First Thoughts: Kingdom Overthrown

FITZGIBBON’s book is an in-depth and fascinating account of William of Orange’s war against his father-in-law, the deposed James II, a Catholic, on Irish shores.

Fitzgibbon’s research is vast. Through the use of journals, correspondence, biographies, state papers, eye-witness accounts and personal diaries such as George Story’s, a Williamite chaplain who travelled with this colourful and daunting army, he weaves an epic tale.

Ireland, a rich fertile territory, was always going to prove interesting to the English — a land where taxes could fatten the king’s coffers. Strangely enough, the Irish ruling classes, the Gaels, the Gaelic Normans, and the ‘Old English’ settlers, all Catholic, didn’t quite agree.

Following a massacre of superimposed Protestant settlers in 1641, a soldier who had deposed the previous king of England and now ruler, Cromwell, decided to sort the Irish out once and for all. Those he didn’t kill, he sold to the West Indian slave market, then divided up their lands amongst those who had lent him the money to finance his war of Irish conquest in the first place, many of them Protestant British gentry. A nice little earner all round.

Fitzgibbon elaborates on the strife between Catholicism and Protestantism so central to the Irish experience. When the British had enough of the puritanical Cromwell, they reinstated Charles II. Though Protestant, he had an affinity with Catholics, in particular his half-brother James, a Catholic, who would subsequently take the throne.

Though no English king was a friend to the Irish, a Catholic king was a better evil, as there was hope that lands forfeited from the previous ruling classes might be restored.

Things finally started looking up as King James listened to the Irish professionals and gentry who were trying so desperately to regain their birthrights. James was supported by the French Catholic King Louis XIV, who was simultaneously fighting a war for mainland European power against the Protestant Dutch William of Orange. It is through this quagmire of politics that Ireland became a horrific sideshow to a greater European war.

William first invades Britain, deposing James. The French sent troops to Ireland to aide James, fighting for his throne, and his supporting ‘Jacobites’, fighting for religious freedom and reinstatement of their lands. Inadequately supported by the French, they were no match for William and his ‘Williamites’, a vast army of Dutch, English, Danish and Hugenots arriving in the name of Protestantism. 

Accounts of Jacobite bravery are striking considering the Williamites received ‘coinage’, the Jacobites often nothing except the promise of regained rights. Horrid accounts of battles such as the Boyne, Aughrim, and the Siege of Limerick are described in detail.

War is certainly deglamourised; we read of slow and painful deaths by muskets, clubs, pikes and swords, men being hacked to death like dogs, scorched earth policies and subsequent starvation that seems to be a greater feature of 17th century Ireland.

Protestant settlers welcomed William. The 1641 massacres had scarred their memories and fearing their own genocide, they never knew ‘when the Gaelic Irish would bare their teeth again.’ They were lucky: William was a strong leader who understood warfare; the Gaels not so lucky: James seems a cowardly and fickle man.

We read about many incredible characters from Irish history, Patrick Sarsfield immediately springing to mind. The disunited nature of the Jacobite leadership is featured widely throughout the book, too many rival factions proving no doubt detrimental to their success.

Many left Ireland, forever engraved in history as the Wild Geese, King William subsequently inflicting severe penal laws on Catholics.

Though definitely for the history buff, 17th century weapons of war such as spreading fear, falsifying documents, and the use of entire armies to fight for the personal benefit of the elite, prove fascinating reading.

But, aside from the use of musket and cannon, I ask, has war actually evolved much in the last 400 years?

Kingdom Overthrown

Ireland and the Battle for Europe 1688-1691

Gerard Fitzgibbon

New Island Books, €24.95


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