Williamite War’s tragedy, cruelty and heroism retold in mud, blood and cordite

‘History is never written in ink. It is the squelch of wet earth, the cry of a soldier with his stomach ripped open, and the sweet stink of gunpowder’

History is littered with question marks, like bones under an ancient battlefield. What if a small band of half-dead Hospitalliers had not fought to the last man to hold Fort St Elmo in Malta 1565, crippling the Ottoman Sultan’s dream of invading Italy and sacking Rome? What if the great Armada of Philip II of Spain, who ruled half the world from a writing desk, had not been swept away as it scratched at England’s door in 1588? What if William of Orange, a moody and asthmatic prince who became the pivot of a continental war, had been standing three inches to the left when a pot shot from a Jacobite cannon clipped his shoulder by the River Boyne in Louth in July 1690? Borders, commerce, language, religion – so much of the way things are today, might have been something else. History is never written in ink. It is the squelch of wet earth, the cry of a soldier with his stomach ripped open, and the sweet stink of gunpowder.

In the late seventeenth century, by both accident and design, Ireland became a tiny and vicious frontier in a great European war. Back then the world was a furnace of ideas, passion, rivalry and greed, and every prince wished to stake his claim on the future. It was a time when the riches of the New World had begun to shape the fortunes of the old, and the wars of religion had carved new wrinkles into Europe’s skin.

But as the century drew to a close, and the Turks had been driven back from the gates of Vienna for the final time, the continent found a new reason to go to war. His name was Louis XIV, the great king of France, a man who burned so bright that they called him Le Roi Soleil. His reign was almost unprecedented for its length, grandeur and relentless ambition. A few decades earlier, alliances in Europe were built on how a man said his prayers. Now, in the simplest terms, one was either with Louis or against him.

King James II, the last male ruler of the House of Stuart, sleepwalked into this new way of things in 1688. After being driven from his throne by a cocktail of public anger, palace politics and clumsy diplomacy, James fled to France, seeking the embrace of Louis, his first cousin. James, a converted Catholic, had been overthrown by his Protestant son-in-law William of Orange, the titular head of the Dutch Republic and the anchor of a grand European alliance seeking to contain French ambition from the Low Countries to the Alps.


As James stumbled into his arms, Louis and his advisers sniffed an opportunity. In Ireland, the old thorn in England’s side, Richard Talbot, the Catholic earl of Tyrconnell – a gruff courtier and old friend of James’s who had elbowed his way to the vice-royalty – had placed Catholics at the head of the army and judiciary. Talbot was a son of the old Leinster aristocracy, who shared a common dream to snatch back the land and prestige that Cromwell had taken from them. Now, with the three kingdoms of Ireland, England and Scotland on the precipice of another civil war, France chose to play her hand. James was sent to Kinsale at the head of a French flotilla to open another front in the continental war with William.

What followed is one of the most curious chapters in Irish history. The Williamite War, as it came to be known, is littered with tragedy, cruelty and heroism on a breathtaking scale. The relics of this conflict are scattered all around us: the great vertebrae of Derry, the crumbling old walls of Limerick, the wild grass of Aughrim. To think of the conflict as just a war of conquest by William of Orange is to ignore its extraordinary drama and human sacrifice. It is a war that has been the subject of dozens of academic volumes and theses. But these works, brilliant as they are, do not put mud on your boots, cordite in your nostrils or blood in your eyes. The timelines of the great set pieces of this conflict – the Sieges of Derry, Limerick and Athlone, the Battles of Aughrim and the Boyne – are well scripted. But academic endnotes do not slide down into the trenches, where Irish volunteers who have gone days without sleep stare out into the dark as their enemies dig their way towards them, one inch at a time. This war and the constitutional crisis that ignited it was a violent, epic fight to the finish. The tale of calamity that engulfed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Irish men and women, Protestant and Catholic alike, does not deserve to be told in black or grey.

But for a few hundred years of grace, it would have been you and I being shot at in trenches, trampled by dragoons, or crying ourselves to sleep over dead husbands, fathers and sons. Kingdom Overthrown, Ireland and the Battle for Europe 1688-1691 was not written to massage a point of view, or challenge facts. Instead, it is a book about people, mighty and poor alike, standing in muddy battlefields and draughty palaces, each finding themselves sucked into a great and furious moment. It is a human history.