Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Cromwell Controversy

Well guys, with the new publication by Michaél O Siochrú on Oliver Cromwell the debate over whether he committed atrocities in Ireland or not (especially in Drogheda) will once again rear its ugly head. (See also Fintan O'Toole's latest article on this). The fact is that this latest chapter of the debate began in earnest in 1999 with Tom Reilly's publication of Cromwell: Honourable Enemy. This led to bitter discussions held in various universities, UCD and Trinity being the most entertaining (to my mature recollection!) between Reilly and O Siochru and numerous others. But let's just cut through the historiography of this thorny issue and look at (some of) the facts.

The fact is that Ireland in 1649 (the year of Cromwell's arrival) had just witnessed eight long years of war. This war achieved notoriety in England at the time due to the alleged massacres in Ireland of Protestant settlers by native Irish Catholics. Historians have argued for centuries over the number of people killed in Ireland with the numbers ranging from 4,000 to 600,000. Regardless of figures killed the point to note is that the outbreak of this rebellion in Ireland and the massacres of the Protestant settlers became a convenient propaganda tool for Parliament who wished to bring a halt to what they perceived to be encroaching Catholic practices in the Protestant Church.

As such the memory of the massacre in Ireland was constantly rekindled throughout the 1640s, as a means of alienating popular support for King Charles I by parliament. By the late 1640s with the rise of Cromwell (I say this tentatively, he had not won over all of parliament prior to his arrival in Drogheda) this issue once again came to the fore. Charles I was captured and beheaded for treason in a large part due to his alliance with Irish Catholic forces that he hoped to use to overcome Parliament. This left Cromwell, now tentative ruler of England, with the need to subdue Ireland as it formed a base for Charles's sympathisers.Yet, the realities of conquering Ireland in 1649 were clearly understood by Cromwell. Upon his arrival in Ireland, Cromwell adopted a policy of conciliation towards Irish Catholics, printing off proclamations (the best way to communicate in seventeenth century Ireland!) that promised Irish Catholic safety if they submitted to his rule. Cromwell also threatened severe reprimands if his own soldiers pillaged the indigenous population or hurt them in any way. This was part of an elaborate propaganda campaign by Cromwell to quickly subdue the country, yet due to the extent of royalist sympathy in Ireland, things were never going to be that simple.

From Dublin (his point of arrival) Cromwell marched north to Drogheda, a royalist stronghold held by Arthur Aston (can of coke to the person who can tell me what happened him when he was accosted by Cromwellian soldiers!). The town refused to surrender to Cromwell and thus Cromwell engaged the rules of war to attack the town. For brevity's sake I will just point out that historians are divided over whether Cromwell initially followed these rules to the letter of the law, pedantically arguing that he should have waited for a response from the garrison prior to entering the town. The evidence for the resulting massacre where allegedly 3000 people were killed, both soldiers and civilians, relies on a letter written by Cromwell to William Lenthall the speaker for the House of Commons. This was subsequently published as part of OC's propaganda campaign. In this Cromwell admitted to a loss of control over his temper and how this culminated in the killings of many of Drogheda's citizens in the heat of battle. Is it good enough to take Cromwell at his word? Well, let's think back, Cromwell did not have the support of the majority of Parliament at the time and thus needed to accentuate his credentials as both leader and military commander. He defended his actions as just deserts on the rebellious Irish papists (see John Morrill for a different interpretation of this!); a popular political issue in England at the time.

Really I think a far more interesting debate would focus not on exactly how many people were killed - we will never know the answer unless quantum leap technology actually eventually exists, and I sit here in the hope that future me comes back to tell me it does and so off I go to the 1640s, what's the point? Historians should move on just for a moment to think about another aspect of this. What about Cromwell's ability as a political propagandist? This is the real crux of the issue, not casualty figures. Also what about Cromwell's contemporaries? How did this alleged massacre affect them not us. Regardless of what happened, the important point is that people believed it did. It would be more interesting to look at how the mythology of Cromwell developed not just in Drogheda folklore, but also in Irish history, and the impact it had on forming a political Irish and Catholic identity. It's time to change the questions in the debate on Cromwell in Ireland and move on to tackle overlooked areas of Irish history.

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