Tom Williams’s Burke series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars takes the spy James Burke across continents as he pursues adventure, love – and the French. But when it came to sending his character, a historical figure born in Ireland, back to his native land, Tom found himself asking: why write about Irish history?
When I told Historia’s Frances Owen that the next Burke book, Burke in Ireland, was set in the run-up to the 1798 Irish Rebellion, she said that she was very interested in the period as she is descended from a Wicklow man who took part in it.
This makes me very nervous. I am horribly conscious that history casts a very long shadow in Ireland and that it all too easy to cause offence.
Why, then, write about it at all? I’ve actually had to tweak history a fraction to get James Burke there in time for this story. (It’s set earlier than the Rebellion; by 1798 Burke is in Egypt as recounted in Burke and the Bedouin.) The real James Burke was Irish, but at the time this story starts he was still fighting for the French in Sainte Domingue (Burke in the Land of Silver).
I brought him back a few months early on the advice of a historical novelist who had been planning a story featuring Wolfe Tone.
Tone was a United Irishman who was one of the ideologues behind the Rebellion. He eventually arrived back in Ireland too late to join the fighting. The English were happy to sentence him to death anyway, though he died before the sentence could be carried out.
Tone’s life was fascinating. He plotted with the French against the English and he seemed at first glance a great character to build a story around. There were two problems. The first was purely logistical: could Burke be involved in stopping Tone’s plans if he was in Egypt in 1798? I’m sure I could have come up with something, but the second problem seemed more serious and that was political.
Wolfe Tone, even today, is highly regarded in the Republic of Ireland. His politics were in many ways admirable: he wanted to see a United Ireland with both Catholics and Protestants able to enjoy the full advantages of citizenship and freedom from English domination. It was a popular cause, not least because English rule in Ireland left (to put it politely) much to be desired.
But an adventure story (and ultimately the Burke books are adventure stories) demands a villain. Could I paint Tone as a villain without losing all historical accuracy and facing the justifiable anger of those who see him as a hero?
I spent a while reading about Tone, and far too long reading his diaries. The conclusion I came to was that, regardless of his politics, he was a self-aggrandising, pompous man whose death (pointlessly trying to invade Ireland pretty well single-handedly to offer support to a rebellion that had already been crushed) seemed all too characteristic of his life. He was much better at making a grand speech or writing a fine pamphlet than doing anything practical. As a villain he was not only a politically insensitive choice but, far more importantly, a bore.
So Wolfe Tone was downgraded to a supporting actor and the story centres on the adventures of Archibald Hamilton Rowan.
Rowan, like Tone, talked a good game, but at least he stayed in Ireland to take a stand for his beliefs. He was too well-connected for the English to do anything too drastic but they did send him to gaol for seditious libel and his dramatic escape from prison became the incident that I built my story round.
I must admit to painting Rowan unfavourably as well, which may be unfair. It’s clear, though, that while he was prepared to make a stand for the Nationalist cause (for which he should be given a great deal of credit), he did so from a position of privilege. He never faced the sort of persecution that those less well-connected had to live with.
Persecution there was aplenty. English rule in Ireland was a disgrace. Men who spoke out against the English could be arrested on the flimsiest of evidence, tried in courts run by judges appointed by the English presiding over juries hand-picked to sympathise with the government. In those rare cases where a man was found ‘Not Guilty’ he could reasonably expect to be arrested soon afterwards and tried again.
Government troops were often accused of atrocities and torture. Besides the ‘normal’ cruelties of half-hanging or flogging, Nationalists were sometimes pitchcapped, with a cap of hot pitch forced onto their heads. As the cap was removed, portions of the scalp would be removed with it. The more I read about the excesses of English rule in Ireland, the more I was shocked by it.
Burke, as an English agent, was hardly on the side of the angels. The Irish nationalists, though, were not angels themselves – and they were actively plotting with the French against the British. The sad truth is that, as with so many conflicts like this, neither side behaved well.
Perhaps I should have tiptoed gently away to write about a less contentious episode of Napoleonic history, but I felt that if I was shocked by what I learned about English rule, perhaps it would be good for other people to learn it too.
The Irish have long memories, and the Troubles that led to the longest-ever active service deployment of the British Army (Operation Banner, 1969–2007) trace themselves back to at least Oliver Cromwell’s invasion in 1649.
A lot of English people profess themselves shocked at the ability of the Irish to hold a grudge for so long. Looking at the history of the late 18th century made me realise that Irish resentment of the English has been stoked by outrages much more recently than Cromwell.
Burke in Ireland is, like the others, primarily an adventure book. But it is shorter and darker than the others in the series. It does not end well. I hope, though, that people will enjoy the story (it has the usual mix of low cunning and sudden violence and, of course, there is a girl) and that the next time an Irish bombing features in the news, we may have a slightly better understanding of how we got here.
Tom’s previous James Burke adventure was Burke in the Peninsula, which took the spy to Spain. He tells Historia about his research (mis)adventures there in When my Spanish research trip went astray. He’s also written about Researching the Land of Silver, his trip to Argentina.
Detail from image of half-hanging a supected United Irishman: via Wikimedia
Theobald Wolfe Tone: via Wikimedia
Archibald Hamilton Rowan: via Wikimedia
Captain Swayne pitchcapping the people of Prosperous from The Irish Magazine, February 1810: via Wikimedia