Cromwell in Ireland, James Scott Wheeler. (Gill & Macmillan, £19.99) ISBN 0717128849

Published in Book Reviews, Cromwell, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

In the seventeenth-century poem ‘Tuireamh na hÉireann’, the war in Ireland between 1641 and 1653 is described as ‘an cogadh do chríochnaigh Éire’ [the war that finished Ireland], and there is no disputing the importance of Cromwell’s impact on this conflict. He landed at Ringsend in August 1649, and during the subsequent nine-month campaign displayed a ruthlessness synonymous with his name ever since. The massacres committed by his troops at Drogheda and Wexford, described by Wheeler as ‘appalling atrocities’, remain firmly embedded in the nationalist psyche of this country, while the hero of English parliamentary tradition is still blamed for a variety of abuses perpetrated against Irish Catholics.
On the 350th anniversary of these events, renewed efforts are being made to re-examine Cromwell’s role in Irish affairs. These range from ludicrously overblown attempts at rehabilitation (see Tom Reilly’s Cromwell: An honourable enemy) to more serious studies of the historical sources. Wheeler’s book, which belongs in the latter category, provides a useful synopsis of military events, carefully guiding the reader through the complexities of the period. He begins by paying tribute to the work of Denis Murphy, whose book Cromwell in Ireland, although written over a century ago and flawed in many respects, ‘remains the best narrative of Cromwell’s campaign of 1649-50’. In the introduction, Wheeler identifies the ‘need for a thorough military history of Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland which integrates that conquest into the Irish war of 1641-52 and the British wars of the same period’. Consequently, only a third of this volume deals directly with Cromwell’s brief stay in Ireland.
The opening chapters chronicle the course of the war during the 1640s, a conflict involving Catholic confederates, English parliamentarians, Scottish covenanters, and royalists from the three Stuart kingdoms. The confederates are heavily criticised for failing to facilitate a royalist victory in Ireland and help Charles I in England. Wheeler blames ‘deep internal political and ethnic divisions’ for debilitating the Catholic cause, while (in this account at least) the royalist lord lieutenant, James Butler, Marquis of Ormond, emerges with his reputation relatively intact. Wheeler argues that the marquis never wavered in his loyalty to the House of Stuart and by surrendering Dublin to the forces of the English parliament in 1647 he ‘saved the protestant cause in Ireland’.
In fact, between 1643 and 1646 the confederates tried hard to reach an accommodation with Ormond, who displayed a characteristic lack of imagination during the tortuous negotiations. It was primarily his unwillingness to compromise on key constitutional and religious issues which delayed the formation of an alliance between the confederates and the royalists, allowing the parliamentarians ample time to prepare for their invasion. Moreover, the surrender of Dublin in 1647 fatally wounded the royalist cause in Ireland, while Ormond’s inept military display after returning from France the following year (outlined in some detail by Wheeler) effectively undermined any prospect of defeating Cromwell. In direct contrast to Ormond’s bungling, Hugh Dubh O’Neill demonstrated at the siege of Clonmel in May 1650 what could be achieved by a small number of well-trained, highly motivated troops, led by a competent military commander. Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, described the losses of the New Model Army at Clonmel as ‘the heaviest we ever endured either in England or here’.
Unfortunately for Irish Catholics, O’Neill’s heroic resistance proved the exception rather than the rule, although the nature of the conflict changed considerably after this bloody encounter. Cromwell left Ireland a few weeks later to deal with an emerging crisis in Scotland. His departure, according to Wheeler, ‘removed a source of relentless energy’ from the parliamentary ranks, and brought a marked decrease in the intensity of military operations. Despite enjoying overwhelming military odds, his successor, Henry Ireton, found it difficult to deliver a decisive blow. Wheeler describes how successive defeats forced Catholic commanders to adopt a defensive strategy, centred on key towns and cities, which actually prolonged the war. Limerick, as William of Orange discovered forty years later, proved a tough nut to crack, and the last formal capitulation did not take place until three years later, with the surrender of Philip MacHugh O’Reilly at Cloughoughter, County Cavan, in April 1653.
Wheeler strives to maintain a careful balance in his assessment of Cromwell’s legacy. He argues that the general prevented looting by his troops, seeing the need ‘to maintain harmonious relations with the civilian population’. On the other hand, at Wexford he made ‘no efforts to regain control and enforce discipline until after the slaughter of at least 1,500 soldiers and townsmen’. Commenting on criticisms of Cromwell’s actions, Wheeler maintains that while ‘some of this blame is appropriate, much of it is not’, and concludes that his campaign in Ireland ‘proved that he was a great military commander, but not a great man’.
This book provides little in the way of detailed information on the composition of the various armies (particularly the personnel involved), and on the logistical difficulties faced by those campaigning in a country ravaged by war, famine and disease. It is a pity that Wheeler did not have an opportunity to consult Pádraig Lenihan’s 1995 PhD thesis, ‘The catholic confederacy, 1642-1649: An Irish state at war’, due to be published in the near future. Lenihan’s research illuminates many of the issues not dealt with here, as well as seriously calling into question Wheeler’s assertions of confederate superiority in troop numbers between 1643 and 1650.
These caveats aside, this latest volume on Cromwellian Ireland, handsomely produced by Gill and Macmillan and reasonably priced at £19.99, provides a solid base for future work, and is a welcome addition to the rejuvenated field of seventeenth-century Irish studies.

Mícheál Ó Siochrú


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