The dark side of the Elizabethan Renaissance was England's long struggle to subdue Ireland, according to this intricate,...


THE TWILIGHT LORDS: An Irish Chronicle

The dark side of the Elizabethan Renaissance was England's long struggle to subdue Ireland, according to this intricate, exceptionally compelling narrative. By 1565 the Crown decided to establish a colonial settlement to secure direct rule over the rich southern fields of Munster held by Gaelic clans; soon such humanists as Sir Henry Sidney found themselves attempting scorched-earth pacification in the bogs. The First Desmond War resolved nothing, and the Counter Reformation rekindled Irish resistance. After fierce Cabinet disputes, England proceeded to defeat the polyglot Papal troops and Irish irregulars, and eradicated the power of the foremost Irish warlord, Gerald Fitzgerald--but two-thirds of the country was speedily inhabited by little more than carrion and peasants hunting for corpses to eat. Not content with mass slaughter of the population, the English murdered hundreds of military prisoners at Smerwick, and here Berletli rejects any citation of ""the brutality of the age"": Elizabethan witnesses like Walter Raleigh, he documents, were permanently sickened, and the shame and horror extended to the Queen herself. Moreover, such extermination opened a vacuum for ""the Monster of the North,"" Hugh O'Neill, who in 1598 at Yellow Ford dealt the English forces their worst defeat of Elizabeth's reign. Yet the Crown refused to acknowledge the depth of the crisis: the second Munster plantation, the prosperous joy of the poet Spenser's 20 years in Ireland, was sacrificed to an onslaught of fire, infanticide, and mutilation as London tried to buy time and blamed the English settlers themselves for the holocaust. The shattered Spenser wrote a final segment to the Faerie Queene submitting in a poignant lapse of Renaissance optimism that only God could arrest the cycle of chaos and decay. The book's expansive shifts of time and place no less movingly convey the ordeals of the Irish leaders, above all the irresolute tribal warrior Fitzgerald, plagued by treachery, and O'Neill, tutored in the Sidney household but driven by war to command his countrymen against England. This extraordinary first work does not chip away at the Elizabethans' stature or supplant Irish legend with ignoble gore: Berleth has reconstructed a tragic complexity that reproportions an age.

Pub Date: March 22, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1978

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