The Siege of Derry, by Carlo Gébler

The ancient roots of a modern conflict
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The Independent Culture

I never thought to see, in my lifetime, the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa. But if I lived to be 200, I would never see a united Ireland. There is something about the history of John Bull's Other Island that defies logic, reason and even the laws of historical process. Carlo Gébler has pondered this sad story deeply and thinks the siege of Derry in 1689 might shed light on it.

I never thought to see, in my lifetime, the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa. But if I lived to be 200, I would never see a united Ireland. There is something about the history of John Bull's Other Island that defies logic, reason and even the laws of historical process. Carlo Gébler has pondered this sad story deeply and thinks the siege of Derry in 1689 might shed light on it.

When James II was overthrown by William of Orange, it was in the Celtic fringes that his followers staged the counter-revolution. James's men (the Jacobites) held all the cards in Ireland, but proceeded to throw them away. Things started to go wrong when the city of Derry unexpectedly resisted the Jacobites, who intended to garrison it with loyal troops. When the newcomers were 60 yards from the walls, the 13 "apprentice boys" of Protestant legend seized the keys and locked out the Papists.

There followed a 105-day siege which left about 5,000 dead on either side. James made every mistake in the book: he did not throw enough men into the siege and left the Jacobite besiegers exposed to rain and sleet. He allowed 10,000 non-combatants to leave Derry, which meant the defenders had fewer mouths to feed and formed a homogeneous Protestant bloc, with no fifth column. He opposed the bloodthirsty tactics of his general Von Rosen, who wanted to use women and children as hostages to compel surrender. Worst, he refused to promise Irish Catholics that lands expropriated in the Elizabethan confiscations would be returned to them, fearing that William would spin this as "Catholic tyranny".

Gébler provides a clear and conscientious guide to the complex military operations and to the bloodshed, heroism and misery. It ended in July 1690 when an English fleet sailed up the river Foyle, broke the harbour boom and relieved the city. The main villain in his story is Louis XIV, who provided inadequate backing to James and thus condemned himself and France to an eight-year war with William.

What is not so clear is why Gebler chose this episode, rather than the more important later battles of the Boyne and Aughrim, to illustrate his thesis that the hatreds in today's Ireland are of ancient origin. The failure to forge organic links between this incident and today's "troubles" gives a somewhat adventitious air to his enterprise.

But this book could be read with advantage by know-nothing politicians in Westminster, of whom there are far too many - especially on the subject of Ireland. LP Hartley's dictum that the past is a foreign country has become a cliché, but across the Irish Sea the situation is worse. As has been well said, in Ireland the past is not even past.

The reviewer's life of Bonnie Prince Charlie is published by Pimlico

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