Padraig Lenihan. Catholic Confederates at War 1641-1649. Cork: Cork University Press, 2001. xii + 260 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-85918-244-4.
Reviewed by Martyn Bennett (Department of History, Nottingham Trent University)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2001)
Kennedy's book joins a growing collection of brief studies of the civil wars and revolution: many publishers seem to be responding to the modularisation process being embraced by post-16 education in Britain by commissioning studies for the market previously dominated by the Longman Seminar Studies Series. Thus the book joins such useful works as Peter Gaunt's The British Civil Wars, 1637-1651 (London, 1997). The same cannot be said for Padraig Lenihan's work, which is a monograph published within a growing, but still small field. Work on the Irish context to the civil wars and revolutions in Britain is no longer a neglected field. A series of important studies have appeared in the last few years, James Scott Wheeler's Cromwell in Ireland (New York, 1999) is one important example of a military analysis, whilst the recent publications by Micheal O Siochru, Confederate Ireland: a Constitutional and Political Analysis (Dublin, 1999) and his edited collection, Kingdoms in Crisis: Ireland in the 1640s (Dublin, 2001) are outstanding contributions to this important field, into which Lenihan has entered.
In many ways Kennedy's book has a refreshing positive outlook. It begins with the contention that this is a revolution and that there is steady progress towards the dramatic political events of 1649. The book is well paced, with the long first chapter covering the war which broke out in 1642. This leads to the post war political crisis and the radicalization of those elements of the political and military world, which forced the pace of change. This crisis and radicalization is dealt with in two chapters, one exploring the general situation after the war, the other focussing more on the army's role in this period. One chapter is then dedicated to the second civil war of 1648 and a final chapter deals with the revolution of January--March 1649. The written style is particularly praiseworthy, as its intention is to guide a wide readership through narrative and analysis, and in this it would probably succeed. Of course, such a feat is hard to achieve in any single volume, especially so in under 150 pages of text. The supporting material does enable further reading and is well thought-out.
There are issues, however, which could be raised. The book does start in 1642, which is, given changing perspectives over the last couple of decades, perhaps surprising and problematic. The war between England/Wales and Scotland was over and the occupation of the north had ended, but the division between king and Parliament, with which this book begins, was the result of so many repercussions from Scotland's own political revolution, that the start-date can be questioned. The continued low key treatment of Scotland's role in the period, is perhaps more problematic. Ireland does receive better coverage. There is a dedicated section in the war chapter and its role in the Interregnum is discussed, but generally only as background. Thus, the good discussions of the revolution and the civil wars are left in somewhat of a vacuum and it is a pity, given the quality of the text, that the British Isles context is not discussed in similar vein. It would have made for an even better book.
Kennedy's positive tone about revolution is not sustained. Whilst the reader is in no doubt that a revolution was in the offing, the discussion of the nature of that revolution is less positive. The conclusion is perhaps that drawn with some justification, from a Leveller perspective, that Revolution did not live up to its promise; the radical groups influenced the new regime at best tangentially, at worst by inspiring intolerant reaction. Arguments can be raised against the conclusion, and the very rapid explanation of the eventual fall of the republic, could have benefitted from more space and longer consideration. Not all of the roots of failure appeared in that few months of drama. Time allows new regimes space for development and the revolutionary state did not have the longevity it deserved. It is perhaps because of this, at least as much as because of the difficult labor pains, that the republic failed. However, because of this the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish certainly did not receive the bounty of freedom. New chains were indeed discovered.
Lenihan has written a much-needed book. It is the result of years of work, to create not only a convincing military narrative of the wars in Ireland but also a manifold analysis of its form and structure. It will be a welcome addition to bibliographies and perhaps the essential work on the subject.
The book begins with an introduction setting the context for the creation of the confederation at Kilkenny, taking the reader on a brief but effective journey from the succession of James VI to the crown of Ireland (as well as England/Wales) in 1603 up to the rebellion of 1641. The assembly of confederate forces, through the early stages of the war and the logistical support networks in 1641-43, are covered by the first chapter. The development of confederate strategy 1643-47 is explored in chapter two and chapter three examines the financing of the armies from 1643 until 1649. The various strategies of fortification, siegecraft and battle are then covered in three chapters. The context of the military revolution forms an important analytical tool in this section. The book also contains an impressive set of maps, tables, and illustrations that illuminate the text.
Perhaps a main point of the work is to explain the confederacy's failure to secure an independent or quasi-independent Ireland during the 1640s, or to stave off defeat in 1649-52. The failure is apparent. Despite having large forces, controlling a greater territorial area with internal lines of communication as well as having a centralized uniform military and political structure, the confederacy conspicuously failed to defeat geographically dispersed and culturally diverse enemies. Lenihan presents a multi-layered analysis. Part of the problem was political. There was a fragmented political culture in the confederacy that led to conflicting military aims and the placing of trust in inappropriate hands. But there was more to it. Some of the reasons for failure were military and logistical. Money and supplies were not filtered to the most sophisticated of the armies, the Leinster Army on a consistent basis. Other armies could rely upon subsistence logistics, because of their size and lack of sophistication, but Thomas Preston's could not. This hampered the pursuit of an active defensive strategy which would have contained and eventually shrunk the enemies' hold on the fringes of Ireland. The Irish forces failed to redevelop existing fortifications along European lines or to build completely new works. Galway and Limerick were exceptions, but were only redeveloped late in the war. All this despite the presence of experienced officers from the continental wars. Similarly siege warfare was not wholly redeveloped. Lenihan argues that the siege of Duncannon was a modern siege and it showed that lessons were learned after the early siege of Drogheda, but that experience was not well learned and later sieges were considerable less well-organized and unsuccessful.
The sixth chapter seeks to explain why the confederate armies lost more of the major battles than they won. Explanations based on the continued use of the semi-mythical "celtic-charge" or upon outdated tactics involving tertio formations are not sufficient. Far from exhibiting dated techniques, the Leinster Army in particular was a very modern force. Use of cavalry was certainly crucial: although the horse troops were good, the numbers were small and in some cases incapable of effective involvement in battles. Generalship too was poor: inexperience of field command typified the confederate commanders. This resulted in failed sieges, insufficient fortifications, and low quality strategic and tactical decisions. To further complicate the picture discipline and "esprit de corps" may well have been undermined by differing political loyalties between commanders, but also between them and their more radical chaplains, particularly in regiments staffed by crypto-Ormondists. As a result, in a considered and very convincing manner Lenihan explains the defeat as the effect of political, economic, and military factors, and perhaps "small contingencies" exercising "disproportionately large effects" (p. 229).
Lenihan's work is a perceptive and effective study. It places in accessible form both a comprehensive military analysis of this most important of wars and adds to our understanding of the spread of the "military revolution." At the same time the concept of Gaelic warfare is reconsidered and set in to these two contexts. This is most definitely a recommended text.
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Martyn Bennett. Review of Kennedy, D. E., The English Revolution, 1642-1649 and
Lenihan, Padraig, Catholic Confederates at War 1641-1649.
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