The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: Barrels Out Of Bond

With “Barrels Out Of Bond”, we have gone past the recent series of very lengthy chapters, and most of what remains of the story will be made up of much shorter entries, emphasizing even more the episodic nature of the narrative. In the last few chapters we’ve gone from under-ground fighting in “Over Hill And Under Hill“, to one-on-one tests of wisdom and guile in “Riddles In The Dark“, to desperate escapes in “Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire” to fantastical surrounds in “Queer Lodgings” to horror fairy tales in “Flies And Spiders“. Now, we do something a bit different: a jail break story, where Bilbo will come to the fore once again.

But that must seem a whiles away from the situation at the beginning of the chapter. The exhilaration of defeating the spiders fades away, as the reality of being lost in Mirkwood, without food or water, sinks in. Hopelessly lacking even the vaguest sense of what direction to go, the company is forced to pick a random one by a democratic vote, a fairly pathetic image: “They got up and staggered on in the direction which eight out of the thirteen of them guessed to be the one in which the path lay…

Not that it matters, as the group are soon waylaid – or perhaps saved would be a better word, if we are being honest – by the Wood-elves, whose sudden torches are like “red stars” in the blackness of Mirkwood. The dwarves have “no thought of a fight“, such an action very likely to be suicidal. The only one not interested in just passive acceptance is Bilbo. He’s just as hungry and thirsty and tired as the rest, but the Took side is alive and well inside him, as the hobbit has the wit to slip on the Ring and get out of the way before he has a chance to be captured as well. After all, the company has no idea, at this point, if the elves mean them well.

The following paragraph sets up the main stage of the chapter, the underground halls of the Elvenking, which will be the prison Bilbo needs to get the dwarves out of. While being very different to the holes of the goblins, they still command respect, a yawning maw – literally described as a “cavern-mouth” – built into the side of the hill, protected by a mighty drawbridge and a deep rushing river, with the interior a labyrinth of “twisting, crossing, and echoing” paths. It’s all Bilbo can do, at this moment anyway, to summon up his courage and follow the captives inside, a little bit of the Baggins side poking through. But he does make the plunge, going voluntarily into this imposing prison. As if to make the point even more, Tolkien resorts to traditional auditory tropes: “…the great gates of the king closed behind them with a clang.”

The company, and an invisible Bilbo, are brought before the Elvenking, who has a mostly similar conversation with them as he had with Thorin. Unlike that meeting though, Thranduil has come arraigned properly for this kind of audience, perhaps looking to dazzle and intimidate with “a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again“. Tolkien further emphasises the changeable nature of this elf by noting he wears a greener crown in Spring, as well as his direct attuning with nature in the “carven staff of oak” he holds in place of a royal sceptre.

Thranduil puts on a bit of a show for the company’s benefit, appearing at first to be merciful and magnanimous in having the dwarves be unbound, but then following that up with a wonderfully haughty and arrogant statement, where he places an appropriate emphasis on the situation the company is now in: “…they need no ropes in here,” said he. “There is no escape from my magic doors for those who are once brought inside.” Foreshadowing!

At the end of the last chapter, we had a confrontation of two equals, both royals, both obstinate, both in the wrong and both in the right. Here, it’s a little bit different, insofar as Thorin’s refusal to elaborate changes to Balin’s angry denunciation:

What have we done, O king?” said Balin, who was the eldest left. “Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be trapped by spiders? Are the spiders your tame beasts or your pets, if killing them makes you angry?

This outburst is positively drippling with angry sarcasm, and its notable that Balin, “the eldest left“, is confident enough to make such a statement (Fili is the next in line for the throne as Thorin’s eldest nephew, but the dwarves seem to favour experience when it comes to leadership in these situations). But Thranduil gives as good as he gets in an equally angry reply, placing the blame for the company’s battle with the spiders on them, further demanding to know what they are doing in Mirkwood, and putting them behind bars until they fell inclined to tell him (indeed, the terms of their imprisonment are strict enough, amounting to solitary confinement with no exercise: Gloin will memorably snap “You were less tender to me” recalling this episode in “The Council Of Elrond” when the elvish imprisonment of Gollum comes up). The Elvenking is thus made to look somewhat emotionally led and prone to fits of pique, but the dwarves are being insulting to the local ruler, who isn’t all that wrong in wanting to know just what the company are doing there.

This whole sequence also calls back to the hole in the story that I brought up briefly in the last chapter. The Woodland Realm is not some secret underground Kingdom. It is mysterious certainly, and presumably little-visited by the outside world. But people know that it exists. They trade with Lake-town, they fought against Sauron. Yet, we are apparently supposed to think that the dwarves are unaware of the Woodland Realm’s existence, or were unaware that the northern path through Mirkwood would take them there. Neither Gandalf nor Beorn saw fit to say something to the effect of “Watch out for the Wood-elves when you are getting near the end”. The company is trespassing, and while Thranduil is being haughty and dictorial in response, Thorin hasn’t exactly carried himself as appropriately as he could have.

Tolkien spends the next few paragraphs outlining the unique and rather awkward situation that Bilbo finds himself in, hidden from detection from the elves but essentially trapped himself. Brief trips outside carry their own dangers and hopelessness, since Bilbo doesn’t really know where to go, and no thoughts of abandoning the dwarves have entered his mind yet anyway. Two weeks fly by quickly as Bilbo endures this terrible limbo, permanently invisible: “I am like a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day…This is the dreariest and dullest part of all this wretched, tiresome, uncomfortable adventure!“. His moral compass is also in flux, as related later in the chapter: “He no longer thought twice about picking up a supper uninvited…“.

Bilbo’s thoughts naturally turn to Gandalf, and whether the wizard would be able to do anything to save them. But Bilbo’s new-found sense of responsibility comes through, as he eventually abandons such thoughts, and realizes that there is only one person in a position to do anything to help the dwarves.

He starts this process by finding where the dwarves are all being held, including Thorin. You gave to admire both the extent of the Elven-king’s halls – able to keep 12 dwarves locked up and secure in different parts of the complex – and his strategy here, isolating the company until one of them breaks, because he only needs one of them to do so.

He reckons without Bilbo though, and Bilbo’s intervention is crucial. Thorin’s attitude, and the attitude of the rest of the dwarves, is well elaborated upon here. Thorin is described as “low-spirited” because he is considering cracking and telling Thranduil about his quest. His conversation with Bilbo enlivens him, and his message to the rest of the dwarves is to stand firm, and not entertain even the thought of parting with their share of the treasure (despite the fact that they still have to slay an “unconquered dragon” to get it). They don’t consider that it might be much easier to get out of their situation by just offering the Elven-king some of their bountiful wealth, more than any of them could ever spend. No, they’ll stay locked up and take the risk on Bilbo’s plan over such an idea.

In the last chapter, Tolkien commented on the Elvenking’s lust for wealth, and on the Wood-elves’ general lifestyle of not sowing, tilling or mining, and it had an undoubtedly negative tinge. But you wonder if that is truly worse than raw dwarven greed as it is depicted here, which prevents a would-be King-under-the-mountain from dealing with Thranduil in a more civilized manner. The dwarves obsession with their “long-forgotten gold” is such that they discount even Smaug as an obstacle. Such blind commitment to the idea of their financial legacy will result in an explosion late on in the story, and indicates that even the very idea of the treasure is starting to have an unwholesome effect on the company.

It’s up to Bilbo to enact a rescue by “thinking of something clever“. The narrator is upfront with the extent of the dwarven respect and admiration for Bilbo, even if it very much newfound: “…the remarkable Mr Invisible Baggins” as Thorin now describes him as, and “they all trusted Bilbo“. It’s a far cry from only a few chapters ago when the hobbit was being described in baggage terms. Bilbo has had to work very hard for dwarven approval – fighting a battle with spiders single-handed is a veritable labour of Hercules in this context – but he’s got it, for the moment. The narrator ponders whether this was all part of Gandalf’s plan when he left the company, but that does seem bit of a stretch: it wouldn’t come off as quite so clever if Bilbo hadn’t stumbled upon the spider colony when he did. As it is, Bilbo is the man on the spot, reluctantly so, but he knuckles down and gets on with the job: “He sat and thought and thought, until his head nearly burst…

A jailbreak story requires some important elements: a suitably imposing prison (done); a suitably imposing jailor (done); a detailed plan of escape, that doesn’t stretch the bounds of believability (getting there); the possibility of discovery (oh yes) and a serious sense of tension and excitement. Much of what left of “Barrels Out Of Bond” is about filling all these necessities out.

Bilbo, snooping around the caves, discovers the method that the Wood-elves use to get imported wine: an additional entrance/exit through the use of a subterranean stream and barrels propelled by water. In a paragraph you can almost imagine being filmed in montage style, Bilbo observes the lake, the portcullis, and the manner in which the elves operate the same. Ideas form, and the reader is thinking alongside Bilbo.

I believe this is also the first proper mention of what is soon to be a very important location:

Bilbo…learned how the wine and other goods came up the rivers, or over land, to the Long Lake. It seemed a town of Men still throve there, built out on bridges far into the water as a protection against enemies of all sorts, and especially against the dragon of the Mountain.”

While Lake-town looms large in the narrative, this small mention helps set it up nicely, as a remnant of the men who used to live in the area during the time of Erebor’s height, and as a practical place dedicated to defending themselves from fiery lizards in any way that they can.

Bilbo’s formulation of a plan leads him to over-hearing the first exchange of what I shall call “Elvish Bantz”:

Now come with me,” he said, “and taste the new wine that has just come in.  I shall be hard at work tonight clearing the cellars of the empty wood, so let us have a drink first to help the labour.”

Very good,” laughed the chief of the guards. “I’ll taste with you, and see if it is fit for the king’s table. There is a feast tonight and it would not do to send up poor stuff!

We’ve already seen that the elves are whimsical, laid-back beings, but I always thought this kind of familiar, sarcastic back-and-forth went a bit farther. It marks the Wood-elves out from their Rivendell brethren as a bit more cut-off, a bit darker and a bit more prone to the jibing kind of comedy, instead of the child-friendly stuff Bilbo was presented with in “A Short Rest“. You wouldn’t imagine these guys referring to Bilbo’s situation as “delicious“.

Anyway, Bilbo has a plan. The major hole in the chapter emerges here, as Bilbo somehow manages to free the 12 dwarves, explain his plan to them all in turn, and then successfully sneak them as a group into the wine cellar. In fairness, Tolkien does have the excuse of a feast going on that has the denizens of the caves distracted, but I do feel it is a bit much. It is a moment for some basic comedy though, as Bilbo winces with every noise:  “Drat this dwarvish racket!

More acceptable is the dwarven reaction to Bilbo’s plan: “We shall be bruised and battered to pieces, and drowned too, for certain!” they muttered. “We thought you had got some sensible notion, when you managed to get hold of the keys. This is a mad idea!“. And they are right. It is a “mad idea“. But Bilbo, continuing to grow as a character and as a leader, simply isn’t having it, and he’s right too. This is the only shot that the company has, and whinging about the situation isn’t going to change that. Bilbo, who might have quailed under such criticism earlier in the story, is now uncompromising in defence of his own plot (and, if we choose to infer a bit from the last part, a tad threatening): “Very well!”  said Bilbo very downcast, and also rather annoyed. “Come along back to your nice cells, and I will lock you all in again, and you can sit there comfortably and think of a better plan-but I don’t suppose I shall ever get hold of the keys again, even if I feel inclined to try.”

But this hard-nosed and somewhat intimidating hobbit still has that quintessentially decent nature, as evidence by his treatment of the unfortunate guard whose keys he took to spring the dwarves. Bilbo returns the keys to their proper place, ensuring that, in what is sure to be a rancorous review of what has occurred the next day, the guard will at least be somewhat saved from the inevitable scorn by the mystery of a jailbreak where the jailed have the politeness to return their means of escape before they escaped. Then again, he’s drunk on duty, and I doubt Thranduil is all that understanding.

The matter of putting the dwarves in the actual barrels is inherently humorous: being ever on watch in case the mad scheme is discovered; discussing the finer points of what kind of barrel is most suitable (wine barrels are too hard to open and close) and the image of the dwarves having to be packed in tightly with straw, or being scrunched up “like a large dog in a small kennell“. Thorin is specifically pointed out as being in an especially unenviable position, and in some ways we might consider this is lowest point of this would-be King-under-the-mountain: a figure of the narrator’s ridicule, packed into a food container as part of an escape from abject imprisonment at the hands of a reginal rival.

More “Elvish Bantz” occurs as a few more of the caves inhabitants turn up to go about the task of rolling the barrels onto the river. There is something so remarkably uncouth about it all – “There is nothing in the feeling of weight in an idle toss-pot’s arms” – and it once again gives the impression that the Wood-elves are a people apart from their elder cousins elsewhere. I think this might be the only example of an elf grumbling ever noted in Tolkien’s works.

The elves go about their work with a song, a sort of play on “Row, row, row your boat” in a way, a simple working tune probably sung many times. If the casual words between the Wood-elves mark them as different, this sort of inventive and rich rhymery shows that the elder race has some pretty clear common characteristics, especially when it comes to artistry of any kind. It’s also not all that different to the dwarven song sung in Bag End, indicating a regional similarity as well. In the end, the song is a typical elvish veneration of nature, as well as a suitable work-song:

“Down the swift dark stream you go 

Back to lands you once did know! 

Leave the halls and caverns deep, 

Leave the northern mountains steep, 

Where the forest wide and dim 

Stoops in shadow grey and grim! 

Float beyond the world of trees 

Out into the whispering breeze,” 

As the narrator positively delights in telling us, now is the moment when the problem with the plan becomes clear: Bilbo isn’t in a position to get or be stuffed into a barrel himself. That Bilbo didn’t apparently think of this is a bit strange, and may just be an avenue for the author to inset more comedic moments into what has already turned rather quickly into a comedic episode in the story. Important to note is that, in this desperate moment, Bilbo thinks not only of his own fate – “It looked as if he would certainly lose his friends this time (nearly all of them had already disappeared through the dark trap-door), and get utterly left behind and have to stay lurking as a permanent burglar in the elf-caves for ever” – but of the dwarves too: “He wondered what on earth would happen to them without him; for he had not had time to tell the dwarves all that he had learned, or what he had meant to do, once they were out of the wood.”

With no other option, Bilbo musters up his courage once again, clings to a barrel, and gets into the river. While not quite on the same level as his one man show against the spiders, or even his confrontation with Gollum, it still shows that a certain decisiveness and willingness to act has crept into the hobbit’s character. The Baggins in him might well have stayed in the caves, but the Took, though perhaps driven by “despair and not knowing what else to do” takes the plunge.

In the water, it’s all Bilbo can do to just hold on and not be “hustled and battered to bits” by the other barrels all around. This a moment of apparent tension, as the escape is carried out but it remains unclear if the dwarves are simply drowning inside their casks. And yet, it still seems almost comical more than anything, the image of this hobbit, like a drowned rat, clinging precariously to his support until the barrels hit the shoreline.

Peter Jackson, for the The Desolation Of Smaug, elected to make this part of his trilogy a more traditionally exciting action sequence, replete with a battle of elves and orcs, death-defying barrel based stunts and lots of twirling cinematography. For a trilogy that invites such (undeserved) disdain, it’s a sequence that I noted a lot of critics enjoying, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s fun, it’s rollicking and its inventive. It’s a marked difference to the literary escape which, with the exception of Bilbo’s lack of foresight for his own egress, goes off mostly without a hitch or without anyone coming all that close to stopping the dwarves. And while I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Tolkien should have taken such a course – it is important to acknowledge the difference between the two mediums, and the necessity of change in adaptation – I do feel that “Barrels Out Of Bond” is missing a little something at the end of the chapter, to make the escape that bit more thrilling and enjoyable to read. As it is, Bilbo washes up at a small settlement of the elves on the edge of the river, and his exciting escape now amounts to a clumsy effort to steal some food and stay warm.

The narrator notes the importance of this moment in the closing paragraphs: “There is no need to tell you much of his adventures that night, for now we are drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on.” If we are to infer that the author considers The Hobbit to be a book of two halves, then the conclusion of “Barrels Out Of Bond” is the half-way point, where the journeying to the east is (mostly) finished, and the business of tackling a dragon can take centre stage. I don’t happen to agree with cutting such stories into two parts: if we were to consider The Hobbit in the form of a traditional three-act structure, then “An Unexpected Party” to “Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire” might form a first act where the journey begins and then eventually reaches a firm interregnum point. A second act would consist of “Queer Lodgings” onward, perhaps as far as “Fire And Water”, where the company advances as far into the wilds and the dangers as they can, and the obstacle of Smaug is overcome, with the remaining chapters, detailing the build-up to and execution of the Battle of Five Armies, forming a final conclusive act.

At every stage of the escape, Bilbo has benefitted from a fair amount of luck, as noted by Tolkien towards the end of this chapter. He reaches the shore just in time, and wakes the following morning just in time to re-join the lashed together barrels, on top of the unlikelihood of the escape itself going off without a hitch. I’m sure Gandalf would insist that a higher power is involved in some capacity, and Bilbo’s good fortune does seem a little bit more than just that.

The chapter ends on an unexpected piece of foreboding summation: “They had escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen.” After the trials and tribulations of “Flies And Spiders”, it’s the escape from Mirkwood that is the more impressive feat in many ways, and also this escape from the land of Faerie: perhaps it is fitting that the departure from such a fantastical place occurs in such a fantastical manner. As for the last few words, well it’s fair to say that the audience might not have that much fear in them for the company.

“Barrels Out Of Bond”, close to the literal halfway point of the story, is a funny old chapter. Short and sweet, Tolkien provides us with an interesting escape for the dwarves, that emphasises Bilbo’s ingenuity, observation, survival instincts and, at the crucial moment, courage. It also showcases Bilbo more as a leader, this time in organising and executing a plan, as opposed to in the midst of a terrible battle.

But the chapter has its weaknesses. I feel that more could have been done to expand out this home of the elves, perhaps in a scene where Bilbo eavesdrops on the King in conversation with his servants (they could be talking about Lake-town, Smaug or Erebor), and, as stated, the escape itself could do with a bit of punching up, perhaps if the company is discovered by a wandering elf and needs to undertake some quick shutting up in order to not be discovered. Perhaps it is just because it comes on the heels of the much lengthier, much more detailed and much more action-packed “Flies And Spiders”, that would make any neighbouring chapter look less than sparkling in comparison. Perhaps Tolkien simply wrote himself into somewhat of a dead end, and wanted to get on with the business at hand as quickly as possible.

And the business at hand is immense. The next chapter will be another transitionary affair, before we finally get to the real meat and bones of the entire tale: the Lonely Mountain is on the horizon.

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

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Ireland’s Wars: O’Neill’s Declaration And Clontibret

In the aftermath of the victory outside Enniskillen, the combined forces of Hugh Roe O’Donnell and Hugh Maguire swept through northern Connacht, laying waste to all English settlements that they could find, enacting a slaughter that even pro-Irish sources are in difficulties to excuse. The blood was up perhaps, but this rampage had the added effect of simply enlarging the scope of the victory that the Irish had achieved at the “Ford of the Biscuits”. A large part of English territory in the west was pitifully defended, and what troops were in place were more inclined to stay behind walls than march out and fight.

Changes were taking place in the Pale though. As noted, and long overdue, William Fitzwilliam was finally sent home to be replaced by Sir William Russell, a son of the Earl of Bedford and an experienced soldier from military excursions in the Netherlands. While his campaigns were delayed for a time by sweeter words from the northern rebels, and those in the Pale administration who advocated a peaceful approach of negotiation, Russell would eventually take an opposing view, influenced by the continuing raids and evidence that Hugh O’Neill was stockpiling arms. His job was to crush any attempts to usurp the English position in Ireland, and it was a task that he took to with gusto.

O’Neill’s position, treading a fine line between rebel Irish and English, was increasingly untenable and his constant delays of declaration were no longer satisfactory. Called to account for his lack of support for English armies, O’Neill had gone as far as visiting Dublin to answer the charges. Hugh met with the council in Dublin, and was allowed to return home unmolested, but the charges against him were not dismissed. Many Irish sources take great time to excuse the behaviour of Hugh in this period, insisting that he was always of a mind to join the rebels, but was simply waiting for the right time. This is probably biased thinking. More likely that Hugh wanted to wait for as long as possible in order to see with which side he could gain the most for himself and Tyrone. If the crown had offered him a position of power in Ulster, like the Lord Presidency for example, it is not inconceivable that he would have declared for them.

But the crown and the Pale did not trust Hugh, so the final destination of the matter was set. What is more believable from Irish sources is that Hugh was in communication with foreign powers, hoping to bring French, Spanish or Papal armies into Ireland on the side of the rebels. He must have known, as Huge Roe also must have, that success for the rebels could not be lasting without outside support. But, for now, that support was lacking in tangible outcomes.

For the Pale though, matters were soon to start spinning out of control. They had already lost their authority over southern Ulster and the north of Connacht. Now, trouble flared up again in south Leinster, as Russell’s inaugural act as Lord Deputy was to lead an army against Fiach McHugh O’Byrne of Wicklow, seeking to avenge the defeat at Glenmalure several years previously and end the threat to Dublin from that direction. In early 1595, Russell moved south with an army, marching rapidly, and managed to attack and capture the O’Byrne stronghold at Glenmalure without much fuss. Fiach escaped, allegedly warned in advance because of some errant drumming from the English army, or an early attack from an overly-eager English subordinate.

The capture of the fortress was a great success, but it was rather ruined by the escape of the O’Byrne chief. An insurgency broke out throughout the region, as Fiach organised his own men to raid and ambush the English forces now garrisoned in the locality, while relatives further afield even managed to set fire to the Crumlin area of Dublin. Russell would garrison Glenmalure with his own men and continue to fight this campaign for the next several years. In truth, it was a separate front that the English could have done without, and the strategic positives of the initial assault were soon outweighed by the drain on men and resources trying to hunt the O’Byrne’s down. Russell soon had to call for reinforcements from England, which arrived in the form of 3’000 veterans of the Brittany campaigns under Sir John Norris.

The attacks against his ally Fiach and the arrival of the new troops seems to have finally settled it for Hugh O’Neill. Taking the decisive step past the point of no return, he chose the path of rebellion, attacking and occupying the major English fort on the Blackwater River, near the borders of his own territory. The Blackwater was a critical position, but at the time it was manned only sparsely with the total amount of troops engaged at the time of its capture less than 100. Still, it was a decidedly provocative attack. It was now the early months of 1595, and Hugh Roe responded to these events by launching fresh attacks into Connacht, noted as being so fast as to avoid any significant entanglements with the enemy, not that there were many to be entangled with. O’Donnell would raid south several times in 1595, attacking and burning Longford Town in one memorable episode, and returned home laden down with plunder and cattle each time. The two largest, most powerful Irish states were now allied in a war against the English, which was already spreading to different parts of the country. Maguire was on the march in Cavan, burning Cavan Town shortly after the fall of the Blackwater Fort, Tyrone forces raided into Louth and trouble was brewing again in Munster (a story for another time).

The O’Neill chieftain, now turning to caution after his aggressive action, dismantled the Blackwater Fort, burned his own fortresses in the area to deny them to the enemy, and retreated back north. Hugh seemed ready to enter the fray, but unwilling to risk an open confrontation with the English at that point. His army was impressive for its day, but it lacked experience fighting the English as a cohesive unit.

The war continued to escalate in Connacht, as Ulick Burke, head of the Clanrickarde territories, temporarily seems to have given up his allegiance to the crown. The Burke family had been involved with a naval raiding expedition on Tyrconnell undertaken by George Bingham, brother of Richard and one of the commanders at the Ford of the Biscuits. After some dispute over pay to the Irish contingent, Ulick and Bingham had come to blows and the English noble was killed.

The Burkes held a castle at Sligo in the name of the English, but handed it over to Hugh Roe on his request. From this base the Tyrconnell chief was able to extend his raids and plundering throughout further reaches of Connacht, creating even more of a problem in the region. Richard Bingham, still a person of authority in Connacht, gathered his forces, including elements from Thomond and the Clanrickarde families, to march north and besiege Sligo castle. One might have thought that Hugh Roe had worked himself into a dead end, playing into English hands, but for whatever reason the siege came to nothing, perhaps because the government had re-directed too much of their forces for the campaign in the east. When O’Donnell ventured forth towards Sligo from Tyrconnell, Bingham had to leave his brother unavenged and retreat.

With another victory under his belt, Hugh Roe returned to Tyrconnell. His ability to outmanoeuvre hunting English armies, to strike deep into enemy territory, to take forts and castles with apparent ease, all increased his reputation. He soon had a large amount of people from outside Tyrconnell lining up to join his army, from different parts of Ulster, Connacht and even Scotland.

In the summer of 1595, O’Neill made some more aggressive moves, with forces of him and his allies besieging Monaghan Town. Coming shortly after the second fall of Enniskillen, the Lord Deputy in Dublin was left with the apparent political necessity of at least attempting a relief, even though it could be argued it made more strategic sense to abandon the town.

Tasked with convoying a load of supplies to Monaghan and then returning home, the relief force was assembled at Newry, a mixture of existent English military in Ireland and the recently arrived Brittany veterans. Commanded by O’Neill’s nemesis, Henry Bagenal, it numbered over 1’500 men, with a few hundred cavalry backing up the pike and shot. Most sources indicate that the English did not prepare for a major engagement during this operation, perhaps expecting O’Neill to back down as he had at the Blackwater.

What followed next is described as the “Battle of Clontibret”, after a small townland to the east of Monaghan, but was really more of a two-day running fight between the opposing armies centred in the countryside around the castle in Monaghan.

The English relief choose to head towards Monaghan via the Newry route from Dundalk, departing on the 25th May. The next day, on the road to Monaghan, the force came under sporadic attack from Hugh O’Neill’s army, a mixture of various Ulster clans and foreign mercenaries. Little hand-to-hand fighting took place, this warfare mostly consisting of sniping and distant engagement.

English casualties were light, but they made the mistake of expending much of their powder and ammunition in warding off such attacks. The relief force made it to Monaghan castle, left their supplies and a chunk of their manpower, and then turned for home on the 27th.

The army took a different route back to Newry, likely motivated by a desire to avoid the same welcome they had received going the other direction, which led through a more hilly, boggy area, ripe for an ambush. O’Neill’s army, all 4’000 men of it, laid this ambush at a point in the journey that the English force had to go through a narrow stretch of road with bogs on one side, as part of a general strategy to maximise the use of local terrain. O’Neill had a surplus of musketry and cavalry, and the English suffered badly from repeated flank attacks as they moved forward. Organised into three sections – van, main and rear – the English had little choice but to try and push through.

The fire must have been intense, given the lack of ammunition later in the fight. The English commanders released what little cavalry they had to try and strike back: this attack got within striking distance of Hugh himself, who was unhorsed, but he survived. The fighting lasted through the day, as the English convoy moved on, and the Irish continued to attack from heights and other natural cover. As night fell, the situation became confused and desperate for the English, who made camp at a hill. Fears must have bee rife that the English were surrounded by a superior force, a force that could well slaughter them all the following morning. The English had, by this point, ran out of ammunition and were uniformly exhausted.

The sun rose, and no attack came. The Irish had withdrawn, presumably taking what supplies and material the English had been forced to leave behind with them. Reinforcements from Newry bolstered the English army, and they marched back to safety. Hugh O’Neill, apparently unaware of the similar deficiencies of his enemy, had refused to press the attack due to a lack of powder and ammunition for his musket men. He was also under-strength, with the Tyrconnell military engaged at Sligo. It was a missed opportunity, but he could still claim to have won a victory.

The result of the battle, and the miniature campaign, was hardly catastrophic for the government though. Losses were generally estimated at around 400 and many supplies had fallen into Irish hands, but the army had remained intact, had avoided a greater slaughter and had achieved their objective of re-supplying Monaghan (the efforts of the Irish to take this position were also temporarily warded off). While it could hardly be called a victory, it was not a crushing defeat either.

But the battle demonstrated starkly that O’Neill had a military that was far above what the English had come to expect from the Irish. Before Clontibret, Russell had insisted that the Brittany veterans would roll-over their Irish opponents, as they were nowhere near as proficient in warfare as French adversaries were. In the aftermath, perceptions changed, with it clear that O’Neill’s Irish were well-armed, well-trained and reasonably well-co-ordinated. They were able to make full use of local terrain to gain advantage, exhibited tactical restraint with necessary, and decisiveness when the moment for it came. Moreover, they were moving away from the traditional mainstays of the Irish military machine, the gallowglass and the foreign mercenaries, favouring instead homegrown pike and shot formations.

It would be hard not to blame any English person in Ireland in the summer of 1595 for panicking, as it seemed the colony was unravelling. Open warfare had broken out with two very strong states to the north. Connacht was being overrun at will by the enemy. The O’Byrne’s were proving difficult to tie down in Wicklow and had even gone as far as attacking Dublin itself. Various clans and families in Ulster and the west were joining the rebels. Foreign mercenaries, mostly from Scotland, were beginning to arrive in greater numbers. The MacDonnell’s of Antrim were becoming troublesome. Rumblings from Munster, the population seething under the heels of an unpopular plantation, were growing. And there was ever the threat of a foreign power lending support.

The English still had a large number of troops, an advantage in artillery and ships, and a strong fall-back position in the Pale. But the arrival of Tyrone into the war had made it an infinitely more dangerous event, one that had rapidly transformed into a potentially game-changing conflict. The English nightmare had always been the disparate elements of Ireland uniting in common cause against them. This war was as close to that nightmare as the situation had ever been.

It was only going to get worse still.

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

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8th Amendment Repeal: An Addendum

After writing my bit for Friday, I got to thinking a bit more about the referendum.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably get quite distressed by the sheer weight of the “No” side in terms of posters, online ads, “presence”. And, by all indications, it’s going to get worse. The “No” side simply have too much of an advantage in financial terms. The Google decision and the Facebook rein-in help, but they are not the fatal blow I’ve seen some people treat them as. We’re going to be bombarded by new and ever-more inventive (and inaccurate) posters, people are going to be bombarded by “suggested” ads and videos, and whatever their good intentions, “Together For Yes” doesn’t appear capable of keeping up right now. The political parties, if they are bothered at all, are done being pro-active, with not even Sinn Fein or the hard-left apparently all that interested in investing much more in terms of promotion and message.

I fear there is an overconfidence, a malaise, in the “Yes” camp. When Gavin Sheridan criticised the lack of fundraising on Twitter the other day, and questioned whether polls were trustworthy, he was inundated with replies in the vein of “Stop being negative”, “ground game”, “We can’t do anything about the financial gap” and the dreaded “What way are you voting then?”. I can’t be the only one who sees the similarity between those kind of responses and those that were frequently parroted by the “No” side in the SSM campaign. When the polls, with the gap closing fast (too fast for comfort) see “No” take the lead, will these same people start talking about a “Silent Yes”? Will they then be the ones furiously denouncing the electorate on May 26th and wondering how it could have all gone wrong?

But there is still stuff that we can do. Together For Yes are always looking for volunteers for canvassing and leaflet distribution but, if you’re anything like me and feel that, shall we say, your temperament isn’t suited for the kind of level-headed and thick-skinned conversations you’ll have to have with very difficult people, you can donate so Together For Yes can put up more posters and more online ads. You can have potentially awkward conversations with friends and relatives who are in the “Don’t Know” category, or only veering one way or another (with the caveat that you shouldn’t waste your time, energy and general well-being on lost causes). You can report every “No” ad, video and illegally placed poster that you see. You can contact your local councilors and TD’s and ask if they have been campaigning, and why not, if not.

And most importantly, you can vote on May 25th. Don’t fall prey to over-confidence if the polls maintain the “Yes” lead, or despair if the polls turn. Don’t give in to apathy or convenience. Encourage others to vote, offer a lift if you have one.

Right now, today, I think that “No” is going to win. They have the funding, they have the momentum, and this “Yes” movement is not the well-oiled, well-organised and well-supported vote grabbing machine that “Yes” two years ago was. To face reality, it is simply not as popular.

But that doesn’t have to matter. I really don’t want to read a litany of dour and frustrated postmortems come May 26th so, whether it is as minor as tapping a “Report” button or as a major as a significant donation of your time and money, please do what you can to give “Yes” as much of a chance as it needs.

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8th Amendment Repeal: Why I’m Voting “Yes”

I’m going to be voting “Yes” on the 25th May, for the repeal of the 8th Amendment, and you should to. I was originally planning on a lengthy post, but after some thought I realised that is wasn’t necessary. Because the reasons are simple, and because they should be related simply. Because we need to repeal the 8th amendment.

Because no woman should be forced to undergo nine months of pregnancy, and then labour, by law.

Because Ireland shouldn’t export its problems and pretend they aren’t happening.

Because being satisfied that the English will handle our dirty little secrets is simply not good enough.

Because being outraged about the (misrepresented) rate of abortion in England in light of the above is incredibly hypocritical.

Because the 8th amendment is a clear and obvious violation of personal rights and liberties, and what’s worse, an empty one that merely sweeps the issue under the rug (or across the Irish Sea).

Because an average of nine women daily (daily!) have to make the trip.

Because a women seeking an abortion can end up in prison for 14 years under current legislation, an utter travesty of law.

Because you don’t have to agree with abortion legalisation to think the above is unacceptable.

Because abortions in Ireland will still happen in the event of the No vote: they’ll just remain underground, unregulated and dangerous.

Because 1’000 black market abortion pills a year are ordered by desperate women we’re failing to care for properly.

Because the rate of abortion in other countries is completely immaterial to the discussion at hand.

Because the proposed 12 week period is actually very conservative by international standards.

Because while women could have abortions in the event of a Yes vote, this doesn’t mean they all suddenly will.

Because the idea that abortion will be used primarily as a contraceptive by ‘loose’ women is dim-witted.

Because this is not a zero-sum game, and we should be pushing for greater investment in adoption services as well.

Because our illustrious nation, like so many others, has a garbage history when it comes women’s rights, but we’re up there in the “Developed World”.

Because being repeatedly called out by the UN and the European Court of Human Rights for our backward, ill-thought out laws is getting rather embarrassing.

Because women are not ‘vessels’ and they should not be treated as one.

Because telling a woman pregnant from rape that she is legally obligated to have the baby forced on her by a sexual assault is obscene.

Because telling a woman whose baby has a FFA that she does not have a choice and must carry the baby to term is horrific.

Because having it get to the point where a woman is contemplating suicide before allowing a termination is insane.

Because this country has literally forced a raped teenager to carry a baby she didn’t want to term, and recently too.

Because sometimes young people, let down by a religious-minded sexual education programme, make mistakes that shouldn’t cost them their futures.

Because sometimes adults, through pressure, stress, depression and intoxication, make mistakes that shouldn’t cost them their futures.

Because sometimes those mistakes happen due to natural urges that we all have, even if you like to pretend you don’t, but its women who pay the higher price.

Because sometimes contraception, of which no 100% variety exists, simply fails, and people aren’t in a position to have and raise a child.

Because raising another child in poverty and potential homelessness isn’t an acceptable outcome as a sop to an ill-judged conscience.

Because single mothers guilted into having children they aren’t ready for are still stigmatised in our society, and if you think that isn’t the case you luckily live in a pleasant bubble.

Because anyone in the positions detailed above should not be considered a criminal.

Because the 8th amendment has been responsible for the deaths of numerous women, in plenty of preventable circumstances.

Because they have names, faces and stories: Savita Halappanavar, Michelle Harte, “Miss P”.

Because these are not hypotheticals or bits of data in a report: this is happening now, to real people, to citizens of this country.

Because the 8th amendment inherently denies women rights to life-saving medical care, and literally takes away otherwise inalienable freedoms during pregnancy.

Because the 8th amendment ties the hands of medical professionals, and prevents them from giving the best care possible to their patients.

Because the 8th amendment allowed a situation where a women declared clinically brain-dead by medical professionals was kept on life  support as her body deteriorated for 15 weeks, against her families wishes, to maintain a pregnancy where there was no chance of a successful delivery of a living child (less than four years ago!).

Because the 8th amendment leads to situations where couples terminating a baby with FFA must face the disgraceful indignity of returning their dead child’s body to Ireland via ferry, car ride or courier because they could not afford to stay in another country for their child’s funeral.

Because the World Health Organisation, the Masters of the National Maternity and Rotunda Hospitals and the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecology have all called for a Yes vote, because of the nightmarish way the 8th amendment impacts their professions.

Because fertility rates aren’t affected by abortion legalisation, and anyone telling you they are is misinformed or lying.

Because abortion legalisation doesn’t lead to a massive increase in abortion care requirements, and anyone telling you otherwise is misinformed or lying.

Because “Love Both” are proven liars, in posters, leaflets and in spoken word, and are funded in substantial part by non-Irish interests.

Because “Abortion Never!” is the front of a known neo-Nazi sympathiser (who, paradoxically, also supports the death penalty…).

Because the Catholic Church in Ireland has long since lost all moral authority over this country and its people, and are run by a structure of celibate men who will never have to directly address this kind of issue.

Because the kind of person who was A-OK with the Magdalene Laundries only 22 years ago still gets to vote, and we need every sane person available to reduce their impact.

Because the Easter Rising leaders may have called for a “cherishing of all the children of the nation”, but in the same line they also promised “equal rights…to all its citizens”, in a document addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”.

Because the pro-life side are not “the rebellion”: they’re defending the status quo.

Because the real rebellion was the popular movement that has led to this referendum being called in the first place, just like SSM.

Because the “No comment” philosophy of succeeding generations of Irish politicians must be stopped by a popular expression of support for legalisation.

Because if you’re on the fence now and thinking about voting No with no great enthusiasm or staying at home, we won’t get this shot again for a while.

Because women should have control over their own bodies.

Because you cannot look into the eyes of the “In Your Shoes” movement and tell them the 8th amendment was a benefit to their lives, not with a straight face anyway.

Because someone you know has been affected directly by the 8thamendment, even if you don’t know who they are.

Because you should trust them to know what’s best for themselves, their partners, their families and their lives.

Because you should trust your mothers, your sisters, your daughters, your nieces, your friends.

Because you should trust the women you pass on the street.

Because you should trust women.

Vote Yes.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Start Of The Nine Years War

Yes, we’re going back a bit. My series of posts on the Nine Years War, that most transformative of early-Modern Irish conflicts, has never satisfied me, looking back at them. The wording is sloppy, the conclusions simplistic, the research shallow though, at least on that last point, I can place blame on the dearth of easily accessible modern writings on the war. That’s changed a little bit since, thanks to James O’Neill’s excellent analysis of the conflict in his The Nine Years War, and a few other texts I have been able to read in the intervening period, like Hiriam Morgan’s Tyrone’s Rebellion or the papers from the annual Tudor and Stuart Ireland conference.

So, before I engage myself on the mammoth task of the Irish revolutionary period, whose posts may well take up a year or more, I thought I would indulge myself and do some rewrites. Post by post, I will be editing the original entries on the Nine Years War, as well as presenting them anew in new posts, so that new readers and subscribers get the opportunity to read them again.

In the years following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the actions of the English in Ireland, and the reactions of the “Old English” and native Irish, propelled the island on a course towards a war that would be more destructive than any that had come before it. As the 1590’s began, one might have been forgiven for scoffing at the idea that, within 12 years, the English would be maintaining a standing force of 18’000 troops in Ireland, have come perilously close to a total collapse, and nearly bankrupted themselves in the process. But that is exactly what happened.

The Nine Years War, as this conflict has come to be known, did not come to be overnight, but was the logical end of Tudor policy and actions in Ireland, an extension of the campaigns that were waged or were being waged in the rest of the island. The aggressive moves made in Leinster, Connacht and Munster had resulted in rebellions and blowback. How would Ulster be any different? The only variance was where the rebellions elsewhere had been somewhat localised and manageable, the rebellions in Ulster, and those who led them, were going to be a different breed, capable of inciting an all-Ireland conflict.

In the decades leading up to the Nine Years War, Ulster had been, relatively speaking, quiet. The campaigns of Shane O’Neill were already becoming a distant memory, and the states of the northern province seemed to pose no direct threat to the Pale. Those states – the Earldoms (or Kingdoms, depending on the time or your background) of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, the Scottish colonies, the numerous smaller vassal Kingdoms – were of the typical Irish variety, fighting each other constantly, rarely uniting. The enmity and feuding between Tyrconnell and Tyrone alone would be enough to fill up several entries of this series, with the clashes between the two having an almost routine quality.

But for the English, Ulster seemed to be the last big challenge. This is not to say that London had established total dominance over the rest of the island, but from a detached perspective, Ireland in the early 1590’s seemed to be a place where the Queen’s rule was firmly established. Munster had been utterly crushed, repeatedly. Most of Leinster had been subjugated and the south was peaceful for the time being. Connacht was being beaten down. But Ulster remained a province of large, powerful Irish states, that any Tudor conquest could not ignore.

It is the two main states that concern this entry, and the men who rose to lead them in the 1590’s. Both named Aodh, or the more familiar Hugh, they were to become some of the most famous figures of Irish history.

The first I will discuss is Hugh Roe (Red) O’Donnell, probably nicknamed for his red hair. Born in 1572 to the King of Tyrconnell, also Hugh, Hugh Roe was brought up in an atmosphere of distrust and occasionally violent family feuds, as was typical of the Irish noble leadership of the time. Though one of Hugh’s elder children, Hugh Roe was in no way guaranteed to succeed his father, due to the succession laws that ruled over Irish nobility, the practise of tanistry.

Judging from what came after, we can assume that in his first 15 years of life Hugh Roe got some experience in military affairs, whether it was taking part in raids or combat of a more substantial form. He probably learned to be distrustful of the Pale, which was ever seeking to play off the Ulster states against each other, offering help and support when it suited them, opposing armies when it didn’t. In the great game of Irish politics, a person in Hugh Roe’s position was just another pawn for the English administration of Sir John Perrot to try and use to their own ends.

This they did in 1587, kidnapping Hugh Roe from under his guardians’ noses in a daring seaborne operation, imprisoning him in Dublin Castle for several years, in a bid to keep his father compliant with English wishes and strategy in the region (with partial success). They especially disliked a growing closeness between Tyrconnell and Tyrone. Lacking any leverage over the English, the elder Hugh could do little but accept the situation.

On a second attempt in 1592, Hugh Roe escaped from Dublin Castle with several others, making his way to friendly faces in southern Leinster: none other than Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, the victor of Glenmalure, who was allied to sympathetic forces in Ulster. Hugh Roe barely survived this gruelling escape in the depths of an Irish winter, losing several toes to frostbite. Having spent the last of his teenage years in an English prison as a ward against his countries possible actions, Hugh Roe returned home with no love for the Pale, and a determination to face them aggressively from then on in. One can think of few other experiences that could spark such future actions.

The return of such a prince, coming at a time when English incursions into Tyrconnell territory – all part of the wider strategy for Tudor conquest – were increasing, rallied much popular support around Hugh Roe, who suddenly found himself with many men flocking to his banner. His ageing father laid aside his role as Chief of Tyrconnell, rivals were unceremoniously offed by supporters, and just like that Hugh Roe was in charge. One of his first acts was actually to swear allegiance to the English crown, even while he was already dallying with Spanish agents.

Across the border to the east was the more important of the two Hugh’s, namely Hugh O’Neill, also known as Hugh the Great. No other figure in this period would have as much of an impact as Hugh O’Neill, on Irish society, culture, militarism and in rebellion against the English.

Hugh O’Neill was the grandson of Conn, son of Matthew, who had been murdered by Shane O’Neill during that figure’s rise to power. As a child Hugh had been forced to flee Tyrone to escape his uncle’s machinations and, somewhat ironically for all that occurred after, he was raised under English eyes in the Pale, the administration seeing in Hugh a potential Earl of Tyrone that would be sympathetic to them. Hugh appeared to play the part, serving in English armies in Ulster and Munster later in his life.

After Shane’s ignominious end Hugh was able to return to Tyrone as the English recognised Baron of Dungannon, though the real power of the province lay in the hands of Hugh’s opposing kinsman Turlough Luineach O’Neill. Turlough was not recognised as Earl of Tyrone by the English though, and they continued to favour Hugh for that role. This all fit in to the wider English strategy: they could possibly have wound up with a controllable Earl in the form of Hugh, but they could also simply continue the in-fighting of the O’Neill family, just as good an outcome.

They reckoned without Hugh’s rebellious streak though. Through his lands, his hiring of foreign mercenaries, his peasant reform, general popularity and, most crucially, his almost unique ability to form a complex network of supportive Irish lords through marriage, negotiation and outright threat, Hugh was able to garner a very notable amount of support and power very quickly, using that power to undermine Turlough at every opportunity. He maintained “loyalty” to the crown, even going so far as to take part in campaigns during the Second Desmond Rebellion, ordering Spanish survivors of the Armada in his lands butchered and engaging in excursions against the McDonnell Scots, but it is clear now that he was always seeking a means to undermine the English position.

Though to what extent it may never be firmly known, Hugh provided help and support to Hugh Roe during his escape attempt and journey back to Tyrconnell. The two had strong ties: Hugh was married to Hugh Roe’s sister, and Hugh Roe to Hugh’s daughter (Hugh’s general romantic life was immensely complicated: he was married five times and sired a large amount of legitimate and illegitimate children). Hugh recognised that an ally as popular as Hugh Roe, and with such strong distaste of the English, could be very useful. The game-changing potential of a strong Tyrconnell-Tyrone alliance was a tantalising prospect as well, and so it was an obvious avenue for O’Neill to take. And, in the short-term, alliance with O’Donnell made O’Neill more likely to become the O’Neill. Indeed, within a few years Turlough would be obliged to give up his control of the title, partially because of the pressure from east and west.

Within the territory that he controlled, Hugh wasted no time in bringing a new style of rule to Tyrone, taking his cues from his dead uncle, tying the peasantry to the land to increase food production, making numerous steps to improve the quality of both military equipment and military training and continuing to hire a large number of mercenaries to supplement his increasing forces. Especially notable was his Scottish contingent, dubbed “Redshanks”, though their overall effectiveness in the coming war is very debatable. He also formed a formidable looking coalition that went beyond Tyrconnell, to include Hugh Maguire of Fermanagh (O’Neill’s son-in-law) and Fiach McHugh O’Byrne in Wicklow. All the while, O’Neill continued to maintain a public façade of loyalty to the crown.

A summation of the geographical situation is needed before we go further. The English wanted greater control over Ulster, this is clear, but they couldn’t just send a big army to do it. Aside from the fact that the states within Ulster were no pushovers and had no great history of English domination, Ulster had other problems from an English perspective. Not least of these were the viable approaches. If you were sending a large army into Ulster, thanks to the existence of mountain ranges, uncultivated forests, treacherous boglands and rivers/lakes with limited means of egress, there were only two places you could really go.

The first, the Curlew Pass near Sligo, went straight into O’Donnell territory, and was the furthest from the Pale, both realities making it less than convenient. The second, in the east near Newry, included traipses through several passes, like that at Moyry, and valleys that were easily defended, whether it was by Tyrone or the MacDonnell’s. Further, there were no ports on the northern shoreline that the English controlled or had a realistic hope of capturing intact, at least at that point. What few loyal colonies the English had in Ulster were ill-placed for any military advantage to be claimed.

For all those reasons, the English strategy towards Ulster had been one of slow manoeuvring and little bites. Just as they had in Leinster, the approach of Sherriff’s and numerous small garrisons was taken in the counties close to the Pale border, there to establish control, reap taxes and turn the land into that which could be considered loyal. It was a basic counter-insurgency campaign of “Clear, Hold, Build” as we would see it today. This long game would bear fruit in some cases, but the patience that it required was rarely respected by the long line of Lord Deputy’s that had to oversee it. And, as stated, the efforts to make the larger states English Earldoms had only met with partial success, with O’Donnell and O’Neill chieftains throwing off the weak yokes of English titles whenever it suited them and throwing them back on when it was politically convenient.

Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam, fresh from seeing off the remnant of the Spanish Armada, wanted more tangible results fast. To that end, he started making more aggressive moves in the counties on and around the borders of Ulster. The ruling septs of Monaghan, Longford and Cavan (the McMahons, O’Farrell’s and O’Rourke’s respectively) were targeted, starting in the late 1580’s. Troops were sent in, forts and garrisons established, taxes taken, resources seized. The leader of the McMahon and O’Rourke septs, upon briefly resisting, were caught and hanged, with their lands divided between more loyal tenants.

Such actions were an open challenge to Tyrconnell and Tyrone, who both had ties to the abused families. FitzWilliam was suspicious of O’Neill and, starting in 1590, had tried to bring Tyrone under greater English control through the altering of law and imposition of Pale officials, with partial success. One of those officials was a Sir Henry Bagenal, who had a bitter enmity with O’Neill, since Hugh eloped with his sister in 1591: the rivalry between the two would be a critical factor in the early years of the coming conflict. In Tyrconnell, Hugh Roe brooked no such attempts to subordinate his control over his lands, driving away an attempt to place an English Sherriff in his home by force in 1592.

The exact start date of the Nine Years War is difficult to determine, but it can certainly be placed in the summer of 1593. When the Maguire clan in Fermanagh began to be targeted by FitzWiliam’s encroachments that year, Hugh Roe had enough, mobilising his forces and heading south in an aggressive campaign of raids and burning, attacking isolated garrisons and forts throughout northern Connacht and southern Ulster. More large-scale warfare did not break out yet, but in conjunction with the head of the Maguire’s, Hugh Roe was already doing a lot of damage.

All that time, Hugh O’Neill stood on the side-lines as the Ulster crisis – for a larger war was becoming inevitable –  evolved, doing nothing that could be seen as overly-belligerent, paying lip-service to the crown, offering some scant support in these early Fermanagh campaigns, while conspiring in secret with Hugh Roe without tangible action. He may have had hopes that Elizabeth would favour him in the event of an Ulster Lord President being appointed and continued to hedge his bets for as long as possible, helping to negotiate the withdrawal of English soldiers from Fermanagh during O’Donnell’s initial assault, while secretly courting the support of the Spanish crown for any future rising against Dublin.

The continued attempts to exert crown control in Fermanagh was simply provoking further violent resistance and Maguire was more than holding his own, having launched a serious of devastating raids into Sligo and Roscommon in the summer of 1593, which included the burning of Ballymote and the seizure of over 700 cows. During the second raid a brief skirmish was fought between Maguire’s men and Sir Richard Bingham, the chief commissioner of Connacht, at Rathcroghan on the 23rd June, where Bingham was obliged to retreat, but this resistance led to Maguire ending his raid without a notable success. The next few months saw a gradual escalation of the crisis, as members of the O’Neill family loyal to Hugh struck against rival crown-supported family members, Maguire began to send raiding parties into Monaghan and the government fort on the Blackwater River, on the southern borders of Tyrone, began to put under pressure for the first time.

FitzWilliam needed to respond and ordered an English Army to march into Maguire’s lands and subdue him. This force was to be under the joint command of Bagenal and O’Neill, an opportunity for the former and perhaps a test of loyalty for the latter. The moment was not yet right for O’Neill to show his true colours, but when he did form up with Bagenal, he did so with a lot less soldiery than he had initially promised. The total “English” force made up perhaps 1’500 men.

Bagenal sought to strike at the Maguire stronghold of Enniskillen directly, but found this an impossible task, due to the crossing of the River Erne near the castle being held against him, and O’Neill’s general refusal to co-operate with his more ambitious plans. Bagenal was obliged to march north, where he engaged Maguire’s men at the Ford of Belleck on the 10th October. The English won the day, advancing over the ford under fire, and putting the Irish to flight with a resolute attack, supported by fire from the southern bank, the battle finished off by a scattering of the defenders by cavalry, perhaps commanded by O’Neill himself. Casualties were light on both sides, but it was a clear government victory.

O’Neill actually received a light wound to his leg in the process of the brief fight but survived. According to some sources, he ordered a nearby Hugh Roe to hold off on any major support for Maguire, aside from a small amount of infantry commanded by a troublesome cousin who would have a greater role to play in later events, Niall Garbh O’Donnell. O’Neill clearly did not want his own future plans tainted by a clash between himself and those whom he hoped to direct in war within a short time. After the battle he returned to Dungannon, leaving Bagenal capable of some raiding and burning around Lough Erne and the fortification of some local positions with crown loyalists. Still, FitzWilliam was satisfied that Maguire’s “rebellion” was finished and allowed Bagenal to disperse his troops back to their garrisons without any assault on Enniskillen.

FitzWilliam’s hopes that Fermanagh had been broken and would now be ripe for a more straightforward conquest, were to be disappointed. But for the moment, he ordered his local forces to press their advantage. In January 1594 a force under a Captain John Dowdell, which had been fighting a struggle of raid and ambush in the area since Belleck, attacked and took Enniskillen after a nine-day siege. The Irish garrison were butchered.

The fall of Enniskillen was a signal for a scattered, but intense, campaign of raid, burning and plunder by the Irish, against almost every English town, fort or position within reach, with the depredations reaching a fever pitch throughout spring and early summer of 1594. English troops and settlers found themselves cut off and hemmed in from the constant pillaging, and Irish nobles loyal to the crown were also targeted. Fermanagh, Monaghan and large parts of Ulster were effected, with Maguire, O’Donnell and O’Neill’s loyal to Hugh the perpetrators.

By late May, these actions had evolved into a more open warfare and rebellion against the crown, as Hugh Roe and Maguire took part in an Irish counter-siege against Enniskillen, that stretched into August, putting the garrison under immense pressure. Hugh O’Neill would not commit fully to rebellion just yet, though his brother Conn went south with a substantial force of his own, 400 or so men and horses, to join the Irish army. Such an action seemed to show Hugh as on the side of the “rebels” without actually declaring so, and the Tyrone chieftain was able to put off the moment of decision for a while yet. Of course, only a cynical person would think Hugh orchestrated such a situation: while the English were focused so much on Enniskillen, O’Neill took the opportunity to expand his power elsewhere in Ulster, by raid or assassination. As for the siege, it was a sit-and-wait operation for the Irish: while they were far from lacking in cannon themselves, they did lack the variety necessary for siege work, and enough skilled hands to use them.

With the defenders running short on provisions and the English controlled lands under severe pressure from the Irish army, Fitzwilliam, unwilling to simply let the garrison hold out without support, organised a relief force to head west, break the siege and replenish the garrison’s supplies. This force, made up mostly of Palemen and under the command of several prominent English nobles (including George Bingham, brother of Richard) seems to have been expected to easily deal with the problems facing Enniskillen. Not wanting to be caught on the defensive again, Maguire, Hugh Roe and Conn O’Neill decided to take the initiative.

With the relief forces around five miles from Enniskillen, the Irish were able to launch an ambush at a ford of the Arney River. The advancing English were caught in the front, flank and rear by well-concealed Irish and a rout of the English army ensued, with the possible loss of up to 400 men. Maguire is credited especially with the victory. The battle (and the ford) came to be known the “Battle of Bel-Atha-na-mBriosgaidh” – the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits – due to the large amount of supplies and material left behind by the retreating English, which apparently included many biscuits meant to be used to replenish the stores of Enniskillen castle.

The English, now under the new Lord Deputy William Russell, would actually be able to send out another relief force to break the siege and relieve Enniskillen shortly afterwards, but it could not change the defeat that had occurred. Things calmed somewhat in the aftermath, with Hugh O’Neill, Hugh Roe and Maguire all suing for peace and pardon with Russell, with O’Neill even doing so in person. Russell was inclined to believe the Irish had had enough and reduced the military numbers in the region. He would soon realise his mistake. The state of open rebellion had only been paused and the area of operations showed how things were going: Enniskillen castle fell back into Maguire’s hands the following year, the English unable to keep a viable presence in the region.

These Fermanagh based campaigns were the signal of the start of something big. No longer was this fighting of the small-scale, tit-for-tat raiding variety. The Irish had defeated an English army in the field had captured English fortifications and used their numbers and unique martial skills to squeeze the government’s ability to govern. English positions all across the country and the larger area were under threat from a considerable Irish force, a coalition of competent military leaders, determined to resist English inroads into Ulster. Whether they were doing it to maintain their own independence, or as part of a grander scheme to replace an English monarch with a Spanish one, they were showing that the old paradigm of well-equipped and advanced English soldiery running rampant over Irish wood-kerne’s was not the standard state of affairs anymore.

The English would respond. Just as with Desmond, this kind of military activity and resistance could not go unnoticed or unmet. Soon, the Pale would go on a war footing. The resulting conflict would shape the course of Irish history for many decades, even centuries. The provocations of the previous years had only resulted in creating the visage of a cornered beast, as the Irish states, backed into a corner, decided to fight back. Hugh O’Neill remained outside of the fighting, for now. But his time prevaricating was also drawing to a conclusion.

The Nine Years War had begun.

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

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Review – Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War

Trailer

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Your main character.

Has it really only been ten years? Ten years, since Tony Stark and that US Army convoy was rolling down an Afghan desert to the strains of “Back In Black”? It seems like a lot longer, and yet a decade it has only been. A decade of 18 films, TV series, streaming series and a re-writing of the blockbuster playbook. And after ten years, the franchise to end all franchises has reached, as one character in this film says “the endgame”. Maybe. Kind of. Not really. But it is an ending of sorts. Or the beginning of an end.

My opinion of the MCU has wavered a bit in recent years, as the films swung towards all-out comedy, exemplified by Thor: Ragnarok, something I simply couldn’t get engaged with. But then Black Panther proved a bit of a redemption for the series, and it got me suitably interested in Infinity War, despite my feeling that we would be getting an overloaded 160 minute quip-fest. But how could I not stick with the MCU this far? For better or worse, these films have made a gigantic impact on the medium, and Infinity War is the apex, at least for the moment. So, is it the epic triumph that the Russo Brothers promised? Or is it the flavourless laugh-obsessed slog I feared it would be? Has the trip from the Afghan desert been worth it?

God-like Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has a plan: to gather the six infinity stones into one all-powerful gauntlet, and use its powers to bring balance to an imbalanced universe. Standing in his way are the Avengers (Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, et al), the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista et al), and a host of other heroes (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, et al), who must come together to face the biggest threat they have ever faced, with half of all life in existence at stake.

I really liked this film. It’s fair to say my expectations were subdued, but Infinity War is, at its very worst, a fun summer blockbuster that any fan of the MCU will love, even if parts of it continue to underwhelm as other aspects of the series have. Infinity War had epic pretensions, and this is an epic story, an inter-galactic thrill-ride, that surprised me about as much as the first Avengers film did.

It might sound strange to start off with it, but I have to note that this film is paced remarkably well. I can’t say that I even noticed the immense running time too much, so well-broken up was the flow of things between dialogue, exposition and action. The MCU has long since mastered the proper balance of action set-pieces and the necessity of characters actually talking to each other, but Infinity War is the magnum opus of their work. The dialogue flows well between long-established characters, the action scenes are inventive and vibrant, and there is never a point where you feel affairs are being dragged to a halt by excessive plot elaboration or overly-lengthy CGI carnage.

And its undeniable that the film is a fun-ride. For someone like me, who has been with the franchise since the very start, it’s a little bit thrilling to see these characters share scenes and get into big superhero battles. Indeed, part of what makes Infinity War work as well as it does is the manner of the split-ups that the Russo Brothers undertake. Some of them are on Earth organising resistance; some are on alien planets tackling Thanos directly; some are even further afield, seeking devastating weapons capable of turning the day. The combinations are random, but work because of the excellent script: Rocket attempts to counsel a grieving Thor; two Sherlocks bounce off each other in Strange and Stark; Cap and Vision debate the nature of sacrifice. But they are all the supporting vast, because this really is the Thanos story.

I used to have a big problem with MCU villains, it being the repeating Achilles heel of the franchise, but we must contemplate the idea that not only has Marvel fixed this, but they may be making their villains the most interesting characters on show. Spider-Man: Homecoming had a brilliant Vulture, Black Panther had the enthralling Killmonger, but then we got Thanos, perhaps the MCU’s finest antagonist since Loki’s initial appearance (and quite the passing of the torch here).

Thanos is fascinating. It would have been very easy to make him just a power-hungry alien despot, out to take over the universe and crush all who oppose him. It might have been easier still to fall-back on the traditional comic interpretation, that of a mad Titan obsessed with death, but that would probably have been too obtuse for the audience. So, instead they went something a bit different: making Thanos an isolated psychopath with immense physical powers, who has decided to employ them to stop the scourge of over-population.

Over-population! How about that? Thanks largely to some stellar CGI work (much better than some others, like the poorly rendered villain Proxima Midnight) and an excellent VA from Brolin, Thanos comes to life wonderfully, becoming Infinity War’s must well-rounde character, going on his own, rather epic, character arc, from his first desperate appearance onboard the Asgard refugee vessel right down to the unexpected finale. Much like Killmonger, Thanos enthrals because his overall goal isn’t actually all that bad a thing, its just his method of going about it that’s opposition-worthy. And, while the scene where it happened was as close as the film got to rambling exposition, Thanos has the backstory to solidify his aims and methods of achieving them. Every time Thanos was on-screen, Infinity War was better for it.

The other performances are all fine too, with the asterisk that only a few actually get enough screen time to make a serious impression. Downey Jr is phoning it a tad, and Evans is subdued, but that’s about as much as I can criticise: Pratt, Cumberbatch, Holland and Olsen are especially worth seeing. What’s not as great is the films relegation of female characters and principals, with the exception of Saldano’s Gamora: Gillian and Johansson are present and make some waves, but they lack the kind of impact they should be having. And I’m sure Marvel would prefer people not focus too much on the racial side of things, with Chadwick Bozeman only joining things late on, and Don Cheadle, Benedict Wong and Danai Gurira firmly in the role of “also there”.

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Spot the franchises!

But inevitably in a film with this many characters, too much is going on, and too much is attempted. The Russo Brothers would be well-advised that not everyone needs a sub-plot, because when you’re trying to give something to everyone, everything becomes stretched out, shallow and largely immaterial. To give you an idea of what I mean, outside of the main plot and Thanos’ whole deal, here is the full list of the presented character sub-plots I remember that get some amount of time:

-Tony Stark wants to have children with Pepper Potts, and has that recurring surrogate parent thing with Peter Parker.

-He’s also still got some lingering problems from the Battle of New York that are effecting him here.

-Thor wants revenge for some opening scene heartbreak.

-Peter Quill has his romance sub-plot with Gamora.

-Including that, Gamora has her whole thing with Thanos.

-Bruce Banner is having some “performance issues” with Hulk, and is meeting Black Widow again.

-Steve Rodgers has to confront the meshing of his opposing “greater good”/”no man left behind” philosophies.

-Black Widow is meeting Bruce again, and has some kind of guardian thing going with Scarlet Witch.

-Dr Strange has trouble sticking to his sacred vows to defend the Time Stone instead of destroying it.

-War Machine is getting back into the field after being crippled in Civil War.

-Peter Parker still wants to impress Stark and become an Avenger, exhibiting some reckless actions in the process.

-Black Panther is trying to unite Wakanda and deal with more international attention.

-Vision has his relationship with Scarlett Witch, and his confronting of his own mortality.

-Scarlett Witch is part of the same sub-plot.

-Bucky heads back to war, and its commented he might not be ready.

-Nebulae wants revenge on Thanos and wants to protect her sister.

-Drax is still searching for a final vengeance for the death of his family.

-Groot is a snotty teenager who might still have a heart of gold.

-Rocket has to face-up to the less glamourous realities of being a leader.

And this doesn’t include Falcon, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, the numerous “Children of Thanos” (most notably Tom Vaugh-Lawlor as the excellent Ebony Maw) all the supporting characters from Black Panther, Pepper Potts, Wong, Mantis, The Collector, Loki, Heimdall, and a few others whose identities would constitute a spoiler.

The thing is, none of the above is necessarily bad. It’s possible to have a sub-plot that doesn’t amount to much in terms of lines or screen-time, that can be conveyed in look and reaction. But that’s not the case here. Infinity War relies a lot of what’s come before in terms of characterisation and character arcs, because there is simply too many people who have to be acknowledged to do such things here, in the moment. Any one of the things I listed above could have been fleshed out and made an interesting plot-line for this film, or any stand-alone film. Maybe some of them will in the future. But mashed into this 160 minutes, it’s all so much fluff, that lacks any serious impact. It’s passable, but it stops Infinity War from being truly great. Would it not have made for a better film with a more reduced cast of characters, with greater scope to dig-in to some of the ideas ventured above?

And then there is the humour. I think I made the point as well as I could have when I reviewed Ragnarok, but again, and time and again, the MCU infests its serious moments with quips and jokes, sucking the life out of them in the process. And the lines are funny, I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. But every time I did, there was that moment when the laughter subsided, and you’re left wondering “Wait, was I supposed to take that devastating moment seriously or not?”. The comedy extends to absurd places at times, such as when Thor witnesses the apparent genocide of what’s left of Asgard very early on, but doesn’t mention it again, instead taking to sparring verbally with Peter Quill and calling Rocket a rabbit and Groot “tree”. LOL! Wait, are you the last Asgardian now?

The film generally looks spectacular, even with the teal and orange colour scheme making up every other shot. There are re-used elements of course – superhero battles in New York streets, a furious battle in Wakanda – but there are plenty of new ones too, like Thanos’ home moon of Titan, a planet where gravity doesn’t play by the normal rules, or the barren home of the Soul Stone, a place haunted by grim spectres. While the CGI gets a bit overloaded at times, like in the big finale battle, it’s pretty forgivable. The Russo Brothers shoot Infinity War in their competent style, with nothing especially flashy outside of the computer realm, and its fair to say they are more restricted, speaking from a cinematography viewpoint, here than they have been in previous efforts. But only to the extent that Infinity War, like other Avengers efforts, can’t be considered a visual triumph from just the camera’s perspective.

And in terms of production deficiencies, much more problematic is the score. I liked the score of the first Avengers, but since them the bombastic notes and skittering drums have become bland and forgettable, and Infinity War is another in a long-list of examples where the musical side of things, this time from Alan Silvestri, seems to be mere placeholder.

Then, of course, there is the ending. For non-spoiler thoughts, I will say only that it is a large mis-fire from Marvel, attempting to imbue their story with larger emotional weight than it needs, and botching the attempt entirely.

In terms of more spoilery thoughts, I have nothing to really add that others have not already said and said better, but I will sum-up: the deaths of all those characters meant absolutely nothing to me, because it is plainly obvious that it will end up being revered in Avengers 4 next year. They could have at least played around with it by not “tree-barking” (my girlfriends term) Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who will be heading franchises for a while to come, and instead focused on people who are probably moving towards the exit door eventually, like Stark and Rodgers. As it was, I had no engagement for what Infinity War did in its final few minutes, and it left a slightly bad taste if I’m being honest. After all, Marvel Studios insisted Infinity War’s two-part structure had been abandoned, but that has turned out to be a staggeringly blatant lie, dressed up as “We wanted to surprise you!”. Well, I was surprised, not by the “twist” but by the MCU’s balls in presenting it so unashamedly to the audience.

As it is, Infinity War is something akin to The Matrix Reloaded or Kill Bill: Part One: half a story, a five hour+ epic being told in two segments, that cannot be properly appreciated or, perhaps, even fairly evaluated without seeing what the second half of the story is going to be. When whatever Avengers 4 is going to be called closes off, then I will happily give an assessment of the stories emotional impact, its treatment of character death, the weight that it has. But on its own merits, Infinity War is a damp squib on that front, its commentary on sacrifice and the greater good a bit immaterial.

So, there are bad things, and some of those are repeated bad things that I have given up on the MCU solving. But they are outweighed by the good. Infinity War may have a bit of an overreliance on CGI, it may resort to humour for humours sake a bit too much, and the ending is a major black spot. But it also manages to craft an exciting, mostly engaging action film around a multitude of characters, has come up with arguably the MCU’s best antagonist ever to anchor the whole experience, features a cast with an endearing comfortableness in their roles and demonstrates an understanding of long-form pacing that deserves some serious praise.

I wouldn’t say that Infinity War has cured my general feeling of malaise when it comes to the MCU, but I feel a bit better about the franchise coming out of it than I did coming out of Civil War or Ragnarok. Next is Ant-Man And The Wasp, which I am looking forward to, and then the vitally important Captain Marvel, MCU’s remarkably belated first female led offering. Then, this time next year, we’ll be back for Infinity War – Part Two, and I’ll be there, looking forward to what I hope will be the true franchise defining offering, that has been set-up so well, if not without its stumbling blocks, here. If reading this, you’ve probably already seen Infinity War, along with half the planet, but still: Recommended.

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Roll on 20.

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

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Review: Unsane, Dawson City: Frozen Time, The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales

Another collection of shorter reviews this week, re-capping the other films I saw as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. These are a bit late alright, but some are still very much worth checking out.

Unsane

Trailer

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“Don’t mind if I do!”

Sawyer (Claire Foy) moves across the country to escape a stalker (Joshua Leonard), and struggles to create a new life for herself. After consulting a counselling service, she inadvertently signs up for commitment to a mental institution (for “observation”) and there must figure out whether her stalker is working for the hospital, or if she really is starting to lose her mind.

This was the surprise film of the festival, the last of several I had seen that day, and while I have no fatal criticisms of Unsane to venture, I do sort of wish that Grainne Humphreys might pick something a tad more light-hearted next time. Steven Soderbergh’s latest is well-acted, well-scripted and, as we’ll get into, uniquely shot, but it is as dark as you can get for a film festival really.

I mean how could it not be? Claire Foy’s heroine is largely a human punching bag throughout, from the smarmy boss bluntly coming onto her in the opening scene, all the way to the final confrontation between abuser and abused. The narrative trips along, veering between being a psychological horror and a more visceral experience, aided by an exceptional script that allows for brief moments of black humour in an otherwise vast morass of unease.

The film might have been better if it focused more fully on a “Is her stalker actually there or is she crazy?” angle, which it appeared to be going for early on, before doubts are dispelled in the second act. The first idea was just a tad more interesting than what Soderbergh eventually goes for, an plot-line of cat and mouse that eventually descends into a blood-soaked tedium. That’s not to take away from its exploration of gender power politics, as Sawyer routinely deals with a world where she is dehumanized and mistreated by men, even before she gets committed, and where that balance of power is as much a battleground as the hospital. And its role as a fictionalized expose of the shady nature of some mental institutions in America, committing otherwise healthy people in what is, essentially, an extortion of insurance companies, is also to be noted.

Foy is excellent, getting beyond the Queen Elizabeth role she is best known for, and not merely being a passive torture-pornish victim. Part of the “fun” of Unsane is seeing her trying to figure ways out of her predicament, and the films best acting moment comes as she confronts her stalker in an extended monologue where she questions his sexual experience and bluntly notes his obvious inadequacy. Leonard is a relative unknown, but can enjoy the dubious honour of playing a psychopathic stalker very well, while Jay Pharaoh and Juno Temple round off the other principals as very different inmates of the same asylum. An unexpected cameo from a major star in one sequence is a nice treat also, with Soderbergh connections paying dividends.

But beyond any of that, there is the films cinematography. Unsane was a surprise film in more ways than one, shot in secret using just an iPhone. As such, Unsane is a landmark experiment in utilizing the most modern of publicly available technology in making high-quality productions, and it passes the test: if it wasn’t pointed out to me, I wouldn’t even have twigged the filming method, beyond some slight graininess at times. The limited indoor sets of Unsane suit the camera and story being told, and Soderbergh uses both with skill, emphasizing minimalistic spaces and the darkness of a dark place. A unique aspect ratio and some occasionally mind-bending approaches to things like depth of field, add to the sense of a taut thriller. Unsane will presumably be a herald of more efforts to film movies in this manner, something that could spell a veritable sea-change in how the very basics of the industry work.

For that reason alone, Unsane is worth a look, with some serious trigger warnings attached. In an era of #metoo and #ibeleiveher, the films larger message of the continuing imbalance in the power held by genders, especially in terms of belief in claimed abuse, is to be noted as well. Soderbergh doesn’t really make bad films, and while Unsane probably can’t be considered in his top echelon, it is recommended.

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Trailer

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No gold on the footpath.

In 1869, gold was discovered in a spot along the Klondike River, starting a rush of settlers to the region. Dawson City was founded to support the influx, a boom town of numerous entertainments, including several movie theatres. Over a hundred years later, a construction project unearths a trove of these old films, left buried in Dawson, which was at the very end of the reel-sharing line.

Bill Morrison’s documentary begins with a startlingly evocative phrase: “Film was born of an explosion”. It isn’t flowery metaphor for the artistic process, but rather a unique way of describing how the original method of creating moving pictures was accomplished using highly combustible materials, by-products of artillery and bombs. The nature of such materials is at the heart of Frozen Time’s focus, namely the remarkably well-preserved silent film reels that were unearthed by a digger looking to renovate an old building, the kind of things that caused more than one fire in the history of the titular settlement.

The film itself is part history lesson, and part love-letter to the trove of material it wants to showcase. In many ways, it is the history lesson part of proceedings that I found a bit more interesting as Morrison, seen only in early sections, uses subtitles, period film-making and photography, as well as occasional interjections from modern-day residents of Dawson City, to document the beginnings of the Klondike gold rush, the marathon journey would-be prospectors made to the region, and the highs and lows of Dawson City’s existence, a boom-and-bust (or maybe “build-and-burn”?) kind of place, so far away from the centre of the world that it was the last stop on the film reel distribution line (often getting films three to five years after their initial premieres elsewhere).

Some of the best known stars of the time got their starts there, and even the Trump family fortune owes much to Dawson (guess what industry?). These sections give you a sense of the enthusiasm, hope, occasional ingenuity and desperation of the prospector type, and how the meagre existence most of them were able to ground out meant there were plenty of calls for cheap entertainment.

The silent films shown aren’t actually as fascinating. Morrison overuses some of his material (one strange montage shows characters opening doors in multiple films, though I’m not sure what kind of point it was trying to make) and the choice of accompanying music is repetitive and morose, sucking me right out of the unfolding narrative on multiple occasions. Morrison, known for other silent-film showcases with an emphasis on death or decay, frequently attempts to show the silent films as if they contain ghosts here to hypnotise the audience. The opportunity isn’t really taken to discuss what the kind of films these people liked said about them, or about the era in which they lived.

In the end, the story of how Dawson City came to be is interesting, but not really enough to hold your interest for an hour and a half. The unveiling of old silent movies from that first great era of movie-making is interesting, but not enough to really hold your interest for an hour and a half. Combined together, the end result is a film that isn’t really clear if it wants to make a solid point, be seen as an abstract exercise, or neither of the two. That opening line though. Recommended, though with some caveats.

Le Grand Mechant Renard Et Autres Contes (The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales)

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Very scary.

The Honeysuckle Acting Troupe of assorted farmyard and wild animals presents its three story show: “A Baby To Deliver”, where a pig, a rabbit and a duck try to get a newborn to her family when the stork is injured; “The Big Bad Fox”, where an unlucky fox is tasked with raising three chicks; and “The Perfect Christmas”, where the pig, rabbit and fox find themselves on an unlikely adventure to replace Santa.

A French animated collection we took in on the last day of the festival, Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s effort provided a suitably light-hearted diversion before the more serious business of the day (see above). Simple old-school animated style, talking animals, a splash of traditional fairy-tales and a sometimes incisive critique of the tropes of farming life, and you have something that will make the kids laugh and charm the older crowd.

“A Baby To Deliver” opens proceedings with an Arab-esque tale of a figure who can’t escape the bad luck that haunts him, as the well-to-do pig is tasked with stork-duties, and must then tolerate, obfuscate and otherwise deal with the brain-dead efforts to help from the rabbit and duck. A succession of well-drawn escapades results, from an unlikely attempt to operate a car to a sojourn on an aircraft headed to China. One can’t help but sympathise with Mr Pig, a generally good-natured fellow just trying to do the right thing, in the face of the worlds repeated efforts to smack him in the face.

“The Big Bad Fox” is a play on the more traditional wolf tale, where the local fox, a would-be antagonist on a par with his wolf patron, has to raise three chicks with the eventual intention of having them for dinner: this is easily the best of the three stories, as we are presented with a multitude of excellent set-pieces. The chicks, raised to think they are foxes, go around threatening to kill and eat other chicks; their actual mother organises a chicken vigilante group to replace the lazy guard dog; and the wolf waiting to eat the chicks is left wondering just why the fox seems to be getting so attached to them. The narrative is predictable and the ending inevitable, but it was a nice mix of child-friendly jokes and some darker material.

“The Perfect Christmas” was a tad out of place in a February screening, but I suppose we can forgive ADIFF that. We’re back to the pig, the rabbit and the duck in this one, trying to make sure the yuletide festivities aren’t cancelled by helping the figure of Pere Noel out, but the story is really a rather well-presented lesson on the benefits of letting go of the ones you have reasonability for, and letting them make, and learn from, their own mistakes. Poor Mr Pig is delightfully frazzled by the apparent necessity of always having to save the rabbit and duck from their own stupidity, and in “The Perfect Christmas”, he and we learn it might be best to just let them off from time to time.

Presented within the framing device of a travelling troupe of actors, The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales abounds with subtly included wisdom, varying from the importance of being true to one’s own nature to the necessity of learning to get along in difficult circumstances. It is an excellent little example of French animation, sure to appeal to audiences of all ages, and all nationalities, with little in the way of translation decay. Recommended.

 (All images are copyright of Bleeker Street, Fingerprint Releasing, 20th Century Fox, Kino Lorber, Cineteca Bologna and StudioCanal).

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