Book Review: The Year of Liberty: the History of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798

The Year of Liberty: the History of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 by Thomas Pakenham. Published in 1993 by Random House, Inc.

 

I have been fascinated by the 1798 rebellion ever since I first discovered the band the Wolfe Tones and realized they were named after an Irish rebel. Needless to say, I was excited when I found this book-two years ago. Please don’t judge me, my tbr pile is at least six hundred books. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it and found it enlightening.

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the rebellion except for Wolfe Tone, but I found that this book is a perfect place to start. It provides a great overview of the situation in Ireland and England in the first chapter and somehow manages to make the confusing events of the rebellion clear and understandable. The rebellion was a disaster from the beginning. It was reliant on the French invading Ireland, but the French were less then enthralled by the idea. It was a rebellion loosely organized by the United Irishmen and the various centers of rebellion were ravaged by spy networks. While Wolfe Tone was in France, trying to convince Napoleon to invade Ireland, the British forces were arresting the leaders of the revolution. However, this has the opposite effect desired. By arresting the leaders, the British forces handicapped the moderate control, leaving the rebellion in the hands of hot heads and extremists. To make matters worse, British used a heavy hand in suppressing the rebellion, implementing martial law, using excessive torture to find the ‘rebels’ and their weapons, and house burnings. Even then, the rebellion wasn’t a well-planned affair at all.

It started sporadically in county Kildare and spread like wildfire to County Wicklow, Down, and Wexford. The rebellions had occasional successes, but their main affect was to terrify the entire country and the British representatives in England. The book makes it very clear that the size of the rebellion and its aimlessness was what made it as successful and terrifying as it was. However, it also contributed to its inevitable defeat. Reading the various battles, attacks, and torments, one almost wants to laugh as it paints a picture of a very black comedy of errors-on both sides. The most outrageous moment occurring when French forces finally land in Ireland two months after the rebellion was defeated. They established an Irish Republic, which only lasted nine days, and brutally defeated the British forces during the Battle of Castlebar. However, this new rebellion was crushed, and the French were forced to surrender. Wolfe Tone was arrested with the French forces who tried to land in County Donegal and was tried by court-martial. When his request for a firing squad was denied, he slit his own throat and died a week later.

The rebellion would provide the British the opportunity to solidify the Union with Ireland, passing an act that was supposed to temper the advantages the Protestant Ascendency enjoyed, but did little. It would be attacked later by Daniel O’Connell in the 1840s, which would eventually lead to Parnellism, Redmondites, Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War, and the Troubles.

Pakenham is a very fair and balanced historian, treating each act of torture and tragedy with evenness. He does not shy away from the brutality of the British forces nor does he pretend that the United Irishmen were well disciplined or a control mass. The entire event has an air of tragic comedy and Pakenham does not fall into the trap of playing that up nor does he ignore it. While the reader is swept up in the craziness of the rebellion, it is clear from the beginning that this rebellion was not one designed to succeed. It is tempting to think what would have happened if the French had landed when the United Irishmen expected, but it may be wistful thinking to assume the rebellion would have succeeded. Pakenham also does a wonderful job explaining why the rebellion still matters and how echoes of the bloody conflict are heard in modern Ireland.

The only weakness of this book is that it doesn’t have a central cast to follow throughout the rebellion. This is mostly because few rebels lived throughout the entire ordeal and the British officers who saw the entire thing were stuck in the Castle. However, as someone who doesn’t know anything about the rebellion, it could be hard to keep track of the various rebel leaders, especially when the last we heard of them was in chapter three and yet Pakenham mentions their execution in chapter six.

Other than that, this is a fantastic book about a bloody, tragic rebellion.

Pros: It is fair, clear, and balanced account. The confusing events are laid out in a logical manner and the chaos and insanity of the times is captured without losing the reader.

Cons: It was hard to keep track of everyone involved in the rebellion.

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