Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Flagging The Past

The Irish Times flagged up a controversy recently that relates directly to the Battle of the Boyne site.

The Republic of Ireland’s flag, the tricolour of green, white and orange, was placed on top of the remains of the Obelisk monument at the battle site by an unknown person. While the flag flies on private property, the site has of course strong historical links to the Orange Order in Northern Ireland.

The plot thickens with the information that a planning application is currently being assessed to erect a replacement monument on the site. The application is from the Boyne Foundation which is supported by the Orange Order. The monument itself, which stands where William of Orange would have encamped before the battle of the Boyne, was blown up in 1923 just after the foundation of a Southern Irish state.
This has caused great local controversy but not with whom you’d think.

In fact, it’s local county councillor Frank Godfrey who has spoken out against the flying of the Irish flag. “I have no problem with flying the tricolour. But this one is sending out the wrong message, it could be seen as antagonistic. With the peace process, we are trying to promote friendship and goodwill. If someone put a Union Jack at Kilmainham Gaol there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t feel too happy about it.”

It’s a strong indicator of how attitudes have changed in the South towards both Northern Ireland and the Battle of the Boyne when you have an Irish politician speaking out against the flying of the Irish flag on a battlefield site.

Still it would be interesting to find out who put the flag up and why.

You can read more on this story here.

Visualising a Battle Scene

This is a terrific reconstruction of the fighting at Oldbridge during the Battle of the Boyne. It’s part of the audio-visual display at the battlefield visitor centre and an accurate televisual representation of battles in the later seventeenth century.

The Battle of the Boyne from Lee Cronin on Vimeo.

But what happens in it is from the imagination of the director, Lee Cronin, and not mine. If I watch it before writing a battle scene, is it possible to not be overly influenced by his imagination? In fact, can I write that scene without seeing it purely through the director’s eyes?

Actually I’ve found it more useful to watch fight scenes from later historical periods, it’s much easier to separate from them than something directly related to the era you’re writing about. For example I found the Cossack charge in Doctor Zhivago terrifically useful when writing a cavalry scene for my novel. Completely different period, completely different scene but it provided useful ideas on the sounds of horses charging. It gave me the ability to pause in the middle of the action, to study the expression on a man’s face as he slashes down with his sword.

That pause is vital and that’s why I find it more useful to study prints and paintings closely before writing battle scenes. They slow the action down to writing speed, they give you that suspension of time to consider colours and sounds and gestures. That pause allows you to find things you’d never think of straight off.

The picture below is a print but one drawn from the sketches of a participant in the battle. It has an authenticity akin to Robert Capa’s photos of the D-Day landings or as close as you can get for the seventeenth century. Through a close examination of the picture, I picked up on details to use in a skirmish scene that I was writing.

I found details that I could back up, details that would stand out, details like wide-brimmed hats floating in the air, blown off by the chaotic scrum of men and horses. Details that colour a historical narrative.

Details that would set my imagination free. After all, I’m writing a historical novel not a historical treatise.

You can find out more about Lee Cronin here.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The cost of war in the seventeenth century

I wanted to bring your attention to a recently discovered account book delineating the actual cost of war in the late seventeenth century and adding immeasurably to our understanding of the period.

The BBC has highlighted this book in its A History of the World website, a joint project with the British Museum.

The account book was compiled by Thomas Coningsby, the then Paymaster General, both before and after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and allows us a wonderful insight into the exorbitant cost of mounting a military campaign at the time. It is estimated that the equivalent of some £200 million was spent on this campaign.

Incredibly, the book has been lying in storage at Belfast City Hall for the last three hundred years and was only uncovered during recent building renovation work.

Finally it has emerged from darkness and now shines valuable light on the logistics of William of Orange’s campaign to re-conquer Ireland from James II of England.

It contains for example all the payments disbursed to the regiments on campaign in Ireland including the Dutch and French ones and lists each individual soldier who made up William’s army. Intriguingly, it also details payments for intelligence, goods and supplies.

This is really a wonderful discovery for all interested in this period, historians and historical novelists alike!

You can read more about it here and here.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Speculating from the sources

How can historical fiction illuminate the past in a way that academic history can’t?

Does it reach the parts of history that normal narrative history can’t? Is it a valuable addition to history? Or is it a replacement at a time when history seems to be taught less and less in schools?

At a recent talk in London entitled Greatest Battles, which I mentioned in an earlier post, writers of historical fiction pondered these questions.

Simon Scarrow, author of the Eagle series called historical fiction ‘speculating from the sources.’ He was however at pains to point out how he adhered to the sources, how that made his novel more authentic, in this example his new series of Waterloo novels. He also stressed how important it was to mention any deviations made from published sources or generally accepted views.

Conversely, Saul David, a historian who has recently written a historical novel relished what he called ‘the freedom to go beneath the skin’ of a historical period, something not allowed him in his academic career. He found history to be a loose framework for his fiction rather than a straitjacket.

Where both Scarrow and David agree is in making the story and characters paramount but differed considerably on how much latitude is acceptable in dealing with historical events.

So then how far can you stray from the historical narrative when you’re a historical novelist?