April Books 1) Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, by Cyril Falls

I had previously read the first volume of Cyril Falls’ Military Operations Macedonia, with its forensic and detailed account of every action fought by British troops in the Macedonia campaign of the First World War (the Great War, as he thought of it in 1933), in which my grandfather was involved. I turned to this book also for family history reasons, though concerning a much more distant ancestor, and expected it to be a similarly detailed and map-heavy account of the major engagements of the period – Kinsale, the Battle of the Yellow Ford, the Battle of the Biscuits, etc; I was braced for detail but not a lot of enlightenment.

But it is far far better than I expected. I should have realised that since the detailed records are not there in the same way as they were for the First World War, Falls would have to take a different approach, and so indeed he does. The book starts with an account of how government functioned in Ireland, including the most lucid explanation of the roled of the Lord Deputy/Lord Lieitenant/Lords Justices and the Irish Council that I have read. He goes on to examine the weaknesses of the systems of recruitment/conscription and supply for the English (and Irish) military forces. From a slightly different perspective to Haigh, he explores Elizabeth’s relative lack of control over military matters. He also looks at Essex’s failures rather more sympathetically than I would (or the Queen did).

The extent to which violence, including the slaughter of captured enemy forces (600, including 400 civilians, killed by Sir Francis Drake on Rathlin Island in 1575; another 600 captured at Smerwick in 1580; hundreds, maybe even a couple of thousand, Spanish sailors shipwrecked after the failure of the Armada in 1588) was taken as a normal state of affairs is sadly reminiscent of many much more recent conflicts. Indeed, I found a lot of resonances between the Nine Years’ War and the Sudanese conflict – the cattle-centred agricultural economy, the attempts by government forces to split the opposition and fight on the ground through local proxies (Falls displays outrage at the extent to which the English were prepared to abandon former Irish allies when they had outlived their usefulness), the religious dimension which led the rebels to appeal to fellow-believers outside the country; there is the obvious difference that John Garang was more intelligent, more determined and more ruthless than Hugh O’Neill, with the result that he managed to deliver independence for his people, though he did not live to see it.

Sir Nicholas White isn’t mentioned explicitly in the text, but again I found Falls’ contextualisation of two incidents in which he was involved, the peculiarly named cess controversy of 1577 and the 1580 expedition to Dingle and points west, very enlightening and helpful. Even more useful, from my own point of view, was Falls’ account of the career of the Earl of Ormonde, who was White’s patron in the early days and who was himself the most senior (and successful) Irish-born military commander on Elizabeth’s side, as well as being the largest landowner in Ireland and the man who would have run the country if the earlier Tudor policy of appointing locals rather than English officials to run the executive arm had been maintained. In the administrative records he is more of a shadowy figure, I guess because having his own local base he had less to prove in Dublin Castle.

Anyway, an excellent read and an unexpected pleasure.

One thought on “April Books 1) Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, by Cyril Falls

  1. Of those you have not read, I would give strong recommendations to Something Wicked This Way Comes, Lord Valentine’s Castle, and — for historic purposes if nothing else — one of the Conan the Barbarian collections (technically Howard wrote mostly short stories in that universe). I haven’t gotten around to Something Wicked yet, but I have written entries on my blog for both Lord Valentine’s Castle and for Conan, so that’ll give you some detail on why I liked them and possibly why you would, or would not.

    Something Wicked This Way Comes is my favorite Bradbury. It’s a coming of age Halloweeny horror novel, I guess, dealing with choices made and choices regretted and a supernatural force that plays with people through these things.

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