Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

University College Dublin Press

ISBN 9781906359836

Reviewed by
Martin Mansergh

Few past military leaders are associated with melodies still played today. Handel’s glorious See the conquering hero comes was written in 1747 in honour of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s ruthless suppression of the Jacobites. Marshal Radetzky, who crushed revolution in northern Italy in 1849, was little better, despite the popular Strauss march. Tyrconnell’s appointment by James II as lord deputy of Ireland in December 1686 inspired a satirical Protestant ballad, Lilliburlero by Thomas Wharton MP, still in use as a signature tune on BBC radio’s World Service. The sustained attempt over nearly three years to restore Catholic power and land in Ireland and recover James II’s throne does not make Tyrconnell a villain from an Irish perspective, even if he had a chequered and controversial career.

While Tyrconnell’s ultimate failure to save Ireland from complete conquest by William of Orange would be known to students of the period, he has been overshadowed by the more dashing Patrick Sarsfield, who captured the popular imagination. Pádraig Lenihan’s excellent yet succinct biography fills important gaps and partially redresses the balance.

Scion of an Anglo-Norman family, Richard Talbot belonged to the ‘Old English’, who strove with increasing difficulty to combine loyalty to the king with loyalty to the pope. His brother Peter Talbot, a Jesuit priest, became archbishop of Dublin in 1669 and worked out a blueprint for restoring Catholic fortunes that Richard was to follow. Richard’s military career began in the late 1640s, when confederates and royalists were in uneasy alliance. Exceptionally, he survived the siege of Drogheda. This gave him the lifelong conviction that God was on his side. The officer who saved him was Colonel John Reynolds. Eight years later, on opposite sides at the siege of Dunkirk in 1658, when Cromwellian forces were allied with the French under Turenne against the Spanish assisted by royalists, they met on a beach, and Talbot arranged an interview with his patron for life, James, Duke of York. Reynolds drowned soon afterwards in a shipwreck, when summoned back to England to explain himself. Talbot himself had many narrow escapes, having crossed to England with a couple of others to assassinate Cromwell. Spymaster Thurloe was efficient, however, and Talbot ended up, by his own account, being interrogated in Whitehall by Cromwell himself, and offered rich rewards if he would switch sides.

After the Restoration, York and his circle were at the centre of efforts to reopen the Cromwellian land settlement in Ireland and to retrieve, where possible, the position of Catholic landowners loyal to the Stuarts during the civil war or in exile. Richard Talbot was involved in a lot of intrigues and scabrous affairs with his cavalier lifestyle. Like others, he had to steer a hazardous course, navigating between powerful interests. With growing political hysteria in England about a Catholic succession, he nearly became a victim of the Popish Plot, which claimed the life of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett and indirectly that of his brother Peter, incarcerated in Dublin Castle. In 1681 Richard’s second marriage was to a young widow, Frances Jennings, sister of Sarah Jennings, wife of John Churchill and future duchess of Marlborough, Churchill being one of the key commanders who deserted James II for William in late 1688.

Talbot’s opportunity came with the accession of James II in 1685. Successively, he became lieutenant-general of the army in Ireland, lord deputy, and finally lord lieutenant. He was made earl of Tyrconnell in May 1685, and duke in March 1689 in recognition of exceptional loyalty after James had lost his throne. He began in 1685–6 with purging the army in Ireland, putting in Catholic officers, and then moved on to remodelling the corporations, so that the ‘Patriot’ Parliament meeting in 1689 was overwhelmingly Catholic. Lenihan believes that a crucial mistake was to send some of his army to England in 1688 to help James face the anticipated Williamite expedition, because it depleted its strength in Ireland. The Whig historian and parliamentarian Macaulay depicted the descent of an Irish Catholic army on England as the last straw in a purple passage of racial invective, albeit retrospective, unparalleled in even English histories of Ireland. Tyrconnell was deeply depressed by James’s abandonment of his throne without a fight. That fight was displaced to Ireland in 1689–90.

The failure of the siege of Derry was a serious setback. Tyrconnell threw himself bravely into the Battle of the Boyne. Readers will not find in Lenihan the Orange canard, courtesy of Macaulay, that the pope (Alexander VIII, not Louis XIV’s enemy, Innocent XI) celebrated William’s victory. Tyrconnell was clear-sighted about the limited French support and was initially inclined to negotiate terms. William was in no mood to do so. While Sarsfield’s ride and the blowing up of the baggage train at Ballyneety saved Limerick for another year, with Williamites complaining about the August downpours in language that prefigures Angela’s Ashes, Lenihan considers that Tyrconnell, if he had not died weeks earlier, could have negotiated better terms in 1691. Sarsfield’s priority was to evacuate an army to the Continent. Tyrconnell’s priority was to salvage some of the land. Nonetheless, Lenihan judges him to have been more of a British Jacobite, given that the recovery of James’s throne was his central object, than an Irish Jacobite aiming at recovery of Ireland for the Irish, regardless of who might be king.

Martin Mansergh, former politician and government adviser, is vice-chair of the Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations.


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