The best books on the Irish Republican Army from the 1920s to the 1990s

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in one of America’s most heavily Irish areas, outside Philadelphia. After Northern Ireland exploded in 1969, IRA gunrunning cases made the local news, and came up in conversations – one friend told me his ancestors smuggled weapons in the 1920s. So I was hooked when I ran across a vivid 1922 account of an IRA shooting in Manhattan, splashed on the front page of The New York Times, my employer. My first book was about Irish rebel gunmen, the Molly Maguires of the Pennsylvania coal fields, where my Irish ancestors were miners. I’ve given lectures about the IRA’s American activities at conferences in Cork and California. 


I wrote...

Ambush at Central Park: When the IRA Came to New York

By Mark Bulik,

Book cover of Ambush at Central Park: When the IRA Came to New York

What is my book about?

In 1922, three of the Irish Republican Army’s top gunmen arrived in New York City seeking ven­geance. Their target: “Cruxy” O’Connor, who kept switching sides as revolution swept Ireland. Cruxy’s last betrayal got six IRA comrades killed. A year later, he was gunned down before a horrified crowd at Central Park. This is the untold story of four old comrades from the Irish War for Independence, and their paths to and from a bullet-riddled reunion in Manhattan. It is the story of the war’s main battleground, Cork, and New York’s role in the struggle. It is a tale of gunmen and gun-runners, informers and spies, betrayal and vengeance.  It is the story of the IRA’s only attack on American soil.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Ballycotton Job: An incredible true story of IRA Pirates

Mark Bulik Why did I love this book?

The subtitle of this rollicking yarn tells you all you need to know: “An Incredible True Story of IRA Pirates.”

In March 1922, a daring crew of Cork rebels took to the high seas and hijacked a Royal Navy ship packed with 120 tons of guns and ammo. This bloodless act of piracy caused an uproar in London and Dublin, and altered the course of the Irish Civil War. The book is extensively researched, and Mahon knows whereof he speaks – his grandfather was the head of the Cork IRA.

I loved this one because it is set in the same locale and era where part of my book is set, and it features some of the same characters.

By Tom Mahon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ballycotton Job as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A 'sensational affair.. carried out with great audacity' - New York Times. An astonishing act of piracy, the capture of the British war ship, the Upnor changed the course of Ireland's Civil War. Flawless in its planning and execution, while Winston Churchill remarked on Irish 'genius for conspiracy', a furious Michael Collins accused the British of deliberately arming his enemies. Indeed, it's highly likely that the bullet that killed him originated in the Upnor.

The Ballycotton Job brings this riveting story to life, its cast of disparate characters and strands of adventure beautifully woven together. This book sees events leading…


Book cover of Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Mark Bulik Why did I love this book?

A harrowing account of the disappearance of a poor Belfast mother of 10 at the paranoid height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and the impact it had on her family.

Jean McConville was suspected, on scant evidence, of spying for the British, and her body wasn’t found for three decades. It was no secret who was behind her killing – the Provisional IRA – but the silence surrounding the case was deafening.

I found the book riveting because of the way Keefe used the McConville case to explain the Troubles. It powerfully drove home the sorrowful human toll of that conflict on both the guilty and the innocent.

By Patrick Radden Keefe,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Say Nothing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER •From the author of Empire of Pain—a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions

"Masked intruders dragged Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widow and mother of 10, from her Belfast home in 1972. In this meticulously reported book—as finely paced as a novel—Keefe uses McConville's murder as a prism to tell the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Interviewing people on both sides of the conflict, he transforms the tragic damage and waste of the era into a searing, utterly gripping saga." —New York Times Book Review

Jean McConville's…


Book cover of On Another Man's Wound

Mark Bulik Why did I love this book?

This searing memoir by a former commandant of the IRA not only gives an inside look at the Irish War for Independence, but does so with literary panache.

And the tale of O’Malley transformation from medical student to rebel leader seems to have inspired not one but two movies – Shake Hands With the Devil, a Cagney flick in which Don Murray goes from medical student to IRA man, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, in which Cillian Murphy follows the same arc.

The interviews O’Malley collected with IRA veterans later in life proved invaluable for my book. And I count his son as a friend.

By Ernie O'Malley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Another Man's Wound as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than any other book of the period, On Another Man's Wound captures the feel of Ireland―the way people lived, their attitudes and beliefs―and paints brilliant cameo sketches of the great personalities of the Rising and the War. Like many of the Irish, O'Malley was largely indifferent to the attempts to establish an independent Ireland―until the Easter Rising of 1916. As the fight progressed his feelings changed and he joined the Irish Republican Army.


Book cover of The Secret Army: The IRA

Mark Bulik Why did I love this book?

A comprehensive history of the IRA from the 1916 Easter Uprising to the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles in the 1970s.

Bell did extensive research, interviewing many IRA veterans, and he offers insights on the organization’s high points and low points, of which there were many. What I liked best, though, was Bell’s writing – his words bring these people and events to life.

By J. Bowyer Bell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Secret Army is the definitive work on the Irish Republican Army. It is an absorbing account of a movement that has had a profound effect on the shaping of the modern Irish state. The secret army in the service of the invisible Republic has had a powerful effect on Irish events over the past twenty-five years. These hidden corridors of power interest Bell and inspired him to spend more time with the IRA than many volunteers spend in it. This book is the culmination of twenty-five years of work and tens of thousands of hours of interviews. Bell's unique…


Book cover of There Will Be Fire: Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, and Two Minutes That Changed History

Mark Bulik Why did I love this book?

We know from the start that the British prime minister survived the IRA bomb explosion at a Conservative Party conference in Brighton, but that doesn’t lessen the tension in this fine history of the incident.

Rory Carroll gives us nuanced portraits of Thatcher and the bomb maker who tried to kill her. This tale of an overseas attack by the IRA really resonated with me because that’s what “Ambush at Central Park” is all about – and my book includes a chapter about the involvement of some of the IRA gunmen in New York in a plot to assassinate members of the British Cabinet more than sixty years before the explosion that nearly killed Thatcher.

By Rory Carroll,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked There Will Be Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A race-against-the-clock narrative that finally illuminates a history-changing event: the IRA’s attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and the epic manhunt that followed.

    A bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army exploded at 2:54 a.m. on October 12, 1984. It was the last day of the Conservative Party Conference at the Grand Hotel in the coastal town of Brighton, England. Rooms were obliterated, dozens of people wounded, five killed. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in her suite when the explosion occurred; had she been just a few feet in another direction, flying tiles and masonry would have sliced her to ribbons.…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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