‘Cromwell in Ireland’ did not disturb the nationalist canon too much. The massacre of Protestants in 1641 is presented almost as an accident, beyond the ken of the Catholic leader Owen Roe O’Neill. The actual coverage of the slaughter of thousands, and the eviction of tens of thousands, lasted approximately a minute-and-a-half. This is disproportionately little, for (as the programme admitted) the butchery of thousands of women and children on ethnic and religious grounds had almost no precedent in Irish or English history
He contends that presenter Micheal O Siochruhas been altogether too restrained in dealing with the “hysterically held myth” that it was the Irish (the Gaels) who were slaughtered at Drogheda
Now, the massacre at Drogheda no longer exists in the realm of an historical truth, but in one of an almost hysterically held myth, any contradiction of which is national treason. In this regard, the presenter Micheal O Siochru actually veered towards the more “revisionist” tradition. He told us that a large number of the garrison were Protestant or English — though he might usefully have pointed out that the mere Irish, as in Gaels, were present neither there nor at Wexford. (my italics. KC)
It is at the end of his thoughtful column that Myres expresses his principal reservation about how the programme deals with its subject. There, he gets round to deconstructing the myth that the Irish population was reduced by either a fifth or a quarter – depending on who you listen to – as a direct result a Cromwell’s “bloody” campaign.
But my greatest problem with the programmes was the oft-repeated allegation that Cromwell’s campaign caused the death of between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population of Ireland. “That is Cromwell’s legacy,” we were solemnly told.
Firstly, the slaughter and anarchy in Ireland had started long before Cromwell, so he wasn’t exactly setting foot on Sunnybrook Farm. And secondly, a major factor in the undoubted demographic catastrophe that befell Ireland was plague. Bubonic plague, borne by rats and spread by fleas, was already prevalent in Connacht. An unrelated dysentery epidemic simultaneously ravaged Munster.
The garrison in Kilkenny of 1,200 men had been reduced by bubonic plague to 300.
Plague was so rampant across Ireland that in June 1650, the Commons in Dublin presented two petitions for financial assistance in burying the dead “in this time of mortalitie”, and for “the relief of the poor at the pest-house”. A later petition referred to “the heavie plague whereby this cittie is exceedingly depopulated”.
The Dublin surgeon was awarded £5 for having lost his entire family to the plague, and in 1657 yet another petition warned against “swearinge, curseinge and blasphemie”, in both Irish and English, so “provokeing of God, which may justly cause the plague to sease upon this cittie”
The plague was ravaging England too at that time, but not even the most ardent royalist historian today would blame Cromwell. In Ireland, however, it seems we can still blame him for everything, even the black rat, the Asiatic rat-flea, and the bubonic bacterium pasteurella pestis.