Cromwell and the Dissenters

Published in Confederate War and Cromwell, Cromwell, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), Letters, Volume 16

Sir,

—When assessing Oliver Cromwell’s legacy in Ireland, we should notoverlook the religious congregations he supported in Dublin during theCommonwealth. The Protestant Dissenter congregations at Wood Street andNew Row were a source of republican ideas and pro-reform politics inthe city from their foundation through to the establishment of theUnited Irishmen in the late eighteenth century. Revd Jeremiah Marsdenof New Row fomented a rebellion against Charles II in Yorkshire in1663. John Toland (1670–1721), who had Wood Street associations, fledDublin when his ‘atheistical’ book was burnt by the public hangman in1697. Francis Hutcheson (1694–1747) established a school for the WoodStreet Dissenters in 1720. He was later appointed professor of moralphilosophy at Glasgow. The Presbyterian ministers within the ranks ofthe United Irishmen were imbued with Hutcheson’s democratic principleswhen studying at Glasgow. Archibald Hamilton Rowan (1751–1834) and DrWilliam Drennan (1754–1820) were leading members of the Dublin Societyof United Irishmen and were also attached to the Wood Streetcongregation, which by then had relocated to Great Strand Street.Robert Holmes, husband of Mary Anne Emmet, and John Patten,brother-in-law of Thomas Addis Emmet, were prominent United Irishmenand were also attached to Great Strand Steet. The considerableDissenter membership of the United Irishmen in the Great Strand Streetarea led the ‘Sham Squire’, Francis Higgins, to label them ‘the kingkillers of Pill Lane’. The two congregations eventually merged and aretoday the Dublin Unitarian Church at St Stephen’s Green. The image ofCromwell as a murderous religious sectarian fanatic is hard to squarewith the emergence of non-sectarian democratic politics and liberalreligion from the Dublin congregations he sponsored.

—Yours etc.,
FERGUS WHELAN
Dublin 7

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