Fintan O’Toole, writing in today’s Review pages of The Observer, says that you might, give that the current tendency in Irish historiography is towards revisionism, expect that Micheál Ó Siochrú’s* recently published God’s Executioner: Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland, would conclude that Oliver Cromwell “really had a heart of gold” and that the Irish have in fact spent the last three centuries turning him into the mythical criminal he never was.
The fascination of the book is that, even when it is put through the wringer of low-key, unemotional and carefully documented analysis, the myth turns out to be mostly true.
Hype certainly did play a part in the terrible events of the 1640s and early 1650s that killed a fifth of the Irish population. But the hype was mostly on Cromwell’s side. In strict military terms, his conquest of Ireland was relatively easy and could have been accomplished without atrocities. When he landed in Dublin in August 1649, the Puritan revolution was at its height. Already that year Charles I had been executed, the Leveller mutiny crushed, and the Commonwealth declared. Cromwell’s New Model Army had proved itself a virtually unbeatable force – highly disciplined, superbly equipped and very well funded.
Had he been so inclined, Cromwell could probably have pacified Catholic Ireland with minimal violence. The most powerful native military leader, Owen Roe O’Neill, and the Marquis of Antrim, Randal MacDonnell, were actually standing aloof from the Catholic rebellion and looking to cut a deal with the parliamentary forces on the basis of religious toleration and the preservation of their lands. For poorer Catholics, who had already endured a decade of war, early talk by Cromwell’s soldiers that they were ‘for the liberty of commoners’ was rather alluring. Yet none of this really mattered. Cromwell’s resort to extreme violence was not a reaction to the conditions of the actual conflict he was engaged in, but a predetermined exercise in religious and ethnic vengeance.
………In his first engagement, at Drogheda, he personally supervised the slaughter of about 2,500 soldiers and an indeterminate number of civilians. The arguments of apologists that this was within the laws of war at the time are contradicted by the evidence in Cromwell’s own account that he himself understood the scale of the massacre to be exceptional. It would, he admitted, have prompted ‘remorse and regret’ were it not intended to have exemplary effect as both collective punishment and a warning for the future. Contemporaries fully understood the atrocity, and its repetition at Wexford a month later, to be shocking, terrible events.
Does Ó Siochrú’s 316 page book help us to understand what lies behind the Cromwell myth. For the most part it does.
O Siochrú is so anxious to be unemotional that he often forgets to be vivid (he makes poor use of Cromwell’s remarkable letters from Ireland) and writes in a style too flat to do full justice to the human tragedy of these events. But this is a price worth paying for the scrupulousness that makes this by far the most authoritative account yet written of an episode that reminds us of the barbarism that is inflicted in wars against the ‘barbarians’
*Dr Micheál Ó Siochrú [link]