Archive for the ‘Irish History’ Category

Ireland, 1641 and all that.

March 10, 2010

As the result of what is thought to be a historical decision by academics at Trinity College,  Dublin, historians, linguists, and specialists of all sorts –  as well as  members of the general public – are being invited to examine  newly transcribed witness statements taken after the Irish rebellion and massacres of 1641.

It was this rebellion that was used by Oliver Cromwell to justify his slaughter of the defeated garrisons at Drogheda and Wexford, and it is therefore important, even at this late date,  that any documents dealing with the rebellion be made available for full scrutiny.

For much of the first half of the 20th century,  the Irish government was actively discouraging publication of any historical research into the rebellion because it well knew that  some of the evidence emerging suggested that there was some basis for Cromwell’s allegations,  and that the widespreadmyth that Cromwell and supporters had always exaggerated the ferocity of the 1641 rebels was just that, a myth. .

This is how The Guardian reported reported the Trinity decision:

In what has been dubbed as the ultimate in cold case reviews, historians, linguists, software specialists and the public are being invited to trawl through newly transcribed versions of the original documents held in Trinity College, Dublin.

The 350-year-old writing is barely legible, the spelling across 19,000 pages of text erratic. The events they chronicle, however, poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries, focusing attention on atrocities inflicted predominantly by dispossessed Irish Catholic rebels on Anglo-Scottish, Protestant settlers. The barbarities are still emblazoned on Orange Order banners and loyalist murals in Northern Ireland.

As late as the 1930s the Irish government intervened to prevent publication of historical research about the accounts of arson, communal murders, mass drownings, lynchings and robberies because it was deemed to contain such incendiary allegations.

Academics from Trinity College, Aberdeen and Cambridge Universities are now co-operating on a series of research projects that could not only help bring resolution to ancient quarrels but will open up a treasure house of genealogical, linguistic and census information.

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, one of the principal investigators at Trinity, believes that new language analysis methods will allow the documents to be explored “in a way we couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago during the Troubles”.

The rebellion, which broke out in October 1641, was a significant moment in the formation of identity in Ireland, she told the Guardian. Estimates of the numbers killed vary from 4,000 to up to 200,000. It began in Ulster but spread across the country.

The depositions were ordered by government commissioners, many of the Church of Ireland clergymen, who recorded the victims’ testimonies.

“They did it in the hope of obtaining evidence against the rebels and also as a crude form of insurance claim against lost property,” Ohlmeyer said. Cromwell’s commissioners were still taking evidence in the 1650s and the records form an extraordinarily detailed portrait of contemporary life, occupations and possessions in every Irish county.

The volumes were eventually donated to Trinity College in 1741, where they languished, rarely seen.

“In the 1930s a group of Irish scholars tried to publish them,” Ohlmeyer said. “But the Irish government blocked them because it was too contentious.

“There are about 4,000 claims altogether. Nine times out of 10 they are not far off the mark because we have other sources we can check from the period. Now we can systematically analyse how accurate they were.

“There were clearly some atrocities such as the drowning of Protestants at Portadown where around 100 people lost their lives. That year was on record as one of the coldest winters and people died of starvation and cold.

“I was most moved by the account of one man who escaped to Dublin where he heard that his wife and children had been killed. He was reported to have died of grief. There’s a lot of evidence from women, especially widows.

“The bloodletting was on both sides but Oliver Cromwell used this as justification for his [massacres at] Drogheda and Wexford. There were also a series of war crimes tribunals held by Cromwell in the 1650s.”

The multi-disciplinary project has been funded by both Irish and British research councils. Students of the Holocaust and more recent genocides – such as Rwanda and the Balkans – as well as groups supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland have been among early users of the resources. It is hoped to have all the documents available online by the end of this year.

Another lead researcher, Barbara Fennell, a senior lecturer in language and linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, said: “These depositions tell us a lot about what English was like at the time.

“We hope to be able to synthesise some of the voices and make recordings of what they would have sounded like. They will be real echoes of the past.

“We know that different commissioners had different manners of speaking and writing. The language analysis software should be able to match up styles of speaking and writing … so it may give us insights into any bias of evidence being introduced by a third party’s influence. The historians say that Cromwell exaggerated the accounts to justify his actions. Is there any evidence of that as it was being written down?

“These collections are unique in early modern times. It is like doing a cold case review in the sense that we are using modern technological advances to provide insights into old evidence.”

An illustration showing images from the 1641 rising by Catholic rebels of an alleged massacre of Protestants during the Irish rebellion known as the Depositions. Photograph: Board of Trinity College/PA


Thinking about tinkers.

September 29, 2009

Although in my youth the traveller community was a familiar feature of the Irish landscape,  I’ve not read any books that have focused attention on the community, its history,  or the relationship – often a fraught – between it and the settled community. Nor do I have I read anything about the relationship between the state and Ireland’s oldest minority group.

The only major studies of any aspect of tinker life are those of are those of anthropologists Sharon & Geoge Gmelch. Their books (The Irish Tinkers;The Urbanization of an Itinerant-People & Tinkers and Travellers: Ireland’s Nomads), although I have seen them on the shelves, never got on to my required  reading list.

 A bad conscience about not having even dipped into the Gmelch’s books and about knowing so little about the travelling community,  together with some little prompting from a  person close to the author, has made me think I could do worse than cure my ignorance by dipping into  maybe José Lanters tome The Tinkers in Irish Literature: Unsettled Subjects and the Construction of Difference might a book worth starting with.

The Tinkers

“Cromwell:God’s Executioner” .

November 16, 2008

This is how The History Channel, introduces both parts of  Cromwell: God’s Executioner, the two-part series commisioned by it and RTÉ Television (with support from Broadcasting Commission of Ireland)from Tile Films. This drama is not expected to generate the same amount of discussion as it did when broadcast by RTE on the 3rd of September (the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death) this year, but then Cromwell is not is not seen in the same light this side of the Irish sea as he is in Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell is the great bogeyman of Irish history. His name appears everywhere in the collective psyche of an island that is obsessed with its past. He is a towering figure, a dark silhouette against the bloodstained backdrop of history. But why did he come to Ireland, and does he deserve this black reputation?

 Leading young historian Micheál Ó Siochrú will present the series, offering fascinating and controversial new insights into this crucial time in Irish history. He puts the conquest in its proper context, showing that it was the apex of many years of conflict between Britain and Ireland. He looks at the war itself, exploring its causes and course, Cromwell’s struggles with his Irish adversaries, and the bitter legacy that still haunts the nation’s folk memory, three and a half centuries on. But even this is not the full story. Strikingly, Micheál reveals how ‘God’s Englishman’ helped to lay the foundations for the modern Ireland that we know today.

 In the first part of this two part series, the historical context of 17th century Ireland is set and the main players in the conflict are introduced, including Cromwell himself and his Irish adversaries, the O’Neills. We trace the events that led to the first and most infamous of the atrocities of his campaign at Drogheda and Wexford. Following Drogheda, he sends 5,000 men to Ulster to crush Royalist resistance there. With the death of Owen Roe O’Neill, leader of the Ulster Catholic army, who now can stand against Cromwell?

As episode two opens, we see Cromwell’s army unexpectedly begin to founder. He fails to take two key strategic positions – Duncannon and Waterford, and reaches a low point in the driving rain of Kilmacthomas, with his army reduced by disease and slowed down by bad weather.But in the spring of 1650 he renews his campaign in Leinster and Munster. He captures important towns like Kilkenny and Cashel, but meets his nemesis at Clonmel, where 2,000 of his troops are wiped out by Hugh Dubh O’Neill. Can the Irish prevail? 

Sadly not. We examine the end of the campaign, the fate of O’Neill and other protagonists, and the bitter aftermath of dispossession. We also explore Cromwell’s legacy and its wider significance today.?


Cromwell in Ireland 3

September 9, 2008

The historian, Edward Vallance, author The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain’s Fight for Liberty, who has in one way or another been keeping a close eye on my recent online diary entries on Cromwell, reminds me, in his own online diary entries, that there are writers and historians form inside Ireland who do not believe that Cromwellian conquest of Ireland took bloody course many Irish historians, including Micheál Ó Siochrú author of God’s Executioner: Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland would have us believe.


He points his readers to Tom Reilly, author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy, as an example of someone who, he believes, ‘throws down a challenge to Irish historians over their treatment of Cromwell’


From the Author
This book is ahead of its time
As author of this book, I feel that many historians in Ireland are not ready yet for ‘an honourable’ Cromwell – nor indeed are the people of Ireland. I thought that I would change the history books and public opinion about this much maligned historical figure by publishing the truth about Cromwell’s Irish campaign. The reaction – among the under forties on the whole – was good, but among historians and the over forties it was bad. They can’t seem to accept that an amateur could discover such a fundamental flaw in Irish history ie that neither Cromwell or his men ever engaged in the killing of any unarmed civilians throughout his entire nine month campaign. The facts are there for all to see. But God bless Ireland the past is still the present here and we MUST have our English hate figures – despite the truth. How sad is that?

Tom Reilly Author – Cromwell An Honourable Enemy –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Those interested in this subject should have a look at some of the other material Vallance points to.

Cromwell in Ireland 2

August 25, 2008

Of Micheál Ó Siochrú’s God’s Executioner: Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland, which I mentioned yesterday, Martin Mansergh* had this to say  in his Irish Times review on Saturday the 23rd of August


Transcending conflict requires a deeper understanding of the past, warts and all, and lifting ourselves with difficulty over it, not a glib or complacent revisionism. Ó Siochrú’s book, and his forthcoming TV series**, will be of considerable assistance in that.


*Dr Martin Mansergh, TD, is Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and for the arts, and author of The Legacy of History for Making Peace in Ireland (Mercier, 2003)



**Cromwell in Ireland, starting on September the 9th on RTE1,  directed by Maurice Sweeney and starting on September the 9th on RTE1  , is a 2 X 52 minute documentary that examines the history of Oliver Cromwell’s mid 17th century conquest of Ireland. Produced by Rachel Towell, the series is presented by Irish historian Dr. Micheál Ó Siochrú, and combines drama re-enactments with CGI graphics to recreate 17th century Ireland on screen. ‘romwell in Ireland’ will air on RTE this September



Oliver Cromwell in Ireland

August 24, 2008

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]