Entertainment Books

Sunday 27 May 2018

Review: History 1798: Tomorrow the Barrow We’ll Cross Joe Murphy

Liberties Press, pbk, €13.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Joe Murphy spent more than two years researching his novel on the rebellion of 1798, perusing manuscripts, maps and memoirs. The result is an epic novel of battles in Co Wexford.

Loyalist pitchcapping, hanging and burning are rampant, with tenant farmers and ploughboys becoming rebels against the crown.

Despite the battles, a love story unfolds between landed Catholic Dan Banville and wealthy Protestant Elizabeth Blakeley, who can't understand the divisions until she meets bigoted United Irishmen and their even more bigoted women, who view her finery with suspicion and spit when she passes.

The strong bond between the Banville brothers, Dan and Tom, whose family has been torn apart, carries the narrative as they are thrust into the forefront of the revolution.

History novels are difficult to get right as they can seem either too contemporary or too archaic. Murphy's tactic is to stick fairly close to the facts and embellish them with an elaborate style -- a gathering of 20,000 peasants, brandishing pitchforks and slash-hooks and raring to plunge into battle, lends itself to verbosity.

He has a command of battle-speak, horsemanship, and cavalry and infantry distinctions. Pikes and pitchforks punctuate the pages and shear through scalp and skull.

The stink of black powder, the stench of innards and the screams of the dying come with the novel's battle territory.

With his descriptions of battles at Oulart Hill and Forth Mountain, the word "cinematic" springs to mind.

The heroes are certainly there. We've read about them in history books but never seen them come to life so much so as in Murphy's saga -- not least the dashing Miles Byrne, who was barely 18 in 1798 and who lived to tell tales well into his 80s.

Marlene Lyng

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