Ireland’s Wars: Scarrifholis

Having spent the last few entries discussing matters in the south and south-east of Ireland, it’s time to head back north.

The Parliamentarian conquest of Ulster had been quick, efficient and brutal. The disparate opposing forces, ranging from remnants of the Scottish Covenanters to Robert Stewart’s Laggan Army, had been largely defeated by the rapid and devastating advance from Colonel Robert Venables and Sir Charles Coote. Only a small amount of positions in Ulster were still in Royalist hands, the largest being the Charlemont Fort.

But while they made not have held much territory, the Royalists still posed a threat to Ulster, in the form of the Ulster Army. Having long been the best fighting force of the Kilkenny Confederation, this army now found itself in union with the aims of Ormonde, even if it was basically operating independent of his command. The Ulster Army had been heading into the south of the country to aid Ormonde’s effort against Cromwell when their commander, Owen Roe O’Neill, died.

That was in November of 1649, and the Ulster Army, leaderless, had been largely paralyzed ever since, save the elements of it thaT had split off and taken part in the war against Cromwell in small units, like that of Hugh Dubh O’Neill at Clonmel.

The situation was not tenable for Ormonde. In the Spring of 1650 he was dealing with a potential catastrophe in the south, even with Cromwell’s departure imminent, and he desperate needed the Ulster Army, still well over 4’000 men strong when they could be mustered, to be actively involved in the war effort, possibly with an assault into Ulster. Such a move would, with success, provide a potent distraction for the Parliamentarians, forcing them to spread their forces around the country to counter numerous threats.

But that could not happen while the Ulster Army had no commander. With the Catholic body of clergy and nobility undermining Ormonde’s appointment choices and policy at every turn, it would be left to the higher-ups of Ulster to decide who the commander should be, with Butler expected to simply provide a rubber stamp to the decision. In no position to refuse, Ormonde was obligated to go along with this, and awaited the decision of a council that was meeting in Belturbet, County Cavan, in March of 1650.

The clergy, army officers and nobility that were meeting there had a difficult choice. Whoever commanded the Ulster Army would have to have a groundswell of support from both aspects of the former Confederation, but would also have to be capable of following in the footsteps of Owen Roe. There was a certain split in the convention, between those who supported the alliance with the larger Royalist cause and those, the hardcore, who opposed the alliance and the lack of specifics on what it would mean for Ulster in the event of a Royalist victory, especially in regards rights for Catholics and land redistribution. It was the Confederation split all over again. The problem was that no one of the potential choices seemed to be favourable to enough of this convention.

The group of leading candidates included Randal McDonald, the Marquis of Antrim, who had been a long time supporter of Cardinal Rinuccini and had the potential of getting members of the Ulster Scot portion of the north’s population onside. There was Richard Farrell, a leading officer who had acquitted himself well in campaigns around the Waterford area late in 1649. There was Phelim O’Neill, one of the original leaders of the initial rebellion, and a mainstay of the fighting in Ulster. There was Owen Roe’s nephews Hugh Dubh, who had distinguished himself in the fighting further south, and Daniel, along with Owen Roe’s own son, Henry. Alongside all of them were numerous officers who had commanded regiments or cavalry units in the Ulster Army. But they all had their problems. Antrim was rumoured to be seeking a rapprochement with Cromwell (which turned out to be true), Farrell did not appeal to the moderates, Phelim did not appeal to the radicals, Hugh Dubh was absent, while Daniel and Henry O’Neill did not have the requisite “cross aisle” support either.

The eventual decision of the council was based more on compromise to achieve unanimity rather than military logic. The chosen man to replace Owen Roe was Heber MacMahon, the Bishop of Clogher. MacMahon, a veteran of the Confederate assembly, was a well respected man, liked by most of the convention, supported by the clergy and considered tolerable by the nobility. The only problem was that MacMahon had zero military experience of any kind, his interest being in politics, not war. He had thus never fought in a war, let alone commanded an army, but his appointment was made anyway, in the hope that he would cause the minimum amount of division among the support base of the Ulster Army. MacMahon is not recorded as a career politician eager for his own advancement, and may well have accepted the commission with some reluctance.

Ormonde was disgusted with the choice, recognising the potential calamity of putting such a person in charge of an important military force. Butler was already beginning to feel that his position was becoming untenable because of such things, but allowed himself to be convinced, by Castlehaven and others, to give his assent to the appointment, which he did on the 1st of April. Keeping the Catholic population onside trumped everything.

MacMahon threw himself into preparations for an assault into Ulster, mustering as many men as he could in the region of south Armagh on the borders of Leinster. He would eventually be able to call upon over 4’000 infantry and 600 cavalry, but they suffered an acute lack of ammunition: the majority of the infantry would go into the campaign armed with pikes and little else.

MacMahon’s plan was good enough really. There were two forces to consider in Ulster, that under Venables, based out of Carrickfergus in the east, and that of Coote, based out of Londonderry in the north-west. MacMahon aimed to get between these two armies and defeat both of them one after the other, taking several vital positions along the way. In order to do that, he would have to march between them and keep the two commanders from joining their forces. On the 20th of May, as the Siege of Clonmel was happening, MacMahon and the Ulster Army were on the move northwards, their first offensive in a great deal of time.

They were helped right from the off, with the Parliamentarians, especially Venables, distracted by Irish guerrilla fighters. Dubbed “Tories”, these descendents of wood-kernes were starting to become a greater and great problem for the Parliamentarians, and Venables was dealing with their activities in the south-east of Ulster when MacMahon was on the move. Another day I will go into greater detail on the Tory threat, but for now it is enough to say they provided a way to keep Venables, albeit temporarily, locked down.

In the early days of the march, things went well. There was precious little resistance, and when the isolated Parliamentarian garrisons gave battle, they were usually just short-lived holding actions. Coote and Venables were caught a little off guard by this offensive, with Coote able to muster less than a thousand men to his command in a hurry, the rest garrisoned in the towns they had taken the previous year.

MacMahon called upon the local Ulster Scots population to join with him, but received precious few soldiers from that avenue. War exhausted and unlikely to follow a Catholic banner against fellow Protestants, their resolve for war was badly overestimated by the Ulster Army. MacMahon had hoped that such local support would provide both troops and supplies, but was forced to forge on alone.

Still, things continued to go well. At the end of May, less than two weeks into the operation, MacMahon achieved his first real martial success when he stormed and took Dungiven Castle, in Derry, after a short fight. Having rejected a previous summons to surrender, the garrison was slaughtered to a man. It was a little taste of the kind of warfare the Parliamentarians had become used to dishing out, and indicated the remaining strength and competence of the Ulster Army, who took hardly any time to swarm over the castles defences. Coote and Venables scrambled to come up with an effective counter-response, but for the moment both avoided rushing in to a premature engagement.

MacMahon still had hopes of getting the Ulster Scots on his side, and spent the next week trying to do so, advancing as far as the position at Ballycastle on the coast of Antrim. Such movements came to nothing, bar fulfilling the need to take crops to feed the army, and to destroy those that could not be taken so they could not feed the enemy. By now the situation was much more precarious, as MacMahon had led his army far from its base of supplies, without ever really challenging the enemy. Determined to do so, MacMahon decided to confront Coote, in and around Londonderry, directly.

Coote and his army, less than a quarter of the size of his opponent, had chosen to stick in the general region of Londonderry, probably reckoning that in the event of a disaster they could flee back to its walls for safety. When he heard of MacMahon’s approach, Coote held his ground at the town of Lifford, 15 miles south of Londonderry. He knew reinforcements from Venables were not that far away, and that any delay he would be able to force on the Irish could prove crucial.

On the 2nd of June the two armies came within sight of one another, not far from a ford over the River Foyle. A standoff ensued, as neither side moved to attack or retreat, and this situation lasted for several hours. Coote had reason to be hesitant, given the size of his army, but for MacMahon there were fewer excuses. He may have felt nervous about attacking given the lack of ammunition he had, but whatever the reason, his hesitation did not bode well.

Eventually giving in to discretion over valour, MacMahon ordered his army to withdraw over the Foyle. Coote released some cavalry units to harass the Ulster Army as it did so, but these were thrown back by a quick and decisive Irish counterattack. With Coote’s cavalry temporarily scattered, it might have been a good time to turn and launch a decisive thrust into the main body of his army, a course urged on MacMahon by many of his subordinates, who saw an opportunity to rout Coote. But MacMahon refused, and stuck to his pre-ordered withdrawal.

Any chance to hit Coote vanished, as the Parliamentarian commander withdrew his own forces behind the walls of Londonderry, which was also drawing in large amounts of the local population, desperate to get away from a Catholic force that brought back unpleasant memories of 1641 and the rampage of sectarian bloodshed that had taken place.

For the moment though, things were safe enough. Any momentum that MacMahon might have had vanished in the aftermath of the Lifford encounter, as he and his army moved into Donegal, to the Letterkenny area, and simply set up camp and waited. What he was waiting for is unclear, as his vacillation allowed infantry units that belonged Venables to meet up with Coote and combine their forces. Perhaps he was simply waiting for the right opportunity, but it seems likely that someone of MacMahon’s inexperience simply wasn’t sure what to do at this point.

On the 21st of June, Coote brought his forces towards MacMahon’s position (Venables himself being absent). The odds were now much more even, with MacMahon having detached a significant portion of his army to go and scavenge for foodstuffs. The hoped for Ulster Scot support had never materialised, and similar ambitions that Ulick Burke, in Connacht, might have sent additional troops came to nothing in the end. Thus, as the two armies made ready to engage each other at Scarrifholis, a hill a few miles from Letterkenny, around what is today the Newmills area. The exact numbers remain a source of dispute. MacMahon had at least 3’000 men under his direct command that day, possibly a bit more. Sources vary over whether Coote was able to match that, or if he was still slightly outnumbered. What we do know for sure is that Coote had much more cavalry, and much more ammunition.

Despite that, the situation still looked more promising for the Irish. MacMahon held the high ground, where his army had been camped. His closest subordinates, who included Henry and Phelim O’Neill, urged him to stay put. If the Ulster Army remained entrenched where they were, the Parliamentarians would have to risk a dangerous assault uphill to try and dislodge them, or simply march away without getting the engagement they wanted. Either way, the Ulster Army would dictate the terms of the engagement (or lack of one).

MacMahon refused to listen, with some alleging he berated his officers for cowardice. Perhaps thinking about his earlier failure to take the initiative, or with thoughts of a Benburb-level triumph in front of him, he ordered the Ulster Army to march down the hill and meet their enemies on more even ground.

That move was bad enough, but it was as deployments were made that MacMahon’s deficiencies became blindingly obvious. A vanguard of musketry moved ahead of the main force as a skirmish/screen unit, but the rest of the Army, near 3’000 men, were all forced together in one large mass. There were few options for manoeuvrability or utilisation of rear ranks in such a formation, but that is what MacMahon ordered. On the other side, Coote, who had been fighting for the entirety of the Civil Wars and whose family had a military tradition, deployed his troops, and cavalry, in smaller separate units spaced from each other, not unlike the checkerboard pattern that Owen Roe O’Neill had used at Benburb.

An advanced guard from the Parliamentarian side meet the Irish between the armies. Musket fire turned rapidly to hand to hand fighting involving sword and pike. Only a few hundred men were engaged, but this would actually be the closest Scarrifholis came to being an actual battle.

MacMahon did not reinforce his skirmishers, unlike Coote, and so the Irish were gradually forced back, with losses on both sides. When the musketeers of the Irish side were forced back so far that they merged with the larger mass of the army, confusion began. Coote moved his units up, and they commenced unleashing devastating fire on the Ulster Army.

There was little the Ulster Army could do. In one large mass, there was no capacity for movement, individual responses from Colonels or just efficient communication. Fear began to set in and the severe lack of ammunition meant that MacMahon was forced to simply withstand the incoming fire without being able to reply. There was no forward attacks, no retreats, no attempts at moving the Ulster Army in any way.

Finally, Coote sent in more infantry and cavalry to attack the flanks of the paralyzed and now panic stricken Ulster Army. MacMahon’s force broke under the strain and a rout ensued.

I have talked about routs and the ensuing casualties before in this series. From what I have read, the severity of the slaughter depends upon four main factors. One, the time of day that the breaking begins, with few pursuits continued once light fails. Two, the amount of cavalry that the victorious side has to engage in a pursuit, matched against their level of fatigue from the preceding fighting. Three, the availability of natural defences nearby, like hills, bogs or forests, for the fleeing force to escape into, as well as the support of the local population. And four, the presence of a strong willed commander, who has the ability to rally his fleeing force back into a coherent military shape.

At Scarrifholis, the time of the battle allowed plenty of daylight, Coote had plenty of rested cavalry, there was no immediate avenue for the Ulster Army to retreat into safely and MacMahon had no ability to rally his men.

The result was obvious. Coote’s men rode as they willed, cutting down fleeing Irish soldiery with ease. There was little mercy shown, not even to officers. The local settlers refused to help the fugitives, and that was when they weren’t actively engaging in the slaughter, revenge for the atrocities of 1641. Many units of the Ulster Army stayed where they were and fought to the death it must be said, but many others could be found dead in a long line headed westwards.

By the time the killing had ceased, the Ulster Army was no more. At least two-thirds, or maybe as much as three quarters of its strength, was killed or, in a minority of cases, captured. The casualty numbers would have fallen somewhere between 2’000 and 3’000 men. It was one of the worst routs the Irish would ever suffer, in this war or in others. The military force Owen Roe had built was utterly smashed.

It was not just the rank and file either, though the loss of such men, battle hardened and experienced, was something that would cripple the anti-Parliamentarian effort as time went. The leadership of the army suffered to a disproportionate degree, in comparison to other battles. Usually in a rout, officers have a greater chance for escape than others. Typically they are horsed, are further from danger than the “enlisted” or, since they are usually some level of nobility, have the privilege of seeking to surrender. At this battle, this was not the case. Nine Colonels, four Lieutenant Colonels, three Majors and 20 Captains are listed as among the dead, as well as many other junior officers. They were the cream of the Ulster fighting machine, men who had come with Owen Roe when he first arrived, leaders and minds who could not be replaced. They included the likes of Henry O’Neill, Hugh Maguire and Hugh MacMahon, key subordinates who had helped make the Ulster Army what it had been.

But there were those that escaped. Phelim O’Neill was one, the 1641 instigator fleeing back to Charlemont, there to await a now inevitable attack by the Parliamentarian enemy. Richard Farrell, heading south-west into Connacht, was another. Heber MacMahon managed to get away from the initial slaughter, but was captured within a week, tried and hung, an ignominious end for a man who had been completely out of his depth. The garrisons that had been placed at Dungiven and Ballycastle fled when the news of the battles result arrived. The Parliamentarian takeover of Ulster was once again secure. While elements of the Ulster Army survived, it would never reform or march again as a coherent unit.

Any analysis of the battle does not have to delve into too much detail to see what went wrong. MacMahon was a military amateur, who had no idea when to take the offensive, how to deploy his troops or what to actually do when battle was joined. He was faced by a man with over eight years direct experience in the war thus far, who had better supplied troops and better cavalry. Though the Bishop’s larger plan had been sound in the early stages, there were so many mistakes and misjudgements that one cannot be surprised to hear about the final incompetence at Scarrifholis. Abandoning the high ground was the sort of error that Owen Roe O’Neill would never have made. The men of the Ulster Army suffered for that, facing their version of Knocknanuss and Dungan’s Hill. Benburb was a distant memory.

For Ormonde, presumably reeling at the news that the best army he could call upon was no more, things were just going to get worse and worse.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Revolutionary Remembrance: Royals In 1916

So, a royal presence for 2016?

On the face of it, having them there doesn’t bother me that much. Whether some would like to acknowledge it or not, Britain actually was involved in the Easter Rising. Their young men died there too.  Not having a representative of theirs present would be as odd as not inviting a German ambassador at a commemoration of the Somme.

But does it have to be a royal? My own distaste for the concept of royalty aside, the House of Windsor, through their matriarch, are the heads of state in the United Kingdom, so they have such an entitlement I suppose (the vagaries of royal appointments as dictated by Britain’s parliament escape me). But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

I don’t usually have much time for the views and opinions of Professor Diarmuid Ferriter. I lost much respect for him during the Seanad abolition debate, when he was one of many peddling the hopelessly naive and misleading “No means reform” position and hearing him say “do we have to share everything now?” in relation to commemoration plans strikes me as rather childish. Professor Ferriter is one of a few historians who seem unduly annoyed at the growing relations between Irish political leadership and the British royal family, dubbing it “Post colonial inferiority complex”, a view point I’ve been baffled by since I first heard it.

But he is right when he expresses fears that the presence of a royal at the 1916 centenary has the potential to hijack the event from what it is supposed to be. The Irish media will undoubtedly choose to focus in on such a presence due to the celebrity nature of the royals, and their involvement will probably involve a greater security lockdown than would be required otherwise. It wouldn’t be the draconian measures that Elizabeth II inspired, but would still detract.

Such a presence would certainly distract from what the commemoration should be about: education and introspection for the Irish nation. Not quite what Professor Ferriter wants mind, which seems to be another tired comparison between the “ideals” of 1916 and the modern political establishment (see the end of this piece for my thoughts on that: should the “ghosts of a nation” be “appeased, whatever the cost”?). It should be about 1916 and what came immediately after. What happened there, why it happened, the truth amid the myths. It should not be about the people at the commemoration.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, the “on the day” commemoration of 1916 will just be the most public side of things, something that I would guess will be little more than an expanded version of the current military parade and wreath laying. That’s fine, if just a little un-ambitious, but will certainly see the media focus on it be warped by the presence of a member of the royal family of Britain. Better it be a representative of the British government (or even its military), in the vein of William Hague, than somebody of the House of Windsor.

But it would be good, and proper, for somebody from the British side to be there. For a rising, there has to be someone to rise against. It isn’t an inferiority complex to accept that reality.

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Review: Limerick vs Athlone (19/4/14)

Managed to make it out Friday night to Thomond Park to see Limerick take on Athlone Town. After a surprise win away at Bohs the previous week, picking up an additional three points against the teams lowest team was crucial. There was better stuff on display that night than when I last got to a game, but plenty to still improve upon.

You could tell the way the game was going in the first ten minutes, Limerick were all over them, floating balls in from the flanks from corners and from a plethora of set-piece opportunities given away by the Athlone defence, that was fouling frequently.  But it seemed like the only time Limerick made something of one in the first half was for the first goal, a decent headed effort from Williams. On the other hand Athlone looked plenty dangerous when they got the ball in Limerick’s final third, even if they were more wasteful than threatening with their final shot, usually off target.

Limerick could have put this game to bed before half time, but couldn’t seem to work enough chances to actually hit the ball at the goal: one shot on target, one just wide and the goal were the best efforts. A lot of times players  - Prince, Hughes, Duggan – would run at the Athlone defence from midfield and just take a few too many touches, and let the opposition defence scramble the ball back. Sometimes they’d work it down the wings, plenty of times getting to Gaffney at the byline, but that usually just resulted in a corner, which was subsequently wasted. That, or they just trying one too many interconnected passes just outside the Athlone box. One time it worked out, and Hughes just blasted it straight at the keeper. A lot of possibilities down the flanks, Limerick just didn’t seem to have the men to take advantage with headers, save for Oji’s second half effort off the post (and the first goal of course).

Ryan was solid in goal, and only had one really difficult save to make in the first and he made it. The backline was mostly OK: Oji was a beast as usual, but the left back position was caught out a good few times, especially for the equaliser, when Dillon was given so much time and space (and not for the first time). Williams had more than one shot on goal, and most of them were very wayward. Seemed like the midfield and even the frontline kept having to drop back to support the defence as the game went on. The midfield was alright, Duggan got himself around, Tracy was busy all night, though his set-pieces could have been a bit better. Prince was decent in the first half but just seemed to fade out of the game later on, and I wasn’t surprised to see him come off.

Gaffney was a workhorse, up and down the field all night, but he looked totally spent with around 15 minutes to play. Good effort overall though, lots of decent passes and inswinging balls from the left. Curran was decent with the time he had, and I could have sworn he was the one who scored that first goal. It was a shame to see him come off so early, and I hope it’s nothing too serious. MacManus had that one moment of brilliance for his goal, top notch stuff to control, get space and finish, but seemed subdued for the rest of his time. Does seem like the kind of player who can turn a game very quickly though, and I think he can make a big impact as the season goes on.

I was in the terrace section, on the other end of the pitch, for the penalty/red card decision. It looked legit to me though, and he had to go if so. Unfortunately it was a weak enough penalty from Tracy, not like him. It would have killed the game there and then if it had made it 3-1, but missing it seemed to give Athlone new life, and Limerick were pressed hard enough for the last few minutes. Gorman should have scored right near the end, and Athlone might have deserved a point if I’m being honest.

The pitch was in better condition than I feared it would be. Not as bobbly as before, some sand placement might have helped, and when watered the ball moved fast enough. There was a lot more mis-control as the game went on of course, and that pitch will never stop being an issue.

Over 1100 announced as attending. That’s not that great really considering it was Good Friday, a lovely evening weather wise and alcohol was available in the ground when it wasn’t elsewhere. The general results and style of play will insure a worsening situation in that regard. It seemed like a good enough crowd in the terrace, Athlone brought around 30 – 40 fans, back across the way after that section had been previously closed. Bit of a quiet atmosphere for the first half it has to be said. It seemed like people only found their voice when Taylor started gesturing at them before the second half began, and the vast and empty space that is Thomond is certainly a factor there. It also seems like there might be some deeper issues between the Official Supporters Club and the Independent Supporters Club, with some abuse directed towards the OSC from the largely ISC singing section. I couldn’t really tell if it was good natured or not, and from what I hear, it wasn’t. That sort of simmering problem could well turn worse as we move forward.

Anyway, nine points got and away from the relegation spots for the moment. That’s great, because there was a creeping concern in the earliest games that Limerick really could find themselves in a race to the bottom with the likes of Athlone and Bray. There should be enough talent in this team to rise above that, and hopefully UCD and maybe a few others as well. If they could push on a get a few points from the next few games, all the better. As for Athlone, I can’t see them staying up. Too wasteful up front and prone to letting the opposition dictate the pace for too much of the game, only coming into matches late on when the task is too hard.

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Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Marvel's Phase Two rolls on with Chris Evans' return as "Cap".

Marvel’s Phase Two rolls on with Chris Evans’ return as “Cap”.

You can count me as one of the people who had a great fondness for Captain America: The First Avenger. I found it to be a welcome spin on the standard superhero film that had been released up to that point, an excellent addition to the “Phase One” Marvel continuity and a damn good World War Two movie to boot. I thought Chris Evans was perfect for the part of “Cap” and his adventure captured the best of the blended genres of comic book and war. It had a great villain, a great supporting cast, and the perfect tone for the title character, as well as leaving off on just the right moment.

After a stopover in The Avengers, Rodgers is back to see if, like Stark and Thor before him, he can make a franchise of his own. Replacing Joe Johnston at the directorial helm are the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, whose mostly comedic pedigree before this (Arrested Development, Community) might have sparked concerns about their ability to handle such a venture. Many see Captain America as, in character terms, the weak link of the Avengers line-up. Are they right? Or is this classic American hero just the guy to keep Marvel ticking over in time for Age of Ultron?

Sometime after the events of The Avengers, Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is continuing to adapt to life in the 21st century, where he struggles to confront an age where enemies and how to fight them are no longer as clear cut as they used to be. After S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is targeted by the mysterious mercenary known only as “the Winter Soldier”, Rodgers is forced to go on the run with fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and aerial combat veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to investigate a deadly conspiracy at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D and its senior leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

As a continuation of the Captain America franchise and, more generally, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Winter Soldier is a success. It has several different elements to it, and most of them intermesh fairly well. On the surface it’s a fairly standard action-thriller, that rises to a higher level because of the competence and variety of its action sequences, from street-level ambushes to the CGI-fest finale involving several helicarriers.

But on a deeper level The Winter Soldier is a more taut conspiracy film, dealing with Rodgers’ procedural-like investigation into some rather unsettling aspects of the S.H.I.E.L.D organisation, many of them surrounding Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce character, whose role and casting is a deliberate callback to 70’s films like All The President’s Men that The Winter Soldier is trying to emulate a bit. Most of this stuff is interesting enough, if not quite Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It is all in a film that matches the typically brilliant pacing that nearly all of its brethren have shared, with scenes of action and exposition balanced fairly perfectly against each other, with the adrenalin pumping beats coming at the right moments and never any feeling of ever being bored (unlike, say, Iron Man 3). This is a film with a production team that is confident in what it is and the messages that it wants to send out, a considered evolution of everything that we saw with the title character in The First Avenger.

The first act reintroduces us to Rodgers, set up his modern day situation very quickly and efficiently, and then gets us up to speed with everything else. Fury, Pierce, even the minor players like Carter and Rumlow are introduced and expanded enough to get by, all in scenes that let them stand out on their own terms. Case in point, Pierce’s first scene with the “World Security Council”, where he cracks wise and defends the record of Fury and the proposed “Project Insight” plan. Such scenes serve a dual purpose. There’s the simple matter of introducing Pierce and making him unique, but also of convincing the audience that he isn’t a threat without it becoming too obvious. The Winter Soldier succeeds in both respects.

That first act rolls on nicely, punch marked with the apparent assassination of Nick Fury (coming after his escape from the first attempt, making it doubly distressing) and Captain America going on the run. We’ve already seen Rodgers out of his comfort zone in general, now everything has flipped turned on him: the American hero is now a wanted man, and it still isn’t immediately clear as to who the real bad guy is, apart from some shadowy mercenary with the metal arm. That kind of set-up can be difficult to pull off, but the Russo brothers did it, with good dialogue, good characterisation, a patient approach (seriously, this film starts off with Rodgers exercising as a means of introducing Sam “Falcon” Wilson, who else would have thought to do that?) and the right action beats: nothing too flashy, but enough to make the audience sit up and take notice.

The appearance of a digitised Arnim Zola leads to the films worst moment.

The appearance of a digitised Arnim Zola leads to the films worst moment.

But then the second act dawns, with Cap and Romanoff on the run, and the whole thing just goes to hell. Because the plot gets revealed, and in the worst manner possible: with the villain narrating it to the main characters.

Here’s the thing about the central premise of The Winter Soldier. HYDRA coming back is hardly a surprise, they’re the standard S.H.I.E.L.D villain. But The Winter Soldier takes the inferred agreement with the audience, that some crazy stuff will be presented that the much vaunted “suspension of disbelief” will have to deal with, and then just runs and runs with it. You can easily get away with a few nonsensical moments in your overall plot, with only a little bit of “fridge logic” stuff possibly ruining it, but The Winter Soldier expects the audience to buy into just a little bit too much. Let’s go over it. We are expected to believe that:

1. S.H.I.E.L.D was OK with hiring HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola to work for them after World War Two.

2. Zola used this situation to implant a HYDRA cell within S.H.IE.L.D.

3. This HYDRA cell(s) grew in power to such an extent that they were able to control much of the organisations direction, eventually coming to be in a position where they were ready to launch a total coup of its operations.

4. HYDRA did the same to other American institutions.

5. HYDRA was thus able to tinker with and alter the unfolding of world history to suit their “More Chaos” agenda.

6. They were able to assassinate anyone who got close to discovering them without suspicion, like Howard Stark (it is implied).

7. When Zola was diagnosed with a terminal disease he was somehow able to upload his brain onto contemporary computers in a hidden bunker underneath S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters.

8. He was thus able to keep controlling HYDRA operations up to the present day.

9. With the advent of social media and extensive online records of individuals, this Computer Zola was able to invent an algorithm that could search a person’s records and use them to determine that person’s future to a degree where HYDRA could determine their potential worth/threat.

10. HYDRA was able to manipulate the creation of Project Insight and its unstoppable death guns.

11. Further, they were able to ensure that such a project had no kind of non-S.H.I.E.L.D failsafe to wrest away control once it had been launched.

12. HYDRA achieved all of this, and were never discovered by anybody in S.H.I.E.L.D or any other institution in the American government for over 60 years.

This is the premise that The Winter Soldier is asking the audience to accept, and its completely moronic, made worse by the fact that the person outlining it is a long dead Nazi speaking through an ancient computer. Additionally, the film to that point had been a deadly serious conspiracy film, with nary a hint of the ridiculousness that was about to unfold.

The answer you’ll often see to things of this nature is to “just go with it”, and some even applaud Marvel for embracing the more silly aspects of the source material (where HYDRA have, I’m sure, infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D more than once and will again). I’m not buying that. There’s no need for such an extreme tie-in to the larger universe, to the detriment of the overall tone and plot development of the film. Pierce and his underlings could easily have been part of a smaller conspiracy to undermine S.H.I.E.L.D operations. They could even still have been HYDRA, just without a computerised Arnim frikking Zola directing their operations from beyond the grave, or with such a large focus (check out the latest Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, HYDRA is everywhere in the organisation apparently). But no, instead the brilliantly executed set-up for The Winter Soldier is largely ruined by this mindmelter of a second act revelation, that doesn’t even seem to have that much of an impact on the later plot, they barely mention Zola again. But the inclusion of it was just too much for me, with the suspension of disbelief state shattered.

(As an aside, I can well imagine that such a plot point can be turned to Marvel’s own purposes, in covering up other plot holes and generally being a catch all for any case of distorted continuity. Got such a problem? HYDRA did it).

Thankfully, The Winter Soldier rapidly veers back to its original tone and level of quality following this moment of superhero insanity. The rest of the second act is largely taken up by some great fight scenes and a much better revelation in the form of Nick Fury’s death faking/the Winter Soldier’s identity (well known to comic fans, but still presented very well onscreen). The stakes are high, but there’s been a great amount of work put in to making this counter-movement, led by Rodgers, into a viable and very dangerous group in the eyes of the audience.

The climax has its ups and downs. This kind of conspiracy film works better with lower-intensity action sequences, and the CGI heavy finale based around the helicarriers was almost an unwelcome reminder that I was watching a comic book movie. The sequences were still competent and exhilarating, but almost felt wrong as the ending to everything that had gone before. There’s an obvious pressure, post Avengers, to have such a finale (Iron Man 3 had its suit extravaganza, The Dark World took part of London to pieces) and here it’s this triple helicarrier bonanza, with lots of explosions, exotic deaths and showdowns on a height. But it can’t be said that the fates of individual characters were written poorly or went to the wrong places, though some might have been a little underdeveloped. But The Winter Soldier set-up a conspiracy to be investigated, punctuated it with great action scenes, and brought things to a coherent conclusion, even if it went off the rails for a time in the middle. The story is clear, precise and well-rounded (again, except for that moment in the bunker) and that is something to be applauded.

While the CGI is brilliant, its overuse at the conclusion sours The Winter Soldier a little bit.

While the CGI is brilliant, its overuse at the conclusion sours The Winter Soldier a little bit.

A big part of that is the effective characterisation and journeys that the main characters go on, starting with Captain America himself. The first act in that regard is simply fantastic, a wonderful re-introduction to a Rodgers who feels so out of place in the modern world, trying desperately to maintain the black and white-type values of the 1940’s in a world of terrorists, espionage and a distinctly grey tone to everyone else’s moral compasses. That struggle manifests itself in different ways, and it was great to watch Rodgers go through the motions on all of them: militarily, with the hostage rescue (very far removed from the work of the Howling Commandos), romantically, with his heartbreaking visit to an ailing Peggy Carter and shyness around his next door neighbour, and on a more direct personal level, as he finds himself unable (or unwilling) to trust the likes of Romanoff and Fury, people who were born into a world where one of the first lessons is “Don’t trust anybody”. He seeks out people like Wilson, fellow soldiers who understand his feelings on a more basic level than anyone else, and who make him feel far more at home than people like Fury with all of their machinations. He has vivid flashbacks to his time as a soldier in a museum exhibit, and before his transformation at Camp Lehigh, as a scrawny weakling, who had all the heart America could need.

Rodgers’ journey is that of a man trying to find a reason to keep fighting. He seems to be almost sleepwalking through his service with S.H.I.E.L.D, seemingly close to packing it in altogether, increasingly disgusted with the propagation of fear over freedom. The crisis of Fury’s murder allows him the opportunity to break free of those shackles and find a more pure purpose, one that takes him all the way back to the Second World War: a clear bad guy, a clear wrong to make right in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D’s ponderous corruption. Zola mocks him by proclaiming his life to be “a zero sum”, but he’s actually shooting himself in the foot: HYDRA’s reappearance is all the motivation that Captain America needs.

Along the way there are friendships to make and trust issues to sort out, with Wilson, with Romanoff and with Fury, injecting some old-fashioned dependability into this modern era where such things are scoffed at. Further, the appearance of his old friend Bucky Barnes makes clear how much the past has come into the present, only in this case perverted and warped into a thing of destruction and evil. Rodgers, as the man he was before and remains still, defeats the schemes of cynical, power-hungry men like Pierce and brings Barnes back from his mind-altered state of emptiness. With S.H.I.E.L.D gone and HYDRA on the run, he then finds his purpose, the thing that will drive him on even more: finding Bucky and saving him, as clear a goal as defeating the Nazis or HYDRA. The man who was aimlessly running around Washington when the film opened has found his goal, and he started finding it the minute he actually stopped to talk to Sam Wilson, an ordinary soldier just like Bucky Barnes was (at least to the naked eye).

Black Widow’s journey is decent enough in its own right, simple, but very compelling. From the off, it’s clear that she’s assumed something of a confidante role for Rodgers, knowing things about his personal desires that nobody else knows, and there are definite hints that she holds some sort of a romantic attraction towards him. She seems confused about these feelings, playfully flirting with him at one moment and warning him that he’s in the wrong business if he expects people to trust him the next.

Things become a bit clearer as time moves on. Her feelings towards Rodgers better match that between Romanoff and Clint Barton in The Avengers, something bordering on a unsaid romantic interest perhaps, but better defined as a friendship that is surprisingly deep for a woman in Romanoff’s profession. Such attachment scares her a little, doubly so since she feels so burned following Fury’s death.

Through the course of The Winter Soldier, Romanoff opens up as much as she is going to, most notably in the scene within Sam Wilson’s home. In Rodgers, she has someone she really can trust, maybe because he is so far removed from the times in which they both now live. She has to earn any kind of reciprocity – Rodgers disgust at her actions early on the boat are very real – but that’s something that she becomes committed to.

The ending of The Winter Soldier subverts the traditional love-plot tropes. There’s no kiss, to confessed feelings, no lingering looks of infatuation. That isn’t Romanoff’s style. After all, “love is for children”. But she has found a partner in life in a different way, someone to place her faith in, to the extent that she’ll let her entire history, one of the only pressure points of her being, get leaked out into the public domain.

The last journey to mention is that of the other title character. Poor Bucky has been put through the wringer, but for somebody who shares top billing with Rodgers, he is surprisingly under-involved in this production. With the exception of a flashback scene set in the 1930’s, the Winter Soldier actually has only around ten lines of dialogue total in the film, a lot of them with only a few words – “Whose Bucky?” “But I knew him”, “You’re my mission” – and that badly effects any real attempts at character development from his end.

While a title character, the Winter Soldier doesn't get a whole load of time, but is still effective nonetheless.

While a title character, the Winter Soldier doesn’t get a whole load of time, but is still effective nonetheless.

There is some though. The Smithsonian exhibit reminds us about Bucky’s part in The First Avenger, and when the Soldier does turn up the eerie look in his eyes is a little terrifying, indicating some very deep seeded trauma. But really the characterisation for Bucky is found by looking at Rodgers. When he finds out who the Winter Solder is, he’s stunned and grief stricken, remembering the young man who reached out to him after his mother’s death over a half a century ago. Seeing Rodgers’ emotional frailty upon this revelation makes us a care a bit more about Bucky’s fate, even if that character himself won’t really get the chance to be anything more than a killing machine.

The conclusion for Barnes is a little weak. Rodgers is able to partially snap him out of it with a line that only the two of them would know, and Barnes goes through a partial redemption by saving Cap from drowning in the Potomac. The post-credits scene does set him up rather nicely for any evolution of his character in a sequel, his own search for the truth about Bucky Barnes and what it will mean for his mangled memory. What moments pass between Rodgers and Bucky, some of them very understated, are still some of the film’s best, living up to what the title and early trailers promised.

Minor characters also get plenty of opportunity to have little arcs of their own. Fury is more involved here than he was in The Avengers, going through much the same experience as Romanoff, only with an even more ingrained distrust of the world and all of the people around him. By the end, he’s literally burned that identity to the ground and has gone off to find a new purpose in life, much like Rodgers. Sharon Carter turns against the establishment that she was a key part of due to the actions of Captain America. Brock Rumlow shows his true colours and promises to be an implacable foe in future. Alexander Pierce, the modern face of HYDRA, see’s his cynicism defeated. Sam Wilson, a mirror for Rodgers, finds a new war to fight that he very much wants to, and a new brother-in-arms. Many of these are small little arcs, barely deserving of “sub-plot” status, but I felt they were effective in story telling terms.

Wilson is actually one of the best parts of The Winter Soldier. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some racial diversity in the MCU, but Wilson is far more than just a colour. He’s a brave, resourceful and committed guy, a wandering soldier who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself until Captain America shows up running next to him. It’s an obvious parallel to Rodgers himself, only Wilson shows an even greater glee at getting involved in events, having given off a sense of drifting through life beforehand. He plays well on screen with Rodgers and Fury, and seems to me to be a far more interesting character than the somewhat similar James Rhodes/War Machine of the Iron Man franchise, someone who was increasingly maligned as the series went on. Also, on the issue of diversity, it was MightyGodKing that made me realise the depth of The Winter Soldier’s diversity: the good guy team consists of one white guy, two black men and two white women.

The political messages inherent in the story do become eye-rollingly unsubtle long before the credits roll, as the never ending debate of security or liberty is shown as a key part of the plot from the earliest moments. That’s all well and good, and the callbacks to the era of World War Two were a bit better in explaining these choices, even if it came with some stupidity. Much worse was the stuff nearer the conclusion, as Romanoff becomes Edward Snowden and Julian Assange rolled into one. A Congressional hearing berates her for destroying the countries intelligence apparatus (though S.H.I.E.L.D’s always seemed to have some kind of international mandate really) and the word “leak/leaking” is thrown around liberally. The recent remake of RoboCop pulled some of this same stuff, and I was surprised now as I was viewing that, at the blunt way that such allusions came about onscreen. Make no mistake, some of the final scenes of The Winter Soldier play like a salute to the Edward Snowden’s of the world, the only ones standing between us and HYDRA. It is, in my eyes, an unwelcome bit of political point making.

My usual word on female characters must follow. Romanoff is one of three of real note, and easily the most important. There’s a depressing tendency to describe characters like the Black Widow in terms related almost entirely to their clothing and their role in action scenes. Romanoff is a beautiful woman, wears distinctive get-up and is a powerful fighter in The Winter Soldier, but she is much more than any of that. The Avengers showed that she could be a compelling character beyond all of those things, and The Winter Soldier continues that trend. Her running sub-plot of wanting to get into a position of trust with Rodgers showcases some very human vulnerability, and the unfolding of that sub-plot was excellent to watch. Romanoff “only acts” like she knows everything, and that includes an outward persona of sheer confidence that hides some deeper problems: namely her fears over her background becoming public, getting too close to people (lest they hurt you by dying) or allowing such closeness to compromise her own position. By the time the credits roll she’s gotten over a bit of that with Rodgers, Fury and, to an extent, Wilson. She’s not completely flawless, but she’s made significant character progression, and none of it involved her breasts or swooning into the arms of a male hero.

There are also two much smaller roles in the form of Sharon Carter and Peggy Carter.Sharon Carter is only in a handful of scenes, but does exude an aura of competence and decisive initiative, and is sure to play well opposite Rodgers if she gets the chance to do so in a more substantial way. Peggy Carter’s single scene is one of the MCU’s real heartbreaking ones (I believe that it might have been shot for The Avengers, but went unused) and her role in The Winter Soldier seems to be as a very depressing anchor between Rodgers and his life in the 1940’s, a time that, as Carter illustrates so powerfully, it is impossible to go back to. We may yet see more of this character in the world of television if rumour is to be believed, so that is something to look forward to.

So, where do we go from here? In the same vein as The Dark World, and very much opposite Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier leaves off on a very interesting place, with plenty of opportunity to go to even better places in any sequel, or in Age of Ultron. S.H.I.E.L.D is toast, HYDRA remains a threat in other parts of the world and Bucky Barnes is still out there somewhere (along with a probably vengeful Crossbones). If I was a gambling man, I would bet that Captain America 3 will be some sort of “The Death Of Captain America” story, rounding off Rodgers’ tale with Barnes taking up the S.H.I.E.L.D as the new Cap, matching elements of the official comics continuity. Such possibilities are fascinating to contemplate, and the strength of The Winter Soldier’s conclusion is that the audience is truly looking forward to them greatly. That mid-credits scene (how I do loathe them) is brief and a suitable teaser for Age of Ultron, and that’s about all I can say for a sequence that is (and always is) distracting fan service.

Johannson is better than ever in the Romanoff role, with a great sub-plot surrounding the relationship between her and Rodgers.

Johannson is better than ever in the Romanoff role, with a great sub-plot surrounding the relationship between her and Rodgers.

The plot of The Winter Soldier has its problems. Well, one giant glaring problem in the middle. But the sum of its parts are better than that notable flaw’s ability to detract. The Winter Soldier is great storytelling, on a general and character level, seamlessly blending action and conspiracy plot into a very well-paced and enjoyable experience.

Chris Evans continues to imbue the role of Rodgers with a necessary humanity, this personification of the 1940’s American psyche of good morals, hard work and iron will. He keeps to that, but adds that great inner conflict over reconciling that personality with the needs and demands of the present. He remains one of the least interesting Avengers really, but Evans can never be accused of not giving his all in the role, whether its verbally sparring with Jackson and Redford, reaching out to Johansson or just dealing with his multi-decade absence and the things he must catch up on (which includes Nirvana, Star Wars and the 1966 World Cup Final according to his notepad). More than anything, his Rodgers is just a very genuine person, matching the times that he came from. He despises subterfuge and lying, and his warmth is plaint to see when dealing with friends. Some tend to look down on Evans because this role has none of the witty charm of Robert Downey Jnr or OTT gravitas of Chris Hemsworth, but it’s on the same level, just a bit more understated and endearing.

Johansson expands upon her performance in The Avengers with aplomb, starting off with the action-heavy stuff before opening up into a better character than she has previously been allowed to perform. Her Romanoff is put into emotionally compromised positions here, and shows it, far more than she did with Loki in her last outing. She was good then, but is better now, really making the audience believe in the evolution of the character, all the way up to her showdown with the US Congress, as flippant as required. Johansson is a great female lead, and really does deserve her own film.

Samuel L Jackson has always performed fantastically as Nick Fury, and he does his best work yet here. He was just sort of a plot engager in The Avengers, but The Winter Soldier he is able to insert himself more concretely into things, even if he might just have less screen time. Getting his own action scene was important for that, as was a really great showdown with Alexander Pierce, with all of the intensity and biting cynicism that has come to be associated with Fury.

Anthony Mackie is similarly great in his MCU debut. Wilson is a soldier’s soldier, tough, conditioned but with a certain inner frailty and regret. Mackie portrays his lack of purpose really well, and his exuberance when called back into a fighting position. His back and forth with Evans was of a necessarily high standard, and I have good hopes that he will avoid becoming a side kick cliché in time for Cap’s next adventure.

Sebastian Stan doesn’t really get the opportunity to do very much here, hidden behind a mask or in shadows for most of The Winter Soldier’s running length. That’s OK, because he isn’t really the main villain anyway, and the role called for a stoic, traumatised seriousness. He’ll get the chance to show off more of his acting chops in another film I’m sure.

Robert Redford, the very definition of the old pro, gives his shadowy role as a S.H.I.E.L.D honcho all he has. There are times when it seems as if he should be almost embarrassed by the lines he is given – he certainly doesn’t put that much gusto into “Hail Hydra” – but this is Robert Redford. You could give him anything to say and he would imbue it with the requisite charm, venerability and gravitas. As a villain, he was startlingly chilling when revealed as one, and I almost regret the fact that we won’t get to see him in the role again (though there is a vacancy in the “digitised HYDRA genius” role now).

The lesser players – Cobie Smoulders, the menacing and effective Frank Grillo and surprise inclusion Emily VanCamp (playing what is a potentially very important role in the future of the franchise) – all bring something special to their respective roles despite their limited involvement. Grillo is particular noteworthy as an adversary worthy of sparring verbally and physically with Captain America in future. The rest of the cast – Toby Jones, George St-Pierre and Hayly Atwell – perform to expectations. Generally speaking, the acting on display is of a very high quality, a testament to both the cast and the ability of the Russo brothers to get such performances.

Jackson and Redford essentially give it their all in some of The Winter Soldier's best roles.

Jackson and Redford essentially give it their all in some of The Winter Soldier’s best roles.

The film continues the visual mastery that others in this canon have previously demonstrated, with some slick CGI work and impressive camera efforts. The Russo brothers may not have had a big blockbuster pedigree, but shot The Winter Soldier with skill and aplomb, taking in many great vistas across Washington and making sure that issues of space, lighting and angles were never an issue. Some of the locations were really inspired, not least the Triskellion itself, this impressive office building that the directors take great pleasure in destroying.

Great care has gone into bringing the 1940’s world into the 2010’s, with a sequence set at a Captain America museum exhibition being a particular treat. There had been some pre-release criticism of Captain America’s updated uniform, but I thought it looked perfect, and its creation set up the reversion to the “classic” look of the finale. The Winter Soldier also looked great, and that mechanical arm gave him a very potent motif of warped destruction. When Wilson finally becomes Falcon, it’s a breath of fresh air in a world of armoured suits and flying hammers, and he looks as good as anyone else in the finale.

The action chorography is fast-paced and enjoyable, with Captain America more inclined to visceral hand-to-hand stuff than other Avengers. The dreaded shaky cam does make some appearances, but doesn’t ruin the entire thing thankfully. Nick Fury’s thumping escape from his would-be assassins was a unexpected delight, coming right after an impressive one-on-one bout between Rodgers and French-speaking mercenary Batroc. Rodgers’ escape from the Triskellion, with a tight quarters fight in an elevator with over ten men, was similarly awesome, shot with skill, with a great angle from above. The sequence around the freeway bridge was probably the best of the lot, and while the CGI-heavy finale had plenty of great visual hooks, not least a really well put-together sequence of the helicarriers firing on each other, it was the only thing approaching a weak link when it came to the action parts, and only because it seemed so out of place within the rest of the film.

The script’s great, with plenty of stand-out lines and scenes to supplement the consistent competence of the entire production.  Every character sounds distinct and unique, be it Rodgers’ painfully upfront honesty, Romanoff’s slightly faux-confidence, Fury’s seriousness or Pierce’s flippant attitude. One on one moments, like that between Rodgers and Romanoff in Wilson’s home or Fury’s sermon to Rodgers about his grandfather are particularly well written, with a lot being said in a few lines of dialogue to keep characters evolving and the plot going. When the right punctuating line is called for, it is provided, not least with the likes of Pierce’s “Somebody murdered my friend…I’m going to find out who”. Even Arnim Zola’s monologue was written well enough for what it was, including that brilliant final pop at Rodgers, that they are both “out of time”.

One thing these films have usually been good at is including the right measure of humour, even in the midst of action, and The Winter Soldier is no exception, with the Russo’s timing being as perfect as it can be. The best of it actually goes to Redford, with his snarky “Did you get my flowers?” when Fury re-emerges from the grave. Part of the greatness in the script is how the minor characters, even with a handful of lines – like Maria Hill, Bucky, Sharon Carter – all get to stand out and be counted as separate entities. They have their own voices, and nobody really seems to be a cardboard cut-out of any kind. That’s worth applauding.

Henry Jackman’s score is as good as the effort made for The First Avenger, though I suppose it does get dull as time goes on. The blaring horns can get a bit too much if you know what I mean. The better parts revolve around the Winter Soldier and his suite which, while taking more than a fair share of inspiration from the likes of the Joker theme of The Dark Knight, is still suitably warped and incoherent, suiting that character perfectly.

Theme wise, there are some obvious ones to talk about. There is a running discussion throughout the course of The Winter Soldier on the classic “security vs liberty” question, that engulfs so much popular commentary today: something the Russo brothers are well aware of. It comes as a surprise to see a superhero film take the standard liberty side, with Captain America and his confidantes doing everything they can to destroy the intelligence and security apparatus that S.H.I.E.L.D represents, essentially the anti-thesis to the likes of The Dark Knight. The ends do not justify the means in The Winter Soldier, and characters like Nick Fury, who start out from positions of believing that pre-emptive action, having a bigger gun is better and never trusting anybody is normal, are shown to be wrong by the conclusion: Fury does as much as anyone is making S.H.I.E.L.D crumble, having realised that their introverted world view has allowed HYDRA to subvert their message and mission.

Rodgers, that fossil from a bygone age where morals and issues were as black and white as they could be, is the perfect man to lead this effort, but he’s joined by the right group of people: the intelligence operative tired of hiding her past, a former soldier who lost so much in a faulty war and S.H.I.E.L.D members who have rapidly become disillusioned with the organisation they supposedly protect.

Anthony Mackie's debut marks some of the films best moments, from his back and forth with Rodgers to his flying.

Anthony Mackie’s debut marks some of the films best moments, from his back and forth with Rodgers to his flying.

Their opposites are the fascistic HYDRA members. They want order through chaos, a new system of ruling brought about by pain. They take advantage of mass surveillance and record keeping to make good their goals, which are expressly stated as convincing the population of the world to give up their freedom willingly, having failed to take it by force in World War Two. Zola’s monologue offers a grim view of the way human civilisation has gone since that glorious epoch of freedom over tyranny: a fear mongering decline, which has resulted in humanity loading a gun and putting it in HYDRA’s hand. HYDRA, even the coolly logical Pierce, are undoubtedly the bad guys, and their destruction is a necessary and heroic event. Rodgers and company, the ones who destroy HYDRA, the helicarriers, the Triskellion and dump S.H.I.E.L.D’s info all over the internet, are the heroes. The message could not be clearer on the importance of privacy, reduced government invasiveness and the dangers of a runaway intelligence organisation.

(As another aside, do people know Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden exist in the MCU? They’re namedropped in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D).

HYDRA deals in fear, another key theme. That’s all Captain America see’s when he gazes on the helicarriers Fury is overseeing. The S.H.I.E.L.D director looks on them as a security practicality, since you can’t really trust anyone, but the truth is that he’s afraid, even if he isn’t inclined to show it. Terrorists, alien invasions, demigods from another dimension, the Earth has gone through a lot, and has much to be afraid of. Pierce and HYDRA encourage and spread that fear, knowing that it is a far more potent weapon than anything in any Nazi arsenal.

Rodgers, that great American symbol, is the opposite of fear. He’s hope, patriotism and courage wrapped up in a brilliant blue uniform and he’s the exact kind of thing that HYDRA is trying to destroy. Zola, even though he needles Rodgers like he has already won, knows this, from firsthand experience, it’s one of the reasons he stalls Cap long enough for a missile to nearly kill him. People are easily frightened by the things that happen around the, but they can be inspired to greatness too, just as that “Greatest Generation” was. HYDRA wants to make a go of World War Two again, having removed hope from the equation. Rodgers and his friends bring it back, and are victorious. I suppose that trust, something that Rodgers comes back to repeatedly, is the key thing. Only somebody like Rodgers, so upfront and without hidden levels, could take on this immense S.H.I.E.L.D apparatus and win, because he has an ability to unite and lead people like very few else. HYDRA is an organisation of moles and agent provocateurs. Their greatest weapon is a human guinea pig for mind altering experiments and their individual leaders die alone when the plot comes to its main point.

Finding purpose is another key theme, one we see right from the start. Rodgers is aimless, begrudgingly doing S.H.I.E.L.D’s messy clean up jobs but taking no joy in them. He’s keeping busy, just so he can avoid reintegrating back into the world like a normal person, avoiding friendships or romances. In Wilson he finds somebody he can talk to, and discusses openly his sheer lack of direction, a returning veteran who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.

The crisis that HYDRA creates snaps him back. Aside from allowing him to revisit his past glories, it gives him an opportunity to hit the thing that he really seems to hate the most: S.H.I.E.L.D itself, and the altered present that it represents. With that behemoth felled, he has the opportunity and the means to do something really worthwhile, something he considers a very prime purpose: to chase down Bucky and help him.

That involves the last theme I will discuss, that of friendship. While he doesn’t really have that much of an impact in The Winter Soldier, Bucky is defined by his former friendship with Rodgers. We see the two in a desperate moment back in the pre-World War Two days, and understand that there was a deeper friendship there than simple museum exhibits can explain. The loss of Bucky was Rodgers’ up close brush with death, and it affected him greatly, as much as Wilson was damaged when his wing man died.

Such a connection allows for an obvious friendship to grow between Rodgers and Wilson, while Rodgers and Romanoff share a evolving bond throughout The Winter Soldier, one with a slightly flirtatious vibe, but which remains platonic by the conclusion. Rodgers needs those relationships, just as he needed them in the Second World War. They’re what set him apart from his enemies, and what give him the strength to keep going when things seem impossible. “I’m with you till the end of the line”. Only a character like Steve Rodgers could get away with such a line, but only because it is clear that he means it so very much.

The Russo brothers have continued the fine work of Joe Johnston and done another sterling job with the Captain America character, managing to bring him into the modern age and give him his own adventure in as seamless a manner as possible, no easy thing when the hero in question is basically a World War Two propaganda caricature in many respects. Elements of the plot – specifically the bad guys plot – are very convoluted and seem too reliant on “fridge logic” for this, the ninth Marvel Studios effort in this universe, to be considered one of the very best of the genre (like say, the first Iron Man and The Avengers, which remain the best films this studio has made). But the other elements of The Winter Soldier make it more than worthy of a place of honour in the MCU. That brilliant (and diverse) cast, the excellent visuals, the memorable script and the generally fine level of the production really do make this one of the better superhero films of our times. Marvel stuttered with Iron Man 3, proved Thor could have his own franchise in The Dark World, and has now righted the ship fully with The Winter Soldier.

But now, bring on the Guardians of the Galaxy, and we’ll see if Marvel’s big leap of faith with one of its lesser properties will bear similar fruit.

An brilliant, enjoyable effort.

An brilliant, enjoyable effort.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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Review: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Providence”

We are well and truly in the endgame now (or, so I expect). “Providence” reintroduces some old threats and see’s the existing team deal with the aftermath of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and all the events therein. Aftermath episodes, those that follow explosive revelations and action-packed moments of great significance, can easily be a bit of a downer, and with the ratings continuing their fall, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D could really do with avoiding that. Did they? Thoughts:

-Our intro showcases Raina, that is the “Girl In The Flower Dress”, here given a new one by a dishevelled looking Ward. She was always going to make another appearance since “The Magical Place” and it starts a trend of Garrett getting all of his people onboard.

-Coulson and Skye observe the aftermath of The Winter Soldier/”Turn, Turn Turn”. S.H.I.E.L.D sites all over the world are becoming battlegrounds and it isn’t clear who is winning, a decent set-up for the rest of the season. As Coulson says, it’s the beginning of a war.

-Raina gets introduced to Garrett, operating out of a Cuban barbers for some reason. He’s getting a shave, inverting the usual “Beards = evil” thing. Paxton somehow manages to look creepier with a clean face.

-Raina is a little taken aback when she finds out that Garrett is no “Clairvoyant”. But he’s something better: an “artist” or at least a very good con-artist. Paxton is clearly having a ball here, positively glorying in the villain role he gets to play.

-Fitz and Simmons talk about the aftermath of last week. S.H.I.E.L.D has apparently been declared a terrorist organisation, and has lost any form of mandate it once hand. Uncharted territory, and it’s nice to see someone like Simmons panicking a bit over what this all implies.

-“TURN IT OFF”. Fitz sure can screech.

-Adrian Pasdar, who most of us last saw as Nathan Petrelli in Heroes I suppose, turns up briefly as Colonel Glenn Talbot, apparently in charge of a clean-up operation at the Hub. Talbot has traditionally been a Hulk antagonist, a sort of lesser Thunderbolt Ross, and it’ll be interesting to see how he is used in future episodes.

-“Sounds good…this doesn’t sound good”. See, this is the more small scale verbal humour I can get behind. It fits.

-Coulson and the team are taking off, with a brief delay as Coulson decides whether to ditch Triplett or bring him along. There are natural suspicions about Trip, but it’s unlikely he’s in cahoots with Garrett too, it would just be a bit too much. I imagine this is leading to the Triplett character replacing Ward permanently.

-The team is on the run, and suddenly they have to worry about fuel, food and all the little bits and pieces. It’s good to acknowledge that kind of thing, and how there are no more safe ports of call.

-“Agents of nothing” is a pretty good term to describe where the team is at right now I suppose. Like so much in The Winter Soldier, “Providence” seems to be about finding a purpose and a direction when your original one is taken away.

-Ward and Skye have an interesting conversation on the phone. It’s neat that they’ve kept Ward’s allegiance an unknown thing, and it adds a little something to this blossoming relationship that could yet see Ward redeemed.

-Garrett, turning more and more into a standard villain, has a secret underground lair and a swivel chair. We’re rapidly approaching the point where it all gets too much, but for the moment I really love it.

-A brief name drop of “the cellist” again, who will be turning up in the next episode, played by accomplished Whedon alumni Amy Acker. Obviously she’s going to be put in danger, which will bring Coulson out of hiding to save her.

-As Garrett prances around his base and flips between joking to lethally serious, you can’t but think about how much a certain Heath Ledger has influenced the behaviour of screen villains since The Dark Knight. Garrett isn’t at that level, but he’s fun to watch nonetheless.

-Garrett still has this hang up about finding out how Coulson was resurrected. This is standard bad guy stuff, especially in comics, where the mastery of death is seen as the ultimate goal. Hell, that’s Thanos’ whole bag, and he’s probably going to end up as the “Big Bad” for the entire MCU.

-But in the short term, Garrett is heading to “the Fridge”. I see a plot coming together. Last week was the crisis point of the second act of the first season, now we’re getting the rising tension of the third.

-Amid all of this there are concerns over the status of Nick Fury. Coulson reminisces about being hired straight out of high school by Fury, a nice moment.

-As Coulson finds a direction for his stricken plane to go, he reminds the group what S.H.I.E.L.D is supposed to represent: the last line of defence. “We are the shield.” This scene seems to me to be the first step on the road to a new S.H.I.E.L.D, one that Coulson will have a major hand in creating.

-It was pure humour bait, but I loved Garrett’s reaction to the overblown “HAIL HYDRA” from the underling. “Alright, alright, put your arms down Kominsky, you look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally.” And hey, is that Friday Night Lights callout?

-Of course this conversation (and a few other things) certainly makes you wonder about Garrett’s true belief in HYDRA. It really does seem like a marriage of convenience, and I think that’s for the good of the overall plot.

-Cool hearing Ward talk about his “cover” with Raina, explaining some of his previous actions in “F.Z.Z.T” and “The Well”. It’s all summed up in that line: “I’m everybody’s type”. A common criticism of the Ward character is that he’s rather dull and bland, and it’s strange to think that this might have been the whole point. Or maybe that’s giving the production team too much credit.

-It was also only around this point that I noticed there was a slight change in Ward’s voice, enough to draw attention. It’s softer and a little bit more devious, which is a nice touch.

-“Fury’s dead” says May. Yeah, about that…

-May and Coulson do share a good scene here. She’s still in hot water over her espionage, and for Coulson the revelations keep coming: it’s unknown who exactly was in charge of his surgery, or what their motivations were. Coulson’s starting to get a bit more unhinged, which is important for the episode.

-A rivalry between Fitz and Triplett is being established here, as the two verbally spar over Coulson, with Simmons literally between them as they do so. It’s better than that Ward-Skye-Fitz triangle anyway, because we’ve established better that Fitz has a thing for Simmons.

-Man, the Fridge looks weird, a skyscraper on a beach. I don’t think that’s structurally advised (or possible).

-Nice scheme to get inside from Ward and Garrett, reminding us just how capable the two really are (and how far Ward has fallen).

-Garrett mentions a man locked up in the Fridge who had lion’s paws for hands. A reference to the super villain Griffin apparently.

-The “Slingshot” project was mentioned way back in “0-8-4”, and didn’t make much sense to me then. I asked “Do they really just blast dangerous objects into space?” Turns out they don’t. It makes sense too, because Fury has a track record in this regard, as The Avengers made clear.

-This leads to a look at a few old MacGuffins, like the weird ray gun thing from “0-8-4” and the “Berserker Staff” from “The Well”. It’s good to tie in episodes like that, and show that there is a larger connection between such things: they weren’t just plot devices of the week.

-The team arrives in the wilderness of Canada. I was half-expecting a Department H crossover here, seeing as how it was mentioned in “End Of The Beginning”, but it was not to be (yet).

-Garrett, in classic supervillain style, starts breaking out his fellow miscreants. I thought he’d be incorporating them into his own army, but letting them be distractions for S.H.I.E.L.D on their own works too. I thought I’d see a few old faces here, like Blizzard from “Seeds” for example, but not yet.

-We do catch a glimpse of a threatening looking guy whom Garrett advises to “Follow his dreams”. Meet Marcus Daniels, aka “Blackout”, and he’s the bad guy for next week’s “The Only Light In The Darkness”.

-And they found something “gorgeous” in the secret level of the Fridge. Oh yes.

-“The last thing I want is for things to change.” “Fitz…it’s too late for that.” That line was more than a little heartbreaking.

-May and Skye share a terse exchange out in the snow, but at least Skye’s cattiness makes sense here.

-Coulson, at the coordinates but with nothing there, loses it a little. While Gregg didn’t do the best job, it was still a powerful moment of breakdown, as it becomes clear how much recent events have played on Coulson’s mind and left him a bit of a wreck. Losing S.H.I.E.L.D itself appears to be the last straw.

-Coulson symbolically turns his own back on S.H.I.E.L.D by throwing his badge away, but from that salvation comes. A bit of a clumsy metaphor, but I’ll forgive it.

-Patton Oswalt, also a Whedon alumni from Dollhouse, is Eric Koenig, a guy from the comics but very far removed from that here. In print he’s a German anti-Nazi member of the Howling Commandos. Here, he’s a flabby mid-level S.H.I.E.L.D agent who encapsulates a lot of the roles Oswalt tends to play: weird, nerdish, socially awkward.

-He even namedrops Call Of Duty, which might be a bit of product placement for all I know. Anyway, the character introduces the team to what I assume is its HQ for the remainder of the series (and maybe beyond).

-And one more bombshell for the road: Fury isn’t dead, though only Coulson is allowed to know. Why someone like Koenig is in this circle is a mystery, but for now this sets up the appearance that Samuel L. Jackson is supposed to be making in the final episode of the season.

-Garrett needs Skye to crack open her own encryption. Ward still has a thing for her, but seems more committed to Garrett. We have conflict and a plot for the next episode.

-Ward goes back undercover with a beating from Garrett to send him on his way, reciting a very creepy but effective mantra as it happens: “Grant Ward, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Grant Ward, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

-He enters “Providence” base, like the parasite that Zola infected S.H.I.E.L.D with decades ago. He smiles in the same creepy fashion that Garrett did at the end of “Turn, Turn, Turn”. Perfect. Ward may well turn again, but for now I’m fully onboard with his HYDRA allegiance.

-Ian Quinn makes a return from his captivity, last seen in “T.A.H.I.T.I”, as snarky and enraging as ever. Garrett really is getting all the bad guys that matter behind him, and that makes for some interesting episodes to come.

-Lo and behold, Garrett has his hands on the “Gravitonium” from “The Asset”. That episode was the first sign that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D could be better than it was, and the reappearance of the stuff here – with one Franklin Hall still trapped inside it – could well herald the arrival of Graviton before the season ends. Remember his line: “We have to live by the choices we make. And sometimes we have to die with them too.”

An excellent episode, one of the seasons very best. Character development, stakes are high, the plot is moving forward to an interesting place. And the ratings have stabilised again, so hopefully they’ll stay at that point. Four episodes to go.

To read my thoughts on other episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.Dclick here to go to the index.

Posted in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ireland’s Wars: Clonmel

Kilkenny had fallen, and the Parliamentarians were rampant. Cromwell had been victorious nearly everywhere, and had the Royalist establishment in Ireland on its knees. His New Model Army had reformed into a more single cohesive force that had no match in the country, and was hungry for yet more conquests.

Everything still seemed to be going his way. The Earl of Castlehaven made a brief move into Carlow seeking a victory, but found the place bereft of any allies or opportunities. He was soon scuttling westwards, to join the Earl of Ormonde on the safer side of the Shannon. Ormonde was advised, and eventually had to acquiesce, in the release of most of whatever Protestant soldiery was left under his command, due to suspicions over their loyalty, the increasing criticism of their behaviour and privileges from Catholics and sheer financial necessity. Inchiquin, the once great Protestant commander in Ireland, was adrift with only a small number of men in Limerick, and was soon forced into Connacht himself.

Cromwell made a generous deal with the Protestant royalists, meeting several of their representatives in Cashel in April of 1650. It was essentially a non-aggression pact, as they both forswore violent action against the other, with Cromwell allowing his former enemies to settle in Parliamentarian controlled areas or choose exile in Europe if they preferred. Ormonde and Inchiquin were exempt from its provisions.

Thus the Protestant/Catholic union that Ormonde had presided over for the better part of the last two years came to a bitter end. The Royalist cause in Ireland was now a mostly Catholic one, with its Protestant commander under ever increasing pressure from the people he was supposed to be the leader of. More and more, what military units that still existed, be they field armies or garrisons, took actions of their own accord, away from any suggested central authority.

One of those garrisons was Clonmel, County Tipperary, and it was there that Cromwell was heading next. The Parliamentarian commander was already receiving plenty of calls for his return to England, in the face of increasing hostility from Scotland and the constant political machinations in London, but Cromwell was not content to set sail for home just yet. He wanted matters to be to his liking in Ireland when he made his departure, and that meant removing one more problem. By mid-April his army, over 8’000 strong, was heading towards Clonmel, delayed only by his negotiations with the Protestants.

The man he would be facing was Hugh Dubh O’Neill, a nephew of Owen Roe (and thus a grand nephew of Hugh O’Neill of the Nine Years War). This third generation soldier had been one of the subordinates his uncle had brought to Ireland initially, having already served in the armies of Spain during their wars in the Low Countries. Hugh Dubh had been captured by Covenanters in 1643, released only as part of a prisoner exchange after Owen Roe’s great victory at Benburb, and had been making a name for himself as an increasingly important commander since then. Upon his uncles death he probably would have been one of the leading candidates to take over the command of the Ulster Army, but found himself, as part of Owen Roe’s late agreement with Ormonde, commanding a unit of 1’200 Ulster Army soldiers in Munster, dedicating to resisting the Cromwellian threat. That had eventually resulted in Hugh Dubh being given the command of Clonmel.

It was, though few maybe realised at the time, a good assignment. Clonmel had only briefly seen action in the war, but that incident – when Inchiquin balked at taking on its defences when they were commanded by Alasdair MacColla in 1647 – should give some indication as to its advantages. Its walls were very tall and thick for the time and place: 25 feet in height, over six in breadth, with an additional ditch built around its outer defences to ward off any attempts at mining. Moreover its geographical advantages were considerable: extensive swampland marked the western and eastern approaches, with the River Suir blocking any approach from the south. Thus, any attacker could only realistically approach Clonmel from the north, limiting the sections of the defence that had to be manned, and presenting the attacker with a distinct dilemma.

Hugh Dubh had orders to hold Clonmel as long as he could. Ormonde believed it to be one of the strongest positions in Ireland, greater than Drogheda, Wexford and New Ross put together. In the event that it came under attack, he promised that he would assemble all the forces he could and march to its relief within ten days, there to fight a decisive battle. Hugh Dubh took him at his word.

A partial blockade had been in effect around Clonmel since the early days of the winter offensive, little more than a barrier to substantial supplies. This would have little bothered Hugh Dubh, but Clonmel was not well provisioned in the first place, and then suffered, as Kilkenny had, a bout of plague that left many defenders and townspeople either dead or incapacitated. They received some reinforcement from random groups of Royalist soldiers left scattered from the other garrisons that Cromwell had taken, but were still far from at their strongest.  When Cromwell arrived outside of its walls on the 27th of April, he had reasons to be cheerful: if Hugh Dubh would not surrender, then an artillery bombardment and a storm would soon see the weakened defence overwhelmed, and then he could be on his way back to London.

Things did not go as planned. Hugh Dubh had prepared well for the siege, with an earthen rampart erected in front of the walls to make them less susceptible to any bombardment Cromwell had a mind to make. It took over a week for Cromwell’s standard guns to be put in place and when they began to fire, he quickly realised they would not have the power to make the breach required for his men to storm. Starving Clonmel into submission was an option whose length did not appeal to Cromwell in the slightest, already with his mind on the boat to England, and so he insisted on his heavier siege guns being brought into place, an operation that took another week.

In the meantime, Hugh Dubh refused to be idle. His garrison was badly outnumbered, but busied themselves launching small raids, ambushes and other guerrilla attacks on the besiegers, usually at night, taking these opportunities to disrupt or eliminate work parties or any other effort being out into the siege. Such actions would have delayed Cromwell’s plans for a short time, but probably had a deeper effect in the morale stakes. Hugh Dubh’s men were running short on ammunition and food quickly, so keeping spirits up and discipline enforced would have been important. This was the Ulster Army, which still had much of the backbone instilled by events like Benburb.

Ormonde’s promised movement within ten days never materialised. Paralysed by the conflicts within his command, and with little men to spare anyway, he decided to reinforce Limerick instead of making any effort to relieve Clonmel. It was typical of him, that when Cromwell was actually being held by a walled town, he hesitated and then did nothing to try and pursue a seemingly favourable situation.

Hugh Dubh was not entirely alone though. A lower level Royalist named David Roache, in conjunction with Boetius MacEgan, a Bishop who had been present at Benburb, assembled a force of around 2’000 men out of the Kerry region (doubtless many of them were not of the highest quality) with the express purpose of marching east and bringing relief to Clonmel, the plan probably being to approach from the southern side and crossing the unguarded Suir to get to it.

Cromwell was prepared for such a move however, with the Lord Broghill still in place in the Cork region, with 1’200 infantry and 800 cavalry. He was able to manoeuvre Roache and MacEgan into an encounter at Macroom, Cork, on the 10th of May. A quick cavalry charge scattered the assembling Irish, a rout ensued and next thing anyone knew 600 Royalists were dead, the rest running for their lives. MacEgan was captured alive. Allegedly Broghill brought him to Carrigadrohid Castle, a Royalist holdout in Cork, in the belief he would insist the garrison surrender. MacEgan instead urged them to fight to the last man. He was executed, and after some generous terms were offered the castle surrendered the next day anyway. The destruction of this attempted relief marks one of the only times separate Royalist units attempted to assist others after Cromwell arrived. Regardless of this belated show of cooperation and unity, its failure meant that Hugh Dubh was left alone.

On the 16th of May Cromwell finally had his heavy siege guns on location and placed. Their destructive power was more than the earth ramparts and the old walls could handle, and after a day of fire a breach that Cromwell deemed workable had been created, around 80 feet wide.

The assault would take the place the following morning. The plan called for infantry to pour into the breach, seize it and push back any defenders on the other side. They would then open the gates and allow the Parliamentarian cavalry, led by Cromwell himself, to enter the town and complete its conquest. A simple plan, but the kind that had worked in other places during Cromwell’s campaigns. While it was probably agreed that Clonmel as a bit tougher than other places the New Model Army had assaulted, it is unlikely many had an inkling of what was about to transpire.

The morning came and the infantry went forward. They climbed the rubble, reached the top of the breach and entered a killing zone.

Hugh Dubh had not been idle before the siege had started and had not been idle after the breach had been blown. Another fortification had been rapidly constructed behind the breach, in the shape of a V, with the point directly opposite the oncoming enemy. Made of earth and crowned with wood, it was lined with musketeers. At the point were two cannon, with plenty of chain shot at hand.

A slaughter ensued, counted as one of the worst in the entire civil wars. The Parliamentarian infantry were unable to get past this hidden line of defence and, as more and more of them piled through the breach, were unable to retreat either. A mass of men were trapped in the gap. Musket and cannon fire, with their red hot chains tearing through multiple targets with ease, caused hundreds and hundreds of casualties.

After a terrible period of time, the New Model Army infantry were able to struggle back through the breach to the relative safety of the exterior, leaving scores of their comrades’ bodies behind. A disgusted Cromwell had been waiting by the main gate for his triumphant entry to Clonmel, but now how to deal with his battered and dispirited men. He tried to rally them to make another attempt at the breach. They refused.

Instead, the suggestion came for the cavalry of the New Model Army to dismount and attempt the gap. Wearing better quality armour and helmets than the infantry, and still fresh (and unbattered), it was hoped they would stand a better chance of withstanding the onslaught and forcing a way through. Cromwell, unsuited to adversity of this kind, was happy to order another assault.

The cavalrymen forced back the initial defenders at the breach and then stepped into the same situation as the infantry. The fighting lasted for hours, as both sides vied for control of the inner defences, as the musket fire continued, and as the cannon continued to roar. As the day wore on, the New Model Army had enough, and the second attacking party stumbled back out over the bodies of their fellow soldiers. Hugh Dubh had held, and taken the day decisively.

The actual numbers of the dead at Clonmel are not known for certain, with Cromwell being understandably reluctant to be clear. But they were at the lowest estimate 1’500, and at the higher scale 2’500, astonishing numbers for the day. Even if the lowest number is considered correct, it was still the largest casualties from a single engagement that the New Model Army ever took during its existence.

A distressed and humiliated Cromwell did his best to rally his troops for another assault on the 18th, but found the townspeople suing for terms that morning. Cromwell, desperate to bring proceedings to a close, offered generous terms, guaranteeing the lives and property of the civilian population. Thus agreed, he entered Clonmel, only to find it bereft of military defenders.

Hugh Dubh was gone. He had taken several hundred casualties of his own in the fighting, and his exhausted troops were nearly out of both food and ammunition. Believing that Cromwell would not let up on the offensive, he and his men agreed on a course of abandoning Clonmel, seeing no possibility of relief or any positive aim to be achieved by staying. On the night of the 17th/18th, they scaled the southern wall, crossed the Suir however they could, and then marched away as quickly as possible.

Cromwell was furious upon discovering what had happened, having believed that Hugh Dubh’s surrender was implicit in the giving up of Clonmel. He kept to his word in regards the town, but soon had cavalry chasing down Hugh Dubh’s force, which was heading south-east, towards Waterford, as fast as it could. A few hundred stragglers were cut down by the Parliamentarian horse, a brutal epilogue to the Clonmel fighting, but most of them, Hugh Dubh included, got away. They did not have a happy ending though, with the Waterford garrison refusing them entrance, apparently due to fear of plague (not unreasonable) and a belief that the town could not feed the extra mouths. Hugh Dubh was forced to disband his army into smaller groups, urging them to find their own way back to safer climes in Ulster. The governor of Waterford at the time was none other than Thomas Preston, back in a position of independent command out of sheer necessity. Both he and Hugh Dubh would have further parts to play in the war.

Clonmel was a siege and battle marked by the attitudes of the two commanders. Cromwell was impatient, reckless and more than a little callous when it came to the lives of his men. Hugh Dubh was patient, proactive, resourceful and strong-willed. He made Clonmel a stronger position than it had been when he got there. He refused to just leave the breach exist as it was, and his initiative to fortify its entrance led to one of the most spectacular single day victories the Royalists would ever win in the entire civil wars. The exhausted New Model Army, in the field for months at this point, could not be expected to perform miracles, and paid the price for the refusal of its leader to recognise he had finally reached a situation where he was not guaranteed of victory.

In a strange way, Clonmel was a slight justification for the overall strategy of Ormonde. He had chosen to adopt a defensive posture when Cromwell came to Ireland, largely because of the result of Rathmines. In Ormonde’s mind, he had foreseen every town that Cromwell attacked being a potential Clonmel, where Cromwell might win victories but would be bled white in the process. But this relied on places like Drogheda and Wexford having the same level of defences and, more importantly, commanders, as Clonmel had. If this had been the case, maybe the New Model Army would have been worn down in a brutal war of attrition but it was not. Ormonde’s idea was sound, but he failed to realise he did not have the means to undertake it to the full. Only at Clonmel, and to a lesser extent outside Waterford and Duncannon, did things work out as he would have liked.

The result also smashed the aura of invincibility surrounding the New Model Army. Only outside Duncannon had they really been defeated by the enemy, and that had been a very small scale thing in the larger context of the wars, while at Waterford it had been the elements and not military action that had decided things. At Clonmel, notwithstanding Cromwell’s entry into the undefended town the following day, the New Model Army was very decisively beaten, and badly too. Such a result showed the Royalists, as scattered and demoralised as they were, that the enemy could be beaten, and that his victory was not guaranteed. The example of Clonmel would steel many hearts in the weeks, months and years to come.

Cromwell had achieved his final goal and taken Clonmel, but at a terrible cost. One week later, he was back in Youghal, and setting sail for Westminster. He would never come back. The command of the New Model Army in Ireland was given to Henry Ireton, with orders to complete the destruction of the Royalist cause.

Cromwell’s time in Ireland, not even a year, would have repercussions and invoke powerful feelings generations and centuries after. His ruthless and efficient command gutted the Royalist and former Confederate cause in Ireland, as town after town fell to his troops, the vast majority of which without much fighting at all. Clonmel was a gigantic exception, but if Cromwell had been told before landing in Ireland that his army would suffer just upwards of 3’000 casualties in their entire campaign in the country, I think he would have been happy. For that exchange, Leinster, Ulster and most of Munster were pacified, and what was left of the enemy damaged beyond repair. The massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, though worthy of more in-depth study today, have insured that his is a name that is largely reviled in the popular consciousness of the Irish nation, even to this day, but we cannot forget the brilliance and results of Cromwell’s military command in Ireland, an intervention as decisive as Mountjoy’s had been in the Nine Years War half a century earlier. Now it would be left to other, lesser, men to finish what he had started.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The McClean Quandary

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was March 9th 2012.

The McClean Quandary

James McClean has become the great hope for Irish football this season. In good form for Sunderland, scoring goals, at the core of Martin O’ Neill’s renaissance and the clubs improvement in fortunes, a young player with many years ahead of him, and home grown at a League of Ireland club to boot.

But McClean’s emergence provides some problems for the national team set-up ahead of the European championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer. Selection headaches are sometimes viewed as good things – an assortment of riches to choose from – but the situation surrounding James McClean has provoked sharp criticism and pointed questions for the current Irish regime.

There are plenty of issues surrounding the management style and actions of Giovanni Trapattoni. The man doesn’t travel to England to watch games and is on record as being dismissive of the style of game played there (where nearly all Irish squad members play). He has a resistance to making substitutions in games until very late on, even if things are clearly not working on the pitch, and has only rarely changes tactics. He has clashed and had public disputes with several players, from James McCarthy to Anthony Stokes, and has shown a stubborn reluctance to include new players in his plans. The very fact that the James McClean situation has gotten so much attention from the media is evidence of the last point.

“Trap’s” type of game, focused on pedestrian tactics, long balls which frequently squander possession, allowing opposition teams the run of the game, has earned him plenty of detractors in Ireland, perhaps most notably Eamon Dunphy. His diatribe against Trapattoni after a dire display against the Czech Republic last Wednesday may have contained a fair share of hyperbole, but Dunphy is not incorrect on many issues regarding the Ireland team.

There is a potential disaster in the waiting at Euro 2012. Ireland have little expectations to begin with, but no one in the country wants to see the team well beaten or humiliated. As it stands, Ireland have a poor central midfield which has never convinced, an ageing squad that is very reliant on a small number of players, a key defender with a significant injury worries, a main striker (and captain) who seems to miss far more then he scores and a tactical game that has never been able to best higher ranked teams.

Ireland were shown up badly by Russia in Dublin during the qualifiers, and got away with a minor miracle in the return fixture, a point stolen by the defending masterclass of Richard Dunne and hands of Shay Given. Ireland failed to beat Slovakia home or away and struggled at times against Macedonia and Armenia. What does this say about our chances against the current Kings of football in Spain, the unenviable threat of Croatia, or the ever dangerous Italians?

If Trapattoni plays his usual game at Euro 2012, Ireland will go nowhere. Playing for draws against the big boys, the long ball game, isn’t the way to go forward in finals. Luck, which Trapattoni appears to have had in spades, cannot be relied upon. An infusion of youth and attacking potential is called for, but at present time, Trapattoni does not appear to be interested. The reason for the furore over McClean is just this, that people recognise the attacking and midfield weakness of the Ireland team and see a player who may help remedy it.

Therein lies the frustration over McClean, over Trapattoni’s single-minded approach. The Italian simply does not seem to think McClean is worthy of attention. His big chance consisted of a run out against the Czech’s that barely lasted ten minutes (while James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman sat on the bench unused, another example of promising young players left at the wayside).  The irritation being aimed at the manager is one borne out of these kind of sights, of players with great potential, attacking potential, not being given a fair shot to prove themselves or impress. Trapattoni only seemed to include McClean in that friendly squad as an afterthought and showed little interest in seeing what he could do in a green jersey.

These are pre-tournament friendlies after all. They are not meant to be games where the usual squad is trotted out to play the usual game, they are the time to test things out. Give other players a shot. Do things differently.

Being in the squad throughout the qualifiers should never be a guarantee of a place in the finals, as harsh as that may sound. Ireland has wingers, in the form of Stephen Hunt, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff but little else beside. I would argue that McClean has been showing form just as good if not better than any of those players (Trapattoni has never seemed to have much time for Hunt either and Duff has routine question marks over his proneness to injury).

When Trapattoni calls for respect to be shown to these established players of the squad, he’s missing the point. No one is denying the service McGeady and Duff have given to Ireland or the time they have been involved. But the Euro 2012 squad should not be determined solely on past performances. A measure of notice for current form, for players both in and out of the squad, should also be a factor.

Trapattoni has done much with what would appear to be, on paper, a very poor team but his attitude towards squad selection are not exactly confidence inspiring. He said in a press conference the other week, bluntly, that he considered McClean too young to go to a major finals. I have little time for this argument, given the state of football today, when youth is less of a concern then it has ever been. Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, was playing and scoring goals for the national team when he was 18 as was Damien Duff. Moreover, McClean has acclimatized fast to the pressures of Premier League football, indicating that he has the temperament and mindset to deal with high-pressure environments.

McClean still has time. 11 games left in this season, and one more Ireland friendly, against Bosnia, if he gets a chance to play in it. “Trap” appears obstinate to including him in any summer plans and the best thing for McClean to do would be to continue his good run of form, to continue scoring and to continue showing why he is deserving of a place in the Euro 2012 squad. That is all that he can do, after all.

I consider McClean one of the best Irish players playing today. I think he is an excellent winger, playing excellent football. I think he deserves a place in the Irish squad and I am not alone.

But I am not the manager of Ireland. It is Trapattoni’s call to make. I only hope Ireland’s performance in Poland and Ukraine does not leave him open to many bitter questions four months from now.

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