Accessible account of all major battles on Irish soil will have wide appeal


PATRICK M GEOGHEGANreviews Battles Fought on Irish Soil: A Complete AccountBy Sean McMahon Londubh Books 224pp, €14.99

IN THE poem A Song of Defeat,published at the start of the 20th century, Stephen Lucius Gwynn reviewed the great battles of Irish history.

It opened with Brian Boru’s victory at Clontarf in 1014, with “the Danes in a headlong slaughter sent”, and “Brian, slain at his tent”. This was followed by a review of the victories, and more frequent defeats which followed. There was “O’Neill, and the fight at the Yellow Ford”, “Cromwell loosed on the land”, “Tone with his mangled throat” and “Emmet high on the gallows”. As Patrick Maume notes in his insightful entry in the recent Dictionary of Irish Biography, Gwynn championed defeated causes and this made him the ideal person to review the history of Irish military adventures. Gwynn was surely correct when he wrote that the Irish are a “remembering race”; that Ireland was “a land, where to fail is more than to triumph, and victory less than defeat”.

Sean McMahon is to be congratulated for producing an accessible, single-volume account of all the major battles fought on Irish soil, because it is a book that is guaranteed to have a wide appeal. It begins with two stories from mythology, the two battles of Moytura (featuring the Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg), and the battle of the Ford (fought between Cúchulainn and Ferdiad), and ends with the battle of the Bogside in August 1969. Along the way, we get readable accounts, each one about two or three pages long, of (among other things) the Viking wars, the Nine Years’ War, the 1798 Rebellion, the skirmish on Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch in 1848, and the main battles of the 1916-1923 revolutionary period .

There are some problems with such an approach, namely that it is hard to be an expert on every single period and every battle. Inevitably, mistakes will creep in. For example, when discussing Bantry Bay and the 1798 Rebellion, the author makes a reference to “Napoleon’s plan to invade England”, which is incorrect given that he had not yet come to power in France.

The entry on the 1803 rebellion suggests “Emmet decided to die fighting” before eventually fleeing the scene, which contradicts Emmet’s own account of what happened. But the overall effort is to be commended.

In the introduction, McMahon quotes from GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of The White Horse, which suggests “the great Gaels of Ireland” are “the men that God made mad”. For Chesterton, this explained why “all their wars are merry” and “all their songs are sad”.

In coming years this country will commemorate the centenary of some of the key events in the foundation of this State, such as the 1916 Rising and the signing of the Treaty. Before that, we will mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, allowing us to take stock of where we have come over a far longer period.

The Innovation Alliance of Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin is looking at ways of marking this event in terms of its historical and cultural significance, but perhaps a starting point might be the verses of Stephen Gwynn and his wonderful analysis, that “Brian fought, and he fell, But Brian fought, and he won, God! that was long ago!”

Dr Patrick M Geoghegan is Associate Dean of Research at Trinity College Dublin. His new book, Liberator: The Life and Death of Daniel O’Connell, will be published by Gill and Macmillan in October