Book review - Kingdom Overthrown Ireland and the Battle for Europe 1688-1691

When source material is hard to acquire combing the beach for everything and anything becomes second nature. Whilst on the hunt for information about the first siege of Limerick in 1690, a Google search turned up Kingdom Overthrown; Ireland and the Battle for Europe 1688-1691 by Gerard Fitzgibbon. The price was not excessive (in fact I think I got it for less than a tenner). I had seen it before but ignored it as another general history book but more of that shortly.

Jacobite musketeer in French cut uniform. photo copyright Barry Hilton

It arrived just in time for me to pack for a business trip to Oman where I rarely do anything apart from work and write. A cursory flick through told me I was either going to love it or hate it. The writer is a journalist and this is I believe, his first book. Its scope is broad and extends beyond a narrative of the war to provide a brief but very easily understood backcloth to Irish history from the Plantagenets till 1688.

Holding Adam Murray's sword at St Columbs, Derry

The style is easy and informative. It tells the story without any real bias and in a way that I found very light on the brain. By that I mean the pages raced by and I didn’t need to drink four gin and tonics at the end of every session because I was so desiccated by the content. He has chosen to colour the dramatis personae rather than have them remain the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs which haunt most books of this type. Before detailing the many pros and a few pretty minor cons, I finished 395 pages in five days whilst pulling a full shift at work, coping with the customary JL and going to the gym, Why, do I say this? As a benchmark, it took me weeks to get through John Childs wonderful The Williamite Wars in Ireland 1688-1691 which is well written and a favourite go-to source book. Fitzgibbon manages to tell the tale of an extremely complex situation with scores of main characters and well over one hundred walk-on parts in a way that does not make you feel your head is full of marshmallows.

Drybridge Ford, Drogheda - Where William crossed the Boyne - precise time and tide . Copyright B.Hilton

As an example, King James comes to life as a disillusioned, disappointed, neurotic and conspiracy theory obsessed ditherer. William is cast as a highly stressed, unable to relax, closed, introverted workaholic who probably dodged every party invitation he rarely received. Tyrconnell comes across as an intelligent, cunning, opportunistic, resourceful, energetic and intimidating corporate executive whose overindulgence gets the better of him, eventually. It is undoubtedly interpretive but in an engaging and provoking way. I am sure many of his character sketches will be pretty near the mark (we’ll never find out) and for the first time in all of my reading on this war (which has been ongoing for over 25 years) I actually recognized the protagonists as not just names on a page but real human beings with dispositions, feelings and behaviours easily found in the modern neurotic world we live in. The story is actually, a ripper and re-reading it in one doze reinforced my preoccupation with the period. Even though you know the end of the story it still read like a novel.

The walls of English Town, Limerick. Copyright Barry Hilton

Fitzgibbon has used a slightly pulp-fiction style to make the battle scenes come alive – lots of flying shrapnel, blood smells, choking smoke and sulphurous fumes mixed in with the urine and excrement but actually, that works. He has stopped short of too much dialogue and thankfully avoided a lot of bear traps he could have set himself around the oft trotted out quotes and mis quotes. The best action descriptions are those around the magnificent Jacobite defence of Limerick in 1690 and the fall of Athlone in 1691. Did I know and forget that the celebrated Sergeant Custume was a Scot? I remember pausing with the humous and kebeh at that paragraph and thinking.. I need to check that out. More surprising was that I felt genuine empathy for many characters even unlikely ones such as Tyrconnell and Ginkel.

Attibrassil Bridge, Aughrim - Jacobite right flank hinge. Copyright Barry Hilton

The things I liked less are pretty excusable. Fitzgibbon is a good writer but not a military historian. He does not really understand or apply well, the military terminology of the period. He babbles on about rifles here and there, infantrymen are always wearing boots, he occasionally mixes Horse with Foot and gets numbers muddled a bit but this is minor stuff. He has clearly plundered many of the sources that period-obsessives reference and welded them together into a pacey narrative. John Stevens journal which I read again recently is frequently the spine of Fitzgibbon’s story line and many of Stevens’ incidents appear in a 21st century idiom.

Crom Castle - besieged twice by the Jacobites in 1689. Copyright Barry Hilton

Some of the descriptions are a bit modern and those jar a little for being somewhat laddish and trivial amidst the general body of fine and well crafted writing. He has a bit of a fixation with swooping condors as a metaphor too and there are one or two other red-top type turns of phrase which actually just made me smile.

Jacobite infantry march to war. Copyright Barry Hilton

Perhaps the worst offence is his (or his publisher’s) very poor choice of cover art - John Mulvany’s Battle of Aughrim with its SYW style uniforms. That would I am sure put a few potential customers off as it is a lazy decision and could imply that between the dust covers the content is also somewhat off target. The internal illos are safe if hackneyed. Nothing any of us will not have seen before.

That said, This book was a great read. I finished it at 0700 waiting for the flight back to London and wrote this review over breakfast and Iraq simultaneously. As a detailed, entertaining overview of a vital and painful piece of our history I thoroughly commend it.