17 JULY 1976, Page 23

Across the water

John Kenyon

The Boyne Water Peter Berresford Ellis (Hamish Hamilton £5.95)

The battle of the Boyne, on 1st July, 1690, sealed the fate of modern Ireland. It is, of Course, still celebrated in the North (security forces allowing) as a victory of Protestant independence over Popish tyranny; to Irish nationalists it made Ireland an exploited Colony for the next 250 years. It is significant for Irish history that King William's army had only a tiny minority of Irish in it, and Indeed not many British, the remainder being Dutch, Danes and Germans. But the army of Irish independence (for so it must be called) led by James II was also stiffened by a substantial French contingent under the .iprrite de Lauzun. The episode left an abiding heritage of bitterness and reflex killing Which is summed up in the contemporary ballad:

Let man with man, let kin with kin, Contend through fields of slaughter. Whoever fights may freedom win, As then, at the Boyne Water.

It was not a notable exploit in the history of war, and it made no great reputations for those who took part. It was a straightforward river-crossing in overwhelming numbers, With the day won by King William's decision to execute a slight outflanking movement bY sending his crack Dutch Blue Guards across the ford at Oldbridge, with heavy losses. There was the usual confusion typical of European land warfare at this time, which Only the greatest masters of the field, like Turenne and Marlborough, seemed able to eliminate. Perhaps the most notable single event was the death of William's second-ineommand, Friedrich Herman, Duke of 4chomberg, who in his time had com'banded the armies of France, Sweden, Portugal and Prussia. (He crowned an extraordinary international career by coming to rest in St Patrick's, Dublin.) Unfortunately, King James El wrecked a reputation already damaged by his handling of the English army the previous year. His decision to corn)it a numerically inferior army to battle at this stage was freely criticised, and even more so his headlong flight after the battle, which did not stop until he reached France and safety. Berresford Ellis argues that he was prompted by stupidity rather than cowardice, but the episode remains debatable; something went very badly wrong with James as early as 1687, a character change so marked that it lends some support to the argument that he then entered the closing stages of syphilis.

This is a sound, straightforward account of the whole matter, and apparently the first, if we discount the shorter narratives in Macaulay'S History and Simm's Jacobite Ireland. Unfortunately, it must and will be compared with John Prebble's great battle piece on Culloden; indeed, Berresford Ellis invites such comparisons by even mimicking Prebble's structure: three long chapters, divided into sub-sections each headed by a quotation in italics from the text which follows—often a rather obscure quotation. However, he lacks entirely Prebble's ability to vary the pace of his narrative, and to slot in biographical information without slowing it down. He also lacks Prebble's sense of the dramatic and the tragic, and the ability to involve the reader in the whole history of a nation. The thumb-nail sketches of biography or episodes of recent history which he essays from time to time bring the book to a complete halt. And he muffs some glorious opportunities. For instance, when Schomberg's division marched to the ford of the Boyne they passed the Bronze Age tumuli at Newgrange, the tombs of the preChristian kings of Ireland, legendary dwelling places of the pagan gods. This is yeasty stuff, indeed; what would Prebble's romantic imagination have made of it all ? The account we have here is like an entry in an encyclopaedia of mythology.

This will strike some readers as unfair; it is a major sin in a reviewer to criticise a book for not being an altogether different book. Others will argue that Prebble's sense of dramatic urgency obscures the truth— though with this I would not agree. The point is that in themselves such battles are nothing; they are just a statistic, a result, like 'Arsenal 4, Fulham 2', and in themselves about as interesting. Their significance, as with the Boyne and Culloden, is that they signal the fall of nations, the crash of cultures, the imposition of a new order. The Boyne was a tragedy for Ireland, much more than Culloden was for Scotland. We know from his preface, and from information on the dust jacket, that Berresford Ellis feels a personal involvement with this tragedy. Unfortunately, this emotion does not once come through.