1798 in Ireland has been described variously as the year of the French, the year of Liberty, or the year of rebellion. The summer was sunny, unusually so, but bloody when the United Irishmen, fired by France’s revolution and its gospel of equality, were crushed by a fearful, harsh and often inept ruling power. The forces for change and, equally, the forces of reaction, were clothed with passion and in their wake the people suffered terribly.
Cornwallis, Castlereagh, Grattan, Foster, Wolfe Tone, Fitzgerald, Father John and Father Michael Murphy, Henry Munro, Henry Joy McCracken and many more were caught within the mesh of circumstance. Many good men strove for what they thought was best. But cruelty, greed, and hateful bigotry bred crimes humanity abhors.
Gales had prevented major French landings in the south, but after the rebellion had largely been crushed, the French landed on the north-west coast with a thousand battle-hardened troops. The danger was confronted but not without considerable risk and uncertainty. The story weaves its way amidst this troubled time and the awful hardships of the people.
The fictional ‘friend of Castlereagh’ is a well-to-do farmer and boyhood companion of Robert Stewart, the future Viscount Castlereagh. Through their friendship, John Gray is introduced to Dublin Society where he meets his future wife, her uncle who befriends him, and an English officer who grows to love the Irish and their ways.
Castlereagh is a constant presence in the story as he seeks to restore order and find solutions to the country’s deep-rooted problems. Often he is misunderstood and blamed for many things he himself abhorred. John Gray plays a supporting role in helping to ease the tensions in the north.
The story begins in Northern County Down, then moves to Dublin, Wexford, Mayo, Fermanagh, and to England, but often it returns to Newtownards in County Down where it began.
John Alexander Stewart, born in County Down, moved to London in the 1950s. He is the author of two biographies and three historical novels: The Centurion, centred on the centurion in the Bible who asked Jesus to heal his servant, which was translated into German, Italian and Spanish; The Last Romans, placed in the time of Justinian and Boethius, and Marsilio, centred on the early life of the Florentine philosopher-priest, Marsilio Ficino.