Cromwell and Ireland: new perspectives

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

Liverpool University Press
ISBN 9781789622379

Reviewed by Micheál Ó Siochrú

To this day, Cromwell retains his status as one of Ireland’s most recognisable and controversial historical figures, blamed for a series of major atrocities, including notorious massacres at Drogheda and Wexford and mass deportations to Connacht and the Caribbean. Although he spent only nine months of an eventful life in Ireland, his actions there constitute a permanent stain on his legacy. By contrast, in England his statue stands proudly outside the Houses of Parliament at Westminster and only Queen Victoria has more streets named after her than Cromwell. His reputation as a dour Puritan and regicide is counterbalanced by his achievements on the battlefield during the English Civil Wars and his key role in that country’s emergence as a major player on the global stage. These contrasting images lie at the heart of historians’ continuing fascination with this remarkable though deeply flawed individual, who rose from relatively humble origins to become the ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland. Tom Reilly states in the preface to this volume that ‘it is virtually impossible to reconcile the image of the genocidal maniac of the Irish imagination with this virtuous pillar of local society who became king in all but name’ (p. xii). In fact, it is not at all difficult. Ireland was a place apart, and the historical narrative from the medieval to the modern is awash with Englishmen (and it is almost entirely men) who behaved in a civilised manner at home before seemingly losing the plot on crossing the Irish Sea.

Nonetheless, a book that offers new perspectives on Cromwell must be warmly welcomed, providing an opportunity to rethink and reimagine the man and the myths. While some of the chapters do indeed showcase excitingly original research, overall the results are decidedly mixed. The pressure on academics to publish, especially in Britain, has resulted in a tsunami of edited collections in the last twenty years, often consisting of little more than a random selection of essays, loosely grouped around a general theme. Unfortunately, the current volume falls within this category and the primary responsibility must lie with the editors. All three are accomplished scholars, experts in the fields of early modern Irish, Scottish and English history, but they appear to have taken their collective eye off the ball in this instance. The introduction is unsatisfactorily slight and curiously slapdash in places. They write that the idea for the book ‘came, as many good ideas do, in a pub’ and that, ‘unlike so many such ideas, this one lasted beyond the morning after’ (p. 2). The idea may well have survived but their commitment to the project thereafter seems half-hearted at best.

The volume sets out to explore the broader aspects of Cromwell’s involvement in Ireland, prioritising the wider context both before and after. The editors, however, inexplicably begin their analysis abruptly in 1640, just prior to the outbreak of a major rebellion that would trigger twelve years of warfare, with devastating consequences for the country. This conflict was the culmination of over a century of bloody intervention by England in Irish affairs, dating back to Henry VIII’s breach with Rome and his unilateral creation of the kingdom of Ireland. Over the next hundred years, the English employed brutal tactics, underpinned by martial law, to crush all native resistance. From the 1550s, plantation emerged as a key pillar of colonial policy in Ireland, with the dispossession and dispersal of the native Irish and their replacement with a new Protestant settler community. Major plantation schemes in the midlands, Munster and, of course, Ulster transformed the social, economic and physical landscape of Ireland, long before the wars of the mid-seventeenth century. Moreover, all of this took place alongside English expansion across the Atlantic in North America and the Caribbean. Heidi Coburn’s chapter on the Irish in Barbados touches on some of these broader colonial themes but the volume’s introduction has nothing to say on the emergence of the early modern English empire. To view events in Ireland in isolation in this manner seriously distorts them and fails to provide an adequate interpretative framework for the subsequent chapters. The absence of key scholars working in the field, such as David Edwards on the violence associated with English rule, Gerard Farrell on the Atlantic context of plantation, David Brown on the economics of the land settlement in the 1650s, Jennifer Wells on the imperial dimensions and Patrick Little on the Irish and Scottish policies of the English Republic, is keenly felt. Moreover, none of the new scholarship on developments in England, Europe and the Americas features here, as the volume remains narrowly focused on the military and political, all within the suffocating embrace of Anglo-Irish relations.

Within these restricted parameters, the editors and other contributors construct a number of straw men, based for the most part on outdated nationalist histories, in some cases (such as Denis Murphy’s account of the conquest) dating from as far back as the nineteenth century, and then claim credit for dismantling them. The exoneration of Cromwell appears to be the primary—and, in some cases, the only—goal. A common refrain throughout bemoans the use of the epithet ‘Cromwellian’ for the conquest and subsequent land settlement in Ireland, arguing with some justification that many others were also involved, some far more violent and bloodthirsty than Cromwell. Cromwell’s antipathy towards Ireland’s Catholic population unquestionably reflected contemporaneous attitudes in England and yet he failed miserably to rise above those prejudices during his nine-month stint in Ireland or in his subsequent dealings with the country.

Many of the contributors express palpable frustration at the persistence of a widespread negativity towards Cromwell, but such disapproval should not come as any surprise. Sarah Covington’s nuanced analysis of the folklore material demonstrates convincingly how Cromwell in Ireland ‘emerged as a powerful and iconic historical legend’ in popular memory, one inextricably linked to the actions and policies of the time (p. 275). As Covington explains, he clearly stood out and ‘practically nullified all else who came before and after him’ (p. 279). Nobody, however, would argue that Queen Elizabeth was personally responsible for absolutely everything that happened during the ‘Elizabethan Age’, and the same is true of Cromwell in the 1650s. Nonetheless, as commander-in-chief of the expeditionary army, and subsequently as head of state, Cromwell oversaw the atrocities and upheavals that ravaged Ireland at this time and should be held accountable.

This leads on to another key issue, namely the attribution of guilt for specific crimes. According to Reilly, to blame Cromwell for the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, which he claims the general made ‘great efforts resolutely to avoid’ (p. 52), is a shocking miscarriage of justice. Similarly, James Scott Wheeler argues that ‘the widespread view that he [Cromwell] routinely slaughtered innocent civilians needs correction’ (p. 157), while Coburn is anxious ‘to loosen the knot binding him to the accusation of ethnic cleansing’ (p. 205). But Cromwell is not the victim here. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of people following his intervention in Ireland, owing to the predatory ambitions of the English Republic and the brutal tactics of an invading army, constitute a far greater injustice. Whether Cromwell or his subordinates ordered these atrocities is clearly of academic interest but, by focusing on him alone, some of the contributors spectacularly miss the point. The carnage in Ireland, like the conquests of the New World by the European powers, was undeniably genocidal in scale and yet this reality is repeatedly downplayed in attempts to distance Cromwell from the worst atrocities.

Despite these serious conceptual and methodological shortcomings, the volume is redeemed to a degree by strong chapters such as Covington’s masterful study of the folklore material, ably supported by Eamon Darcy’s fascinating case-study of non-governmental material. Pádraig Lenihan, the foremost military historian of seventeenth-century Ireland, provides an important corrective to the notion that the brutality of siege warfare from 1649 was entirely exceptional by examining the full extent and scale of massacres by both English and Irish forces in the decade before Cromwell’s arrival. Nonetheless, he establishes clearly that English forces committed bloody slaughters to a far greater extent than their Irish counterparts. Reilly’s chapter is a huge disappointment, simply restating arguments first made back in the 1990s, with no more than a cursory effort to engage with the extensive criticisms of his work since then. He concludes bizarrely that those who refuse to accept his interpretation ‘will be left behind to become part of some insular, embittered partisan clique whose roots are planted firmly in obduracy’ (p. 74). Such intemperate sentiments have no place in an academic publication, which should encourage intellectual discourse and debate. A proper editorial process would have removed this sentence. Ironically, Reilly’s own obstinacy in the face of the evidence is exposed by Nick Poyntz’s forensic analysis of the news from Ireland at the outset of Cromwell’s campaign. Through a painstaking engagement with a range of material, he reaches the conclusion that Reilly’s determination to discredit the inclusion in Cromwell’s published correspondence of the phrase ‘and many inhabitants’, relating to those killed at the siege of Drogheda, is hard to sustain.

John Cunningham has already produced valuable work on the land settlement of the 1650s and his chapter here is a further judicious exploration of Cromwell’s involvement in the process. While acknowledging the collective nature of the settlement, he concludes that ‘few men did more to make it happen as it did’ than Cromwell (p. 228). This assessment is supported by David Farr’s intelligent chapter on Henry Ireton, a man who played a central role in the conquest and initial plans for a post-war settlement. Two further chapters, by Martyn Bennett and Wheeler, also successfully turn the spotlight on other key players in the 1640s and 1650s, without necessarily indicating what new insights they provide on Cromwell. Similarly, Alan Marshall’s entertaining retelling of the siege of Clonmel, Cromwell’s most serious military setback, covers well-trodden ground—though, in fairness, many readers may well not be familiar with the details of the story. Finally, Coburn tackles the controversial subject of transportations, both voluntary and involuntary, to the sugar plantations in Barbados. She makes a studied contribution to this rancorous debate, showing that the trafficking of Irish people went largely unregulated, stressing the role of English merchants over that of the colonial government. This topic is crying out for a full-length study, which Coburn may well provide.

Overall, this volume represents a missed opportunity. Cromwell is such a pivotal figure in Irish national consciousness that his name alone is guaranteed to sell books and generate controversy. New perspectives are an exciting prospect but one requiring an ambitious, wide-ranging approach, looking beyond Ireland to Europe and the Atlantic World. Scholarship has moved on enormously in the last twenty years and yet the focus of this volume remains disappointingly old-fashioned, obsessing over popular perceptions of Cromwell and the issue of personal accountability. Despite the best efforts of individual contributors, some ideas are perhaps best left in the pub.

Micheál Ó Siochrú is Professor in Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin.


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