The Curse of Cromwell

Published in Cromwell, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Gaelic Ireland, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), News, Volume 7

Oliver Cromwell spent only nine months in Ireland but few men’s footprints have been so deeply imprinted upon Irish history and historiography. This theme was explored by a number of invited lecturers at the fifth annual symposium of the Old Drogheda Society on 12 September 1999 in the Boyne Valley Hotel. The chairman of the society, Sean Collins, Lord Mayor of Drogheda, welcomed speakers and delegates. Moira Corcoran, founder member, focused on the background of Cromwell’s legacy in Drogheda as perceived in local folk memory and issued all with the famous Cromwell curse: ‘May you have the itch and n’eer a nail to scratch it with…’.
Tadgh Ó Hanracháin (UCD) outlined the political and social changes in Ireland during the 1640s that precipitated the inevitable English intervention. The political pressure of the early Stuart regime upon Irish Catholics in Ulster eventually produced an eruption in 1641. The Gaelic Catholic Irish rebelled and were later joined by their co-religionists among the Old English landed gentry in forming an unstable alliance of the Catholic Confederacy. Bloody massacres of Protestants by Catholics in October 1641, later much exaggerated, reinforced sectarian revenge. The English Civil War began in August 1642 and Irish politics, already confused, became labyrinthine in complexity in the following seven years. In particular, 1646 to 1649 was a bewildering period of inconclusive negotiation between the Irish warring factions, internal disputation and indecisive campaigning, all of which was brought to an abrupt end by the execution of Charles I in January and Cromwell’s arrival in August 1649. Ireland was left completely unprepared.
Elain Murphy (UCD) described the progress of Murrough O’Brien’s (Inchiquin) military campaign of 1648-49 and his relationship with the Duke of Ormond. The parliamentarians under Michael Jones and Ormond heavily defended Dublin city and Inchiquin laid siege to it. However, Inchiquin left Dublin and attacked parliamentarian positions along the east coast and captured Drogheda on 18 July 1649. This expedition allowed Michael Jones to regroup and the subsequent battles of Rathmines and Ballygarth Castle routed and scattered the Royalist forces. Ormond escaped with the remnants of his army back to Kilkennny. Two weeks later Cromwell landed at Ringsend with nearly 10,000 fresh troops and massive heavy artillery.
Tom Reilly (Old Drogheda Society) portrayed Cromwell as a ‘decent human being’ and proposed that he should not be judged for war crimes against the Irish people because he followed the strict protocols of seventeenth-century siege warfare honourably. He declared that Cromwell had a ‘profound religious experience’ which greatly influenced his military behaviour during his campaigns and was greatly affected by the Irish massacre stories of 1641. He asserted that from his own interpretation of contemporary primary sources there was no massacre of civilians in Drogheda but a discriminate policy of butchering Royalist combatants. At Wexford, Reilly accepted that the slaughter got out of control when Parliamentary troops entered the town after the hand-over of Wexford Castle. He stated that he had no particular political axe to grind but blamed Cromwell’s bad press on modern day ‘partisan nationalist elements’.
Commandant James Burke (Military History Society) described the techniques of seventeenth-century siege warfare and analysed the structure of Cromwell’s New Model Army. The military tactics used by Cromwell in England during the sieges of Basing Manor and Naseby in 1645 and later at Colchester 1647 were used to great effect at Drogheda and Wexford but failed badly at Clonmel. The final casualty figures at Drogheda in September 1649 were 64 Parliamentary soldiers and 3,552 enemy killed. It is clear from an analysis of these figures that a large number of non-combatants died. Jim Burke pointed out that Cromwell himself agreed that the massacre at Drogheda would ‘tend to prevent effusion of blood for the future’, which are, he continued, ‘the satisfactory grounds for such actions’.
Jim McElligot (St Anne’s, Oxford), who traced the images of Cromwell and his campaign in Ireland from the late seventeenth century to the present day, gave the final presentation. He pointed out that there was no strong hostility to Cromwell among literate Irish Catholics until the middle of the nineteenth century. Gaelic nationalists as part of the new Irish historical imagination, which continued as orthodox history well into the twentieth century, had demonised Cromwell. The new Irish State after 1922 inherited and cultivated a cult of violence in Irish history, which praised nationalist violence as inherently ‘good’ and British violence as inherently ‘bad’. These myths were perpetuated in the primary and secondary school approved history textbooks up to recent times. Jim McElliot cautioned against minimising the carnage and slaughter inflicted upon Irish towns during the Cromwellian campaign and pointed out that although revisionist historians prompted a reassessment of nearly every aspect of Irish history they never attempted to alter Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland. He concluded by stating that it was now time to move beyond revisionism versus revivalism and take the opportunity presented to reassess Ireland’s past.


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