I was given a copy of this book for a fair and honest review for Rosie’s Book Review Team.
This is the fifth book in the James Burke series by this author. I haven’t read the previous four but I had no problems – the book is fine as a standalone.
In the late eighteenth century, with England seemingly beset on all sides, the War Office needs agents to spy for them and James Burke isn’t given a choice. It’s no business for a gentleman, but Burke is half-gentleman, half soldier, and well suited to the job of spying. The four prior books haven’t been written in chronological order but when Burke is posted to Argentina, he is introduced to the world of espionage. He has also been to the Iberian Peninsula, to Egypt, and to Paris, after Napoleon is exiled to Elba. Burke in Ireland is Burke’s first real introduction to the practice of espionage, and the author admits that this is a dark book compared to the previous four, which have Burke on the side of the angels and the villain getting his just desserts in the end.
England needs spies everywhere, and Burke is a chameleon. So he is sent in 1793 to Ireland, which is a hotbed of Irish Nationalists. Burke must discover which of these men are plotting with the French to bring down English rule and/or planning for an uprising. Burke fits right into Dublin society, operating smoothly between different strata, and discovers it’s easy to identify the Nationalists. Getting to those who do more than just talk about Irish independence is another matter, and Burke manages to ingratiate himself with a member of the Irish elite who provides him with an ‘in’ to those he is seeking. Along the way, he turns in the names of a number of minor spies, who are sent to jail, tried, and hung, if their offenses are serious enough. Burke struggles with his moral ambiguity, since the English were treating the Irish badly at that time – trials are rigged, Catholics tortured. Nevertheless, he finally decides that the safety of England trumps all, despite the ongoing tension that he will be discovered and possibly killed.
His “in’ is Patrick Geraghty, a well-to-do Dubliner who, after some time accepts Burke as a true Nationalist with Jacobin leanings. Geraghty is a huge man with an air of menace who drinks prodigiously and lets things slip while in an inebriated state. His beautiful daughter, named Siobhan, captures Burke’s attention and the couple become affectionate. Geraghty approves of this relationship, but his wife does not, despite the fact her husband beats her regularly. Thus Geraghty becomes the real villain, and the plot he arranges to spirit a true Nationalist out of the country, with the encouragement of Burke, becomes a dangerous and tortuous journey for everyone involved, not the least of which is Burke himself.
James Burke was a real person, but his story is entirely fictitious. But many of the characters in incidents cited in this book are historically accurate. The Alien Office which sent Burke to Ireland was real and became Britain’s first semi-official intelligence operation, a forerunner to MI5 and MI6. Wolfe Tone, Willam Drennan, Whitley Stokes, and Joseph Pollock were all true Irish Nationalists. Two men (Jackson and Cockayne) were spies for France and England, respectively. Archibold Rowan, a main character, was imprisoned in Newgate for sedition and libel but made an escape to France, his account of which is wrapped into Burke’s story.
In short, I found this book full of tension and historically fascinating, especially given my knowledge of Ireland’s “troubles” many years later and my experiences in that country (which I love). The descriptions of life in Dublin, especially the pub scenes, Newgate prison, and general society were vivid. The characters were very finely described and can be visualized by the reader. The web of spies in Dublin at the time is both brilliantly presented and nearly overwhelming in its detail. Clearly, the author did a lot of research for this book, and I loved being educated.
Burke in Ireland is not a light book to read, and to a reader looking for high tension and colorful conflicts on every page, it might seem dry. But it does what the author intended. I recommend it strongly to aficionados of historical novels and of Ireland’s history in particular.
About the Author (from Amazon)
Tom Williams used to write books for business. Now he writes novels set in the 19th century that are generally described as fiction but which are often more honest than the business books. (He writes contemporary fantasy as well, but that’s a dark part of his life, so you’ll have to explore that on your own – ideally with a friend and a protective amulet.)
His stories about James Burke are exciting tales of high adventure and low cunning set around the Napoleonic Wars. The stories have given him the excuse to travel to Argentina, Egypt, and Spain and call it research.
Tom lives in London. His main interest is avoiding doing any honest work and this leaves him with time to ski, skate, and dance tango, all of which (before covid) he thought he did quite well. In between, he reads old books and spends far too much time looking at ancient weaponry.
You can find Tom Williams
On twitter @TomCW99
On his website: https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk
Or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams