Chaps with maps

The Siege of Derry

Carlo Gebler <em>Little, Brown, 364pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0316861286

The themes and events of any epic siege are familiar. Traitors depart from the besieged city; the siegers become the besieged. The prospect of deliverance from overseas emerges; God seems finally to take sides. Meanwhile, rats and dogs must be eaten. Citizens look upon their plump neighbours with a new intensity.

The siege of Derry in 1689 had all this and more. This was where a vigilant Pro-testantism, loyal to William of Orange, resisted and finally triumphed over a popish Jacobite plot; where the Apprentice Boys locked the gates, to the echoing cry of "No surrender"; where the traitorous Robert Lundy left the city and entered Protestant folklore as the ultimate icon of betrayal; where a self-reliant Protestantism learned that it could trust nobody but itself.

Perched on the periphery of Europe, Ireland became momentarily central to the great continental struggle between France and her enemies. James II, seeking to regain his English throne through Ireland, ordered Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, to ensure that all strategic points in the country were held by forces loyal to the Catholic cause. Derry, a city founded on money borrowed from the City of London (hence its official name), was the last major site to be subdued.

The Jacobites were 60 yards from the city walls when the Apprentice Boys grabbed their place in history by locking the city's gates. A stand-off ensued: Protestants inside Derry were convinced their English links would save them from the surrounding Gaelic, Catholic attackers.

This identification of Jacobite with Gae-lic was quite wrong but, as Carlo Gebler notes, Protestant memory dictated Protestant tactics. The siege may have been part of a greater European religious conflict, but it was also a viciously local dispute about land and ownership. Recent history made the stakes abundantly clear. Two thousand Ulster Protestant settlers had been killed on 22 October 1641, when their Catholic neighbours rose to avenge the accumulated resentments of the Plantations. Most who died lived outside walled towns. There could be no surrender in 1689 while such apocalyptic memories reigned. The Derry garrison "unanimously resolved to eat the Irish, and then one another, rather than surrender".

Normally, 7,000 people lived within Derry's walls, but including soldiers and refugees, almost 40,000 faced the Jacobite army in December 1689. They are mostly mute in this book. Gebler recounts the military manoeuvring with relish, but his narrative is strangely short of other voices. Only occasionally does he quote from a contemporary history, or from letters between soldiers and their wives.

In Stalingrad, Antony Beevor allowed the humbling heroism of ordinary Russian citizens to emerge. In The Siege of Derry, the Apprentice Boys are not even named, as if their sole importance were in setting the stage for the great clashes that follow. This is a top-down book, full of chaps with maps launching cannon balls and skewering bodies, sallying forth and retreating, getting lost and regrouping, until it all becomes a little bewildering. The numbers of dead are audited, but rarely their names or professions. You begin to feel under siege from the sheer monotony of the carnage.

This is not to review the book not written, but to lament a missed opportunity. A writer of Gebler's flair, brought into contact with a richer array of sources, could have offered so much more than he does. A more ambitious book, one that risked exploring obscure paths and lives, would have better showcased his talents. Some voices besides the author's own would have improved his study.

Ray Ryan is the author of Ireland and Scotland: literature and culture, state and nation 1966-2000 (Oxford University Press)