Tom Williams has a new Burke book out and he’s here to give us some background on the subject matter.
Ask English people about our country’s uncomfortable relationship with Ireland and they’ll talk about the Troubles. Ask them about the history and they might mention Partition and the potato famine. There’s a vague feeling that the English weren’t too popular with many of the locals when William of Orange was on the throne. Overall, it’s fair to say that the English think that the Irish are notable for being able to hold a grudge for a very long time and probably for not being grateful enough for the substantial flow of subsidies westward across the Irish Sea.
In fact the grudge goes back much further than William of Orange – at least as far as the Civil War where Oliver Cromwell is believed to have been responsible for fighting that led to the deaths of 20% of the population. (The figure is disputed but not unrealistic.)
Having chosen to back the Royalist cause in the Civil War, the Irish went on to back the Jacobites after the Glorious Revolution. This led to War with William of Orange, another dramatic defeat (notably at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690) and over two centuries in which the majority Catholic population of Ireland was subordinated to Protestant rule, backed by England.
But can the Troubles really be explained by events over 200 years earlier? Sadly, British military activity did not end with William of Orange. Which brings us to my latest book about James Burke, Burke in Ireland.
Burke in Ireland came about because I was looking for a plot and a writer friend said that she had started researching Ireland in the late 18th century and decided not to write about it, but she felt there was material there I could use. So I looked at some of the stuff she had come up with and decided that Ireland at the time was a hotbed of plotting and spying and James Burke would fit right in. (The real James Burke was Irish but there is no evidence that he ever did any undercover work there. In fact, when this story starts, the real Burke was still in the West Indies, though he was to return to England very soon.)
The trouble was that the more I researched English policy and the way it was enforced, the more uncomfortable I became. The English used brutality and torture to suppress the local Catholic population. Trials were a sham, held by blatantly biased judges and carefully picked juries. Taxes bore down unfairly on Catholics and, although there were the beginnings of improved political rights, they were still excluded from power. English rule in Ireland was cruel and corrupt. The result was to be an armed uprising in 1798.
This is not to say that the Irish Catholics were saints. There were elements in the Catholic population plotting to support a French invasion which would have put French armies in a position to land anywhere along the west coast of Britain. Irish Nationalists would strike against Protestant landowners in the countryside where the English Army was spread thinly.
The country was in state of what we would nowadays call insurgency, and as with modern insurgencies this was not pretty.
James Burke’s mission to Ireland is his first excursion into espionage and he doesn’t like it. He finds himself destroying the lives of innocent (or relatively innocent) people to support a policy that he has little sympathy for. He can justify his actions to himself on the grounds that he is defending Britain against a French invasion via Ireland and that, vicious as the English methods are, those of the Nationalists can be just as violent.
I generally like to keep the Burke books quite light-hearted. There is violence and sometimes a political sub-plot hidden away, but they are intended primarily as entertaining adventure stories. And Burke in Ireland is certainly an adventure story and, I hope, entertaining. But it is notably less light-hearted. Researching the book, I learned a lot more about the history that underlay the Troubles. As Ireland, and the consequences of Partition, look set to once again become an important political issue, it’s worth having some idea of what was going on on the island of Ireland back at the end of the 18th century. Burke in Ireland is, first and foremost, a spy thriller. But if it gives some idea of the history of the time that, as far as I am concerned, is a definite bonus.
Tom Williams used to write books for business. Now he writes historical novels and contemporary fantasy, which are generally more grounded in reality than the business books. The stories have given him the excuse to travel to Argentina, Egypt and Borneo and call it research.
Tom lives in London. His main interest is avoiding doing any honest work and this leaves him with time to ski, skate and dance tango, all of which he does quite well. In between he reads old books and spends far too much time looking at ancient weaponry.
Tom’s blogs appear regularly on his website, https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk where you can also find details of all his books. You can follow him on Twitter as @TomCW99 or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams).