It is beyond the scope of Micheál Ó Siochrú's excellent book to explore in detail the impact of Cromwell's legacy on modern Irish politics. However, he does provide a telling anecdote: in 1997 Robin Cook, the newly appointed foreign secretary, received a courtesy visit from Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach. On entering the office, the Irishman immediately walked out again, refusing to return until Cook took down from the wall a picture "of that murdering bastard" Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland
by Micheál Ó Siochrú
336 pages, Faber
Cook was unusual among New Labour grandees in that he had a genuine sense of the historical, but he probably never thought much about Cromwell in Ireland. Over the years, I have often been dismayed by my leftwing English friends' sympathy for Cromwell's cause. They tend to see him as a radical hero of the English civil war, politically flawed to be sure, especially when he sided with the propertied elite during the Putney debates, but without whose military genius and political vision the revolution of 1649 would not have been possible. His personal traumas and his constant, neurotic search for the true path can also make him seem attractively post-Freudian and modern, certainly compared to his great adversary Charles I, whose psychological outlook was so one-dimensionally rooted in the medieval theory of the divine right of kings that self-interrogation of any kind was impossible.
My friends are merely following generations of historians who have gathered to praise "the reluctant and apologetic dictator". Macaulay saw in Cromwell "the best qualities of the middle classes". To SR Gardiner he was no less than "the greatest Englishman of all time", while Churchill saluted his "place in the forward march of liberal ideas". When in the 1970s Ivan Roots edited a collection of essays on the great man, he found time for chapters on "Cromwell's Genius", "The Achievement of Oliver Cromwell" and even "Industrial Laissez-Faire and the Policy of Cromwell", but no space for an examination of what he did in Ireland. Still more recently, Cromwell's cause has been helped by the eccentric outpourings of amateur Irish historians who have absolved their hero from charges of mass murder and declared him "an honourable enemy", much to the delight of some pro-Union commentators.
By the time Cromwell landed with his troops at Ringsend outside Dublin, on August 15 1649, Ireland had been in rebellion for eight years. What began as an attempted coup by the Catholic Irish nobility descended into civil war and atrocities such as the massacre of Protestant settlers in Ulster in the winter of 1641 (at the time puritan MPs claimed 200,000 or more had died, though recent estimates put the figure at 4,000).
The deaths were used to whip up virulent anti-Catholic sentiment and certainly fed the cycle of revenge and cruelty that ensued. On Rathlin Island, Scottish Protestants wiped out the Catholic population, throwing women from the clifftops. As the rebellion continued, an uneasy alliance emerged of the native Irish, English settlers and those still loyal to the Stuart monarchy. Much of Ó Siochrú's narrative is taken up with the complex backgrounds and conflicting interests of various parties, and it is by far the best account of the confederate wars, as they came to be known, that I have read.
The outbreak of hostilities between king and parliament in the summer of 1642 diverted parliament's attention away from the rebellion. Not until after Charles I had been executed could the new republican government muster the resources to conquer Ireland. Cromwell was chosen to lead the invading force. Addressing a crowd of Irish Protestants in Dublin, Cromwell promised rewards for all those carrying on "that great work against the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish". Promising to restore "that bleeding nation to its former happiness and tranquillity", Cromwell advanced to Drogheda, which was defended by the royalist Sir Arthur Aston.
Aston refused Cromwell's summons to surrender, and on September 11, after fierce fighting, the town was stormed. In his letters to parliament, Cromwell stated simply that he forbade his men "to spare any that were in arms". The scale of the killing was unprecedented. Cromwell's apologists have sought to excuse him on the grounds that while the sack of Drogheda was harsh, it was in accordance with the laws of war. Ó Siochrú argues that even during the thirty years war in Germany, considered by contemporaries a byword for wanton cruelty, massacres of this nature were extremely rare, and he cites the defensive tone of Cromwell's letters to parliament as suggestive of his own recognition that he had allowed something terrible to happen.
After Drogheda Cromwell turned south again and there was a rerun at Wexford, with the garrison and many civilians losing their lives. Cromwell justified his actions in part by claiming that the Irish would be terrorised into surrender, but it is more likely that it was parliament's money that secured the day for Cromwell's men: fighting men like to be paid, and his opponents had but a fraction of his resources.
I would have liked a longer discussion of the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish context in which Cromwell operated. The parliamentarian general the Earl of Essex approved the execution of "absolute Irish . . . for he would not have quarter allowed to those". As Michael Braddick says: "By the autumn of 1644 this was near to official policy." In other words, Cromwell's vicious hatred of the Irish was nothing new and it was not particular to him. But this is a quibble, for I don't see how Cromwell's reputation can survive this important book. Ó Siochrú's calm and forensic reconstruction of events at Drogheda and Wexford show "the greatest Englishman of all time" to have been a pitiless mass murderer. I will be sending it to English friends this Christmas, along with a card inviting them to join a campaign to have Cromwell's statue outside parliament pulled down, cut up and chucked into the Irish Sea.