'Battles for the Three Kingdoms': A Review by John Bruton

Battles for the Three Kingdoms: The Campaigns for England, Scotland...” by John Barratt  (Sutton Publishing 2007): A Review By John Bruton

Dunboyne, County Meath, Ireland -- I have always been fascinated by the Battle of the Boyne, the last battle in the English-speaking world where two kings confronted one another face to face.

This is partly because the battlefield is in the heart of the constituency of Meath, which I represented in Dail Eireann for 35 years, and is one of the few Irish battlefields with a good interpretative centre. The place names in the field, Roughgrange, Oldbridge, Donore and Duleek are not just words on a piece of paper for me, but evoke images of people and scenes of my own life and of peaceful battles, in the political arena of an independent Ireland.

The battle of the Boyne also interests me because I have long felt that the loser at the battle, King James II (James VII of Scotland), deserves a better remembrance than he usually gets.

James was fighting for a policy of religious tolerance for Catholics, and Protestant nonconformists, as well as for Anglicans. His opponent, the usurper King William of Orange, favored a policy of religious monopoly for the Anglicans, and his victory at the Boyne means that, to this day, a Catholic may not sit on the English throne and the Anglican Church is the established church of England, backed by the state.

So, when browsing in the discount section of a Dublin bookshop recently (an addiction I pursue wherever I am in the world),  Battles for the Three Kingdoms: The Campaigns for England, Scotland...” by John Barratt  (Sutton Publishing 2007) caught my eye, and I bought it.

For an Irish reader, this book is enlightening, because it shows how the famous battles in Ireland, like the Battle of the Boyne (1690), the siege of Derry (1689), the sieges of Limerick (1690 and 1691) and the battle of Aughrim (1691) were part of a much wider war, one waged both at sea between the French and Anglo-Dutch navies, and in Scotland between Jacobite and Williamite armies.

In fact, the last Jacobite stronghold on these islands to fall was in Scotland, at Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, which did not surrender until June 1694, long after organized resistance had ceased in Ireland. Other parts of the conflict in Scotland were the battles of Dunkeld, of Killiecrankie, and of Cromdale, and the massacre at Glencoe.

Questioning James’ strategy

After the war in Ireland ended in October 1691 with the fall of Limerick, an Irish Jacobite army of 14,000 men was assembled in Normandy in 1692, with a view to invading England, and might have done so, if the French navy was not overwhelmed by the Anglo-Dutch fleet in battles at Barfleur and La Hogue.

Irish students will know of some of the leading participants on the Jacobite side, such as King James, the French General St. Ruth, who fell at Aughrim, and, of course, Patrick Sarsfield, the Earl of Lucan (the latter arguably the progenitor of The Wild Geese).

But they will know little of other Jacobite leaders brought to life in this book, like the MacCarthy Mór, who unsuccessfully defended Carrickfergus;Richard Hamilton, who almost persuaded the defenders of Derry to surrender;the Latvian general, Conrad Von Rosen, who took a harder and ultimately less successful line with the defenders of Derry; Justin MacCarthy, who lost the battle of Newtownbutler in 1689; Balldearg O Donnell, who led an irregular force in North Connacht to the end of the war; Roger McElligott, who unwisely tried to hold Cork in 1690 against Marlborough, when he would have been better able to resist in Kinsale; Colonel Bourke, who resolutely defended the fort at Ballymore, County Westmeath in 1691; and King James’ son James FitzJames, the Duke of Berwick (born out of wedlock), who, like Sarsfield, went on to have an outstanding military career in the French army.

While the military judgment of King James does not appear sound in Barratt’s telling, it is fair to point out that his French military advisors did not even want him to fight at the Boyne, but to burn Dublin and retreat across the Shannon. James felt, probably rightly, that his army would have disintegrated if he did not make a stand, although outnumbered and trying to hold a poor position.

Similar considerations arose a year later at Aughrim. Sarsfield did not want St. Ruth to stand and fight there, and favored concentrating on the defense of Limerick and Galway instead, and thereby keeping the army intact. But St. Ruth was worried about the effect on morale of taking such a course. The author concludes that, at the battle of Aughrim, ”the fighting qualities of the Irish troops had come within a measurable distance of pulling off a surprise victory.”

Political attitudes of the time were very different to the interpretations placed on them by subsequent nationalist historians. The author says Irish Jacobites were fitted out in red uniforms, to emphasize that they were the legitimate army of the United Kingdom, fighting for the legitimate King, against the usurper William of Orange. When, in 1692, the French tried to get Irish soldiers in France to wear the French grey uniforms, the author writes, the Irish mutinied “until at length they were given red coats like those they had worn throughout their careers in Ireland.”

John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007.  He is currently President of IFSC Ireland.  A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history.  John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion here for The Wild Geese.


* The Battle of the Boyne and the rise of the Orange Order.

* More on books at WG.

Discuss your experience at the Boyne battlefield

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Tags: Books, Diaspora History, Europe, History of Ireland, John Bruton, Literature, Military History, Opinion, Reviews

Comment by Bit Devine on May 7, 2013 at 2:54pm

And so another book for me to search  out and  add to my collection. There ar many lesser battles fought that rarely are given their due

Comment by Gerry Regan on May 7, 2013 at 3:04pm

True enough, Bit. We hope our fellow members tell us about battles that helped inform their personal and family histories. Have one to share. Have you visited the Boyne battlefield, by the way?

Comment by Bit Devine on May 7, 2013 at 3:27pm

I have visited the Boyne and sent many a client there. It has a certain quiet, purposeful energy there.

As my family comes from So Armagh, Newry & Crossmaglen, my personal family connections are more "Troubles" related than battle related. I still have many a friend who fight the fight, quieter now, perhaps, and more politically than with force, but they stand firm. 700+ years and we are still pushing back. Some day perhaps they will understand that you cannot out-stubborn the Irish

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on July 2, 2018 at 2:00am

When it comes to the North, words fail me.  And it's better that they do!


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