History Today eBook: The Second World War

Cromwell: The Irish Question

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.

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