Review: Cinderella

Cinderella

Trailer

"You shall go to the ball!" Branagh brings one of Disney's classics into the world of live-action.

“You shall go to the ball!” Branagh brings one of Disney’s classics into the world of live-action.

Its film festival time in Dublin, as JDIFF rolls around with its usual dazzling array of titles. I haven’t been able to see absolutely everything I wanted to see this year, but have still been able to take in a good few offerings, a mixture of mainstream and indie titles, from nearby and far away, that I hope to get round to reviewing over the next while.

The first is certainly a mainstream effort. Kenneth Branagh’s an accomplished director at this stage, who has mastered filmed Shakespeare and dabbled in action, comic book adaptations and horror over the last few years, well known for his colourful and varied productions as well as his keen eye for detail and his great ability to get the most out of his actors, even in extreme roles (and that’s to say nothing of his exceptional acting abilities, though that isn’t relevant here).

So Branagh is not a bad choice for Disney, as they move along with their continuing efforts to update their classic properties. Last year saw the disappointing Maleficent, featuring a wooden Angelina Jolie and a whole slew of bizarre plot problems. One would be justified in hoping that, with somebody like Branagh at the helm, the live action treatment for the iconic character of Cinderella will fare much better. But then again, maybe this drive for live-action remakes has been ill-conceived from the get go. Here is when trends start to develop, so how did Branagh do? I caught an advanced (for Ireland anyway) screening of Cinderella at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

After the deaths of her parents, Ella (Lily James) tries to live her life according to her mother’s philosophy of “Have courage and be kind”, but finds herself relentlessly tormented, abused and looked down upon by her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters. Inspired after a chance meeting with a handsome stranger (Richard Madden) “Cinder” Ella gets the chance to find a better life for herself, thanks to the intervention of a kindly beggar woman (Helena Bonham Carter), who is much more than meets the eye.

I think I was expecting an updated version of Cinderella when I first heard about this production. They are so in vogue, be it the swords and armour kind like Snow White And The Huntsmen, the bad guy flip reversal like Maleficent or even the “modern” kind of thing with the likes of Enchanted. And so, it was positively a shock to find out that Cinderella is exactly what it says on the tin and, in story terms, little more. It is the classic fairy tale that Disney made into the famous 1950 animated musical, now caught in live-action and with a extended running time.

And I can say that it thoroughly enjoyable for that, in unexpected ways. So used have I become to the remake altering things for the sake of being different – not always a bad thing, but not always a good thing either – that the lack of “grit”, modern sensibilities, revisionism or any sort of action driven climax makes Cinderella, in an odd way, seem extraordinarily unique, at least for this day and age. Branagh rejects grit here and discards the pressure of making Cinderella more relevant to a modern audience as studios so often dictate. No, this is traditional, and enrapturing, story-telling and adaptation.

Cinderella actually did have the alarm bells going off in my head in the opening moments, due to the overwhelmingly saccharine nature of its fledgling narrative, opened with perfect Ella and her perfect parents and her perfect life, where everyone and everything is just overflowing with joy and happiness. I couldn’t help but think of Homer Simpson’s fantasy of being rich: “Are you happy Jeeves?” “Yes sir, quite.” “Then we’re all happy”. I worried that I had stepped into a world of too much base emotions, where the tones and themes would be spelled out too plainly and the audience left to suffer through a trite and predictable fairy tale.

But then, for a variety of reasons, Cinderella starts to soar towards higher territory. Call it the introduction of Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the main role, call it Cate Blanchett’s stunning arrival as the wicked stepmother (Miranda Priestly, Agatha Trunchbull and Cruella deVille all rolled into one nasty package), call it the direction, the narration or whatever. The confluence of all of these things, under Branagh’s steady hands, makes Cinderella far from the overly-simple and easily digestible thing that it could have been.

It isn’t just that misery upon misery starts to be heaped on poor Ella, who loses both of her parents and is stuck becoming little more than a servant to her horrible stepfamily. It’s the way in which it is done. The ramping up of the malice and the cruelty is a deliberately slow thing, but our eyes are more transfixed by Ella’s stout resistance to her more negative instincts, holding true always to the last message of her mother. In that way, Cinderella becomes a somewhat torturous but very captivating look at a young woman, aiming to honour her forebears by turning the other cheek, contrasting sharply with the monsters who want to devour her.

I’ve read and heard much on people’s feelings towards this film, and am surprised at, having seen it, criticism that the central character is too timid, too patient too much of a doormat. The criticism comes from a defensiveness towards the lack of obvious feminist values it seems, something that stuff like Maleficent is suffering no shortage of. But that didn’t make it a good film. And Cinderella has no lack of it, but it is a good film.

The film would lose much if Cate Blanchett wasn't involved.

The film would lose much if Cate Blanchett wasn’t involved.

Ella is that much sought for but little found thing, the “strong female character”, but Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz make her that without resort to action clichés, suits of armour or a climactic sword battle with her stepmother. Yes, Ella is looked down upon, degraded and generally suffers through some appalling treatment, but that just makes the moments of quiet courage and resilience all the more striking. Is it weak to turn the other cheek? Is it weak to seek a path of non-violent resistance? Is it weak to honour ones parents by trying to keep their memory alive in the home they once shared? Ella is wonderful in that she encapsulates all these things, and, in my eyes, shows a stout resistance to the attempts by her stepmother and sisters to ruin her. That’s strength.

And there are more overt and obvious examples, sometimes intellectually, when she demonstrates her superior intelligence with her command of the French language, or later on, when she defiantly stands up to her stepmother, and stays true to the people who really raised her. Cinderella is obviously trying to appeal to the audience that bought into Frozen, and Ella has much in common with Elsa: both experience powerful moments of magic, but their real strength comes from being true to themselves in the face of insidious external forces.

But what of agency? Plenty have complained that, true to the 1950 version, Ella lacks enough of her own to make her a proper character, needing the help of fairy godmothers to go to the ball, and needing to be saved by the films primary male character. But this is missing the wood for the trees in my view: Ella has plenty of her own agency if you look with a keener eye. She alone captures the Prince’s attention. She alone summons up the courage to pursue him at the ball (and, crucially, without knowing who he really is). She alone wins his heart. She alone remains steadfast in her belief that kindness and goodness are required virtues, which keep her pure and innocent even under the repeated assaults of her stepmother. I suppose, and it isn’t much of a spoiler really, she does get saved by Kit at the conclusion, but I felt that her sweet singing, that which attracts the prince’s attention in the first place, was the most tangible sign that she remains herself, the films true victory. Cinderella probably won’t become an icon of feminist cinema, but I have seen plenty of “kick-ass” female characters that left barely any impression on me. Ella did, sometimes in her quietest and most reserved moments.

The central arc of Ella and her running battle with what her stepmother represents is one part of Cinderella, but it also works as a sweet and very enjoyable love story. Sure, it has those beats that were formulaic 65 years ago, but it still makes for an enchanting fairy tale: they “meet cute”, they spar verbally, the prince falls hopelessly in love with this mysterious girl. And even though they spend much of the film seeking each other, the warmth and affection that is obvious between them gives Cinderella that vital emotional spark, which makes the inevitable happy ever after all the more satisfying.

And Branagh isn’t content with Prince Kit being just some placeholder character, a “Prince Charming” archetype to fall head over heels with Ella. Kit’s a character, complete and whole, himself, who displays depth and evolution throughout the course of the film, caught between his desire for the mysterious girl he met in the forest, and the demands of a Kingdom that needs its future ruler to forge a strong dynastic marriage with other royalty. You feel Kit’s conflict, but also understand how he makes his choice, to seek out the “honest country woman” his Kingdom really needs.

And those around him are wonderfully fleshed out too, when they could have been nothing characters. Derek Jacobi’s King must deal with his impending death and his responsibility to instil cynicism in his son when it comes to love, even when his own heart says otherwise, Nonso Anozie’s Captain of the Guard provides that more idealistic advisor and much needed comic relief and even Stellan Skarsgard’s Grand Duke, who could so easily have been a moustache twirling villain of the stupidest kind, is the more engaging kind of schemer, who plots to deny the future King his true love, but does so with the best interests of the Kingdom at heart. The palace characters have several great scenes together and interact brilliantly, whether it is the King and his son’s extended and heart breaking farewell, or the romantic Captain clashing with the more practical Grand Duke. Hell, when it comes to other characters, you can even understand the thought process and goals of the stepmother, who wants security for her and her daughters, having lost it twice over.

Cinderella revolves around its pivotal central sequence, the transformation of the title character into the “mysterious princess” and the following ball scene. Branagh does just what is required here, imbuing his production with magic, colour and majesty, allowing James and Madden the chance to progress their relationship through dance, and offer what might be the pinnacle of live-action fairy tale adaptation. It’s the only real example of “magic” in the film, but in truth all of the stuff with the fairy godmother serves as just an amusing sideshow and a chance for some sparkly effects, before the more engaging and heart-warming stuff at the actual ball, when Ella’s inner beauty translates to a spectacular outer radiance. Branagh aims for flashy sights but also deep seeded nostalgia with such moments, and even I, usually more cynical, found myself swept away with the presented spectacle.

Cinderella moves from there onto its expected final act, and nothing that happens will come as a surprise. No last minute changed ending here, no attempt to add a modern spin at the death. You find yourself rooting for Ella, and waiting expectantly for wedding bells and just desserts. But even when going through these motions, Branagh does leave time for some strong individual statements on Ella’s part, that offer a pertinent and rewarding climax to her relationship with “Lady Tremaine”.

While there is a certain predictability in that, I still think it works. This is a very old story, and has been told a thousand different ways already. It may not end with any kind of challenge to the audience, but it is still entertaining. It may not be able to gain any kind of staying power – it’s a long time since 1950, and modern cinema moves a lot faster – and certainly it might stick longer in the memory if Branagh had attempted something a bit more different, daring or even ambitious (but only in plot terms). It is an issue that will vary in size depending on the viewer. For me, it is not so much a big deal, but I can easily understand if others find such a purist and traditional adaptation of the story unappealing, even with all of the assorted bells and whistles. You might want more than the sense that, sometimes, the film is just going through the motions, though I firmly believe the best is made of it. There’s a very iffy balance to be weighed there: maybe Branagh could have been a bit more imaginative at times, but if his aim was to bring a classic fairy tale and present it as it would have been presented in a different age – albeit with modern filmmaking techniques and resources to spruce it up – then I say he has succeeded with the narrative.

Lily James brings a really fantastic warmth and likeability to the Ella character, right from the moment she takes over from the more lackadaisical Eloise Webb. It’s a hard role: so often, Ella is left subservient to others in a scene, or can only talk to herself. But James exhibits strength and force of will throughout even these moments, making us believe fully in the girl that is committed to having courage and being kind to all of those around her, even if they don’t deserve it. She’s wonderfully flirty and equal in her exchanges with Kit, heart-wrenching in those other moments of sadness or breakdown, and makes Ella one of the most amiable female protagonists that I have seen recently.

But it is fair to say that she is almost outdone by the ever wonderful Cate Blanchett. Blanchett steps into the shoes of the wicked stepmother, and easily musters up the required bile, poison and cruelty in every insult, cackling laugh or just that heart-stopping stare. It’s no great insight to say that Blanchett lives and breathes her role on screen, but it is still fantastic to see nearly every time we see her on film. Her Tremaine is someone you dislike instantly, come to despise intently, but might even sympathise with just a little bit before the end. In short, she’s a great villain, and Blanchett’s consummate performance is why. There is a different Cinderella film, one is the style of Maleficent, that could easily have been made about this epic villainess.

I also loved Richard Madden as Kit. I’d be worried that he might find himself typecast if he keeps this up but he was far more enlivened and likeable here than he was as Robb Stark, even though they are both similar roles. His Kit is a young man on the verge of serious responsibilities, but is still capable of a smile, a pithy comment and that shining look in the eye. His interactions with Jacobi were great, some of the films very best moments, an equal in many respects to those shared between Ella and her parents earlier in the film.

Richard Madden is the films surprising scene stealer as Kit.

Richard Madden is the films surprising scene stealer as Kit.

There isn’t a bad egg in the supporting cast either, all of them doing great work with the solid script and the accompanying direction. The stand-outs are the previously mentioned Jacobi, Skarsgard and Anozie, all accessible and interesting characters, who rein back on the potential over the top possibilities for more grounded performances. Holliday Granger and Sophie McSherra work really well as dumber and more ridiculous versions of their mother, creatures to be pitied rather than scorned. A number of bit players also leave their mark, not least Alex McQueen and Rob Brydon in minor comedic roles, or Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother, who has brief time onscreen, but leaves a very big impact on Ella and the audience. I felt Ben Chaplin could have been a bit better as Ella’s father, but he was sort of one-upped by the wonderful women he shared his scenes with. Lastly of course, there is Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. I wouldn’t say she set the world on fire when she is actually on screen, which is only for a few minutes, maybe because those minutes were dominated by CGI shininess. But her narration is rock solid, forming the essential spine of the script.

You can always tell when a director is invested in the thing that he/she is at the helm of, and you can  always tell when they aren’t. The difference between a paycheck and a passion project can be stark, but thankfully Branagh is firmly in the latter category. So few directors have the same care or eye for character framing that he does, even if it something as simple as focusing on the fullness of James’ face or the side of Blanchett’s. Character introductions are sublimely filmed, most notably the stepmother, stepping out of a carriage and encompassing the frame like a demon growing in size, surveying all that she intends to dominate. In Cinderella, Branagh displays an obsession with doorframes as a natural, well, framing device, and with the amount of ornate examples peppered throughout, it works well enough.

When Branagh has to go the CGI well, which is often enough in fairness, he is able to show some wisdom and restraint when required. The large establishing shots of quaint manors, throbbing towns or majestic palaces are executed well, and the magically created carriage, footmen, horses and driver are formed and disestablished brilliantly, particularly when they all revert back to their original forms, in a scene that is beating with tension and thrills, without any of the characters actually finding themselves in any serious peril. The animals of 1950 are along for the ride in computer generated form too, providing some welcome comic relief at moments, no more than when the hilariously named “Lucifer”, Tremaine’s evil-minded cat, slams into a dresser in pursuit of Ella’s mice friends.

The best thing I can say about Branagh’s direction is just that his scenes and camerawork always combine to make whatever is being depicted onscreen at any one time interesting, but not overwhelming: there are lots of clever camera movements, lots of fine details and lots to take in, but never to the extent that everything passes in a blur. He’s like the anti-Michael Bay: there is lots happening in every shot, but not so much that your eyes want to throw up.

But this film, and Branagh’s direction, would be nothing without the production department. Not for nothing has the films costume designer, Sandy Powell, won three Academy Awards for her craft. Those wins were for Shakespeare In Love, The Aviator and Young Victoria: I genuinely think that Cinderella outstrips them all in its clothing, and another gong might be in the offing. It’s rare in my reviews that I find myself talking about costuming to a great degree, but it has to be seen to be believed here. Everyone is dressed famously, everyone is brought to life in just the right way with what they are wearing. The stepmother is the pre-eminent example, where the various shades of vile green her oft-complicated and sinister dresses contain marking her out, but there is also the princely uniforms of Kit, the moronic stuff the stepsisters throw on and the usually simple but always elegant garments that Ella herself struts around in. Whether covered in ash or covered in sparkles, she can’t fail to make an impression.

Combine that with Dante Ferriti’s seriously impressive set construction, full of detail, craft and care, and Branagh has everything he needs to direct an explosion of colour and vibrancy, creating a delightful world for his characters to caper around in, but never letting it engulf them either (he did the same thing in Thor, but does it even better here). The ball sequence is the stand out naturally, where everything – the gowns, the room, the candlelight, the music and encompassing power of the camera – combines to create a near flawless experience for the audience, a masterpiece of fairy-tale film.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz has been in the news recently as the penmaster for Star Wars: Rogue One, and after viewing this film, I am assured that the standalone’s for a galaxy far, far away are in good hands. Weitz demonstrates a wonderful knack to mix heartfelt declarations, cold malice and back/light comedy together, in a script that is bubbling over with emotion and feeling. A lot is being borrowed from 65 years ago, but there is plenty being added too. Ella’s character being the purest embodiment of kindness and courage comes through in nearly every word she says (or doesn’t say in some instances), just as the stepmothers horribleness does for her.

Her romantic dialogue with Kit is sincere and memorable, even if it is something as basic as the oft-repeated “just so”. Kit alone is given the chance to stand-out too, whether it is in his refreshingly loving relationship with his father – how easy would it have been for that to be just another stern and distant father with an unloved son – or in his brilliant retorts to the Princess complimenting him on his “small Kingdom”: “I trust you won’t find it too confining…”

In truth, it is Tremaine who gets the lion’s share of the better lines, either spoken or about her: one of the early stand-outs is the fairy god mothers wonderful double meaning when  she proclaims Tremaine had experienced grief, “but wore it wonderfully”. Her spitefulness is both brutally simple – “Do shut up” she deadpans to her daughter trying to sing – and more overtly powerful, as she proclaims her hatred for Ella is because she is “good, innocent and kind” when she herself is none of those things. Her back and forth with the Grand Duke was the sort of interaction that was begging for more time.

Ella is, through James' performance, one of the better lead female characters I've seen recently, and for reasons I did not expect.

Ella is, through James’ performance, one of the better lead female characters I’ve seen recently, and for reasons I did not expect.

Patrick Doyle’s score is nothing to really get too excited over, though I wouldn’t say it’s terrible. It’s just that it fails to really land in the memory, melding into the background, providing a positive accompaniment when required but little more. There is something to be said for a score that does not dominate the film like some regrettably have, but Cinderella’s is just on the wrong side of that divide, not grabbing enough of the attention for its own good. In terms of the general production of the film, it is one of the few areas where Cinderella falls down. Maybe it could have done with a few musical numbers like its direct source material, with sections of the film seeming ripe for something in the “Let It Go” vein.

Some brief spoiler talk, such as there is, follows.

-Branagh, present at the screening I attended, related a brief anecdote that he felt described his attitude to the Ella character. He knew a usually mild-mannered man once who, on the verge of losing his temper in Branagh’s presence, declared “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness”. I think it is easy – too easy – to see Ella as a simpering doormat who should be standing up for herself more, but I felt that, at the conclusion of the film, the way in which she verbally bitch slaps her stepmother was more than worth any supposed doormat-ness. That’s her strength and her power, an ideal dearly held from her departed mother.

-Moreover, Ella’s final words to her stepmother – a very keenly meant “I forgive you” – gives Cinderella and added bit of sublimeness to its ending. Forgiveness is, as Brendan Gleeson put it in Calvary, a very under-rated thing. Moreover, it is also an expression of strength, because isn t the easier path to give into hate? Ella, a strong, confident and moral character, is willing to let her enmity with her stepmother go, and offer an absolution that might be underserved in some eyes, but perfectly fits what we have been shown about Ella.

-In that, Cinderella is also a film with fairly strong religious overtones, particularly, of course, Christianity. Christians looking to see a film imbued with the central tenants of their faith – Judge not, love they neighbour, the meek shall inherit the earth and so on – could do worse than enjoy a screening of Cinderella, which might not have the staying power of Cavalry, but makes a similar impression.

-In regards the possible ways that you could make an adaptation of Cinderella that can be both different from the more traditional examples while not going off the rails completely, I found myself thinking about a gender swap. But then I was somewhat troubled: for in a version of the story where Ella is a man and Kit is the woman, it would be all too easy for it to be a very different story, of a lowly commoner man worming his way into a seat of power thanks to a besotted princess. That was the scenario that immediately popped into my head, which then got me thinking about the standard gender roles that my culture has instilled in my mind, which I just go to automatically. Wow, that got away from me.

-Man, the poor Duke. OK, he connived with Tremaine and worked against the King’s wishes, but he’s not wrong either: an advantageous marriage with a foreign royal would be better for the Kingdom at large, and everything the Duke does is for that Kingdom. But, he gets found out and exiled. King Kit can’t live on idealism forever, and monarchs need people like the Duke around sometimes.

-I’m not going to be the only one noting how weird it is that Richard Madden’s royal character in this film basically does the same thing his royal character in Game Of Thrones does, just with much less terrible results. I’m also sure that, during the ball sequence, the production team had to bite their tongues to not sing “The Rains Of Castamere” or whisper “The Lannisters send their regards!”

-The film is actually missing the expected …”and they lived happily ever after”, which seems like an odd exclusion to make, it seemed so natural.

-Though, it was a neat touch for Helena Bonham Carter to be given the classic “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” to sing during the credits after James’ rendition of the iconic “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”.

Spoilers end.

I really enjoyed Cinderella. I think that, while it lacks a certain amount of ambition and has a few other regrettable flaws – like the score, and some of the overly-sentimental moments, particularly near the start – it’s a very solid and very entertaining production, both from a story, character and visual perspective. In fact, I think that it is one of Branagh’s best films, a fine example of the kind of wonderful directing he can do, with the camera and with the actors at his disposal. James and Blanchett do the cause of leading female roles in Hollywood a lot of good here, and the rest of the cast back them up strongly.

Yes, it’s a nostalgia trip, and yes part of you may well wonder what kind of relevance such a fairy tale can have for a modern audience. But forget all of that, and just let yourself fall in love with Ella, her struggles and misfortunes, and that inner beauty that allows her to live according to that wonderful creed. “Have courage and be kind” is such a rare message for film to spell out nowadays, but the setting and story of Cinderella are perfect for just that kind of theme. Wonderfully extravagant in nearly every level of its production, beautifully acted and delightfully directed, Cinderella is one of Disney’s best efforts of recent times. If you want to go the ball, Branagh will take you there. Fully recommended.

A really enjoyable experience.

A really enjoyable experience.

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

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Ireland’s Wars: William’s Arrival

Before more serious matters next time, this week’s entry will be a shorter lead-up.

William III arrived in Ireland on the 14th of June, at the head of a force of men that would, in the field, number well over 36’000. It was a gigantic armed force, meant to demonstrate William’s power and his commitment to crushing the enemy, and quickly. He was, after all, engaged in war against France on other fronts, and the redirection of this amount of men to the Irish theatre was not an insignificant decision. They were a varied and disparate lot: Danish, German, French, Dutch, Scottish and English as well as the Irish Protestants that had been doing most of the fighting thus far in the country. With a sizable amount of cavalry and a large amount of artillery, William was marching with the best force available to him, an army that had largely drained his territories of soldiers but which left him with a potentially decisive advantage over James.

William had a few options open to him after landing. He now replaced Schomburg as commander-in-chief of the Williamite forces in Ulster, but Schomburg had done good work that year already, taking Charlemont and essentially clearing Ulster of any Jacobite positions of consequence. That work opened up the possibility of amore westward approach, down into Connacht or through the midlands, there to threaten the Jacobite heartland and entice James into fighting a battle on more unknown ground. But the risks were obvious too: if James was not enticed, there was only so long William could stay in the field with an army that size. He had not come to Ireland to conduct sieges or grab territory: he wanted to face James in a proper battle and beat him. Aside from dealing a smashing blow to the Jacobite cause in general, such a result would legitimise William’s seizure of the crown in London, and tarnish James irrevocably. But it was not set to be an easy task: William himself had no great battlefield reputation up to that point, in comparison with James, who had at least one spectacular success, the Battle of the Dunes in 1658, to his name. William had never faced James on the field of battle during the Glorious Revolution, and that would have to change.

And so, William decided to move ahead with a simple approach: following the same route that Schomburg had taken the previous year in his ill-fated attempt to bait James, William would march down the east coast towards Drogheda and Dundalk, with the final goal being to capture Dublin itself. It was believed that James would never let his capital fall to the enemy without offering a fight, which is exactly what William wanted.

Because if it came to a battle, nearly everything favoured William. When, in the face of William’s arrival, James called a muster at Dundalk, he was left disappointed by the results. Between men who just didn’t turn up and the amount of troops that had been designated for garrison duty throughout the country – in many cases, quite unnecessarily – James’ muster only came up with somewhere in the region of 23’000 soldiers, a significant difference with William. This deficiency in numbers would inform much of James’ decisions in the days to come, but it was more than just that: the Jacobite army, due in no small part to James’ sloth during the winter and spring months, was under-trained and poorly armed. Where the Williamites had received modern military training and experience,  or were professional soldiers already, and were armed with the latest flintlock muskets, the Irish Catholics of James’ army were press ganged amateurs, lucky if they had obsolete matchlocks with which to fight. Flintlock’s were lighter, easier to reload and fired better, and the disparity in arms quality was clear.

The sloth had also stopped the Jacobites from seizing the initiative earlier. If James had assembled his army in spring and marched north, he might have been able to catch the Williamites unawares and ruin William’s plan before they got started. But James had forgone his earlier bravery and daring in military affairs, perhaps too easily influenced by his French officers, who preached caution and defensive war: maybe because they were trying to preserve the French units that formed the core of the Jacobite army. Some still urged to King to relocate behind the Shannon, to make use of the natural defences open to him, but the King still refused to go that far. But he was trying to cover all of his bases: while happy to fight a defensive battle if he had to, entrenching at Dundalk and waiting for William to attack him, he also sent units westward to guard other avenues of approach into Leinster, under Patrick Sarsfield.

William was marching as June entered its final week. Newry and the Moyry Pass lay between him and his ultimate target, but for whatever reason, James was ill-disposed to properly defend these areas. Newry had already suffered greatly during the war, and wouldn’t have found much use as a bulwark, but the pass was different. If William wanted to get to Dublin efficiently, he’d have to take the pass, and if James adequately defended it, he could make the Williamites suffer grievously before any sort of set-piece battle. Such things and possibilities must have been on James’ mind, since his army was outnumbered: a defence of the Moyry Pass offered the chance to nullify that difference, even if it was only temporary.

But James did not do that. Instead, the only combat that took place in the pass was a skirmish between vanguards of the two armies, with a few hundred casualties, mostly injured, sustained between the two sides. James apparently only wanted to know the size of the enemy force, and received exaggerated reports: William had just been scouting the area out before moving on with his main army. The chance for a more substantial defence of the pass, as had been undertaken by Hugh O’Neill in 1600, went a begging.

The affair was a minor one, but worked out in favour of William overall, as James was persuaded to withdraw again, this time past Dundalk towards the town of Ardee, 40KM from Dublin. William was able to move most of his army through the pass without any further impediment. In the face of this further advance, James again retreated, this time in a south-easterly direction, eventually making it over a river near the town of Drogheda, on the 29th.

The river was the Boyne, one of the last natural barriers between William and Dublin, and soon to become immensely famous in the history of the Unionist movement. But James had little inkling of what was about to transpire. What his exact plans at this point were is not clear: he might still have been preparing for a set-piece engagement, but was seeking favourable ground on which to fight it, or maybe was hoping for a repeat of the Dundalk standoff with Schomburg, where the Williamites would suffer from the perils of disease. Encamping at the Boyne had advantages too: the river was wide and deep, and if the bridges and fords could be adequately guarded, any further attempt to move south taken by William could be checked more easily. Regardless of his exact intentions as the last days of June slipped away, James stayed put on the south banks of the river, just a few kilometres away from Drogheda, in or around the small village of Oldbridge.

William pressed on. He was keenly aware of the time factor – his giant army could not stay in the field forever, and he didn’t want to suffer the same fate as Schomburg had – and was intent on bringing matters to a head. On the 30th of June, his army arrived on the north banks of the Boyne. Situated on either side of the river, the two men who gave the War of the Two Kings its title now prepared for the only time they would command armies against each other in battle, a fateful engagement, whose result would echo down throughout history.

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

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The NFB Reading List: The Art Of War

A nice short one today.

The-Art-of-War

The Art Of War – Sun Tzu

Who was Sun Tzu? What was his career like? Did he actually write the famous book attributed to him? Did he ever exist at all? All these questions and more are ones that I, and many others, will never come close to answering conclusively.

But, what we do know, is that Sun Tzu is part and parcel of military education, and has been for a period of time that is truly astonishing. Thousands of years and so many RMA’s have been and gone since Sun Tzu – or someone maybe – wrote down “The art of war is of vital importance to the State” and still the book finds itself on all of the recommended reading lists, a text that officers and others are expected to read, consume and remember. It has transcended the military world and is used as a treatise in law, business and even sport, any environment which involves some form of competition.

This might seem confusing when you actually sit down, for no more than an hour and a half, and read the remarkably short text, which is made up of clipped sentences within thirteen headings. And the reason that it might seem confusing is that everything is so simple: The Art Of War is the idiots guide to conflict, the most basic textbook for how to command troops in battle and how to win wars.

An example, in chapter six, verse 30: “So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.“

Cheers for that General Tzu, I never would have figured that out for myself. So much of The Art Of War is like this, that there is an element that dismisses its usefulness entirely, as on overly simplistic bit of historical knowledge, which has little relevance to the modern world or the modern way of carrying out war.

But there is use there, for a variety of reasons. Aside from the neat way that The Art Of War has survived through the ages, literally one of the oldest textbooks on war ever written or preserved, there is the simplicity of it, which has a positive connotation as well as a negative. No one would seriously suggest that a reading of The Art Of War would prepare someone for generalship. But there is something endearing about how the book boils away all of the fluff, all of the complication and all of the complexity, to come up with the very base guidelines that we have to take into account. Sometimes, simple is best, and nothing is more simple than The Art Of War. In being that simple, The Art Of War is easily remembered and easily absorbed: where someone like Carl von Clausewitz needed hundreds of pages and a confusing dialectic approach, Sun Tzu just needed a short bit of time and a small amount of ink to make many of the same points (or better).

And there are the deeper parts too, which require closer examination: Sun Tzu actually abhors war as a practise, and insists it be the last resort of a nation, he emphasises the virtues of manoeuvrability and surprise over brute force, he insists on the power of knowledge over the power of a sword, he encourages restraint and mercy in any general, and in some of the most pertinent parts of the book, he expands on how deception and subterfuge, not bloodletting and violence, are the key elements in determining battles and wars. Attack when strong, do not when weak: but also appear inactive when active, incapable when capable, hungry when fed, unprepared when ready. Treat your men well and don’t throw their lives away needlessly, and never pick a fight you know you can’t win.

In the modern age, where entitles like the United States military have too often found themselves caught assuming that massive technologically superiority and oodles of firepower will do, some of Sun Tzu’s maxims still have clear worth: “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

I wouldn’t say that The Art Of War taught me a great deal directly, but it did make me think about war in more simplistic terms than I had before, eschewing complexity and layered analysis. Sometimes it is good to take a step back and survey a war with such an eye, to look for mistakes made at that basic level. For that, The Art Of War is still a great text, and so remains as it is, one of the benchmarks of military education.

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Same-Sex Marriage Referendum: 61 Days Out

Starting off today with something mildly amusing, but also dangerous: Senator Fidelma “Raped on Facebook” Healy Eames claiming that Mothers Day has been criminalised in America, and suggesting that it continuing to be celebrated in a post-SSM Ireland is a questionable prospect. It’s easy to see this, retweet, and laugh. But you also need to be mindful. All the people mocking Eames on Twitter and elsewhere are the ones who are already going to be voting “Yes”. It’s the others, the ones who might think Eames’ misinformation is true, that you have to worry about. In future, it’s better to mix the mockery with some fact checking, and to make that clear.

In more substantive news, Behaviours and Attitudes had a new poll out which, among other things, had a look at the current state of the electorates mood regards gay marriage. While my previous warnings regard polling data at this early stage remain in effect, it’s good to see a general stability in the available numbers: 73% claim they support the amendment, with a strong level of understanding also evident – important for any referendum which can so easily fall prey to “Don’t Know, Vote No” thinking. Additional data backs up the popular perception of voting patterns: “Yes” voters tend to be young, middle class and from urbanised areas, “No” tend to be older, poorer or more rurally based. Long may the indicated trends continue.

Courting the youth vote remains critical, and so it was with some delight that I found out that Dublin City University, a place close to my heart for many reasons, has decided to shift its exam schedule so that its students will have as few excuses as possible when it comes to actually voting. If the “Yes” side can actually get the youth vote out in force, to any reasonable degree, it’s all over bar the shouting.

Over on the Irish Times, frequent commentator Diarmuid Ferriter has his say, correctly pointing out that the Catholic Church’s involvement in the larger debate is bound to be more reserved than usual, out of simple realism for the effect they can have. Ferriter hopes for more involvement, since he thinks it’ll result in more “Yes” voters. I think that’s true, but only up to a point. In Ferriter’s typical style, it takes him a long time to get to the point, so I’ll leave a warning on that piece.

In the same publication, Padraig O’Morain has a brief but fascinating piece on the history of gay society in Ireland, so often repressed and malformed, thanks to a culture that shunned and criminalised homosexuality. It’s good to remind ourselves that we are not so very far away from darker days in this civil rights struggle – being homosexual was illegal when I was born, and I’m only 27 – and that the current vote is only the latest in a long road of victories over the more repressive elements of our society.

A view from abroad next, as an American writer looks at the upcoming vote as St Patrick’s Day, and an interminable conflict over parade make-up in New York and other places begins again. It’s a nice summation of the issues, if you can stomach David Quinn being called upon as the voice of the “No” side constantly.

Even the Socialists are getting involved. They did a fairly lacklustre job in prosecuting the Seanad campaign they nominally supported, and aren’t being very gung-ho this time around either, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. But the uneasiness of actually supporting a government initiative was put aside, albeit briefly, by “RBB” in his well worded attack on the Church’s position. He’s dead right in one respect at the very least: the “No” side would be much more truthful, with all of their carrying on regards adoption and parental rights, if they just came out and stated what they really think. But they won’t, because they know how awful and bigoted it is to say it plainly: “We don’t trust homosexuals with children”.

On RTE this week, popular TV show Don’t Tell The Bride featured its first lesbian couple (having featured a gay male wedding last season). The timing is perfect for giving a frank depiction of how lesbian relationships work. It turns out they are much the same as heterosexuals ones, at least insofar as organising weddings is still difficult, but worth it in the end as a celebration of love and commitment. And they had a kid too! You could practically hear the gnashing of teeth from the Iona Institute. Unfortunately for them, this is one occasion when their bleats of “Balance, balance!” will not be answered.

Blog site 140 characters is usually enough has a nice piece up this week, repeating a fairly scandalous piece of writing from a woman, Mairead Scannell, in a regional Munster newspaper. Her bitterness and vile language are one thing, but I was touched by the unanimity of the responses, which all roundly condemned her. It came out at about 3-1 over her, which is close enough to the current polling trends.

I’d also like to offer a quick response to this piece, not Irish-related, but on the topic of SSM. A woman claims support for gay rights but not SSM, on the basis of her own experience being raised by a lesbian couple after her mother and father divorced. I sympathise somewhat with Ms Barwick’s experience, a divorce is never pleasant for a young child. But she torpedoes her own argument against SSM – which relates entirely around the absence of a father figure it seems – by saying plainly “My dad wasn’t a great guy, and after she left him he didn’t bother coming around anymore.” Sorry, but you’re blaming SSM for the sins of your own father: he left you alone of his own volition it seems, so maybe you should save some blame for him, and not your mother and her partner, who actually raised you into, from what I can tell, a functioning adult. Would she have preferred to have been raised by her mother alone? Would she have preferred that her mother rejected her homosexuality and just stayed with her father in a sham marriage? Would she deny other children the chance of being raised by a loving couple because she has a deadbeat father?

It all comes back to that one statement: “We don’t trust homosexuals with children”. Put like that, the attitude is laid bare for how ugly it really is.

Quick links: A piece on how LGBT groups have finally broken into the St Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, to the disgust of the local church (but not local politicians), the latest whacky “Yes” campaign idea, which while mostly preaching the choir is still good for a laugh, and a little girl’s view on SSM in this modern day and age. From the mouths of babes, etc.

Still plenty of time to register to vote, to change your constituency or to sign up for postal voting. Two months to go.

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Review: Focus

Focus

Trailer

A taut, sexy con thriller? Nope.

A taut, sexy con thriller? Nope.

Man, you have to have a sure-fire winner here right? A film about “the con”, that subset of the heist movie genre, the kind of environment where you can dazzle the audience with sleek visuals and cool characters, sex appeal and ingenious plotting. The co-directors of I Love You Philip Morris at the helm, so there’s a pedigree there. Throw in a target the audience wants to see humiliated, a handful of exotic locations and even a half-decent script, and you’ve got yourself a solid experience you can sell to people. And, on top of all that, in this instance you have both Margot Robbie, one of Hollywood’s super-bankable leading ladies right now, and the, if we’re being fair, iconic Will Smith as your leading man. Sure, Smith has had a few duds in the not too recent past, but he’s one of the industry’s brightest stars for a reason. On the face of it, he has more than enough charisma and talent to pull off the sort of suaveness and attractiveness that the lead in a con film should have.

So, why oh why, did it all go horribly wrong?

After seeing through her unsubtle attempt to grift him, legendary con man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) takes Jess Barrett (Robbie) under his wing, teaching her all he knows about “the con”, with their relationship eventually moving to another level. But the world of the con is a dangerous one, and soon the two are caught up in different plots and schemes, unable to really know if they can trust the other.

Focus starts well. Will Smith’s Nicky easily cons his way into a reservation at a fancy restaurant, fitting in to the opulent surroundings like a consummate gentleman thief. Margot Robbie’s Jess gives him the sort of tantalising opportunity that letters to Penthouse dream of, only for her angry husband to show up waving a gun. But Nicky laughs it off, having seen the whole thing coming, one of the oldest scams in the book. He’s carefree, confident and utterly unflappable, pausing only to give the hapless hucksters some advice on how to perform the con properly before leaving.

That’s what the opening of any con film should be like, and it’s what any main character in a con film should be like either. But the warning signs are there in abundance if you want to see them. There’s awkward humour inserted where it shouldn’t, some clunky dialogue and, worst of all, zero chemistry between the two leads.

And since Focus is supposed to be about an intense love affair in the middle of the con game, you need that chemistry. And Smith and Margot simply do not have it at all. The atmosphere between the two is deader than dead, awkward and unimaginative, thanks to some poor performances and poor writing. There should be an immediate spark between the two, something to explain why they are so drawn to each other, then and later. But there just isn’t. That je ne sais quoi feeling of passion or desire or whatever you want to call it, it simply doesn’t exist. No Bogart and Bacall here, just two actors going through the motions, without any of the back and forth, is-each-of-them-on-the-level? sort of interaction you’re hoping for, ruining any potential fizz whenever the next comedy line comes up and falls flat. It’s a shame too, for a lot of reasons, not least that an interracial romance like the one depicted here is so rare to see onscreen.

But even when these characters are not together – and large parts of the film seem to fly by with Smith wandering around on his own – things don’t improve, largely because both Nicky and Jess are such boring people. Nicky should be a suave, interesting and charming Lothario type, but he gets no back-story beyond the basics (rough upbringing, absent father figure etc), no proper motivations and no real explanation as to why he seems to want to risk everything that he has for this woman who has wondered into his life. Jess is worse, an even more bland blank slate, who stumbles around the narrative after Nicky, getting sucked into his sphere and letting the male character do most of the plot progression. There’s precious little about the leading two, in terms of characterisation or relationship, that got me interested in Focus. It carried on into a one dimensional and unexceptional supporting cast, full of forgettable people and hollow placeholders.

With that vitally important element of the production falling flat, Focus desperately needed its actual plot to be something worth following, but the directors couldn’t pull that off either. Focus is bizarrely segmented in two, almost like they had an idea for a franchise but then smashed the two plot ideas together (what can’t help but wonder if having two directors was a factor in this), and the end product is more lackadaisical than likeable. There’s always going to be twists and turns in a con/heist film, but their doing well to limit it to a couple, maybe a little one nearer the start and a big one near the end. But Focus can’t help itself, and in lieu of having anything interesting to say or depict in its plotline, prefers to simply throw twist after twist in the direction of the audience, like M. Night Shyamalan on steroids. It gets to truly ridiculous levels near the end (see below) and the truth is that they are either not all that hard to see coming, or so intangible that you’ll be furrowing your brow trying to understand what just happened. The multitude of twists, like a multitude of anything in a movie, simply serves to dilute the effect of their appearance. It’s an unreliable narrative taken to a laughable extreme.

Beyond that, there are a few things about Focus that actually do work, all of them in the first act, where Jess is introduced to the proper con game and how to perform it. There is something fairly surreal about all of the perfectly executed thefts and misdirection’s that we see performed, but also something fascinating as well. Seeing Nicky outline just how he and his compatriots make money off what they do – and a lot of it at that – was reminiscent of some of the narration from stuff like Goodfellas, where the proper voiceover gives you a bird’s eye glimpse at the utterly seductive potential of crime. Jess gets her only effective evolution here too, learning how to grab things off idiotic tourists and gradually moving up and up on the ladder.

But things go off the rails rapidly following these sequences. A set-piece scene at the Superbowl drags on for way, way too long, and not even B.D. Wong’s involvement can stop it from becoming stifling in its mundanity, with the closing “twists” being as unsatisfying as it was hard to stomach. The way the film splits after this point, with a jarring time and situation jump, largely undoes any of the positve things that the first act was able to string together. The second act sets itself up well enough, with the sudden arrival of Rodrigo Santoro and Gerald McRaney as clients/targets of Nicky, the film doing a credible job of essentially starting from scratch half way through the running time. But Jess’ reappearance in the narrative limits what they can bring to the table, as Focus becomes this subpar relationship dramedy, focusing (ha!) on the worst aspect of its production. The film potters on through to an unconvincing and elongated finale, ruining any of the tension it has barely managed to create with more ill-timed comedy moments or unpalatable twists.

But for all of the flaws with the plot, it is still those main two that drag Focus down to the level o0f a bad film. There is one other requirement for films of this nature, and for any film really, and that is for the audience to care about the characters. I didn’t care about Nicky or Jess. They were empty, pastless people, with no kind of enticing interaction between the two of them and with too many twists and turns in everything they did to make me realty care about their end goal or whether they achieved it or not. That, and there was little to redeem, make them sympathetic to us, as thieves with hearts of gold, or at least thieves robbing nastier people. With this absence, you view the backslapping between Nicky and Jess with a very dubious eye, and Focus is nowhere near good enough to get away with telling such a story. Where films like the aforementioned Goodfellas overflowed with interesting criminal characters you might not sympathise with overtly, showing that it can be done, Focus just gives you two crooks and just sort of hopes you’ll be onboard with their plans.

Will Smith: Sleepwalking through his recent career, with a succession of duds.

Will Smith: Sleepwalking through his recent career, with a succession of duds.

The acting talent on display here should be enough to save Focus from any of its other flaws, but it just fails to engage. Smith’s on a bad run over the last few years: Middling efforts like I Am legend and Hancock have led on to poorer fare like Seven Pounds, Men In Black 3, After Earth and his bizarrely underwhelming cameo in Winter’s Tale. Maybe Smith is just sort of checking out after a career replete with the sort of success that other Hollywood players can only dream of. Certainly, he just seems bored by the script and surroundings of Focus, only rarely imbuing the Nicky character with the sort of gravitas that he needs. Looking forward to cashing that paycheck, Smith sleepwalks through scenes with Robbie and scenes on his own, with the required emotional development of the main character going largely a begging.

I think Robbie is a bit better. She seems much more interested anyway, maybe because she isn’t in a position of career safety like Smith is. In early scenes with Smith and in learning the con trade, Robbie gives us some enthusiasm and verve. But she’s fading out by the end too: only in a brief moment where she demonstrates how much better she’s gotten at the grifting game does she actually seem to go beyond what is expected of her. Even if I didn’t like the character she played all that much, she was still much better next to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but fails to reach even that average height here. Focus isn’t a great film when it comes to its lone female character.

The supporting players aren’t doing all that great either. Santoro is drab, a far cry from the scene stealing he did in 300 and its prequel/sequel. McRaney is a hit more noticeable, but only insofar that his character seems to be an old person stereotype, decrying everything that the young people are doing. Adrian Martinez is Nicky’s weird friend who seems to be inhabiting the actual comic relief role, but without much comedy.

It’s a pretty enough film, and you can trust the Ficarra/Requa team to direct a professional production. That being said, there are moments when some elements of the visual side of things start to distract – maybe intentionally. Nicky has to have a conversation about a big con next to a Formula 1 race track, has to go about undertaking his plan in a glitzy nightclub, has to visit and partake in a multitude of festivals and ethnic markets whereever one pops up. There are better moments though: Nicky trying to manage Owens’ search around his apartment has a nice comic language to it in terms of its visuals, and the earlier scenes setting up the art and function of the con are a great example of crime montage in action. While it all adds the right blend of colour and exoticism in Focus, you just sort of wish that the same care would have gone into other parts of the production, which can’t break out of the feel of being a fairly typical example of the sub-genre in its direction, between the bright lights and the dull, repetitive music that accompanies everything.

The script, from the directing duo, is only alright, and that’s when it is at its best. Maybe it’s the really bad delivery that does it in, but there are plenty of moments when you think that Ficarra/Requa have lost the run of themselves, especially when it comes to how really crass humour is suddenly dropped into the middle of conversations. Whether it is Nicky suddenly talking about boobs or Owens’ magic taint, or Garriga complaining about the world’s longest period during the finale, it all just adds up to a very MCU-esque attempt to just always be dropping jokes at every moment. While you’ll get a few cheap laughs that way, you won’t make any lasting impression. The script is just generally weak really, without the sort of humanity and sparkle to it that such a story requires. Nicky and Jess don’t talk like people in their situation should talk, and the bad delivery of the lines is the final awful cherry on top.

Some brief spoiler-talk follows.

-Twist! She was trying to scam Nicky in the beginning! Twist! They were scamming B.D Wong the whole time! Twist! Nicky is playing Garriga and Owens! Twist! Nicky sells his secret info to everyone for cash profit! Twist! Jess doesn’t know Garriga at all! Twist! Nicky’s been using Jess against Garriga! Twist! Nicky gets shot! Twist! The shooter is his dad and he’s not going to die! Twist! The dad takes off with all the money! Twist! Twist! Twist!

-That entire bit surrounding the number 55 and B.D. Wong’s gambler was beyond words for how crazy it was. Such an elaborate and elongated set-up in the film for such a lame explanation.

-Owens turning out to be Nicky’s dad was just about the only of the many twists that was actually in any way clever, though it reminded me all too much of the end of Mel Gibson’s Maverick. It did seem like the film over-elaborated on itself in keeping that whole plot line a secret though. So, Nicky knew that Jess would find a way to hide herself on the balcony?

-Weird, random shot of a horseless jockey at the track, squatting next to a railing. What the hell was that?

-When Nicky talks with Garriga and Owens at the race track, they have to actually cease their conversation whenever one of the cars pass. That was odd. It was like they were trying to create tension, but it just made everything seem stilted, almost like we were looking at outtakes. Also, who puts a restaurant next to a race track?

-We don’t get any real closure on Garriga, who is apparently the films’ primary antagonist. Nicky does him over and basically gets away with it, but it doesn’t really seem like he will be affected all that much. Con/Heist films need a good antagonist to focus on, and Focus doesn’t have that.

-The last shot leaves Focus and its characters in an alright place – provided Nicky isn’t dying of any unseen internal injuries that is – but the sense that we’re watching two star-crossed lovers limp into the sunset isn’t really created all that well. The overall film just could not sell that relationship to me.

Spoilers end.

Focus really wants to be Oceans 11, right down to the feeling that there were two movies that the production team wanted to make. But it has little of that kind of cinema magic in it. A lacklustre script makes it all very hard work for the cast before we really get started, and neither Smith nor Robbie are doing good enough regardless. With a plot that is asinine at its worst and a flaccid romantic pairing, Focus falls far short of what it could have been when you look at its individual parts. I Love You Philip Morris it is not, and one cannot help but wonder if Will Smith is done making credible movies. Robbie might still have a chance to make it good, but not in this. Not recommended.

Poor stuff from a team that should have done better.

Poor stuff from a team that should have done better.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: A Long Expected Rewrite

My posts going through The Lord of the Rings on a chapter by chapter basis were some of my early attempts at review/analysis, and have been some of the most constantly viewed and read pieces on the site. But, looking back, I can’t say that I’m super happy with them. A large part of me feels they’re written a bit shoddily and could do with some sprucing up. I’ve been meaning to start in on that for a while, but the effort of writing so much about that book meant that I wanted a cool-off period of a few years before getting into it once again.

But here we are. Starting with the first three chapters, polished, updated and enlarged, I’m going to be doing edits to that post series in sequence, with the hope of maybe doing one a week until completion. Offering more thoughts, trying to enliven the analysis with the help of a few years more writing experience, and ditching the stuff on the film’s, because it just seems sort of like an unnecessary afterthought reading back. I thought about re-posting the edited efforts, but feel like that would be a step too far. I will be promoting them on social media though, as they are completed.

Only the three done so far of course, click above, but if you’re interested in the rest, as they are, you can check out the index here.

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Ireland’s Wars: Cavan And Charlemont, 1690

After the stand-off outside Dundalk came to an end, with both sides withdrawing their armies into winter quarters, James II came in for increasing criticism. He had moved away first, tiring of the interminable situation where Schomburg’s army refused to offer the possibility of battle. But when Schomburg’s Williamites had decamped and marched north, they had done so in a weak position, much of the army dead or dying from disease. Some had pressed James to reform his army, chase Schomburg and attack, believing that the weakness of the Williamite army would have meant a sure victory.

But James did not attack, his Jacobite army staying disbanded in winter quarters around Dublin or just going home. More and more, the commanders and generals of the Jacobite cause began to get a bad feeling about James. Not that an attack against Schomburg at that point would have been a sure fire winner, but it is a general rule in history that soldiers and officers have more faith in a pro-active leader. James was not that.

And so the winter came. James spent it around Dublin, trying to work through his agreement with Louis XIV. The Jacobite position in Ireland was largely untenable without continuing French support, but Louis was no fool. He was helping James in service of his own ends, in the larger European war against William of Orange and his allies. The war in Ireland gave William a painful distraction from continental and naval affairs but, at the same time, Louis was in no way interested in launching a full scale assault upon the Williamites in Ireland. Now, he wanted some reciprocation.

A deal was eventually struck between the two. James, having little faith in his Irish soldiery – for good reason – wanted more French troops, but Louis needed soldiers too. And so, a swap was arranged, where Louis, in March of 1690, sent over 6’000 troops, with cannon and arms for them as well as other supplies, in exchange for the same number of Irish soldiers being sent the other way. Mountcashel, the loser at Newtownbutler, commanded this immigrant force, which essentially formed the nucleus of what would become known as the “Irish Brigade”, a unit that would remain active in French service until near the end of the 18th century. Mountcashel’s opposite number was Antoine Nompar de Caumont, the duc de Lauzun, replacing some of the other French officers who had fought under James, including de Rosen. The French marched to Dublin, there to await the coming campaign season in the summer of 1690.

There was still a war going on of course, though it might have been a bit hard to tell if you had been in Dublin at the time. Between November and the following summer, James and the Jacobites had ample opportunity to train, arm and generally improve the forces they had gathered, which despite nearly a year of war had yet to really progress beyond the standard of normal militia troops. But, as James indulged his wants in Dublin with parties and extravagance, what existed of the Jacobite army remained as it was, with little training and less guns, increasingly reliant on foreign markets for basic foodstuffs, in no way prepared or ready for a coming engagement with the Williamite enemy.

That enemy, after the disaster outside Dundalk, was far more pro-active in repairing the damage that had been done, though most now agreed that Schomburg was not the man for the job he was in. Perhaps under some pressure from his European allies, who felt that a man who could not get his own house in order had no place leading a “Grand Alliance” against France, William decided to recruit a new army, from the Netherlands, French Protestants and Scandinavia as well as England, and cross over to Ireland himself, there to take personal command of the Williamite effort, bring James to a decisive battle and defeat him, in a manner he had been unable to during the Glorious Revolution. William spent the winter drawing up his plans, and prepared to embark to cross the Irish Sea as Spring came.

Some sporadic fighting did occur over the winter, but to little cost to either side. Forces operating out of Dundalk launched a raid at Newry, but found the town so gutted as to be beyond a state of useful occupation. The Williamites soon struck back, sending men close to Dundalk and executing a successful ambush on a foraging group. In Kenagh, County Longford, one of the furthest south positions held by the Williamites, a short siege forced the defenders to honourable terms. The weather and situation with the respective armies precluded large scale engagements, with only the rapparee attacks providing any other sort of military endeavour in this period. The border region between Leinster and Ulster was in a bad state agriculturally due to the fighting, with food shortages threatening to cause a disaster for civilians.

It was not until February that the war kicked off again in earnest. Schomburg knew that his master was coming to replace him and, perhaps eager to repair some of his reputation that had been damaged in his first campaign, he became intent on shoring up the Williamite frontiers before William himself arrived. With units of the Enniskillen garrison, still proving themselves an effective thorn in the side of the Jacobites, Colonel William Wolseley, one of the victors of Newtownbutler, was ordered to attack the town of Belturbet in County Cavan, a task he successfully carried out in late January/earlier February of 1690, displacing a small garrison.

The local Jacobite headquarters was roughly 15 km’s south in Cavan Town, commanded by a Colonel O’Neill. His requests to be allowed to counter-attack were not only granted, but reinforced, through additional soldiers under the command of the Duke of Berwick, one of the Jacobite side’s most effective soldiers up to that date. Between the two men, the Jacobites in the area would be able to field over 2’000 men.

Wolseley had only around a thousand men in total, 700 infantry and 300 cavalry, and resolved to try and ruin the Jacobite game, before they could arraign their full force against him. To that end, he led his army on a circuitous march east of Cavan, over the River Annalee, in the hope of getting between O’Reilly and Berwick, and attacking Cavan Town before the two men had a chance to meet up. However, Wolseley was foiled in his purpose, with bad weather, a difficult fording of the river and some light resistance on the marching route meaning that, when he approached Cavan on the 11th of February, not only had Berwick gotten there ahead of him, but his own approach had been well noted by the Jacobites.

Wolseley could have given up and withdrawn then and there but decided to press his luck and attack. Berwick had placed his men along the natural defences to Cavan’s east, in hedgerows and on hills surrounding the road from that direction. Wolseley sent his cavalry right up the middle, where it came under fire from both flanks, and then faced a charge from Berwick’s own horse. The Enniskillener cavalry broke and fled, with a Jacobite pursuit only checked by Wolseley’s smart utilisation of his infantry to blunt their advance.

Wolseley hadn’t had enough yet and, perhaps believing that it would not take much to break the Irish troops he faced, sent his infantry forward arraigned across the field. The gamble paid off: after sustaining only a small amount of fire, the Williamites were able to break through those natural defences and send the panicked Jacobites running. Some fled into the otherwise undefended Cavan, others took refuge in a small earthen fort outside the town limits. Wolseley’s men plundered and burned Cavan, perhaps not under Wolseley’s orders, and an attempted breakout from the fort that could have proven disastrous had to be checked by a Williamite rearguard. With nothing else to do and with no ability to hold his ground, Wolseley then took the opportunity to retire back to Belturbet. The “Battle of Cavan” was really just a big-ish skirmish, that claimed a couple of hundred lives on the Jacobite side, but showed once again that Jacobite infantry drawn from the Irish peasantry could not be expected to stand up to their Williamite counterparts. Berwick survived, but found what forces he controlled greatly diminished and demoralised: any plans to retake Belturbet were put on hold.

One of the only remaining Jacobite positions of importance in Ulster remaining was the famous fort of Charlemont. I’ve talked about this position and its history – during the Nine Years War and the Cromwellian Conquest – before, and it remained a place of great defensive prowess, a modern construction that could be held for an indefinite period of time if supplied properly. It’s commander at the time was an old soldier named Tighe O’’Regan,  in command of several hundred men. Looking for his own bit of glory, Schomburg mobilised a force from his larger army to take it in April.

It was no easy task, but Schomburg prepared well. There was no active assault, just a total investment and a gradual work-up to the walls for any future offensive operation. Due to the lackadaisicalness of the Dublin administration, Charlemont had not been adequately supplied in any way, and calls for relief went largely unheeded. After a few weeks, O’Regan and his men were near starvation. An attempt to get food into the fort by a Colonel MacMahon from Castle Blaneydid succeed. But, almost immediately, O’Regan realised that MacMahon and his escort of 500 men had been allowed through the Williamite lines deliberately, and they failed twice in breakout attempts. The garrison, now enlarged to over 800 men, went through the newly arrived foodstuffs rapidly, until they were at the starvation point again. With no choice, O’Regan surrendered the fort on terms, his bedraggled army allowed to march away. For Schomburg it was a notable success, which shored up the Williamite position in Ulster nicely ahead of the proper campaigning season. For the Jacobites, it was another humiliation.

So the war progressed. After the damaging episode at Dundalk, the Williamites were once again in the ascendant, and James’ lack of preparation or care when it came to the coming campaigning season was a serious concern for everyone involved. The Catholic Irish militia remained undertrained and underarmed, ill-disciplined and badly led. At Cavan, they went from a position of strength into a blind retreat, and at Charlemont they lacked the right kind of requisite support to withstand the Williamite siege for more than a month. Soon, William himself would arrive, and the road to one of the most famous battle in Irish history would be travelled.

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

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