Remembering Andrew Boyd

Remembering Andrew Boyd

Andrew Boyd was a prolific journalist and popular historian who for decades enlivened the Belfast writing scene with his trenchant opinions and researches into the city’s history and politics who recently passed away.


Andrew Boyd was a prolific journalist and popular historian who for decades enlivened the Belfast writing scene with his trenchant opinions and researches into the city’s history and politics.

A highly independent individual who delighted in argument and relished controversy, he was a man of the left throughout his life.

From that standpoint he was outspokenly critical of practically all political groupings, left, right and centre.

Although he abhorred partition and the creation of the Northern Ireland state, Boyd was contemptuous of modern republicanism. He declared scornfully that the IRA had decided "to kill thousands of decent, inoffensive people and innocent children, destroy commercial and private property to the value of billions of pounds, and incite the bloodlust of the most brutal loyalists."

He was also highly critical of the unionist party, accusing it of maintaining power "by exploiting the ignorance and fears of the Protestants, thriving on recurring violence, the inflaming of hatreds and the continuance of divisions."

His most striking work was his book Holy War in Belfast, which detailed the violent outbreaks other historians had tended to play down.

By an extraordinary coincidence his account of the city’s previous violent episodes was published in August 1969, the exact month when the most recent troubles erupted. Rarely has there been a more timely example of history repeating itself.

Until its publication few if any were aware of the recurring pattern of communal commotion in Belfast. In the nineteenth century for example, serious disruption broke out on at least a dozen occasions.

The same working-class areas were affected time after time, including Shankill, Falls, Sandy Row and Short Strand.

The importance of Holy War in Belfast was outlined by the late Professor John Whyte. Previous histories, he wrote, were characterised by "blandness" with the sectarian riots barely mentioned.

Another commentator concurred, noting that "the positive aspects of community relations were emphasised and the negative underplayed." Whyte concluded: "It was left for Andrew Boyd’s Holy War in Belfast to bring these riots back into the consciousness of historians."

Mountainous amounts of material were available in the form of reports of various official commissions of inquiry which gave an almost literally blow-by-blow account of rioting. Boyd burrowed into the dusty volumes of evidence and conclusions, which generally blamed loyalists and police.

The research was originally intended as a PhD thesis – he had graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with an honours degree BSc in economics in the early 60s.

A unionist historian later wrote disapprovingly that his book was "vividly written but exhibits strong political prejudices." But it restored to the historical record the fact that sustained violence, far from coming out of the blue, had numerous precedents.

Boyd, who was born in 1921, was the son of a Boer War veteran. He came from a conventional Protestant working-class background in east Belfast, serving an apprenticeship as an engineer in the Belfast shipyards.

From an early age he disavowed traditional unionist politics. Instead, witnessing poverty and suffering in Belfast during the years of the Great Depression and the horrors of the rise of Nazism in Europe, he became a committed socialist.

A major regret in his life was being rejected by the Royal Navy for service in the second world war, but he compensated by becoming the youngest member of the shipyard committee on war procurement services, closely involved in the ship-building drive as part of the war effort.

By the late 1940s he had become increasingly active in left-wing politics. Moving to London he met the veteran communist and social agitator Wal Hannington, who became his political mentor and close friend. He married Kathleen Kelly, a Catholic from the Falls Road, the couple returning to Belfast in the early 1950s.

He remained committed throughout his life to adult education, becoming known as an invigorating and challenging lecturer in economics and journalism.

One of his students, Belfast author and journalist Walter Ellis, recalled: "I remember him being sharp and well-informed and clever, yet speaking like a shipyard foreman. He had good one-liners – he could be quite cutting too, but in an amusing, not condescending way."

At various times he had connections, formal or informal, with the civil rights movement, the SDLP, the Communist party and other groupings. He also had influential contacts in the British and Irish labour parties.

He produced a stream of books and pamphlets on topics such as the trade unions and unionist prime minister Brian Faulkner, whom he acidly described as a man "who could hardly be regarded as fit to be prime minister even of so miserable a place as Northern Ireland." His own favourite was Fermenting Elements, his work relating the history of labour colleges in Ireland.

He often appeared on BBC, Ulster Television and RTE. His articles appeared in publications such as the Irish News, Irish Times, New Statesman, Economist, Tribune and Daily Worker.

He was Ireland correspondent for the Nation magazine in New York and in more recent years wrote for History Today and the Contemporary Review.

As the chronicler of Belfast’s troubled past, he could not bring himself to believe that the developing peace process would end conflict in his city.

He disapproved of the Good Friday Agreement. He posed the awkward question: "What is it but a verbose and infuriatingly ambiguous programme for an unstable form of government that accommodates not just the sectarianism of one party but the sectarianism of all parties?"

In retirement he applied himself to new challenges, setting himself the task of reading Flaubert, Zola and De Maupassant in the original French. He worked through their books with a French dictionary to hand, eventually reading three novels a week even though he never spoke the language.

He had an abiding love of literature and was a keen mathematician, delighting his grandchildren with mathematical puzzles and conundrums. He was also an engaging raconteur with a huge catalogue of stories.

His close friends included writers and activists such as Dominic Behan, Peadar O’Donnell, Tribune editor Dick Clements, folklorist Hamish Henderson and historian John De Courcy Ireland. His longevity meant he outlived all his closest friends, but until a few months before his death he was corresponding with academics on his life and work.

As a writer, Boyd came to the fore in 1969 as a teller of politically inconvenient historical truths, displeasing the unionist authorities by bringing to light events which had been airbrushed out for decades.

In his final years he retained his brand of independence, sceptical and nonconformist to the last, ever unafraid of appearing out of step with prevailing orthodoxies.

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