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Cromwell: The Irish Question

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Cromwell’s military campaign in Ireland is one event that the British can never remember and the Irish can never forget. Tom Reilly questions one of the most enduring and troubling topics in Irish history. 

St George trampling the Irish dragon from Albon Levert's 'Athlone Officer of Armes of the whole Realme of Ireland, 1649-57'. National Library of IrelandTimecheck: September 2012. A primary school teacher somewhere in Ireland faces a class of 11-year-olds. The teacher reaches for the textbook Earthlink 5th Class, published by Folens in 2004. On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’ No ambiguity there. The teacher then picks up a second history book, Timeline, published by the Educational Company of Ireland in 2008, also on the school curriculum, and crosschecks.

A paragraph reads:

He [Cromwell] first laid siege to Drogheda. He was determined to make an example of the town. When he captured it he slaughtered the entire population.

Compare this with a British school workbook, Presenting the Past: Britain 1500-1750 published by HarperCollins in 2002, where the veracity of the civilian atrocity stories is debated at some length and alternative interpretations presented.

Genocidal maniac or honourable enemy? The name ‘Cromwell’ is so talismanic that its very invocation still causes Irish hearts to stir. The theme of British versus Irish interpretations of Cromwell’s time in Ireland is as prevalent today as it was in the 19th century. While on one level Ireland seems to be coming to terms with the dying embers of centuries of anti-British sentiment, below the surface it is a different story. Cromwell is easily Irish history’s most resistant figure to a favourable re-evaluation.

A member of a long-standing Drogheda family, I grew up close to where the walls of the town were breached on 9/11 1649. I, too, was taught the horror story that the entire population was wiped out there and at Wexford. At school I had a rebellious teenage mindset. Others were studious, I was not. As a young adult I joined the Old Drogheda Society and a short glimpse into local history later I began to question the truth about the massacres. It was the indiscriminate slaughter of women and children that bothered me most.

Incredibly, the first document I consulted was the only one that was missed by almost all other Cromwellian scholars – Drogheda’s municipal records of 1649. Here I read about the activities of hundreds of Drogheda people who went about their daily business in the days immediately after Cromwell’s visit. So it couldn’t have been the ‘entire population’ of Drogheda then. Yet there was a written tradition of generations of academics promoting this as historical fact.

And so the journey began. I became familiar with all of the usual sources and those not so usual. As I read more about Cromwell, it became difficult (although not impossible) to reconcile how a man with such lofty moral ethics could engage in the senseless slaughter of Ireland’s innocents, even amid the frenetic environment of 17th-century warfare. I wiped the slate clean and evaluated the evidence of those people who were actually in Drogheda and Wexford at the time the massacres took place. It was shocking to realise that not one person in either town left written details of the deaths of even one unarmed civilian. Obviously small numbers of male civilians could have died as the result of collateral damage. To argue otherwise is folly. But there was no policy to kill the innocent either before, during or after the sieges of Drogheda and Wexford.

After Ireland Cromwell, king-killer and the darling of his soldiers, became the chief actor on the mid-17th-century stage when he assumed the role of Protector of the Commonwealth. The documented evidence for the period is fraught with inconsistencies as contemporary writers sought to convince with motives that were either genuine or ulterior. This reached a peak after the failure of the Commonwealth when the ensuing (vitriolic) Restoration propaganda directed at the Interregnum began to queer an already muddy pitch. Much later, at the end of the 19th century, the abundant anti-British sentiment from the pens of Irish nationalists helped to create an almost impenetrable layer of misinformation about the sack of Drogheda and Wexford and the conquest of Ireland.

My study Cromwell – An Honourable Enemy: The Untold Story of the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland was published in 1999, the 350th anniversary of the ‘massacres’. The inflammatory title had the flexibility to infuriate the diehard nationalist and intrigue the steadfast loyalist. Its publication was followed by public displays of outrage in Ireland, because it exonerated Cromwell of war crimes. A dismissive review in the Irish Times concluded that ‘None of this is convincing’. But the UK edition of the Sunday Times said: ‘This is an important book, it humbles us all.’

In 2000 an exhibition of Cromwell’s death mask in Drogheda caused the then deputy mayor of the town to organise a public protest during which the walls of the exhibition centre were daubed with tomato juice to represent the blood of Cromwell’s civilian victims. Councillor Frank Godfrey was quoted in the Irish Daily Mirror as saying:

Bringing Cromwell’s death mask to Drogheda is like asking a Jew to meet Adolf Hitler. The people of this town are in no doubt that Cromwell was responsible for putting thousands of innocent civilians to the sword, no matter what some authors might say.

Since 1999 little has changed in Ireland regarding Cromwell’s murderous legacy. Many Irish historians of the 17th-century refuse to accept the arguments outlined in my book and insist that its methodology is flawed and that therefore its thesis is rendered useless. Jason McElligott (Cromwell, Drogheda and the Abuse of Irish History, 2001), Micheál Ó’Siochrú (Propaganda, Rumour and Myth: Oliver Cromwell and The Massacre of Drogheda, 2007) and Pádraig Lenihan (Consolidating Conquest, 2008) still take the view that large numbers of unarmed civilians, men, women and children, were deliberately slaughtered under Cromwell’s orders at Drogheda and Wexford. The Irish graphic novelist Dermot Poyntz’ Curse of Cromwell: The Siege (Moccu Press, 2010, recommended for those aged ten upwards) explicitly illustrates the killing of ordinary civilians. Cromwell in Ireland (2008) and The Story of Ireland (2010) were major RTE documentaries, both of which conclude that Cromwell was guilty of wholesale civilian atrocities and almost completely ignore any revisionist work.

Conversely, Simon Schama’s BBC TV series, A History of Britain (2000-02), takes a different view. His book of the series states: ‘Only recently have Irish historians like Tom Reilly, a native son of Drogheda, had the courage and scholarly integrity to get the story right.’ A Channel 4 documentary, Cromwell, New Model Englishman (2002), also introduced balance to the debate by highlighting the non-massacre theory. In his Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-60 (2004), the historian Trevor Royle embraces my argument. The English author Philip McKeiver’s A New History of Cromwell’s Irish Campaign (2007) concludes that ‘most of the allegations against Cromwell are at best dubious, and, in the most part, not supported by original primary documents’. 

Cromwell experts in England are slightly more circumspect. Peter Gaunt wrote: ‘I am broadly sympathetic towards, and in agreement with, the line that you take’. And although John Morrill has cast (justifiable) aspersions on my methodology, he writes:

I am totally convinced by your evidence that no civilians died in cold blood at Drogheda. I am not quite clear that some would not have been caught up in the crossfire and died in hot blood.

History has a habit of not going away in Ireland, as the Irish know to their cost. It has defined and divided us. Surely it is the obligation of those early modern experts who preside over the Irish educational system to set the records straight and introduce a sense of balance. These words of Cromwell himself somehow seem very relevant: ‘In the bowels of Christ I beseech you, think it possible that you might be mistaken.’

Tom Reilly is a local historian and manager of Adrgillan Castle, in North County Dublin



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