The Year of Liberty: The story of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 Hardcover – 1 Oct 1969
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Top Customer Reviews
The author knows his subject extremely well which gives the illusion that, at times
thye reader is on the spot. Well worth a read.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Thomas Pakenham is a quintessential 20th century Anglo-Irishman, the son of the "Seventh Earl of Longford", an "Irish" title granted by a British monarch for past services probably best forgotten. Born and educated in England he still has Irish roots, including a family "castle" in Westmeath. Like many with his background he still has a genuine interest in Ireland and the Irish. He is an accomplished writer and journalist from a famous literary family. His father was also a gifted writer.
The subject of the book, the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen concerns a watershed event in Irish history with echoes down to the present. Intellectually fueled by Protestant dissenters imbued with the ideals of the French Revolution, with cannon fodder supplied by the Catholic peasantry concerned more with their day to day grievances against the English colonialists who treated them with contempt and arrogance, the rebellion's failure led to the Act of Union which fixed Ireland as part of the United Kingdom until this century. Oddly, it has been little dealt with by Irish writers and has been down-played in 1998, the 200th anniversary of the events, by a timid Irish Government fearful of stirring national sentiments at a time when they are trying to get rid of the Northern Ireland "problem" which has it's genesis in the very ghosts of 1798!
The book, first written by Pakenham when he was in his thirties, is an "academic" history, strong on military facts and figures and based mostly on the story left by the loyalist, colonialist side - not too surprising since most historians rely on the record left by the "official" (winners) sources and narrations from the side of the rebels are scarce - but non-existent. This is the problem with the book. With a little digging and a little more sympathy the book might have been able to explain the rebellion better than it does and might have had some of passion and life which it lacks.
The reader is left puzzled as to why the normally passive Irish peasants rose in fury and in their thousands to strike at their tormenters. There is no inkling of the life of the "hidden Ireland" of the Gaelic, Catholic majority as human beings. We see them only as bodies left on the battlefields, ignorant and ill-led. But this is not the full story. Their tradition of contacts with Catholic Europe, of supplying soldiers of the "Wild Geese" to European monarchs in the hundreds of thousands, the then stubbornly surviving Gaelic culture, and the reasons for their dogged adherence to the Catholic faith are all left unexplained by Pakenham. Without understanding these things a reader can hardly grasp why these virtual slaves rebelled or how their Irishness had survived the centuries of domination so that they COULD rebel. Pakenham's picture is of an emotional mob led by the odd priest here and there. People don't run at cannons on such a basis.
In 1798 they had come out of their mountains, forests and farmsteads in amazing numbers, armed mostly with primitive weapons, to confront the artillery, cavalry and guns of a modern state and its settler militia. Their courage was often remarked by the British military who opposed them and they died in their thousands. There WAS glory in their fight, but you will not find that spirit in this book.
Pakenham dispels many romantic notions about 1798 and this is acceptable because all historic writers should be revisionists. It is well to remember the atrocities on both sides. But Thomas Flanagan in his admirable historic novel, "The Year of the French" managed to keep a balance without dehumanizing the participants. Pakenham could have used some of that spirit. In his effort to dampen popular sentiment about "The Boys of Wexford", Pakenham squeezes the life out of those very real boys. They paid a heavy price, but ultimately they triumphed. There is no retrospective look in the book. There is no monument in Ireland to Pakenham's hero Cornwallis (in many ways a decent soldier) but at John Kennedy's funeral the band played..."The Boys of Wexford". This book doesn't explain why that could happen. Maybe he'll do better in the new abridged edition.
Albert Doyle, American Ireland Education Foundation