have occurred it is difficult at this distance to unpick the specific reasons for any killings shorn of any local context (for example- personal rivalries, economic factors or social difficulties). What Hughes suggests is that, although it is difficult to establish the motive, it is certain that religious disagreement was an obvious factor in this strife and the war of independence provided a welcome cover for acts of sectarian murder.

Of particular interest to readers might be the chapter dealing with ‘Defying the I.R.A in Belfast’. One particularly strong aspect of this chapter is an exploration of why the levels of conflict did not reach similar levels as those in other parts of the country such as Dublin, Cork or Donegal. The absence of conflict between state and non-state forces is mitigated however by the horrific intracommunal violence of the early 1920’s. This violence had been a feature of life in Belfast since the 1850’s but it now took on an even more virulent form. One slight concern was with the occasional absence of citation for some statements. For example Hughes writes that ‘Though Catholics were disproportionate victims of violence, both sides of the religious divide perpetrated violence … ranging from intimidation and expulsion to killing’ there is no evidence offered in support of any of these statements but this is a rare lapse in an otherwise meticulously sourced book.

Hughes makes excellent use of both the Irish and British state records – which provides one useful final illustration of the difficulties encountered by civilians during the time. In 1934 an egg-dealer from Arvagh Co. Cavan made a claim to the Irish Government for compensation for property damaged during the war of independence – he stressed his republican credentials, his family ‘gave all and got nothing’ in the Anglo-Irish war, – a car had been taken by the Black and Tans and a son ‘taken’…Stirring stuff you would agree? The fact that the same author made a simultaneous claim to the UK authorities for the same damage whilst stressing his ‘sworn allegiance to the British Government’ and his record as a police pensioner might be thought somewhat hypocritical or opportunistic. But, he represents a vast number of stories of people whose allegiances, loyalties or histories cannot be neatly summarised or easily dismissed. ​

Kindly reviewed by Dr. Deaglan Page

16 November, 2016 by John Junk

What's Going on with the Price of 'Lost Lives' by McKittrick et al? Part Deux

You'll remember in our first blog post before the holidays, we promised you there was a part two coming. It promised to reveal "who is selling copies of the book, how they have arrived at that pricing, and why. I’ll also share will you who might buy hyper price inflated used books, and why."

Let's look at who is offering copies of overvalued Out of Print (OOP) and Collectible (mostly signed and First Edition) books for sale.

Pretty much everyone and anyone.

Serial optimists like Daily Deals on Amazon Marketplace are frequently the highest price for an OOP book on Amazon Marketplace. Not so on this occasion though, and the market has cooled somewhat since the blog post, with copies being withdrawn from Amazon Marketplace and other book selling sites. I'll not be so bold to suggest that this was due to the issues raised in the original blog post, but before the blog post the market was out of control for this book.

A lot of times the outrageous pricing is arrived at by the automatic tracking software that large used book businesses use. The overvaluing happens when there is a very limited supply of the books,the top price is an outrageously high one, and the tracking software that knows nothing about books and everything about comparative analysis tracks the 'optimistic' highest price. It's a bit like that that time I chased after a guy in the 400m at Shore Road Playing Fields and needed an iron lung at the 250m mark. Only the computer sticks with the maniac until a human intervenes.

The copy the optimist has for sale is theirs to ask whatever they wish for it. You'd have to ask them why they have placed that value on the book, and I would encourage you to do that with every used item transaction, including with ourselves. The owner of the item is not doing anything illegal asking whatever amount they want for the book, as it's not worth anything of itself. To understand this, lets look at this nonsensical sketch...

*in any store that sells expensive things*

Genius - That'll be £600 please.

Customer - *Reaches into messenger bag and pulls out payment*. "Do you take 'Lost Lives' by McKittrick, it's worth £600?

Genius - That'll do nicely sir...

The moral of the story here is that of itself, any OOP or collectible book offered for sale at any price IS ACTUALLY WORTHLESS. If you cant lodge it in a bank, it doesn't have any value of itself. It's worth what you get for it - otherwise, its an expensive door stopper or table leg propper-upper.

Who would pay a super inflated price for a book? This is informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless.

A rich PhD student on a deadline? A television production company fact checking? Someone wrongly believing that the book is valuable and thinking it's an investment? A library benefactor thinking that they are donating a valuable and sought after book to their alma mater. Someone on their last day of work looking to hurt their employer? Who knows? I'd love to hear some of your suggestions..

Having cooled the market first time round, we are potentially going to excite the market again with the news that the publishers were bought over by Random House, who have no plans to reprint the title. Don't believe us? This..

*Closes Door on Mayhem*

16 August, 2016 by John Junk
What's Going on with the Price of 'Lost Lives' by McKittrick et al?

What's Going on with the Price of 'Lost Lives' by McKittrick et al?

Being as now I’m an official ‘Person of Influence’ in the microscopic Belfast used book circuit, I thought I would share my wisdom with you all on the Belfast Books shop blog.

Out of print books are like freshly landed fish - their price can change daily, based on supply and demand.

If you've been to our shop you'll see that for the more expensive books, we scan them at the time of purchase to see what price sellers are asking at that exact second. Today, a customer saved himself £10 on a Doctor Who collectible book by us checking today's market price for a book he picked up in the shop and wanted to buy. We were delighted to tell him the good news and he went off, happy as a sand boy.

An extreme example of this price fluctuation is the seminal Troubles book 'Lost Lives' by McKittrick et al. The Amazon search page here shows all listings of Lost Lives currently on sale by third party sellers on Amazon.

For those book nerds out there who have a barcode scanner on their Christmas list, the real title of the tome in question is Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles . It comes in hardcover, was first published in 1999, and last published in revised format in 2008 by Chris Thornton (Author), Seamus Kelters (Author), Brian Feeney (Author), David McKittrick (Author).

Unless you’re challenging your inner librarian, or doing the good old cut and paste from this blog post there’s no need to put the full title in to search on Amazon - as ‘Lost Lives McKittrick ‘ will do.

Around 18 months ago the second hand price for this book averaged £15, half of what it cost when new. Today, in its various Amazon listings, used sellers are asking between £115-£613 including UK delivery. Yes, nearly £500 difference for the same used book (in all its 25 different printings from 1999-2008).

The book itself is an important Troubles book, more because of the easily digestible information it holds on each death, rather than any political commentary. However, there is also a lacuna as big as a Laguna in that it was last published in revised format in 2008. For students of Troubles history, that means those who lost their lives since 'Lost Lives' was last printed aren't included in the print copies. So as a guide to people murdered in Northern Ireland by groups and individuals whose ‘craft’ was forged in the Troubles, ‘Lost Lives’ is silent after 2008, and for me that should push the value down, not up. It should also push the publishers to update and republish. I'll be speaking with them directly about that.

Personally I value all versions of Lost Lives at McKittrick it at in and around the £70-80 retail price bracket in VERY GOOD condition, which is the most popular grade of used books, especially hardbacks. For those of you holding signed copies I’d value it at up to £160 if signed by all four authors; and at £100 if signed by one; £120 by two; and £140 by only three authors. If you've a first edition, first printing you can add 50% to all those valuations.

Some of you might be surprised that at this stage I am not differentiating in value between the 25 different printings of 'Lost Lives'. Surely the most up to date editions must be the most sought after, and therefore the most valuable? Not necessarily as it all depends on how many books are out there in the marketplace of each edition. I'll speak with the publishers and see what print runs of each book were produced for what edition, and reserve the right to plus or minus individual editions.

I’ll also do a second piece on this Lost Lives saga when I'll look at who is selling copies of the book, how they have arrived at that pricing, and why. I’ll also share will you who might buy hyper price inflated used books, and why.

Subscribers to our mailing list here will get this first, so it might be a good idea to pop over and join that. A bit like Crimestoppers the Mailchimp powered list won’t ask for your name, but it will ask for your email.
15 July, 2016 by John Junk