Thomas Pakenham is one of the finest British narrative historians of recent decades. Primarily known for his history of late nineteenth century European imperialism in Africa (The Scramble for Africa) and his detailed account of The Boer War, his earlier work on The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 - "The Year of Liberty" - seems to be rather less well known. This is a great shame as in terms of the quality of the research, and the writing, it seems (to this reader at least) to be a book that sits comfortably with his two more famous works.
Pakenham details the personalities, the events, and the historical reality that led to an uprising of over a hundred thousand Irish peasants in late spring 1798 in order to throw the British out of Ireland. The idealism and incompetence of the leadership of the United Irishmen left the peasantry without their "natural" leaders; the brutality of the British and "loyalist" policy of disarming the peasantry, the historical facts of the dispossession of that same catholic peasantry, and the heady atmosphere of the revolutionary years (including two French invasions of Ireland that parenthesise this history: one failure, one too little and too late) all played their part in making the Rebellion almost inevitable. The ferocity of the "loyalist" response gave little hope for peace ever being restored, and it was only the appointment of Lord Cornwallis, and his putting a stop to their worst excesses, that restored any sort of normality to the country.
"The Year of Liberty" is a heart-rending book, the tragic tale of a peasantry forced into retaliating against a heartless and vicious oppression that left them with little choice but to rebel. Armed with Pikes and agricultural implements, and with the guidance and leadership of a handful of more or less reluctant priests, they faced off against the British Imperial State. By the end of the rebellion over 30,000 lives had been lost.
The prose is a model for the narrative form of historical writing; it easily engages the reader without sacrificing the complexities of context, places, personalities or events. Included are some excellent maps that allow the reader the novelty of being able to geographically locate nearly every place mentioned in the text. There is also a detailed chronology of the rebellion, a bibliography and comprehensive endnotes that indicate the rich variety of primary and secondary sources Pakenham has consulted. As with Pakenham's other narrative histories, one can fully appreciate the awesome amount of work that went into this book. It is no surprise that he only wrote three of them over a period of twenty odd years. Well recommended.