How does Cromwell deserve to be remembered in the annals of Irish history? For the great English historian A. J. P. Taylor,
writing on the 300th anniversary of Cromwell’s death, Ireland was the ‘one great blot’ on the great man’s reputation, and his actions there ‘beyond all excuse or explanation’. In fact, Taylor believed that the ‘curse of Cromwell’ would still be remembered when all his other achievements had been forgotten. In Ireland itself, the Protestants of Ulster, uncomfortable perhaps with his reputation as a regicide, choose to commemorate William of Orange instead, while for many Catholics he remains a figure of hate, guilty of crimes against humanity. Few would attempt to justify his record during the nine month military campaign in 1649–50, or the inequities of the subsequent land settlement.
Despite possessing many exceptional qualities, Cromwell’s dealings with Catholic Ireland mark him out as a man of his times. He shared the racial, cultural and religious prejudices of his fellow Englishmen. His contempt for Irish Catholics ‘rationalised a desire to exploit’, and he found little difficulty in excusing shockingly brutal acts, such as the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford. Ireland brought out the worst in Cromwell, and provided little outlet for his undoubted talents as an inspirational
leader and radical reformer. He subscribed unhesitatingly to the
doctrine that ‘error has no rights’, and treated the Catholic Irish accordingly.
In the mid-seventeenth century, a lethal combination of racial
superiority and religious bigotry, reinforced by a genuine sense of outrage at events during the initial months of the Ulster rebellion, created the ideal conditions for Cromwell’s campaign of terror against Irish Catholics.
Cromwell’s conduct shocked contemporary opinion, not only in Ireland, but also on the Continent, and almost certainly prolonged the war by a number of years. This conflict resulted in a catastrophic loss of life, both soldiers and civilians, alongside the destruction of much of the country’s economy and infrastructure.
As commander-in-chief of the army, the responsibilities for the excesses of the military must be laid firmly at his door, while the harsh nature of the post-war settlement also bears his personal imprint. Cromwell was no monster, but he did commit monstrous acts. A warrior of Christ, somewhat like the crusaders of medieval Europe, he acted as God’s executioner, exacting revenge and crushing all opposition, convinced throughout of the legitimacy of his cause, and striving to build a better world for the chosen few. In many ways, therefore, he remains a remarkably modern figure, relevant to our understanding of both the past and the present, somebody to be closely studied and understood, rather than revered or reviled.
Extract from God’s Executioner by Micheál Ó Siochrú, published by Faber & Faber. Extract used courtesy of Faber & Faber.