Even in English history, Cromwell remains a controversial figure. Republican defender of liberty or military dictator? Defender of religious liberty or Puritan bigot?
On the face of it, the case of Cromwell in Ireland seems all too clear cut. And so it is, in some senses. Cromwell came, in Michael O Siochru’s words, as God’s Executioner. Meaning what? In the first place, Cromwell came as a Protestant into a predominantly Catholic Ireland. For Cromwell, like all Protestants of his kind, Catholicism was of the devil and the memory of the massacres of 1641 ran deep. Secondly, Cromwell was a Parliamentarian, fighting the last bastion of Royalism; his initial opponents were, in fact, both and Irish, Catholic and Protestant, especially at Drogheda. Then, there were the Irish. In the civil war, the Catholic Irish were beyond the pale, and the only real atrocities of that war were directed against the Irish (or Welsh, being mistaken for Irish). As the Irish war ground on, it was increasingly just the Catholic Irish that resisted.
War in the 17th century was brutal, and siege warfare especially so. In that context, Cromwell’s brutality in Drogheda and Wexford might be held to make sense, but they remain vicious and shocking. A city that did not surrender need not be given quarter, according to the conventions of war: the defenders could all be killed.
In truth, the worst atrocities of the war happened after Cromwell’s departure from Ireland, when the Royalists, now nicknamed Tories, mounted a guerrilla campaign after the fall of Limerick. The Parliamentarian response was truly brutal: when parts of the country were declared rebel areas they were laid waste and declared no be no go zones (hundreds were hanged in Tipperary alone for entering those zones). Famine, disease and warfare saw something akin to one in four of the population killed.
What followed was transplantation. The Act of Settlement saw Catholic landowners transplanted west of the Shannon. The initial plan was to move the entire Catholic population into a kind of native reservation. In the end, only the landowners were removed, and a Protestant Ascendancy was created. 40,000 fled, another 50,000 were sent to the West Indies.
There is an irony. After his death, Cromwell became a historical persona non grata in England. As such, little was made of him in Irish history too. It was the Victorian cult of Cromwell that reintroduced him into Irish history too. As an English hero, he could become an Irish villain too. Of course, hero and villain is, for history, a simplicity to be eschewed. Likewise, Drogheda looms too large (much worse would follow). 17th century war was brutal, Cromwell was brutal, worse followed.
Michael O Siochru’s book is highly recommended.
He also did a two part TV series, happily on YouTube.
Follow the links to carry on, hopefully!
John Morrill’s five books to read on Cromwell includes both O Siochru and my old teacher and friend, Barry Coward.