I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Who Fears to Speak of ’99?

Who Fears to Speak of ’99?

Jim Smyth
When I was a graduate student at Cambridge University I once gatecrashed an English faculty reception, where I struck up a conversation with one of the dons. A scholar primarily of renaissance literature, he also had a reputation for knowing something about everything. Asked what I was working on, I decided to test the legend, owned up to being an interloper, and replied “Ireland in the 1790s”. He paused for a moment, then said: “You know I’ve always thought it a tragedy that Cornwallis was not sent to Ireland sooner. It would have saved a lot of bloodshed, don’t you think?” The legend had legs! He was referring to General Cornwallis’s belated arrival on June 20th, 1798 as both commander-in-chief and lord lieutenant of Ireland, just as the most violent phase of the Great Rebellion was coming to a close. And how Cornwallis preformed in both his military and political capacities when he did eventually arrive suggests strongly that the don’s counterfactual speculation was correct. As commander-in-chief, Cornwallis amassed overwhelming force before confronting General Humbert’s army of French soldiers and United Irish levies, crushing it decisively at the battle of Ballinamuck (Co Longford). It is true that after the battle the French regulars were taken prisoner while the Irish insurgents were massacred, but had Cornwallis’s headstrong predecessor, General Lake, been still in overall command when Humbert’s expedition landed at Killala Bay in Mayo, there is little doubt that he would have led the charge west sooner, and less well prepared, wreaking even greater mayhem and costing even more lives. In the aftermath of the rebellion, hot-blooded loyalists and hardline ascendancy politicians lusted for punishment and revenge. Had not Cornwallis by then been installed in Dublin Castle, murderous post-Culloden-style reprisals against prisoners, fugitives, and non-combatants would very likely have ensued. In the event, as Tom Bartlett and Michael Durey have both demonstrated, the lord lieutenant restrained the loyalist ultras and prevented an all-out orgy of executions by courts marshal. Meanwhile, in the political sphere he, his chief secretary, Castlereagh, and prime minister Pitt sought (forlornly as it turned out) to conciliate the Catholic majority by coupling Catholic emancipation with the projected act of union. Many professional historians consider counterfactual history a trivial pursuit, and they have a point. Counterfactuals, especially the further they stray chronologically from the initial “what if?” question, can all too easily lapse into ungrounded speculation. However, the…



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