—In his reassessment of the reputation of Oliver Cromwell, Micheál Ó Siochrú outlines the known historical facts relating to his campaign in Ireland (August 1649–May 1650), detailing his programme of ethnic cleansing, the massacre of military and civilian personnel at Drogheda and Wexford, the forced removal to Connacht and the transportation of slave labour to Barbados. I was disappointed, however, that no statistics were provided to give some indication of the number of victims involved. Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was of short duration compared to the total period of the English civil wars, 1642–1651 (or 1642–1658 if you include the period to Cromwell’s death), but I think it reasonable to consider that the greater number of deaths occurred during his campaign. The conflict between Charles I and his supporters on the one hand and the parliamentarians on the other was initially confined to England, but quickly spread to engulf Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It is more often referred to today as the ‘wars of the three kingdoms’. A comparison of the total number of deaths from warfare and disease in respect of the countries involved in the period 1642–1658 helps to put Ireland’s agony in perspective. Figures available at the very excellent permanent English Civil War exhibition at Warwick Castle, England, provide the following statistics for casualties:
Fighting Disease Total % pop.
England/Wales 83,830 100,000 183,830 3.7
Scotland 27,875 60,000 87,875 6.0
The figures are even more horrific for Ireland, however: a total of
618,000 deaths from fighting and disease out of a total pre-war population of c. 1.5 million, or 41 per cent of the population. No figures are given for transportation to Barbados. Further confirmation of the above figures can be obtained from The Civil War 1642–1651 by Michael St John Parker (ISBN 0853726477).
A 41 per cent loss of population must surely represent one of the greatest tragedies of any people for any period of European history, not excluding the worst excesses of the twentieth century. We can take as an example the death rate from enemy action and war-related disease for Britain during the Second World War, which represents 0.6 per cent of the population.
So, why were the casualties in Ireland so high? Cromwell and his supporters considered Irish Roman Catholics as little better than savages, barbarian in their lifestyle and habits and capable of appalling atrocities against Protestant settlers. They were sub-human and dangerous, and were to be treated accordingly. Whilst acknowledging Cromwell’s excesses in Ireland, Micheál Ó Siochrú seems to imply that ‘local folklore’ might be wrong to accuse him of war crimes, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing. A loss of more than 40 per cent of the population might, however, suggest a conscious plan of elimination based on racial and religious hatred, which in other circumstances and times would rightly be called genocide. Cromwell’s murderous campaign in Ireland was fuelled by a pathological hatred of Irish Catholics, which he himself clearly expressed.
One wonders how many of the c. 600,000 victims died during Cromwell’s campaign. Perhaps this subject could be more fully explored in a further article in History Ireland?
NOEL M. GRIFFIN