The Two of Hearts

My short story “The Two of Hearts” was originally broadcast on RTÉ as part of the Francis MacManus Competition.

It is now available to listen to on Soundcloud.

Click on the image to hear it being read by actress Catriona Ni Mhurchú.

Catriona Ni Mhurchú. source:

at the john hewitt summer school

Writers should always hang out with non-writers; it encourages a different, equally important sort of creativity.

More importantly, it ensures that conversation is not too writery. There’s nothing wrong with writery conversations, but most writery conversations start off with spirited discussions about character and plot and language and soon dissolve into grumbling about book deals gone awry and useless agents.

The annual John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh offers a unique opportunity for writers; the opportunity to mingle with painters, musicians, poets, actors, potters, sculptors, and academics.

It’s an arts festival. It’s a music festival. It’s a literary festival. It’s a festival of ideas.


And it’s busy. It’s a hectic week of workshops, readings, lectures, discussions, music, and theatre.

Glenn Patterson

And scones. There are an awful lot of scones, served at several intervals each day by the massively hardworking and relentlessly upbeat staff at The Marketplace Theatre. Sometimes there’s shortbread.

image (4)
John Hewitt

The John Hewitt Society is a non-profit set up to promote literature, arts, and culture inspired by the ideals and ideas of the poet John Hewitt. This was my first time to go, but it won’t be the last.

For a countryman the living landscape is
a map of kinship at one level,
at another, just below this, a chart of use,
never at any level a fine view:
sky is a handbook or labour or idleness;
wind in one airt is the lapping of hay,
in another a long day at turf on the moss;
landscape is families, and a lone man
boiling a small pot, and letters once a year;
it is also, underpinning this, good corn
and summer grazing for sheep free of scab
and fallow acres waiting for the lint.
So talk of weather is also talk of life,
and life is man and place and these have names.

Landscape by John Hewitt

I was in Armagh as a winner of a bursary to attend the school, and going there brought back pleasant memories of college, especially on the first day when we had to register and collect our packets of information. As in college, there was that simultaneous rush of excitement and shyness at meeting a throng of new people.

IMG_20160725_190941 (1)
Sarah Howe

I spend much of my time in the company of imaginary people, who as a rule I prefer to the other kind, but it turns out I might not be as anti-social as I thought.

I had a thousand interesting conversations and wished I’d had time for ten thousand more.

Where else would you find yourself  in a few short hours discussing nineteenth-century architecture, witchcraft in Ireland in the eighteenth century, Heidegger’s poetics, road bowling, the ritual and significance of tattoos, medieval walled gardens, the exact sort of knock on the door required for admittance to a lock-in, the GAA’s eligibility rules, Mötley Crüe, the superiority of Doc Martens over other boots, regional Irish dialects, the life and career of Victorian war correspondent William Howard Russell, whether you can risk a tipple when pregnant, the beauty and brutality of the sea, and the meaning of an empty room in a painting?

image (3)
Carlo Gébler

As part of my bursary, I was able to attend a short story workshop with Carlo Gébler, and it was utterly brilliant.

A story must be scrupulously true, Gébler said. He didn’t mean factual, of course; he meant that if the world of the story is not truly described, you will lose the reader.

It was an absolute privilege to listen as he outlined his ideas about what makes stories work, and to listen to him read from Chekhov, Orwell, Maupassant, Carver, Shalamov, and then best of all, from an as-yet unpublished short story of his own, one which gets the facts down correctly, is quite assuredly scrupulously true, is pitiless, does not waste a single word, and is utterly devastating.

I have the distinct impression that Carlo Gébler doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in a different life he would have made a terrifying – but utterly brilliant – Victorian schoolmaster.

He insisted upon addressing me as Mr. McArdle while calling everyone else in the class by their first name, something I have been puzzling over for days, but he did use my first name when he signed his book.



At the end of the week, students read out our work at a creative writing showcase. It was wonderful to hear poets and writers debut new pieces.

The Hewitt is also decidedly non-snobby. High-falutin’ literary authors hang out with sci-fi writers. Crime novelists share tea and scones with poets.

IMG_20160727_142325 (1)
Some of Jack Doherty’s work

It’s almost impossible for me to pick out my favourite event, but highlights of the week definitely include readings by poets Sarah Howe, Andrew McMillan, Ciaran Carson,Rita Ann Higgins, and Paul Durcan; interviews with authors Glenn Patterson,Belinda McKeon and Donal Ryan; music by Martin Hayes and David Power; an open mic night with songs, poetry, and stories; a fascinating talk about the artistic process by potter Jack Doherty; and a performance by Mikel Murfi in his one-man show The Man in the Woman’s Shoes.


See this show as soon as you can. It’s brilliant: hilarious, moving and tender.

IMG_20160731_195159 (1)
Some of my haul of books, all bought from the stall run by No Alibis bookshop

I haven’t even talked about the city itself, which is lovely.

I spent a very pleasant hour in St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the Anglican one) gazing at its splendid ceiling, reading the inscriptions to fallen soldiers in the wars, and chatting with the Dean, a delightful character who would not be out of place in a country house mystery.

Oh, and I visited some pubs. There may have been some drinking. I can’t really say much more than that because what happens in the John Hewitt Summer School stays in the John Hewitt Summer School.


The week flew by and when it ended there was an awful sadness in the air because it was over too soon. People who had met as strangers on Monday morning milled about, bags in hand, reluctant to say goodbye, like children at the end of summer camp. We exchanged contact information and took selfies. I left Armagh with a bag full of books (thanks, No Alibis), a head full of ideas, a heart full of memories, and the soft and lingering feel of hugs and kisses from my new friends.

Go to the John Hewitt International Summer School if you get the chance. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

The John Hewitt International Summer School


I am in Armagh this week for the John Hewitt International Summer School, a week of creative writing workshops, readings, music, and theatre presented by the John Hewitt Society.

image (4)
John Hewitt

The John Hewitt Society was established in 1987, to commemorate the life and work of renowned Northern Irish poet John Hewitt.

The mission of The John Hewitt Society is: to promote literature, arts, and culture inspired by the ideals and ideas of the poet John Hewitt.

Hewitt’s work and writings transcended traditional divisions, and The Society feels a responsibility to continue his work by bringing different identities together in safe circumstances via literature and creative writing.

The life and writings of John Hewitt – in particular his love of the Ulster landscape and his concept of regionalism – lend themselves not only to the expansion of the public’s enjoyment of literature in general, but also the exploration, and repair of Northern Ireland’s deeply divided society.

The Society actively promotes cross-community and cross-border links and, through its work, it plays a very real role in reinforcing the peace process in Northern Ireland, by providing safe, neutral spaces for its activities and creating cultural activities and events to encourage debate, understanding, tolerance and acceptance of cultural diversity.

I am one of several bursary winners from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who are attending the school.

image (3)
Carlo Gébler

I’m very excited about the chance to be taking a short story workshop with Carlo Gébler, a writer I was fortunate to meet briefly at the International DUBLIN Literary Award.

There are also workshops on screenwriting, poetry, memoir writing, and writing YA fiction.

Armagh will be host to a wide range of poets, writers, musicians, and artists, including Donal Ryan, Belinda McKeon, Mikel Murfi, Jo Baker, Glenn Patterson, Sinéad Morrissey, Jack Doherty, Martina Devlin, and Paul Durcan.

For more information and to book tickets to events, visit the John Hewitt Society website.



For a countryman the living landscape is
a map of kinship at one level,
at another, just below this, a chart of use,
never at any level a fine view:
sky is a handbook of labour or idleness;
wind in one airt is the lapping of hay,
in another a long day at turf on the moss;
landscape is families, and a lone man
boiling a small pot, and letters once a year;
it is also, underpinning this, good corn
and summer grazing for sheep free of scab
and fallow acres waiting for the lint.
So talk of weather is also talk of life,
and life is man and place and these have names.

Landscape by  John Hewitt

15 Roses for 15 Years: ‘Something Unspoken’

Something Unspoken

Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin

Mon to Sat at 1:00pm

Nobody is ever going to accuse Tennessee Williams of being subtle. The playwright specialized in overwrought melodrama, writing plays that featured fragile belles, larger-than-life patriarchs, violent drunks, and repressed homosexuals, all struggling under the conformity and genteel manners of the Deep South.

It is to director Maisie Lee’s credit, therefore, that she has taken one of Williams’ one-act plays, Something Unspoken, and fashioned a quiet two-hander of desire that mixes its comedy and tragedy quite delicately to make a play that’s as refreshing as a mint julep.


Set over a tense breakfast in the splendid Louisiana home of ageing belle Miss Cornelia Scott (Catherine Byrne), Something Unspoken is about the things said and unsaid between Cornelia and her put-upon secretary, Grace Lancaster (Noelle Brown). Cornelia spends much of the time fretting over the upcoming election at the Confederate Daughters Society, determined to be acclaimed as President. Grace screens her telephone calls, and there is a great deal of comedy in the early portion of the play, with Byrne relishing the role of a haughty snob bellowing instructions down the phone.

Grace, meanwhile, seems on the verge of a breakdown, and seeks distraction in playing music on the gramophone. The cause of her distress soon becomes apparent; it is due in part to the difference between the two women, one rich, superior, confident; the other dependent, mousey, and a bundle of nerves.

There is also something else … something unspoken. As I said, Williams is not a subtle playwright, so it won’t take you long to work out what exactly is at the core of the women’s relationship.

So much, though, is packed into less than an hour: issues of class, sexuality, wealth, and race (the two women are white, and “the help” is noticeably absent because she’s attending “a coloured funeral”).

The two actresses work well together. Brown captures the look and feel of a widow who has been forced to accept a paid position from a friend, and who has worked for Cornelia for fifteen years, usually with little gratitude. Her big moment was delivered perfectly. On the day that I saw the play, Byrne seemed to abandon her Southern accent midway through the production, opting instead to put a generic superior grandeur in her voice (it doesn’t harm the character, and it occurs to me that Byrne would make a very fine Lady Bracknell).

Andrew Murray’s simple set suggests an elegant morning room: a nicely laid breakfast table, an ornate telephone, a handsome Victrola, a large window covered by a sheer curtain (the colour of which must be a deliberate choice), and most importantly, a single red rose centered between the two women.

There are similar grace notes in Barbara McCarthy’s costumes. The two women are in peignoirs and dressing robes: Cornelia’s is all rich, vibrant greens and purples, Grace’s is a more muted pink and grey.

Lee’s direction keeps the two women separated by the breakfast table. Cornelia starts the play at Stage Right; Grace at Stage Left. By the end of the play, their positions have reversed. They touch only twice, the play’s only directing error, I think, as I believe they should not touch at all, or touch only once.

Technically, the production is perfect: it’s nice to see a play that includes the sounds of a record playing and a telephone ringing where the sound effects are timed perfectly with their cues.

Something Unspoken runs at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre until July 23rd.

The Dream Against The Deed

image (2)
Patrick Deeley. source: Irish Times

Poet Patrick Deeley has written a beautiful memoir about growing up in East Galway. The Hurley Maker’s Son has been hailed for its evocative prose, and for its moving celebration of life in rural Ireland in the 1960s.

As a child, Deeley was something of a misfit in his family: a loner, a dreamer, and somewhat melancholic, a mood that suffuses the memoir.

Some nights, however, a sudden sadness would touch me right in the place where my heart was and I’d put my hand there and feel the steady thump, and wonder what dying meant.

Deeley’s father, Laurence tried to impart his carpentry skills to the boy, without much success. While he could not master the bandsaw or lathe, however, Deeley was obsesses with the language of his father’s workshop, where his father would talk of the bas of a hurley or the felloes of a cartwheel, of spoke-shales and augurs and planes and routers.

His father’s language was in contrast to his mother’s. Mary Deeley was a farmer, and as such her speech was peppered with farm phrases and old Galway idioms.


Deeley has recollected all of this in The Hurley Maker’s Son, a moving elegy to a lost way of life, to the landscape that formed him as a poet, and to his late father (Laurence was killed at an early age when a tree he was felling struck him).

Donal Ryan calls it “a glorious book, a perfect elegy, a gorgeous tumble of memories of life, death, love and, above all, family”, while Theo Dorgan writes that “there is something both eerie and deeply convincing about Deeley’s re-inhabiting of the landscape that formed him, the family that shaped and nourished him.”

I had the chance to interview Patrick Deeley ahead of his appearance at this weekend’s Hay Festival Kells.

The interview is on the Irish Times website here.

Patrick Deeley will be reading from The Hurley Maker’s Son on Saturday, June 25th, at 6.30pm at the Presbyterian Church in Kells as part of the Hay Festival Kells.

Making Hay in Kells

The historic Irish town of Kells will play host to some of the world’s finest writers this coming weekend during the Hay Festival Kells.

home-collage_Kells (2).jpg


The line-up of fiction writers includes Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia, Love and Hate), Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy), Kevin Barry (Beatlebone), Lisa McInerney (The Glorious Heresies), Jax Miller (Freedom’s Child), Liz Nugent (Unravelling Oliver), Oona Frawley (Flight), Mike McCormack (Solar Bones), and Vanessa Ronan (The Last Days of Summer).

Lisa McInerney

There will also be a range of non-fiction authors, including Myles Dungan (How the Irish Won the West), Hilary Fannin (Hopscotch), and Patrick Deeley (The Hurley-Maker’s Son), as well as a series of talks on the graphic novel and game design.

Patrick McCabe

I will be blogging the Festival as a guest of the Kells Experience, and I will be interviewing several of the writers.

Posts will appear here and at over the weekend.

Tickets for the Festival can be booked here.

Ahkil Sharma Wins International DUBLIN Literary Award

Ahkil Sharma’s novel Family Life has won the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award, the richest annual prize in literature.

He was presented with a crystal trophy and a cheque for 100,000 euros by the Lord Mayor at a lavish ceremony at the Mansion House in Dublin.

13428550_10154247071001112_7629193876843989280_n (1).jpg

How lavish? Very. Smartly-dressed servers moved through the crowd offering hors d’ouevres and  Prosecco.

And they weren’t stingy about it.


It was my first time inside the Round Room at the Mansion House. It’s lovely, as is the main reception room where the judges and other dignitaries were gathering before the event.

I know because I unwittingly crashed that get-together, and was politely and very tactfully asked to leave.

I did manage, however, to grab a few words with some of the judges.

Ian Sansom and Carlo Gébler told me how much they had enjoyed the process of reading 160 novels (the longlist), first delivered to them last August. “Perfect time of year for reading,” quipped Sansom. Gébler has written a truly wonderful piece here about the experience.


With that many novels from all over the world, there was a wide range of styles, ideas and themes represented. “Because it’s a celebration of global literature, you’re getting every kind of novel imaginable,” Sansom said. “I think it would be very difficult to try to identify any trends … but one thing I did notice were tales of movement, of migration across borders.”

Gebler noticed “a desire to recalibrate the past, to make it the present, and there’s a nervousness about Otherness, about nonconformity, about inappropriateness, and people want to make the past now, which is a very strange thing to want to do.”

Fellow judge Meagan Delahunt told me she was thrilled to see a strong gender balance among the nominated novels (the final shortlist was split 50/50). “I think we had gender balance. I think that’s really rare, in the English-speaking world, anyway. Most of the prizes go to men. There was a lot of women in contention for that top prize. I’m very happy that we had five women in the shortlist.”

She also assured me that the novel is not dead, and is in fine health.


Family Life is an autobiographical novel about immigration and illness. Sharma’s family emigrated from India to America when he was a child, and several years later his brother was severely brain-damaged in a swimming accident.

The day before the announcement, under a strict embargo not to reveal who had won the award, I was fortunate to speak to Sharma by telephone. He is a thoughtful, soft-spoken, charming gentleman, and our interview was marked by brief silences as he pondered how best to answer questions.

He was also overwhelmed and still processing the fact that he had won.

In person on the day of the announcement, he was more relaxed, still a little giddy, and as pleasant as you could hope a writer to be (the day before, he had asked me to come up and say ‘hello’ to him at the ceremony so he could put a face to a name).

He also introduced me to the Indian ambassador. Only another 197 diplomats to go and my bucket list will be complete.

One final note: when the Lord Mayor comes into a room, she gets her own music.

It was the theme to Last of the Mohicans.




EPIC Ireland – A Journey of A People – A Museum Reviewed

passport.jpgThe wonderful Beanmimo and I had a lovely day last Saturday wandering around EPIC Ireland in Dublin. Here’s Ben’s take on the experience. If you’re in Dublin, go. It’s not just for tourists!


My trip to Ireland’s newest Museum – courtesy of EPIC Ireland.

When I told a few friends I was planning a visit to the Irish Diaspora museum

EPIC Ireland – A Journey of A People

I got some typical Irish begrudging reactions. “That’s just for American tourists” and similar views.

Well begrudgers, you can eat that begrudgery followed by  humble pie. EPIC Ireland doesn’t just live up to its name but redefines the whole museum experience. It delivers history through deft use of 21st Century technology while mixing sparse and thoughtful design in the CHQ building which has a cool history all of its own.


When you descend into EPIC you are greeted with a charming ‘passport’ to the Irish Diaspora Museum. I see this being embraced by the generations of schoolchildren who will pass though the museum. We are told to stamp our passport (which doubles as a…

View original post 376 more words

the Irishman Who Witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade

William Howard Russell
William Howard Russell

By Niall McArdle

It was the site of an infamous cavalry charge that was either an act of supreme bravery or one of sheer stupidity, or both. It inspired a famous poem that is still drilled into schoolchildren. A young woman in London, Florence Nightingale, was so moved upon reading the reports of the wounded that she journeyed to Crimea to set up a pioneer nursing service at the Front.

Balaklava has passed into that odd place in our cultural memory that holds truth and fiction in equal measure. When we think of it at all, we likely think first of Tennyson, second of Florence Nightingale, and, perhaps, after that the details of the battle itself. Like other famous places of conflict  – Troy, Hastings, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, Bastogne –  it conjures a mixture of history and myth. And we owe much of what we know of the tragic Charge of the Light Brigade to a young Irishman, William Howard Russell, who reported the carnage.

William Howard Russell
Russell in 1855, photographed by Roger Fenton

Russell was born in 1820 in Tallaght at Lilyvale, Jobstown, Co. Dublin. He studied at Trinity College. In 1841 he covered the Irish elections for the Times in London. He regularly reported on Irish politics, on Daniel O’Connell and on the Irish Famine. As a reporter for the Times he gained a reputation as one of its finest. In his time he was one of the world’s most famous war correspondents. With his long dark hair, flowing beard and somewhat shabby suit, he cut a curious figure among the gentlemen of the press. His peers thought he was “a vulgar low Irishman, who sings a good song, drinks anyone’s brandy and water and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.” 

Russell at the Curragh, 1854
Russell at the Curragh, 1854

Whatever his method, his reports from the Crimean War – perhaps the first war widely reported in the media – were so realistic that they helped change the public’s attitude to the war. John Thaddeus Delane, editor of the Times, urged Russell to “tell the exact truth” in his reporting, and Russell did exactly that, filing stories that highlighted the lack of ambulance care for wounded troops, and the battlefield surgeons’ “humane barbarity”. He coined the term “Thin Red Line”. As well as the Crimean conflict, Russell witnessed the Siege of Lucknow and the US Civil War.


In September, 1854, Dickens and Thackeray entertained the young man with a farewell dinner, and then he set off for the Meidtteranean. On October 25th, 1854, he stood with other spectators above the field at Balaklava, which “was as plainly seen from the verge of the plateau where I stood as the stage and those upon it are seen from the box of the theatre.” His report was issued from the “heights before Sebastopol.” From there he wrote  “a more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death.”

Russell was moved by the Charge. “If the exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excesses of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected lustre on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.”

The Siege at Sebastopol
The Siege at Sebastopol

The Crimean War was fought between a loose alliance of Britain, France and Turkey against the Russian Empire’s ambitions. Russia wanted a warm water port in the south–namely, at the Bosporus Straits and the Strait of the Dardanelles, the small waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. In 1854, the decayingOttoman Empire controlled that essential waterway and Russia sought increased power in this region. When the Russians advanced on the Ottomans, Britain and France allied with the Turks and laid siege to the Russians at Sevastapol. The charge at nearby Balaklava was just one event in a siege that lasted a year.

The entire event took less than half and hour. Seldom has a skirmish been witnessed by so many so clearly, or a military blunder so apparent. The foolishness, arrogance and stupidity of the charge is difficult to conceive.

Russell first vividly and accurately described the scene.

Balaklava, with its scanty shipping, its narrow strip of water, and its old forts … the valley and plain of coarse meadowland, occupied by our cavalry tents … two or two and a half miles across the valley there is an abrupt rocky mountain range of most irregular and picturesque formation, covered with scanty brushwood here and there, or rising into barren pinnacles and plateaus of rock.

He described it as “wonderfully like the Trossachs,” a reference not lost on any of his readers, who would have been raised on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.


After the Russians had broken through, decimating the Turkish defences, the Turks retreated and formed a line behind the men of the 93rd Highlanders. Two columns formed, one “consists of the Scots Greys and of their old companions in glory, the Enniskilleners; the second of the 4th Royal Irish, of the 5th Dragoon Guards, and of the 1st Royal Dragoons. The Light Cavalry Brigade is on their left in two divisions also.”

Russell’s report may well mark the first time that the phrase “the silence is oppressive” is used. “Between the cannon bursts, one can hear the champing of bits and the clink of sabres in the valley below.”


The Russians on their left drew breath for a moment, and then in one grand line dashed at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet – gathering speed at every stride they dash on towards that thin red streak of topped with a line of steel…With breathless suspense everyone awaits the bursting of the wave upon the line of Gaelic rock; but ere they came within 150 yards, another deadly volley flashes from the levelled rifles, and carries death and terror into the Russians … they fly back faster than they came.

The Tin Red Line
The Thin Red Line

If that had been the end of it, of course, the skirmish at Balaklava would be scarcely remembered. What followed was viewed by Russell, Lord Raglan and others in utter silence. The Russians advanced again. “The Greys and Enniskilleners went right at the centre of the Russian cavalry. The space between them was only a few hundred yards; it was scarce enough to let the horses gather way, nor had the men quite space sufficient for the full play of their sword arms.” The Russians swallowed them; the Royals and Dragoons came in to charge the other Russian flank. Cheers went up among the spectators.

Lord Airey, who ordered the charge
Lord Airey, who ordered the charge

But then, Russell reported, “now occurred this melancholy catastrophe which fills us all with sorrow.” Brigadier Airey ordered Lord Lucan to advance.

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy & try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate. R Airey.

The order was taken to Lucan by Captain Louis Nolan, described in terms so glowing you think Russell must have had a crush on him. “A braver soldier than Captain Nolan the army did not possess, a matchless rider and a first-rate swordsman, he held in contempt, I am afraid, even grape and canister.”

It pained Russell to report the order Nolan gave. “God forbid I should cast a shade on the brightness of his honour, but I am bound to state what I am told occurred.” Nolan ordered Lucan and Cardigan to advance, in spite of Lucan’s protests that it was madness to do so. Nolan flung his arm out and said, “there is your enemy, sir.”

Nolan had pointed in the wrong direction. The Russians were lined up on the ridge; what cavalry would ever charge without any infantry support? “Certainly, sir,” said Cardigan, “but allow me to point out that the Russians have a battery in the valley on our front, and batteries and riflemen on both sides.” Lucan replied, “I know it. But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.” And so, due to an ambiguous order, the Light Brigade charged down the wrong valley – instead of through a parallel valley behind one of the two Russian lines.


Russell, watching all of this, wrote, “Don Quixote in his tilt against the windmill was not near so rash and reckless as the gallant fellows who prepared without a thought to rush on almost certain death.” Russell counted just over six hundred men, whose “desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part – discretion.”

The Russians “belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.”


“The plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabres flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between them.” The blaze of steel was “like the turn of a shoal of mackerel” (this wasn’t Russell’s colourful description, but that of an officer standing nearby.) Russell went on “Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale – demigods could not have done what they had failed to do.”

Then the Russians fired on their own troops as they were mingling and fighting with the British “an act of atrocity without parallel in the modern warfare of civilised nations“ The Russians fired “a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin.”

607 men rode in. 198 men survived.

Surviivors of the Charge photographed by Roger Fenton
Surviivors of the Charge photographed by Roger Fenton

When John Bright read Russell’s report, he wrote “the Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of its wings.”

The public was outraged at the squander of life and laid the blame squarely at the commanders. The commanders themselves started blaming each other. Raglan blamed Lucan for the charge, claiming that “from some misconception of the order to advance, the Lieutenant-General (Lucan) considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards, and he accordingly ordered Major-General the Earl of Cardigan to move forward with the Light Brigade.”Lucan was furious at being made a scapegoat: Raglan claimed he should have exercised his discretion, but throughout the campaign up to that date Lucan considered Raglan had allowed him no independence at all and required that his orders be followed to the letter. Cardigan, who had merely obeyed orders, blamed Lucan for giving those orders. He returned home a hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry.

Punch cartoon on the poor conditions of British troops
Punch cartoon on the poor conditions of British troops

In the following winter Russell reported on the hardships that the troops endured. “All the pictures ever drawn of plague and pestilence, from the work of the inspired writer who chronicled the woes of infidel Egypt down to the narratives of Boccaccio, Defoe and Moltke, fall short of individual ‘bits’ of disease and death which anyone may see in half a dozen places during an hour’s walk in Balaklava … the sick appear to be tended by the sick and the dying by the dying.”

Injured soldiers at Florence Nightingale's hospital at Scutari
Injured soldiers at Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari

Russell retired as a correspondent in 1882. He was later awarded the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII, who allegedly said to him, “don’t kneel, Billy, just stoop.” Russell died in London in 1907.