Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2023), Volume 31

Joe Culley

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Everything you know about the siege of Derry is wrong. For instance, it’s not entirely clear whether there were any apprentice boys at all. Yes, there were a handful of youths who initially shut the gates, some of whom might have been apprenticed at the time—but maybe not. They had, however, been encouraged by officials to shut the gates against the king’s (Catholic) troops, who were coming, rumour had it, to massacre them.

‘In essence a rebellion was incited by the city elders so that they could, if need be, say at a later date that they took no part and could not control these young men whose names they could say they did not know.’

The first thing to say about Piers Wauchope’s The siege of Londonderry is how beautiful the writing is. Although it looks and smells like a heavy academic tome—and it is important to emphasise that the scholarship is fresh, impeccable and ground-breaking—the prose is so clear and stylish that you are caught up immediately. The tone is set from the start: how many academic studies open with a two-page list of the ‘dramatis personae’? It’s almost an adventure story.

And to what personae are we treated! For example, James Gordon, the ‘charismatic but occasional Presbyterian minister of Glendermot’, was ‘a complete rogue and, in Scotland, a notorious reprobate’. He had been excommunicated for ‘rapt’—which, unfortunately, is exactly what you suspect—and then reinstated in a different ministry, from which he was dismissed for ‘swearing, drinking … and lying’. He then got another religious post, from which he was again excommunicated for fornication with his domestic servant. Then he headed to Ireland.

Or there’s George Phillips, a prosperous Protestant landowner, who ‘although not quite sixty now lived a quiet life at Newtown Limavady, some seventeen miles away, a martyr to gout’. He had received a copy of ‘the Comber letter’, a forgery that prompted the massacre fears, and had warned the city. Nevertheless, on the very night before Lord Antrim marched on the city, Phillips felt obliged to welcome Antrim and his entourage into his home. He took the chance because, as Wauchope puts it, ‘It would be unusual for a man to bring his young family along with him if he intended to butcher his host’. By the next day, Phillips had agreed to serve as governor of the ‘city’ (it was little more than a small garrison town) at the start of the siege, but only on the clear and public understanding that he was, in fact, being held prisoner (and thus might avoid being charged with treason).

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Of course, in truth the siege was one long horror—whatever about the fighting, typhus killed almost half the population and all of the children—and Wauchope, who in the real world is a London barrister, never loses sight of that. He tells the human story with compassion and understanding, but also with a knowing irony and some dark humour. And he is a fine guide through the labyrinth of the period’s complex politics and vacillating allegiances.

As the blurb puts it: ‘Every aspect of the siege is held up to careful scrutiny and retold. The result is an account of the siege very different to any published to date.’ Don’t miss it.

Isadore Ryan’s fascinating, self-published Roman imbroglio: Italy and the Irish during World War Two came through my letterbox just two days before I left for a week in la città eterna, one of my favourites, so I confess a slight bias here. I was engrossed in the detail and kept Google maps open beside me so that I could confirm exactly where the protagonists had lived, where the bombs had fallen and where the safe houses were for those on the run.

At the start of the war there were about 500 Irish citizens in Italy, of whom about 400 were religious and based almost entirely in Rome. Ryan has had access to some of their diaries and letters, and to the archives of the religious orders. He also draws on the large volume of material left by the Irish minister to Rome, Michael MacWhite, by the Irish minister to the Vatican, T.J. Kiernan, and by the Italian minister in Dublin, Vincenzo Berardis. A number of lay people also crop up, including revelations about Charles Bewley, Donal Hales (brother of assassinated TD Seán Hales from Bandon), Stanislaus Joyce, Darina Laracy and others.

One figure who features less prominently than you might expect is Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, in part because his story is familiar but also in part because he was, perhaps, not quite as influential as legend would have it. He did oversee a large network, but Ryan shows how nearly everyone, including the diplomats, was constantly involved in the intrigues. Roman imbroglio is available at

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That one-man publishing factory Fr Thomas J. Morrissey SJ continues his series of short, popular biographies with Judge John O’Hagan: the most estimable of men, patriot, poet, scholar, lawyer. There is, of course, a Jesuit connection. O’Hagan was born in Newry in 1822 but attended a new school on Hardwicke Street that would soon emerge as Belvedere College. A bright lad, he entered Trinity at the age of fifteen and quickly was rubbing shoulders with the leaders of what would be the Young Ireland movement. Gavan Duffy, six years his senior, invited him to become part of the small editorial team at The Nation.

He was a significant figure in the movement in the mid-1840s, yet remarkably this seems to be the first proper biography of the man. He was known for his clear thinking, a facility with words and the rhythm in his poetry. In 1842 he published a poem in The Nation called ‘Ourselves Alone’. But just before things got heated he went to London to study law, and so, despite a distinguished later career, including befriending Cardinal Newman and lecturing at his university, he was somewhat lost to history. Fr Morrissey has begun his welcome reclamation.

(Incidentally, on a side note, a new collection of essays, The Jesuit mission in early modern Ireland, 1560–1760, edited by Mary Ann Lyons and Brian Mac Cuarta SJ, was published by Four Courts last November.)

The concept of popularism, from both left and right, has become an uncomfortable feature of contemporary political debate. Who speaks for whom? In Irish culture and ‘the people’: populism and its discontents, Seamus O’Malley, who has published widely on modernist literature, argues that the idea has helped to shape our literary culture.

‘Throughout this work I pose a series of questions to every text under consideration: Who are The People? To what use is the author putting them? Who is excluded by these two words? The answers have often surprised me, and have varied so widely, that I came away from this project utterly convinced of the emptiness of the phrase, but in some awe of its power.’

In sections, he looks at the populism of ‘the long nineteenth century’, engaging with Edmund Burke, Tone, O’Connell and the Young Irelanders; the Land League is addressed through William O’Brien’s United Ireland newspaper and three novels of the period; Lady Gregory’s and Yeats’s (fluctuating) views are examined; the Irish Press and Ernie O’Malley are studied; and, finally, he posits that Myles na gCopaleen and ‘the plain people of Ireland’ ‘marks the end of populism’s reign in Ireland’: ‘… [his] choice to take on the phrase so directly suggests it had become stale and hackneyed’.

Dublin and the Great Irish Famine, a collection of thirteen essays, originated in a conference at UCD organised by the editors back in 2019. As you would expect, the subject is tackled from many different angles and disciplines. One intriguing perspective comes from Trinity lecturer Georgina Laragy, who examines the issue of suicide by telling the sad story of Patrick Bardin, a public official who lived in the Liberties—and thus among the most destitute—who slit his own throat. Even amid the chaos his death attracted a certain notoriety, which allows Laragy to draw a broader assessment.

Among the essays in Bloodshed and retribution/Doirteadh fola agus díoltas 1530–1700, from the 2022 Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Summer School, is Jim O’Neill’s address in which he argues that, contrary to popular—and even, on occasion, to academic—understanding, during the Nine Years War the native Irish were ‘actually completely “tooled-up” with arms’, and that Hugh O’Neill had built a force ‘that relied on firearms as the mainstay of combat power’. Elsewhere, school stalwart John McCafferty tells the story of beatified martyr Bishop Cornelius O’Devaney, while Coleman Dennehy examines the period from the intriguing perspective of criminology. More information, and the book, is available at

Rail enthusiast and popular historian Chris Larkin has put together the entertaining West Cork Railways: birth, beauty and betrayal. Although it would be unfair to call it a ‘picture-book’, it is primarily heavily illustrated, not least by some of the author’s own photos and poetry. No doubt Larkin fully appreciates the irony that he spent some of his working life with Ford, and he emphasises the tragedy that the line closed in 1961 not so long before EEC membership might have changed our transportation policy.

Piers Wauchope, The siege of Londonderry (Four Courts Press, €45 hb, 224pp, ISBN 9781801510622).

Isadore Ryan, Roman imbroglio: Italy and the Irish during World War Two (self-published, €26 pb, 350pp, ISBN 9781788462761).

Thomas J. Morrissey SJ, Judge John O’Hagan: the most estimable of men, patriot, poet, scholar, lawyer (Messenger Publications, €19.95 pb, 120pp, ISBN 9781788125963).

Seamus O’Malley, Irish culture and ‘the people’: populism and its discontents (Oxford University Press, £70 hb, 304pp, ISBN 9780192858412).

Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, Ciarán McCabe and Ciarán Reilly (eds), Dublin and the Great Irish Famine (UCD Press, €30 pb, ISBN 781910820773).

Brian McAuley and Tony Lenihan (eds), Bloodshed and retribution/Doirteadh fola agus díoltas 1530–1700 (Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Summer School, available at

Chris Larkin, West Cork Railways: birth, beauty and betrayal (Mercier Press, €25 hb, 180pp, ISBN 9781781177761).


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