Rutherfurd (The Forest, 2000, etc.) takes on Ireland in his latest historical doorstopper, covering (in this first of two volumes) roughly a thousand years—from the tribal period antedating Christianity to the Tudor conquest under Henry VIII.
The author goes back pretty far, starting near the end of the pagan period in a.d. 430. Dierdre, the daughter of Fergus the Chieftain (and great-granddaughter of the famous Fergus the Warrior) has been betrothed to the elderly High King of Ireland, even though she’s in love with the aspiring Druid priest Conall. Fearful of offending the High King (and thus bringing his wrath down upon her father) by refusing his hand, she’s nevertheless prompted to run away and elope with Conall after meeting the High King’s first Queen, who solemnly promises to kill Dierdre if she marries her husband. That pretty much sets the tone of Irish domestic and foreign relations for the rest of the volume, which offers a rich feast of the squabbles, betrayals, usurpations, conquests, rebellions, massacres, and petty slights (real and imagined) that have been as much a staple of Irish life as the potato. Rutherfurd finds room in his canvas for all the big players: St. Patrick (who converts Dierdre and her family, along with most everybody else), the Viking marauders who preyed on the island for centuries (as well as Brian Boru, who managed to defeat them), Strongbow (who came to serve an Irish king but handed his domains over to an English one), and the various English monarchs from Henry II to Henry VIII (who tried with little success to make the Irish better Catholics until they became Protestants themselves and began to harass them in a different direction).
As always with Rutherfurd, the narrative sweep is subordinated to the history place—agreeably so. If you’ve a taste for Ireland, this will be your cup of tea—but Celtophobes may ask to be excused before they even get to the second course.