God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland by Micheal O Siochru

The Sunday Times review by John Carey

Paying a courtesy call on the British foreign secretary Robin Cook in 1997, the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern noticed a painting of Oliver Cromwell in the room. He instantly walked out and refused to return until the portrait of “that murdering bastard” had been removed. You might think that the long and tragic history of Anglo-Irish relations was so full of murdering bastards on both sides that the selection of any particular one was rather arbitrary. But Micheal OSiochru puts the Aherne anecdote at the start of his book to illustrate the continuing demonisation of Cromwell by the Irish, and he strives to discover how far it is justified.

The story begins in 1641, years before Cromwell set foot in Ireland, with the rebellion of the Catholic Irish against the Protestant settler community. This started as a revolt by members of the Catholic elite against the colonial government, but it quickly became a popular uprising. As news of massacres and atrocities spread, terrified Protestant families fled their homes, making for the garrison towns. The rebels attacked these defenceless refugee-columns, and thousands of innocent civilians perished. The death toll is disputed, but inflammatory English news sheets put it at more than 200,000, arousing a nationwide outcry for revenge against what John Milton called “those Irish barbarians”. It was the start of a retaliatory war that lasted for more than a decade

By the time Cromwell landed in Dublin in August 1649, at the head of his New Model Army, Charles I had been executed, and the parliamentarians faced a new alliance of Irish Catholics and English royalists, committed to putting Charles’s son Charles Stuart on the English throne. To Cromwell, this aim made their defeat vital. The invasion of England by a Catholic-royalist army seemed a genuine possibility, and if it succeeded it would, Cromwell prophesied, make England “the most miserable place on earth”, not least for Cromwell. He needed a swift, decisive success that would break his foes’ morale.

On September 3, he arrived outside the walls of Drogheda, and summoned Aston, the royalist commander, to surrender, warning him that if he refused “you will have no cause to blame me”. Aston replied defiantly, reputedly claiming that the man who could take Drogheda could take hell. Cromwell’s siege guns began to shatter the town’s defences on September 10, and on the 11th he himself led the storming party. What followed, as OSiochru relates, gave him a reputation for inhuman savagery, at least among his enemies, that has persisted in Ireland to the present. He ordered that no quarter should be given, and the entire garrison of 2,500 officers and men was put to the sword. The glory of his victory belonged, Cromwell proclaimed, “to God alone”.

He justified his act with the argument that it would save lives by persuading other garrisons to surrender. This proved accurate to some degree. Several towns yielded without a fight. Ormond, the royalist commander in chief, reported that the entire kingdom was “terrified beyond imagination”, and desertions from the royalist to the parliamentarian army increased. But in some quarters Cromwell’s ruthlessness may have stiffened opposition. Wexford, the base for royalist naval operations, did not instantly capitulate, and its fate ranks with Drogheda’s in the popular catalogue of Cromwell’s crimes. Yet the two disasters were, OSiochru points out, quite different. At Wexford, Cromwell did not order an assault on the town, much less its destruction. He was negotiating surrender terms with the royalist commander when his troops gained access to the castle and turned its guns on the city. In the ensuing chaos, not only defenders but a great many townspeople were killed.

At Drogheda, too, some of the townspeople had been fatally caught up in the fighting, but there seems to be no evidence that Cromwell ordered his troops to target civilians. On the contrary, he issued a proclamation on landing in Ireland prohibiting his men from harming the civilian population, and he executed some soldiers for pillaging. Not all those engaged in the conflict observed such distinctions. OSiochru quotes Bishop MacMahon, the commander of the Ulster Catholic army, who warned the garrison at Dungiven that if they “shed one drop of my soldiers’ blood I will not spare to put man, woman and child to the sword”. Even Cromwell’s slaughter of the garrison at Drogheda was not a war crime by contemporary standards. In refusing quarter to enemy troops after their commander had rejected a summons to surrender he acted, OSiochru acknowledges, “entirely within the accepted conventions of warfare at the time”. When garrisons did surrender, even if, as at Ross and Kilkenny, they had resisted at first and inflicted casualties on his troops, Cromwell allowed them to march away with arms and baggage intact.

When, after nine months, he returned to England triumphant, final victory seemed all but won. “The Irish are ashamed/To see themselves in one year tamed”, crowed the poet Andrew Marvell. But, in fact, it was only after the departure of Ahern’s murderous bastard that the war entered its most murderous phase, with Irish guerrilla bands, known as “Tories”, pillaging, terrorising and launching surprise attacks on government troops. Brutal reprisals followed, and the country was swept into the cyclone of destruction that regularly accompanies guerrilla warfare – the burning of crops, the killing of livestock, plague, famine, indiscriminate massacres of noncombatants. You could ride 20 miles through Ireland, a traveller reported, and see nothing but dead men hanging on trees and gibbets. It lasted three years, and by the end, when the various guerrilla units eventually laid down their arms, a fifth of the population had died, and a residue of bitterness had accumulated that would last for centuries.

Resentment was compounded by the punitive expropriation of many Irish Catholic landowners that followed the defeat, and the forcible transportation of the remainder to the province of Connacht. This, too, has been regarded as part of Cromwell’s vicious legacy. Yet it could be argued that Charles II was equally to blame, since after his restoration, as OSiochru notes, he chose not to repeal but to consolidate the parliamentarian land settlement, depriving thousands of families of their hereditary estates.

Cromwell was both a great Englishman who saved his country from tyranny, and a religious fanatic who believed himself God’s executioner. He routinely killed Catholic priests who fell into his hands because he identified the Pope with Antichrist, “whose Kingdom the Scripture so expressly speaks should be laid in blood”. He was not, OSiochru concludes, a monster, but he did commit monstrous acts. Few will dispute that, although as moderns we are hardly in a position to feel superior. The reason Cromwell gave for the slaughter at Drogheda, that it would save lives in the long run, was the justification invoked for the killing of a quarter of a million Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If Cromwell’s deed was monstrous, it is hard to know what word to use for that.

OSiochru’s book incorporates original archival research and adds many new details to the familiar story. Unfortunately, it is dismayingly badly written, with tangled syntax and neglect of normal grammatical conventions. Readers should be forewarned of this, and assured that it is worth persevering despite the obstacles the author has placed in their way.

God’s Executioner by Micheal O Siochru
Faber £14.99 pp336

Statue rage
The struggle over Cromwell’s legacy reached a peak in the 1890s with plans to set his statue outside parliament at Westminster. The fury of the Irish Nationalist party – still mindful of the siege of Drogheda, right – forced withdrawal of a motion asking for public funds. The radical MP John Morley wrote that the climb-down was greeted ‘with anger and disgust from English Liberals; with thick-witted jibes from Unionists…and with wild cries of aboriginal joy from our Irish friends’. In the end, the statue was funded privately by the prime minister, Lord Rosebery.

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One thought on “God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland by Micheal O Siochru

  1. Bertie Ahearn was perfectly correct in telling his Brit host what to do with Cromwell’s portrait. No matter who or how he puts it; Cromwell was a monster, plain and simple. Let’s put Cromwell defenders, Great Famine excusers (both fall under the umbrella of the Union Jack) right alongside the Holocaust and Gulag deniers. What a foursome indeed that’d be to behold … in any era!

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