Monday, May 30, 2022

F 404 Orange and Green: 44 Years Late

Recently, I was making some space on my overcrowded bookshelf, when I picked up a battered-looking book entitled “Orange and Green”. It was written in 1887 by G. A. Henty, who was a prolific author of books for boys in the late 19th century. Inside the front cover was the code “F 404”, underneath this was a stamp with “Mt St Joseph College Roscrea, Library”. I suddenly realised that this was a library book from my old Alma Mater, Cistercian College Roscrea in Co Tipperary, where I completed my secondary school studies in June 1977. It is with some embarrassment that I work out that over 44 years later, I still have not returned the book to the College Library.

G. A. (George Alfred) Henty was born in Cambridge in 1832. When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, he left Cambridge University before completing his degree and volunteering as an Officer in the British Army Hospital. His letters home described in detail the appalling conditions suffered by British soldiers in the Crimea. His father, impressed by the quality of the writing, sent the letters to The Morning Advertiser newspaper, whose circulation in Britain then was second only to The Times – his career as a war correspondent and writer had begun. He covered several European wars between 1866 and 1877. 

Henty wrote 122 books in total over a 34-year period. His books were aimed at teenage boys and almost always featured one or two boys as the main characters in many historical contexts such as the Crusades, the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Civil War. The “Orange and Green” book was one of six books he wrote in 1887. It is based on the 1688 - 1690 period during the War of the Two Kings between Catholic King James II, and Protestant William of Orange. In the first sentence of the book in the foreword Henty prophetically writes:

The subject of Ireland is one which has for some years been a very prominent one, and is likely, I fear, for some time yet to occupy a large share of public attention”.

I decided to read the stained yellow pages of the book again. The central character in the “Orange and Green” story is 16-year-old Walter Davenent, an Irish Catholic descendent of Norman invaders from the 12th century. His family survived the Cromwellian wars and lived in a castle just south of Bray in Co Wicklow. He makes friends with a Protestant neighbour, John Whitefoot, whom Henty describes growing up as a: “hearty, healthy boy, with a bright eye, a merry laugh, and a frank, open bearing”.

Early in the book during a storm, Walter almost single handedly saves many English soldiers from drowning in a shipwreck – an action that later saves him from the gallows. This was just the start of his heroic deeds during the war. Later he twice escapes capture, dashes without fear into battle, smuggles bread and milk with the help of John into the children trapped behind the walls in the Siege of Derry, rescues a damsel in distress, falls in love, and marries the girl of his dreams.

Besides being an adventure story for boys, the “Orange and Green” book is also a history lesson of the period. This was a favourite tactic of Henty – he researched many other books about his subjects before writing his stories. “Orange and Green” is also a tale of the Battle of the Boyne, the sieges of Derry and Athlone, the Battle of Aughrim, and the final siege of Limerick. Despite being a life-long imperialist and glorying in the British Empire’s successes, Henty laments the lost Irish cause and condemns the many atrocities by William of Orange’s soldiers during the war. Many of G. A. Henty’s books aroused controversy due to accusations of racism and stereotyping of minorities while depicting his stories as heroic and patriotic.  

Feeling a little guilty, I posted the book back to Cistercian College Roscrea, pleading with the President of the College for forgiveness for depriving generations of schoolboys of the chance to read the book, and for an amnesty for my 44 years late return. Indeed, a modest fine of ten cent per week would have resulted in a late fee of about €230! 

A few weeks later I receive an email from the College President (Gavin Clark) thanking me for returning the book. He wrote:

I am pleased to acknowledge that due to your act in reuniting us with this lovely book that we shall waive any potential penalties, and instead thank you for taking the time and energy to assist us in helping get this book back into the library for the boys to enjoy.”  

He even posted a short video online of the book being put back on the College Library shelves. After 44 years, G. A. Henty’s Orange and Green book is finally back where it belongs.

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