|FABER & FABER|
the observer Sat 23 August 2008
Even in these times, when all the talk is of putting history behind us, the easiest way to tell the difference between the Irish and the English is to utter the word 'Cromwell'. In England, especially to those of a progressive bent, it evokes democracy, popular rights and national pride. In Ireland, or at least in Catholic Ireland, it is still a swearword.
The name evokes annihilation - the ruin of almost every roofless church or tumbledown castle in the landscape is attributed to Cromwell's Irish campaign of 1649-50, even when it dates from much later times. In the folk memory, there is a visceral hatred that springs from pure terror. In the 1890s, when Irish MPs at Westminster succeeded in blocking the use of public funds for the erection of a statue of the Lord Protector outside the Houses of Parliament, the vote was greeted, according to one MP, with 'wild cries of aboriginal joy from our Irish friends'. The reaction would be little different today if the statue, which eventually went up in 1899, were demolished.
The sheer extent of the hatred nevertheless invites the kind of revisionism that has been applied to so many of the simplistic myths of Irish history. Cromwell, after all, was neither the first nor the last English general to unleash total war on the Irish population. Lord Mountjoy in the early 1600s and General Gerard Lake in 1798 committed systematic atrocities, but neither is much remembered. Is Cromwell merely a folkloric bogeyman for the Irish?
Given the dominant mood of contemporary Irish historiography, one almost expects Micheál O Siochrú's forensic and fastidious account to conclude that Old Ironsides really had a heart of gold. 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.
By contrast, he faced in Ireland what John Milton called 'a mixed rabble, part papists, part fugitives, and part savages' - a deeply uneasy alliance of Catholic rebels and the royalist colonials with whom they had until recently been at war. This coalition was barely held together by Charles's weak and incompetent viceroy, the Marquis of Ormond.
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.
As an obscure MP in 1642, Cromwell served on a committee to organise relief for Protestant victims of the rising of Irish Catholics that began the previous year. Those victims were real: about 5,000 Protestant colonists died in massacres or from hunger, exposure and disease. But in the official version that shaped Cromwell's attitudes, the number of dead was exaggerated to 150,000 (and later to 200,000), a figure far higher than the entire settler population. Lurid propaganda combined with his own religious zeal to give Cromwell, as he declared on arrival in Dublin, his 'great work against the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish'.
It is not just this role of propaganda and religious self-righteousness that gives his subsequent campaign a queasily contemporary ring. It is also a refusal to distinguish between civilians and combatants and a resort to ethnic cleansing. 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.
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'.