Book Review: ‘Swords Around the Cross’


Many thanks to Jaykay for this very interesting book review:

“Swords Around The Cross”
Timothy T. O’Donnell S.T.D., President, Christendom College VA
2001, Christendom Press, Fort Royal, VA

I first became aware of this book some months ago due to the posting about it on Shane’s blog. I indicated interest, and having failed to source it through Amazon Shane kindly forwarded other sellers to me. I finally received it, some 4 weeks later in March. Shane had asked me if I would do a review of it and I agreed: too long an interval later, here it finally is. Cunctando regitur mundus and all that (or at least that’s my excuse!).

Anyway, the reason I had indicated interest is that, although I studied history at school and initially at University, the courses we followed covered the 18th to 20th centuries, except for the first year or so of secondary school, and so my knowledge of the 16th and 17th centuries is woefully sketchy. I must also confess that, in relation to Irish history of this period, there was a major “turn-off” factor as well: it just seemed to comprise an endless series of hopes raised and dashed, followed by crushing defeats and the reduction of the Gaelic Irish to virtual slavery in their own land. Not to mention the truly dreadful quality of the books we were required to use (thank you, Folens) circa. 1972/3. However I always realised that turning my back on this period was not a very healthy view, since one has to examine the past in detail to understand the present, and that I was always going to have to grasp the nettle in some way at some time or other. So the notice of this book on the blog seemed to provide the opportune moment to fill-in, or at least to commence the bridging of, that gap that I had left yawning (in both senses) for far too long.

The sub-title is “The Nine Years War, Ireland’s defence of faith and fatherland 1594-1603”. Straight away, I would have to say that the use of “faith and fatherland” sets certain alarm bells ringing. Anyone who has studied history at third level would have, to a greater or lesser extent, absorbed the modern attitude by which such subtitles seem absurdly dated, redolent of our “backward” past: comely maidens, “Our Boys” and DinJo. And Prof. O’Donnell from the very start is unapologetic that his aim is to present something of this long-buried strain, as he puts it: “I am writing in what has been described by some as the ‘nationalist tradition’. In this age of deconstructionism and the cult of the anti-hero, I am well aware that such an approach will be out of favor in certain scholarly circles… Many have sought a reinterpretation of Irish historiography which often times has been described as too ‘patriotic’ and too ‘clerical’ i.e. too nationalistic and Catholic… I am also writing as a Catholic historian…” Well, there goes any chance of a good review in the Irish Times!

Having thus forthrightly set out this stall, though, Prof. O’Donnell makes it clear that his primary aim is to present the Nine Years War and the roles of O’Neill and O’Donnell as an intrinsic part of the Catholic Reformation and of major importance in the European religio-political power struggles at the time, and to rescue this war from the common perception (due to the influence of what Belloc termed the “Elizabethan myth”) that it was a mere sideshow in an uncivilised backwater to the main events in the real world of England and Europe. Far from that, he argues that “it was during this period that Ireland once again entered into the mainstream of European thought… And in fact he illustrates throughout that both leaders were deeply conscious of how they were fighting for religious liberty and specifically freedom to practice the Catholic faith unhindered, which demands formed a constant part of their negotiations with the Crown throughout this period and are explicitly stated in their fairly extensive correspondence with Philip II of Spain. While to some eyes the title “faith and fatherland” may seem like Dark Ages (another myth, that) stuff, nevertheless as far as the Catholic Irish protagonists were concerned that is exactly what they were fighting for. The book, then, although not exactly a hagiography of the two Earls, centres around them and their personalities to a great extent, and since both were sympathetic figures, even to our modern eyes, this makes for a moving narrative.

To the question of whether this book provides any new insight into that key period of Irish history I suppose I would have to reply: “I’m really the wrong person to ask, for reasons stated above, but, ummm, no, probably not”. That is, while stressing my own lack of expertise in this period, I can’t see that there is any new scholarship as such, apart from what may be a refreshingly challenging standpoint by modern standards. For example, very few of the works in the bibliography are modern works i.e. written since 1980, while the text quotes liberally from 19th and early 20th century writers. Frankly, this can make it drag a bit in places. And while respecting the fact that Prof. O’Donnell is not an historian, he frustratingly refers in passing to modern scholarship which he has obviously consulted, such as G.A. Hayes McCoy’s military history of Ireland published in 1990, yet then fails to quote from it. For example, almost the entire description of the crucial Battle of the Yellow Ford is reprinted from John Mitchel’s book dating from 1868. Now since “Swords around the Cross” largely concerns the battles of the Nine Years War, one would have thought that the most modern accounts would have been better. That said, the description of Kinsale is an improvement, as it is just straight narrative in his own words with Hayes McCoy’s work referenced in footnotes, although O’Faoileáin’s “The Great O’Neill” dating from 1942 also features in them (as it does throughout).

So, a relatively mixed bag overall. I did enjoy this book, and would class it as a useful primer for those who either need to educate themselves from the beginning about the period or, like me, brush-up on things long forgotten and/or incompletely learned.

Now, as to the contention that this war was of European importance, I think Prof. O’Donnell has actually illustrated this well. For example, as he points out in the introduction: “Virtually all the great powers and key figures of the age were involved in the conflict… Elizabeth, Philip II and III, Henry IV, James VI, Popes Gregory XIV, Clement VIII, Paul V.. The finest of England’s soldiers served…This war demanded intricate and complex strategies…” He then states: “The continental impact of the war has never been adequately studied. It most certainly hurt the Protestant cause… Elizabeth, the champion of Protestantism, was unable to render viable assistance to her allies [due to the serious drain of the Irish war which almost bankrupted her]… the maintenance of Belgium as a Catholic country was due in part to the Irish wars”. He admits that far more serious research is necessary on this aspect, which lies beyond the scope of the book. Pity, but then he is not an historian.

The book brings out clearly how the suppression of the Catholic religion was strongly resented and how much both Earls considered this identity to be bound up with being Irish. Not a popular viewpoint today, of course, but that is to anachronistically impose our views across four centuries – a reverse colonisation of a sort? However, the savagery employed by the Crown forces, of an almost racist character, cannot be overlooked and was a major contributory factor to that burning resentment. This savagery even extended to the Spanish allies at times, for example the massacre by the “fierce Puritan” Lord Deputy Grey, using a false flag of truce, of 700 surrendered Spanish soldiers and including several pregnant women at Golden Island during the Earl of Desmond’s rebellion in 1580. What followed was a deliberately induced famine in Munster that killed thousands, a tactic the English repeated during the eponymous war itself.

It is clear that O’Donnell and O’Neill were a consciously Catholic confederacy, dedicated to restoring the Church in Ireland, as their correspondence with European rulers shows. The famous Spanish archives show that in 1593 a memorandum to the King from his civil servants on foot of these letters pointed out that the Earls had: “united and combined in a league… the Catholics of Ireland.. for the purpose of [taking] up arms on behalf of the Catholic faith… against the English heretics”. And in case this might be construed as overwrought Spanish wishful thinking O’Neill and O’Donnell themselves used exactly these terms in a letter, speaking of: “… a cause so pious and just, namely the asserting of Catholic liberty and delivering our country from the yoke of wicked tyrants…and crush[ing] utterly the agents of Satan’s wrath…”. Not exactly an ecumenical age, then.

As a result of the success of their campaign in the period up to 1599, even in the Anglo-Irish towns Catholicism, never buried but strongly suppressed, flared again, with the Anglican Archbishop of Cork complaining in 1595 that the Mayor of the City refused to attend the reformed services and four other prominent citizens refused to become Mayor on religious grounds. There is a fascinating description of what monastic life must have been like in those many ruined monasteries one sees all over Ireland, and a valuable insight into the richness of the Irish Church in areas untouched by the Crown even in this challenging period. As late as 1600 the Franciscan friary in Donegal town, by the testimony of Father Mooney the sacristan which is worth repeating: “… consisted of forty brethren, by whom the divine office was sung day and night with great solemnity. I had charge of the sacristy and I had in it forty priests’ vestments with all their belongings; many of these were of cloth of gold and cloth of silver, some of them interwoven and wrought with gold ornaments; all the rest were of silk. We had, moreover, sixteen large chalices of which two only were not gilt. And we had two ciboriums for the Blessed Sacrament. The church furniture was very respectable. The windows were all glazed”. All that in a relatively poor and remote area; what must the churches in the bigger towns have been like before the spoliation? Oh for a time machine!

To conclude, the humiliation of Essex was the high-water mark of the victories gained by the two Earls. After this, with the arrival of Mountjoy, a far better general than Essex (not difficult, it appears), and the commitment by the Crown of resources of soldiers, supplies and money on an unprecedented scale, the story goes rapidly downhill, to the tragedy of the battle of Kinsale (although not an inevitable tragedy – if the Spanish had sallied forth, the day might well have been won, as they had fought well and bravely before) and the long retreat northwards, culminating in exile and death in Spain and Rome, where each of the Earls was treated with great honour as a Catholic Prince by both King and Pope.

So yes, with the caveats expressed above, not least my own inadequate historical background, I would recommend this book as a forthright account of a crucial period in Irish history, the turning point in the conquest of Gaelic Ireland and the beginning of its subsequent precipitous descent into the abyss. As I said, a primer, not a scholarly resource as such, but then it doesn’t really pretend to be that. Perhaps Prof. O’Donnell’s work will encourage other scholars to undertake that important research on the wider dimensions of this little-understood War. In fact, given that the book was written in 2001, maybe that has already happened? I would certainly be encouraged to read anything further if it has, and in no small way this book has encouraged me to do do.

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Posted on May 18, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this … makes me want to go and re-read Maurice Walsh’s classic novel set in that time ‘Blackcock’s Feather’

  2. Hi, Jaykay. Great review — I must seek out this book.

    I totally agree with your remarks on the ‘turn-off factor’ regarding this period of Irish history; it’s just so frustrating and depressing. What a lot of ‘might-have-beens’ . . . !

    If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, might I recommend “The Battle of Kinsale”, a collection of essays edited by Dr HIram Morgan of UCC, published by Wordwell Books in 2001? It’s the proceedings of a conference held in Kinsale to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Battle of Kinsale, and I think you’d find quite a lot of interesting stuff in it.

  3. Hi Shane,
    sorry to hear you’ve been having problems with your computer.
    Since I posted the comment, I’ve actually gone and re-read Blackcock’s Feather. It is truly a wonderful novel … and my opinion has nothing to do with the fact I did it for the intercert so many years ago and re-reading it now is like re-visiting my childhood!

    • Fr. Levi: yes indeed, it was on the Inter Cert course for me as well. Andrea Ferrara and all that! I seem to remember a stirring action passage around the gates of Sligo. Lord, it’s almost 40 years ago (sigh).

      Mimi: thank you very much. I’ve made a note of that.

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