A Military History of Ireland, Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery (eds.), (Cambridge University Press, £40).

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Anglo-Norman Ireland, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Medieval History (pre-1500), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 4

In their preface to this handsome volume the joint editors acknowledge that while it has been their aim to give some account of the chief battles of Ireland’s history their principal concern is with the political and social background. Although at first sight this might appear to belie the title of the book, their approach can be justified for two reasons: first, because the nature of our relationship with the sister island has ensured that, compared with many other countries, political and social factors have exercised an exceptionally strong influence over military events, especially so over the past three hundred years which have seen much violence of an essentially political kind with little real warfare; and second, because an attempt to provide us with a comprehensive military history of Ireland, complete with description and analysis of battle, generalship, military organisation, weaponry and logistics, might well call for a degree of expertise and, indeed, of size, that could make the project unrealistic.
The editors are to be commended for choosing the practical course and in so doing have assembled an impressive collection of nineteen essays which provide us with a broad sweep of history from early Christian times to the IRA ceasefire of August 1994 and the current plans for the reorganisation of the Defence Forces. By way of introduction they themselves make the first offering posed in the form of a question, ‘An Irish military tradition?’ to which, going back as far as Cu Chulainn, their answer is a resounding affirmative.
The remaining essays follow more or less chronologically. In ‘Irish warfare before the year 1100’ T.M. Charles Edwards describes the influence of sea power on Irish affairs in the period which followed the downfall of the western Roman empire and, again, during the Viking age, with an intervening phase marked by dynastic struggles conducted with much violence. He is followed by Marie Therese Flanagan on ‘Irish and Anglo-Norman warfare in the twelfth century’. Flanagan believes that too much emphasis has been placed on Norman military superiority in explaining the rapid over-running of the country. Other factors, from political and marital alliances to reforming churchmen, played a significant role.
Robin Frame in ‘The defence of the English lordship, 1250-1450’, somewhat echoes in reverse Flanagan’s view of the spread of Norman power, arguing that the Gaelic resurgence of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was due mainly to the spread of social and economic patterns already adopted through intermarriage with the Normans, into the marginal areas of the lordship. rather than to a native war of reconquest. Katherine Simms describes the increasing reliance on mercenaries which was a feature of Gaelic warfare in the later middle ages but sounds a note of warning against the uncritical acceptance of the military chronicles whose clerical authors so extolled the chivalry and noble deeds of the participants that their extensive description of combat is rendered somewhat unreliable.
The early modern period begins with Steven G. Ellis’ ‘The Tudors and the origins of the modern Irish state: a standing army’. Ellis describes the build-up of a standing army, the introduction of artillery and its efficiency in dealing with medieval Irish fortifications and the new breed of soldier/settler, the New English. The Tudor theme continues with Ciarán Brady’s ‘The captains’ games: army and society in Elizabethan Ireland’. The captains in question were the commanders of the bands or companies, who, in the absence of an efficient command structure, ran the army and, in so doing, took the Crown (and their own men) for any penny they could get. The army itself, in Brady’s words ‘was not a coherently organised efficient fighting force, an engine of conquest’. After the failure of many years of attempted reform and composition it was the captains who pressed for all-out war which by then offered the best chances for reward. It is a pity that space could not have been found to treat of developments on the Irish side, especially in the Ulster army of Hugh O’Neill, which saw obsolescent gallowglasses being converted to pikemen, kerne into highly efficient ‘shot’ and a unique system of virtually professional military service.
In ‘The wars of religion, 1603 – 1660’ Jane H. Ohlmeyer shows her mastery of the period in her handling of much complex material, particularly that of the war years of 1641 to 1653. John Childs, dealing with the relatively short period of the Williamite war, 1689-1691, is able to cleave more closely to the purely military aspects of his subject than most other contributors. As is to be expected from this well-known authority we are given a concise and balanced account of the war and its background which is further extended in ‘The Irish military establishment, 1660-1776’ by Alan J. Guy and ‘The defence of Protestant Ireland, 1660-1760’ by S.J. Connolly who, though covering the same period, show no significant overlap.
Maintenance of internal order was to face its  sternest challenge in the period covered by Thomas Bartlett in ‘Defence, counter-insurgency and rebellion: Ireland, 1793-1803’. Bartlett presents us with a concise but graphic picture of the events of this momentous decade and of the profound effects it was to have: ‘it was in the decade of the 1790s and the early years of the nineteenth century that the shape of the Irish nation—or nations—was formed: and it was no coincidence that that formation, or formations, had a military cast’.
An interesting account of Irish soldiers abroad in the period 1600 to 1800 is given by Harman Murtagh who provides a wealth of information not only on the better-known service of Irish in France, Spain and Austria but on groups and individuals who soldiered in the German states, Scandinavia, Russia, Portugal and other corners of Europe and across the Atlantic. Militias and volunteers of various kinds, from those raised to protect the plantations of the seventeenth century to the Volunteers of 1779 and the Militia of 1793, are investigated by David W. Miller in ‘Non-professional soldiery’, while two essays deal with military aspects of the nineteenth century, E.M. Spiers’ ‘Army organisation and society in the nineteenth century’ in which, in particular, the Irish contribution to the British army is examined, and Virginia Crossman, ‘The army and law and order in the nineteenth century’ which will strike a chord with many modern soldiers who have become all too well-acquainted with the demands of internal security duty.
The twentieth century opens with David Fitzpatrick’s ‘Militarism in Ireland, 1900-1922’. He shows how the cult of militarism then prevalent was reflected in organisations from the Boy Scouts and Boys’ Brigade to the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers, with members of the latter later going separate ways, either to the trenches of Flanders and Gallipoli or the barricaded buildings of Dublin in 1916. A corrective to the overstated claims of Irish participation in the Great War is given, based on the findings of the latest research: probably 210,000 Irishmen went to the war of whom somewhat in excess of 27,000 were killed. Acceptance of Fitzpatrick’s verdict on the rising of 1916, that it was ‘reckless, bloody, sacrificial and unsuccessful’, will depend on whether it is viewed as an isolated event or the spark that was to lead in a few short years to that most astonishing act in Irish history—the withdrawal of the British garrison.
Militarism in the legitimately authorised sense was certainly not a feature of the new Irish state which, according to Eunan O’Halpin in ‘The army in independent Ireland’, ‘maintained only an emaciated and grievously under-equipped defence establishment’. O’Halpin recounts graphically the doleful tale of underfunding which led to a condition of grave unpreparedness when war broke out in 1939. His economical style is probably taken a bit too far in his account of the emergency, which, though excellently summed up, rates just over three pages leaving no space for any details on the expansion of the army or for that defining event, ‘crossing the Blackwater’, the interdivisional manoeuvres of 1942. A brief summary of the post-war army includes reference to UN service, aid to the civil power and the present defence review.
In the final essay ‘The British army and Ireland’, Keith Jeffery performs a like service for Northern Ireland which is his main focus. The Irish infantry regiments were now but three out of the original eight, each at only one battalion strength, with amalgamations among the cavalry. Attempts to set up the Territorial Army in the north foundered when the preference for a force to help maintain internal order went to the B Specials. At the same time there was grave sensitivity about the use of the regular army without clearance from London. Wartime in Northern Ireland is interestingly described: the service of the Irish regiments and the coming of some 300,000 GIs from the US. The period of the ‘troubles’ since 1969, only too familiar to all, gets brief but adequate treatment
The great achievement of this book is that it provides within a single volume a summary of the whole framework of Irish military history, for which it will certainly stand the test of time. A particular strength is the wealth of references which makes it a most useful starting point for those who wish to delve deeper, and compensates to a great degree for any lack of closer treatment of the purely military aspects.

Donal O’Carroll


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