Michael O'Sullivan reviews God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the conquest of Ireland by Micheal O'Siochru, Faber & Faber, ISBN 978-0-571-24121-7, £14.99 pbk
'THAT MURDERING bastard', was, according to a newspaper report of the time, the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern's outraged reaction to encountering a portrait of Oliver Cromwell hanging on a wall of the office of British foreign secretary Robin Cook in 1997.
Reviewers in the London press of Micheal O'Siochru's timely new work on Cromwell have seized gleefully on this charming little snippet, repeated in O'Siochru's introduction, as a piece of typically over-the- top Irish emotionalism, but for O'Siochru the anecdote has a certain resonances for students of Anglo-Irish affairs.
Why should Cromwell's image one might ask, cause the taoiseach such consternation, given the existence of an 800 year-old rogue's gallery of such monsters. What is it about Cromwell that arouses such intense feelings throughout Ireland and beyond after three and a half centuries?
And to what extent are those feelings justified? These are some of the questions that are addressed in this energetic and readable account of that momentous and transformative period in Anglo-Irish affairs.
O'Siochru's initial chapters contain a compact but comprehensive account of the background to Cromwell's nine month sojourn in Ireland. In the aftermath of the civil war, with the Royalists defeated in the field, the King executed and the New Model Army standing idle, the Parliamentarians looked with growing alarm to Ireland.
A rising in 1641 of Anglo-Irish gentry, disaffected Presbyterian colonists and Catholic Irish under Phelim O'Neill had achieved some spectacular successes and a new native administration now looked likely.
After a few ineffectual attempts at suppression Parliament finally ordered a full scale invasion for the summer of 1649 with Cromwell at its head. Well armed and well paid and fuelled by anti-Irish propaganda and false reports of horrific slaughters of colonists by the rebels, the force landed in Dublin on the thirteenth of August, ostensibly to avenge the murders of the English settlers.
The Irish forces arraigned against them were essentially the same as those which carried out the successful rising eight years earlier. By now however, much depleted, dangerously ill-equipped and poorly organised, they were to prove little match for Cromwell's disciplined and superbly trained fighting machine.
The story of Cromwell's initial successes at Drogheda and Wexford and the almost unbelievable savagery displayed by his troops is a bleak and harrowing one, though O'Siochru is at pains to remain unemotional even here.
Those terrible episodes, which the English historian R S Paul has compared to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are examined coolly and even-handedly, though, despite O'Siochru's emphasis on the rough and ready rules of engagement of the time, it is difficult to conclude that the massacres, especially of civilians, were, for any period, anything other than obscene and unprecedented crimes.
A string of victories then followed as town after town surrendered to Cromwell's forces, until his departure for England in May of the following year.
O'Siochru narrative here is terse and exciting. Meticulously researched and packed with detail the story is not so much that of an English victory but an abject and exasperating failure on the part of the Irish leaders to capitalise on their successes.
Then, early in 1653 Phelim O'Neill was captured and executed and all Irish resistance crumbled. Ruthless suppression followed quickly, slaughter or banishment of the clergy and the wholesale confiscation of Catholic lands.
A politician at heart with an eye to the main chance, Cromwell himself became immensely popular in England and lost no time in establishing himself in the post of Lord Protector which he held until his death in 1658.
As the Marxist historian Christopher Hill remarked in his biography of Cromwell, God's Englishman, historians have given us many Cromwells, created as a vehicle for their own prejudices; and there are indeed as many Cromwells as there are historians.
He was T H Green's 'particular hero'. Carlyle, the arch conservative and hater of all things Irish, considered him 'England's saviour' and a 'God-sent Hero'. Cobbett, sensible as always, thought that England ought to be ashamed of such a hypocrite.
O'Siochru's seeks neither to condemn Cromwell nor to rehabilitate him. Neither does he claim to understand him, though the content of this book will convince many that Bertie Ahern's measured evaluation of Oliver Cromwell is probably the most accurate and most appropriate one we have.
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Copyright © 2009 Michael O'Sullivan