Classic Books

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Eoin Purcell

A re-enactment of The Battle of Stamford Bridge

A re-enactment of The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Complex stories
One of the battles that has most fascinated me over the years has been King Harold Godwinson of England’s victory over the forces Norwegian force of King Harald Hardrada and Earl Tostig Godwinson (that’s right, Harold’s brother) at Stamford Bridge (that link will take you to Wikipedia, but this one for the UK Battlefield Resource Centre is excellent as well). The battle did not go well for the Norwegians. Google Books has a great account of the battle here in The history of England from the earliest times to the Norman conquest by Thomas Hodgkin.

What has always amazed me about that battle and the characters involved is that in Harold Godwinson we have on the one hand the known villain of subsequent (and of the contemporary) propaganda especially the amazingly effective Bayeux Tapestry (a quite incredible piece of public propaganda which is well worth visiting). Harold has come down by the victor of the Battle of Hastings word as an oath breaker.

Because of that twist of faith, we don’t remember Harold’s own victory at Stamford or the fact that he was seen by many Saxons as England’s bulwark against Norman influence. What’s more because of Hastings, we don’t hear the story of the brother’s Godwinson or indeed of Harald Hardrada who as the link above makes clear had a fascinating life himself.

All told, Stamford Bridge and the ignored heroism or at the very least success if you will of Harold reinforces for me the sense that very often history recalls not the reality of a persons life but only the most resonate aspect of it, that events which have relevance are often overshadowed by subsequent less important but better recorded happenings.

Enjoy the weekend!
Eoin

John Quincy Adams Lives … (Vicariously Through Twitter)

Eoin Purcell

What a very cool project by the Massachusets Historical Society to reproduce a line a day from the diary of John Quincy Adams on Twitter: beginning with his journey to Russia on 5 August 1809. They also have a site dedicated to the journals. Today’s line:

8/12/1809: Calm morning, and stiff head breeze all the rest of the day. Lat: 43-52. Read lives of Lycurgus and of Numa.

I have, by the by, inserted links to the text referred to, Plutarch’s famous work commonly called Parallel Lives. You can download it, free, from GBS! How much fun is the internet? Loving it,
Eoin

George Monck, Charles II and his Mistresses

Eoin Purcell

Charles II with thanks to Flickr user Lynn (http://www.flickr.com/photos/apophysis_rocks/)

Charles II with thanks to Flickr user Lynn (http://www.flickr.com/photos/apophysis_rocks/)

I studied the restoration of Charles II during my Masters research. My focus was on George Monck, by far the most interesting character in my mind, maybe because he seems something of a silent type who when he acts, acts decisively. I also believe that his actions were never as clear as history now suggests them to be, for instance I suspect that had the situation presented itself differently, he might well have made himself king or Lord Protector, rather than facilitating the return of the Stuarts.

In any case I write this for two reason. Wonders & Marvels has a Merry post about Charles II and his string of mistresses written by novelist Susan Holloway Scott and it got me to thinking and searching the web for material on Monck which resulted in discovering this site which is planning to Monck’s Observations upon Military & Political Affairs.
As per usual though little searching on Google Books and the disappointing result is that although copies have plainly been scanned and although the book is WELL out of copyright, it is not available for full view. A real shame.
Eoin

1798: The bloody & failed Irish republican revolt

Eoin Purcell

1789: The 14th July, Bastille Day
Maybe it is the old style liberalism in me but, being deeply suspicious of it, I have never been a fan of radicalism of any description. This has pushed my sympathies in some strange directions. In the case of France that has been with the moderate forces during the French Revolution and to some extent the moderate Royalists who in the early days of the Estates General and The National Assembly and the National Constituent Assembly.

I studied the history of the moderate and reformist aristocracy (and there were certain parts of the second estate that passionately believed in change, I must dig out that essay wherever it is) during my third year in University and they proved to be among the most active reformers in the early days of the revolution, pushing for radical reform and the type of moderate limited monarchy that most liberals would happily settle for and indeed which their close neighbours in England had slowly but surely achieved in the course of the 17th & 18th Centuries (though that development was not without its own fair share of blood).

So the shift from moderate and sensible reform towards radicalism, blood and a spiral of terror that the events of 14th July (The Storming of the Bastille) indicate are a lost opportunity in my mind, not a cause of celebration. To be clear, I don’t blame the citizen of Paris, nor even the less moderate politicians of the third estate, there was sufficient evidence in their eyes that the King and his party had plans to launch a coup, the worrying and increasing presence of foreign born troops was a worrying indicator and the sacking of Necker an equally concern one. There was an atmosphere of distrust that was fostered by the King. But the results were pretty wasteful.

Ireland’s Republican Glory
Much like the storming of the Bastille & 14th July is in France, the 1798 Rebellion is remembered in Ireland as a rather exciting and noble event in Irish history, something I have long failed to understand. The event itself was planned by some high minded people (those behind the United Irishmen) but the net effect of their planning was a violent, bloody and utter failure. It came to a somewhat shambolic end this week in a series of engagements, most notably at Knightstown Bog.

Peasants with little training were thrown upon militia and regular soldiers of the British Crown with some initial success but ultimately savage retribution. The rebellion put paid to Ireland’s Parliament dooming the country to even less self government until the protracted revolution of 1914-1921 delivered a moderate home rule program (again at some cost).

Text From A History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798

Text From A History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798

I often wonder how an Irish parliament might have reacted to the Potato Blight in the 1840s or indeed how a parliament alert to the challenges that faced its landlord membership might have tried to reactivate the economy in the decades following the Napoleonic Wars when agricultural prices suffered so badly due to the increased land supply that had proved very profitable during the wars but now, with the emergence of new grain sources and rapid transport from the US and Russia, drove prices down and increased hardship amongst the poorest, and reduced capital available for investment among the landlords.

How too might a body, without the stains of massacres like Scullabogue or battles like Vinegar Hill or Ballinahinch. While some dismiss it, I don’t think you can validly explore history as it happened without thinking of the alternatives.

All told, I tend to see these periods of radicalism as swathes of history when our worst human tendencies have gained the upper hand and pushed back rational advances until good sense and order has reestablished itself, or more simply, a was eof time, effort, money and a huge waste of lives.
Eoin

The Revenege of Geography

Eoin Purcell

Robert Kaplan Strikes Again
Kaplan writes an elegant and persuasive article about how Geography affects the world! In many ways it is a plea for a realist view of the world:

Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom? And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

What I like about the piece is threefold
Firstly I enjoy his references to philosophers and historians. The philosophers are Isaiah Berlin and Thomas Hobbes, both with interesting and illuminating things to offer reader. And Google Books has plenty items in Full View for both though frustratingly in the case of Hobbes, not a Leviathan available for extract so instead you get a rather nice but non-downloadable Forgotten books edition! Which seems crazy when the base text is well out of copyright!

His historical references are numerous but Mahan and Braudel stand out! One eye opener was Nicholas Spykman (for more on his truly intriguing views here is a very nice overview) of whom I had never heard but of whom Kaplan say:

Similarly, the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia. Before he died in 1943, while the United States was fighting Japan, Spykman predicted the rise of China and the consequent need for the United States to defend Japan. And even as the United States was fighting to liberate Europe, Spykman warned that the postwar emergence of an integrated European power would eventually become inconvenient for the United States. Such is the foresight of geographical determinism.

For another thing
Secondly I like his concept of:

geography in the most old-fashioned sense. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of political science as an academic specialty, geography was an honored, if not always formalized, discipline in which politics, culture, and economics were often conceived of in reference to the relief map. Thus, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, mountains and the men who grow out of them were the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting, were only the second.

And maybe I feel that way because I wish to justify my recent (and fabulously cheap) purchase of Keith Johnston’s A Sketch of Historical Geography which is a truly excellent text worth owning and you can read in the lovely Open Library edition here, but I think there is something to what Kaplan says. Something that informs the rest of the piece.

And finally
I like his closing exhorting for us all to:

learn to think like Victorians. That is what must guide and inform our newly rediscovered realism. Geographical determinists must be seated at the same honored table as liberal humanists, thereby merging the analogies of Vietnam and Munich. Embracing the dictates and limitations of geography will be especially hard for Americans, who like to think that no constraint, natural or otherwise, applies to them. But denying the facts of geography only invites disasters that, in turn, make us victims of geography.

I very much enjoy Kaplan but sometimes I’m left with as many questions as answers with him, not that that is a bad thing!
Eoin

An unknown event: The Irish Convention

Eoin Purcell

theirishconvention
What you learn
Reading history books is pretty impressive. For instance, yesterday as we worked through some issues in an upcoming Mercier title, The Donegal Awakening, I stumbled across a reference to the Irish Convention, a body I had not known about:

The new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George accepted Redmond’s suggestion for an Irish Convention to resolve the problem of Home Rule and to draft a constitution for Ireland within the British Empire. The convention met in July 1917 but had made little headway when Redmond died suddenly on 6 March 1918. Later that year, in the general election of December, Redmond’s party’s representation at Westminster collapsed, resulting in a Sinn Féin triumph.

*

In July 1917 an Irish Convention representing a broad spectrum of interests met in the vain hope that Irishmen might work out a political settlement satisfactory to all. Here the Anglo-Irish were represented and participated in an attempt to decide the destiny of their country.

*

So where can I read more?
Reading about it on the pages of wikipedia and UCC’s wonderful multi-text project I was intrigued and did some digging, discovering (on LibraryThing) that there is only one text published on the Convention. That is R.B. McDowell’s The Irish Convention 1917-18.

So unless you want to dig into the bowels of Abebook and pay for postage as well as the book, you can’t. Though maybe the libraries …

Overall this little tale just serves to remind us how the real story of our history is yet to be properly told and popularly.
Eoin

Arthur Griffith: The Free State's Lost Leader

Eoin Purcell

Arthur Griffith arriving at Earlsfort Terrace. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Arthur Griffith arriving at Earlsfort Terrace. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.


**
Ourselves Alone
Whereas my last post on Irish history discussed the 90th Anniversary of the first Dáil, and the post previous to that talked about WT Cosgrave, this post deals with a man whose life and views impacted both the career of Cosgrave and the very formation of the Dáil; Arthur Griffith.

In many ways Griffith’s ideas about how freedom might be best achieved for Ireland had a subtle and under-appreciated impact on Irish affairs.

His promotion of passive resistance and the non-recognition* of British imperial instruments while not directly responsible for it, was a powerful force in shaping the policies that led to the first Dáil, solidifying the democratic mandate of the independence movement and creating a moral legitimacy that became difficult to overcome and which was important in swaying public opinion both domestically and internationally.

By creating that legitimacy (which worked on both national electorate and international opinion levels) the Dáil was better placed to act as a national government and to negotiate with the British Cabinet when the opportunity arose. It also gave the republican courts their legitimacy and reinforced the sovereignty of the democratically elected chamber over the military men.

That primacy of politics over military prowess was crucial in saving Ireland from the threat of military dictatorship. The Free State government was briefly threatened by the ascent of Collins, whose position in the weeks before he died was at the very least questionable in democratic terms.

But it was also threatened by the militaristic trend in teh anti-treaty forces and again after the cvil war by the Free State Army as it struggled to come to terms with its relegated position within a democratic state.

But the Free State government had the legitimacy of democratic process, established since 1919 and reinforced by three elections since to back up their position. In many ways, that was exactly what kept the country democratic, that and the steadying hand of WT Cosgrave as discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Some have suggested that Griffith’s contribution to Irish history has been ignored and I think this is to a degree true. His views do not chime with the founding myth of the Irish State, nor was his position on the treaty palatable to the Republican ethos of the Fianna Fail government hat came to power in 1932 and so effectively claimed the mantle of the state and shaped the founding myth in its created image.

Griffith warrants much more academic and popular attention and I suspect that he will benefit from it over the next few years as we approach the centenary of many critical events.

Campaigning? Maybe a little!
Eoin

* Which he did through his writings like: The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel For Ireland
** I found this picture on the wonderful UCC Multitext site, a fascinating project worth visiting.