Tom Reilly: Cromwell, My Declaration of War

Below, Tom Reilly, author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy throws down a challenge to Irish historians over their treatment of Cromwell. Over here, you can listen to Tom on RTE 1’s Ryan Tubridy show, debating whether the Lord Protector was hero or villain with Professor Ciaran Brady.

I would like to declare open warfare on the seventeenth century experts of Ireland please, or perhaps even challenge them to a duel. Cheers. Thanks

Please allow me to explain. A primary school teacher somewhere in Ireland faces a classroom full of eleven-year-olds. The teacher reaches for the textbook Earthlink 5th Class published by Folens in 2004. (Earthlink is a textbook series from junior infants to sixth class that incorporates the integrated approach outlined by the primary school syllabus on the Irish school curriculum.) On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’

That’s the reason for my declaration of war. There’s no other. Just that.

Cromwell has remained the historian’s Hamlet, to be re-interpreted by each succeeding generation, as the founder of liberty or military dictator, the scourge of tyrants, or tyrant himself, the champion of parliament or its betrayer, God’s executioner or God’s reformer.

In Ireland the very name Cromwell has become shorthand for a complex set of attitudes, all resting not so much on the man himself, but on him being symbolic of a defining moment of Irish history. In the demonology of that history, pride of place, without a shadow of a doubt, goes to Cromwell. Because he left such a bitterly divisive legacy, he also left an equally divisive historiography.

Primarily as a result of the work of nineteenth century nationalists (notably John Prendergast and Fr Denis Murphy), Cromwell has for most Irish people become the personification of barbarity, religious intolerance and English conquest. He has been accused of being a war criminal and of being an early ethnic cleanser. They recount tales of thousands of defenceless Irish citizens, men, women and children, all put to the sword at the hands of “Old Ironsides” and his men during their scorched earth campaign.

In actual fact Cromwell was framed.

Cromwell – An Honourable Enemy first saw the light of day in 1999 and has been largely dismissed by most scholars. Although some academics welcomed it with a certain ambivalence, it has certainly not been adopted by many – although it has been received more generously outside Ireland. Yet – and this is most remarkable – it has never been seriously challenged by any historian anywhere.

Michael O Siochru leads the charge of protesters. Yet his recently published God’s Executioner falls abysmally short of presenting a serious challenge to Honourable Enemy. Amazingly he engages in wild speculation. I’m still shocked by his incredible assertions on this matter, with nothing solid whatsoever to back it up. The facts are there for all to see. This is not rocket science.

In fact one wonders at the erudite author’s motivation in making such assiduous efforts to interpret the well-known and oft-quoted contemporary sources in such an inequitable, some might say biased, way. Instead, Ó Siochrú and his ilk should be running to the printing presses to (at least) temper the school textbooks in order that they promulgate a balanced view of the events.

The promotional literature accompanying the book highlights the fact that the same author has scripted the two-part documentary series on Irish television station RTE this September about Cromwell in Ireland.

In this book he has gone out on a limb, put his reputation on the line so to speak, and if this is the best shot he can take to justify a civilian massacre on a large scale, it looks like he will live to regret it. Several experts of the period come to mind who might be inclined to take a different, more even-handed, view of the available evidence.

Of course civilians could have got caught in the crossfire in Drogheda and Wexford, killed as a result of collateral damage, etc. etc. etc. Well, duh! But there was no policy to kill the innocent, nor is there any concrete evidence that suggests such a thing occurred.

Historians have taken a wide birth of my book because I have entered their world and proved them (generations of academics) wrong. I have in fact taught my granny how to suck eggs. First they castigated me, then they dismissed me, then some of them (Taidgh O Hannrachain) even said they said that they knew this all along – it was nothing new!!!.

If they knew this all along, then why in the name of all that is holy are we still delivering nineteenth century propaganda to children in the 21st century?

The historian James Graham Leyburn has said of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland: ‘What Cromwell did deserves to be ranked with the horrors perpetrated by Gengis Khan. His pacification of Ireland has left scars on that country which have never been forgotten or forgiven.’

Oliver Cromwell is completely innocent of killing the ordinary unarmed people of Ireland and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.

But before I finish, here’s the thing…ask yourself this question…if the facts are open to interpretation (which at the very least they most certainly are) then why do people like O’Siochru, Jason McElligott, Padraig Lenehan etc not take a balanced view?

Contrast this with John Morrill who agrees with me that no civilians died in cold blood at Drogheda but believes some may well have got caught in the crossfire.

And the difference? He’s English. No inherent bias. I rest my case.

Tom Reilly


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  1. I can believe that Cromwells conduct of the campaign was normal enough. On the other hand, was the campaign legal in the first place? The English Parliament had every reason to intervene in Ireland: but what claim did it have to rule there? And if it had no such claim, how could it call its war just?

  2. The concept of ‘just war’ needs to be seen in a seventeenth-century context. The English Commonwealth might not have seen its inheritance of the English Crown’s claim to rule in Ireland as the basis of a ‘just war’. The seventeenth-century concept of a ‘just war’ would have been predicated on the idea of doing God’s work, and smiting the Antichrist. In this respect early modern preachers of all religious persuasions, and the authors of various soldiers’ bibles, had no problem in turning the Fifth Commandment (‘thou shalt not kill’) on its head. It might therefore be helpful to draw a distinction between the reasons for the Commonwealth’s military intervention in Ireland (principally to enhance the security of the new regime in London) and the various justifications given at the time to account for the often brutal conduct (thinking more of Wexford than Drogheda) displayed during the campaign. But did Cromwell believe he was conducting a ‘just war’? John Morrill states in the DNB that among other things he ‘justified the massacre [at Drogheda] on the grounds that it would terrorize others into immediate surrender and thus save lives in the long run’. This was a military strategy familiar from the Thirty Years’ War, dating back to ancient times. Cromwell appears to have taken a different tack at Wexford, admitting a massacre had taken place there, but presenting it as revenge for the Protestants he had heard had been massacred by the townsfolk some years earlier. Interestingly, John Morrill notes that after Wexford Cromwell gave ‘startlingly generous’ terms of surrender to other Irish towns. But then we get into the debate of the subsequent plantation of former New Model Army soldiers in Ireland after 1649… and…. Complicated stuff, trying to get inside the heads of seventeenth-century people.

  3. […] way or another been keeping a close eye on my recent online diary entries on Cromwell, reminds me, in his own online diary entries, that there are writers and historians form inside Ireland who do not believe that Cromwellian […]

  4. Perhaps it would be better if Ireland was till governed according to Cromwell’s wise and kindly strictures, I wonder how Tom Reilly would cope with that? He’d love it of course!

    Here is Eugene Coyle’s review of his book.

    Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy
    Tom Reilly

    (Brandon Press, �17.99) ISBN 0863222501

    Tom Reilly is a local historian and has published several local history books on Cromwell and Drogheda. This book he claims is a long overdue evaluation of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland and challenges all the conventional interpretations of events. According to the accepted version Cromwell was appointed Commissioner by the English Parliament to seek out and eliminate all Royalists and Catholic Confederates. In September 1649, he ordered the massacre of the Drogheda garrison and most of the civilian populace in a deliberate policy of terror, partly as a response to the governor’s refusal to surrender. A month later, the garrison and civilians of Wexford suffered a similar fate. These massacres have passed into resentful Irish folk memory. Reilly claims to reveal the untold story of Cromwell in Ireland, to acquit him of the ‘charges of wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of the ordinary unarmed people of Ireland’ and to express ‘Cromwell’s compassionate policy towards Irish civilians’. Both the Cromwellian and the Interregnum period have been extensively researched and appraised by Irish and English historians since the appearance of Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell, Our Chief of Men (1973). However, according to Reilly the ‘period is left continually unrevised, the dubious traditional viewpoint is now generally accepted as authentic’ but he offers little evidence in support of this claim.

    The first hundred pages or so give a fair and reasonably accurate account of Cromwell’s early life and his campaign, including the sacking of Drogheda, from a variety of well-known sources. The Wexford, Munster and Clonmel campaigns are adequately covered and give a good balanced local history background. If the book had simply described the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland as a series of battles it would have provided a local history reference book on the Cromwellian campaign. However, it is written in an emotive, excitable style with irrelevant extraneous material. For example, did you know that Drogheda is the European headquarters of Coca-Cola and has a McDonnells? In the case of Wexford, he alleges that the recent 1798 bicentennial commemorations had a definite Irish republican slant.

    Where this book disappoints is in the two chapters on the assessment and analysis of the Cromwellian campaign in both Drogheda and Wexford. In the chapter ‘Drogheda�An Analysis’ the author dismisses both the eyewitness accounts, including that of Cromwell himself, and the contemporary accounts as Royalist propaganda or as having been written for ‘dishonest political reasons’. He contradicts what has been established by a large number of modern professional historians such as Michael Burke, Peter Gaunt, John Morrill, Antonia Fraser and others. For example, Cromwell justified the Drogheda massacre in which nearly 3,500 died as ‘that this is the righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood’. About 2,800 of these ‘wretches’ were Royalist soldiers which left between 500 to 700 civilians and clerics. It is Tom Reilly’s contention that only clerics and armed civilians died and that Cromwell honoured the military procedures of seventeenth-century siege warfare. He also maintains that ‘there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate the stories of the massacre…not those [words] transcribed years later which nationalist historians have so far relied upon’. Yet eyewitnesses record the fate of Drogheda’s garrison commander Aston who had his brains beaten out with his own wooden leg. His head and those of his officers were sent to Dublin on poles. Reilly makes reference to what happened in St Peter’s church and claims it as a part fabrication. In fact, according to Cromwell himself, a party of eighty sought refuge in the tower of the Protestant St Peter’s church and refused to surrender. He ordered that church furniture be piled up and set ablaze. Most died as they tried to escape. It is generally accepted that popular nineteenth century nationalist historians have distorted the accounts. For example, Fr Denis Murphy described tales of young virgins killed by soldiers, Jesuit priests pierced with stakes in the market place and children used as shields during the attack on St Peter’s.

    Reilly’s treatment of the massacre at Drogheda is disingenuous and he ignores the conclusion, long recognised by generations of historians, that Cromwell lost his self-control at Drogheda. When Cromwell landed near Dublin on 15 August 1649, he urged his New Model Army to execute ‘the great work against the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish and the rest of their adherents and confederates’. There may have been good military reasons for behaving as he did, but they were not the motives which encouraged him at Drogheda, during the day and night of organised and approved butchery. Cromwell knew exactly what he was doing at Drogheda whether the order for ‘no quarter’ was given or not. Burke maintains that there was slaughter of civilians on a large scale to ensure that all the clergy were killed as Cromwell stated that there were ‘the satisfactory grounds for such action’.

    The historical evidence presented by Reilly is not convincing. He frequently refers to ‘respective partisan nationalist elements’ who are reluctant to accept ‘the rehabilitated version of Oliver Cromwell’ who was ‘merely one in a long line of English oppressors’. The author’s style is often superficial, volatile, tendentious and partisan in the face of known historical evidence. The book adds little to our understanding of the actions of Cromwell at Drogheda or at Wexford. His general thesis that Cromwell may well have had no moral right to take the lives at Drogheda or Wexford ‘but he certainly had the law firmly on his side’ does not stand up to examination. There is a need for a new book on the Irish Cromwellian campaign but unfortunately but this is not it.

    Eugene Coyle

  5. Dear ‘The Jackal’,

    What the hell kind of a post was that? You think Coyle’s review actually matters? It’s excellent quality horsehit.

    You got he evidence to prove me wrong?

    Take your best shot! You”lll fail just as miserably as the rest of them – Coyle included.

    Tom Reilly.

  6. Oops. Shudda read it back first. I was just so pissed off with another loon. Here it is again without the typos.

    Dear ‘The Jackal’,

    What the hell kind of a post was that? You think Coyle’s review actually matters? It’s excellent quality horsehit.

    You got the evidence to prove me wrong?

    Take your best shot! You”ll fail just as miserably as the rest of them – Coyle included.

    Tom Reilly.

  7. Dear Tom Reilly,

    Like where do you get off sayin Coyle’s review doesnt matter? You surely knew that when ya started writing this book of complete bull that you would get people who actually know what they are talking about criticising it.

    Like obviously i havent actually read your book cos ive better things to be doin than readin some amateur writers fiction novel, but i got the gist of what your tryin to say and well it is total bull. So to sum up what im tryin to say, if your going to start writing a book about an evil tyrant like Cromwell at least get ur facts straight!!


  8. I respect your views on irish history, i come from a small irish village in the north and would research a lot of local history in saying that a lot of sayings and even songs have been connected with cromwell and his bloody onslaught on the irish people for example
    to hell or to connaght.
    some are modern and some are from the cromwell period itself, perhaps these songs and rymes are there for a reason to remind us of his impact upon us

    yours respectfully

  9. An up and coming and an emerging Community Historian in the Drogheda area, Brendan Matthews, delivered a lecture to a packed out lecture room at the end of June 2009. Mr. Matthews had a fantastic range of new evidence of what Cromwell got up to in Drogheda and how thousands of men, women and children were then transported to the West Indies between 1653 and 1659, many of them from the Drogheda area. The lecture was absolutley brilliantly delivered by Matthews and he left those that attended in no doubt that this, completely new evidence, was genuinely taken from contemporary documents and that he uncovered this information by looking at this time period from within Drogheda from a Community Historian`s point of view, men that accompanied Cromwell in his ranks had been to Drogheda before the Siege, some had been there in 1635, 36, and 1646, some were married into Drogheda families, some were directly responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the land afterwards, doucuments that are missing from within the Corporation of Drogheda that were never realised before, the huge 50 cannon-gun war ship that was built in honour of what Cromwwell did at Drogheda,etc, etc, etc, etc, Mr. Matthews had a staggering amount of new evidence and it brought the house down at his Millmount lecture and when Reilly tried to speak he was shouted down before Matthews actually stood up for him and told the audience to allow him speak, but whatever Reilly said it meant little; he was shown up by a true Historian who carried out extensive research, as he said himself, in a three month period beforehand and this was after a challenge by Reilly back in February 2009 to all historians that no people from Drogheda were ever transported to the West Indies; however, Matthews went out for the three months and came back with a range of information, as he has done time and time again on many different issues, periods and events in History because thats what he`s brilliant at, researching and presenting a true history of a community. A DVD and CD of this excellent lecture is also available for inspection at Millmount Museum Archives in Drogheda; worth checking out.

    • I’d just like to take this opportunity to reply to Donal.

      I absolutely agree that community historian Brendan Matthews is an incredible guy and that he has unearthed a huge amount of valuable material over the years. Brendan and I compare notes on a very regular basis and are very good friends.

      I have no idea how I ended up being cast in the role of a crank these days when I am actually talking complete sense. But hey, that’s Ireland.

      A scroll was sent by the mayor and borough council of Drogheda in February of this year commemmorating the citizens of Drogheda that were transported to Barbados.

      At that time there was no evidence to support the scroll.

      Following Brendan’s lecture, I don’t see a change in that scenario.

      Maybe Donal can supply us with the evidence, because Brendan certainly didn’t.

      Brendan and I had a good laugh about how people get hot and bothered about this and other Cromwell issues following the lecture.

      Thankfully the tide is gradually turning in my direction. Despite O’Siochru’s determination to bring us back to the dark days of Cromwell the murdering bastard, most reputable historians now agree that women and children were not deliberately killed at either Drogheda or Wexford.

      I think the problem is that I express myself in a particualr fashion. I seem to piss people off. After ten years of defending Cromwell’s honour this is the only way that I reckon I’ll be heard.

      That scroll is an abuse of history. That’s a fact. If it can be proved that the odd vagrant on Drogheda’s streets was transported to Barbados then fine, erect a scroll. But by Jaysus its a tenuous reason.

      That scroll was sent because somebody mis-interpreted Cromwell’s letter to parliament in which he says that he sent prisoners he captured at Drogheda to Barbados. But they were soldiers, not citizens. It’s as simple as that.

      Get over it.

      Tom Reilly

  10. Sadly you are a perfect example of a native under colonial mindset despite hundreds of years of evil acts against our people our culture and the near eradication
    of everything we held dear and right up until 1970`s just in case you think i`m holding on to an age old argument, we have been divided persecuted slaughtered and enslaved by your honorable enemy for centuries and there is nothing but “proof” here is a Quick history of our people enslaved by our Honorable enemy.

    There are a great many K/Cavanaughs in North America who trace their ancestry back to a Charles Cavanaugh, who arrived in Virginia, with a brother or cousin named Philemon Cavanagh (Felim or Phelim), on or about 1700. Their descendants most often spell their name with a C, although a variety of both C and K spellings are found, even within the same immediate family. They were originally concentrated in the Southeastern United States, particularly Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, but now spread to everywhere. Although long standing family traditions trace Charles and Philemon of 1700 arrival back to Colonel Charles Cavanaugh of Carrickduff and Clonmullen, (the son of Sir Morgan Cavanagh, the son of Donnal Spanaigh Cavanagh), a recorded link still evades researchers.
    Punishment was severe. If a plantation
    owner beat an Irish slave to death, the
    only penalty was the value of the slaves
    financial loss.

    A possible link, however, was found in Barbados, where the birth of a Charles Cavanaugh, son of Charles Cavanaugh, was registered there in January 1679. At the same time, another Cavanagh was registered as inbound on a ship to Barbados from Liverpool. And further complicating the entry is the same registry records the death of a Charles Cavanaugh, son of Charles at the same time. So the questions: was the dead Charles the new born baby; or perhaps the father of the baby; or maybe the inbound Cavanagh who may have died on the trip to Barbados, with his death recorded upon arrival; or another Charles; or….?

    These questions are still unanswered, but a more intriguing question is what were the Cavanaughs doing in Barbados in the first place? The answer takes us down a revolting path wandering through one of the most insensitive and savage episodes in history, where the greed and avarice of the English monarchy systematically planned the genocide of the Irish, for commercial profit, and executed a continuing campaign to destroy all traces of Irish social, cultural and religious being. As the topic was politically sensitive, little has been written about this attempted genocide of the Irish, and what has been written has been camouflaged because it is an ugly and painfully brutal story. But the story should be told.

    Transportation and Banishment

    If Queen Elizabeth I had lived in the 20th Century. she would have been viewed with the same horror as Hitler and Stalin. Her policy of Irish genocide was pursued with such evil zest it boggles the mind of modern men. But Elizabeth was only setting the stage for the even more savage program that was to follow her, directed specifically to exterminate the Irish. James II and Charles I continued Elizabeth’s campaign, but Cromwell almost perfected it. Few people in modern so-called “civilized history” can match the horrors of Cromwell in Ireland. It is amazing what one man can do to his fellow man under the banner that God sanctions his actions!

    The reign of Elizabeth I, English privateers captured 300 African Negroes, sold them as slaves, and initiated the English slave trade. Slavery was, of course, an old established commerce dating back into earliest history. Julius Caesar brought over a million slaves from defeated armies back to Rome. By the 16th century, the Arabs were the most active, generally capturing native peoples, not just Africans, marching them to a seaport and selling them to ship owners. Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish ships were originally the most active, supplying slaves to the Spanish colonies in America. It was not a big business in the beginning, but a very profitable one, and ship owners were primarily interested only in profits. The morality of selling human beings was never a factor to them.

    After the Battle of Kinsale at the beginning of the 17th century, the English were faced with a problem of some 30,000 military prisoners, which they solved by creating an official policy of banishment. Other Irish leaders had voluntarily exiled to the continent, in fact, the Battle of Kinsale marked the beginning of the so-called “Wild Geese”, those Irish banished from their homeland. Banishment, however, did not solve the problem entirely, so James II encouraged selling the Irish as slaves to planters and settlers in the New World colonies. The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England. The disappearance of a few hundred or a few thousand Irish was not a cause for alarm, but rather for rejoicing. Who cared what their names were anyway, they were gone.

    Almost as soon as settlers landed in America, English privateers showed up with a good load of slaves to sell. The first load of African slaves brought to Virginia arrived at Jamestown in 1619. English shippers, with royal encouragement, partnered with the Dutch to try and corner the slave market to the exclusion of the Spanish and Portuguese. The demand was greatest in the Spanish occupied areas of Central and South America, but the settlement of North America moved steadily ahead, and the demand for slave labour grew.

    The Proclamation of 1625 ordered that Irish political prisoners be transported overseas and sold as laborers to English planters, who were settling the islands of the West Indies, officially establishing a policy that was to continue for two centuries. In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters. But there were not enough political prisoners to supply the demand, so every petty infraction carried a sentence of transporting, and slaver gangs combed the country sides to kidnap enough people to fill out their quotas.

    Although African Negroes were better suited to work in the semi-tropical climates of the Caribbean, they had to be purchased, while the Irish were free for the catching, so to speak. It is not surprising that Ireland became the biggest source of livestock for the English slave trade.

    The Confederation War broke out in Kilkenny in 1641, as the Irish attempted to throw out the English yet again, something that seem to happen at least once every generation. Sir Morgan Cavanaugh of Clonmullen, one of the leaders, was killed during a battle in 1646, and his two sons, Daniel and Charles (later Colonel Charles) continued with the struggle until the uprising was crushed by Cromwell in 1649. It is recorded that Daniel and other Carlow Kavanaghs exiled themselves to Spain, where their descendants are still found today, concentrated in the northwestern corner of that country. Young Charles, who married Mary Kavanagh, daughter of Brian Kavanagh of Borris, was either exiled to Nantes, France, or transported to Barbados… or both. Although we haven’t found a record of him in a military life in France, it is known that the crown of Leinster and other regal paraphernalia associated with the Kingship of Leinster was brought to France, where it was on display in Bordeaux, just south of Nantes, until the French Revolution in 1794. As Daniel and Charles were the heirs to the Leinster kingship, one of them undoubtedly brought these royal artifacts to Bordeaux.

    In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000. Banished soldiers were not allowed to take their wives and children with them, and naturally, the same for those sold as slaves. The result was a growing population of homeless women and children, who being a public nuisance, were likewise rounded up and sold. But the worse was yet to come.

    In 1649, Cromwell landed in Ireland and attacked Drogheda, slaughtering some 30,000 Irish living in the city. Cromwell reported: “I do not think 30 of their whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in safe custody in the Barbados.” A few months later, in 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to planters in St. Kitt. During the 1650s decade of Cromwell’s Reign of Terror, over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from Catholic parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing “free” population of the Americas!

    But all did not go smoothly with Cromwell’s extermination plan, as Irish slaves revolted in Barbados in 1649. They were hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads were put on pikes, prominently displayed around Bridgetown as a warning to others. Cromwell then fought two quick wars against the Dutch in 1651, and thereafter monopolized the slave trade. Four years later he seized Jamaica from Spain, which then became the center of the English slave trade in the Caribbean.

    On 14 August 1652, Cromwell began his Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland, ordering that the Irish were to be transported overseas, starting with 12,000 Irish prisoners sold to Barbados. The infamous “Connaught or Hell” proclamation was issued on 1 May 1654, where all Irish were ordered to be removed from their lands and relocated west of the Shannon or be transported to the West Indies. Those who have been to County Clare, a land of barren rock will understand what an impossible position such an order placed the Irish. A local sheep owner claimed that Clare had the tallest sheep in the world, standing some 7 feet at the withers, because in order to live, there was so little food, they had to graze at 40 miles per hour. With no place to go and stay alive, the Irish were slow to respond. This was an embarrassing problem as Cromwell had financed his Irish expeditions through business investors, who were promised Irish estates as dividends, and his soldiers were promised freehold land in exchange for their services. To speed up the relocation process, a reinforcing law was passed on 26 June 1657 stating: “Those who fail to transplant themselves into Connaught or Co. Clare within six months… Shall be attained of high treason… are to be sent into America or some other parts beyond the seas… those banished who return are to suffer the pains of death as felons by virtue of this act, without benefit of Clergy.”

    Although it was not a crime to kill any Irish, and soldiers were encouraged to do so, the slave trade proved too profitable to kill off the source of the product. Privateers and chartered shippers sent gangs out with quotas to fill, and in their zest as they scoured the countryside, they inadvertently kidnapped a number of English too. On March 25, 1659, a petition of 72 Englishmen was received in London, claiming they were illegally “now in slavery in the Barbados”’ . The petition also claimed that “7,000-8,000 Scots taken prisoner at the battle of Worcester in 1651 were sold to the British plantations in the New World,” and that “200 Frenchmen had been kidnapped, concealed and sold in Barbados for 900 pounds of cotton each.”

    Subsequently some 52,000 Irish, mostly women and sturdy boys and girls, were sold to Barbados and Virginia alone. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were taken prisoners and ordered transported and sold as slaves. In 1656, Cromwell’s Council of State ordered that 1000 Irish girls and 1000 Irish boys be rounded up and taken to Jamaica to be sold as slaves to English planters. As horrendous as these numbers sound, it only reflects a small part of the evil program, as most of the slaving activity was not recorded. There were no tears shed amongst the Irish when Cromwell died in 1660.

    The Irish welcomed the restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II duly crowned, but it was a hollow expectation. After reviewing the profitability of the slave trade, Charles II chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers in 1662, which later became the Royal African Company. The Royal Family, including Charles II, the Queen Dowager and the Duke of York, then contracted to supply at least 3000 slaves annually to their chartered company. They far exceeded their quotas.

    There are records of Irish sold as slaves in 1664 to the French on St. Bartholomew, and English ships which made a stop in Ireland en route to the Americas, typically had a cargo of Irish to sell on into the 18th century. Few people today realize that from 1600 to 1699, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans.

    Slaves or Indentured Servants

    There has been a lot of whitewashing of the Irish slave trade, partly by not mentioning it, and partly by labelling slaves as indentured servants. There were indeed indentureds, including English, French, Spanish and even a few Irish. But there is a great difference between the two. Indentures bind two or more parties in mutual obligations. Servant indentures were agreements between an individual and a shipper in which the individual agreed to sell his services for a period of time in exchange for passage, and during his service, he would receive proper housing, food, clothing, and usually a piece of land at the end of the term of service. It is believed that some of the Irish that went to the Amazon settlement after the Battle of Kinsale and up to 1612 were exiled military who went voluntarily, probably as indentureds to Spanish or Portuguese shippers.

    However, from 1625 onward the Irish were sold, pure and simple as slaves. There were no indenture agreements, no protection, no choice. They were captured and originally turned over to shippers to be sold for their profit. Because the profits were so great, generally 900 pounds of cotton for a slave, the Irish slave trade became an industry in which everyone involved (except the Irish) had a share of the profits.


    Although the Africans and Irish were housed together and were the property of the planter owners, the Africans received much better treatment, food and housing. In the British West Indies the planters routinely tortured white slaves for any infraction. Owners would hang Irish slaves by their hands and set their hands or feet afire as a means of punishment. To end this barbarity, Colonel William Brayne wrote to English authorities in 1656 urging the importation of Negro slaves on the grounds that, “as the planters would have to pay much more for them, they would have an interest in preserving their lives, which was wanting in the case of (Irish)….” many of whom, he charged, were killed by overwork and cruel treatment. African Negroes cost generally about 20 to 50 pounds Sterling, compared to 900 pounds of cotton (about 5 pounds Sterling) for an Irish. They were also more durable in the hot climate, and caused fewer problems. The biggest bonus with the Africans though, was they were NOT Catholic, and any heathen pagan was better than an Irish Papist. Irish prisoners were commonly sentenced to a term of service, so theoretically they would eventually be free. In practice, many of the slavers sold the Irish on the same terms as prisoners for servitude of 7 to 10 years.

    There was no racial consideration or discrimination, you were either a freeman or a slave, but there was aggressive religious discrimination, with the Pope considered by all English Protestants to be the enemy of God and civilization, and all Catholics heathens and hated. Irish Catholics were not considered to be Christians. On the other hand, the Irish were literate, usually more so than the plantation owners, and thus were used as house servants, account keepers, scribes and teachers. But any infraction was dealt with the same severity, whether African or Irish, field worker or domestic servant. Floggings were common, and if a planter beat an Irish slave to death, it was not a crime, only a financial loss, and a lesser loss than killing a more expensive African. Parliament passed the Act to Regulate Slaves on British Plantations in 1667, designating authorized punishments to include whippings and brandings for slave offenses against a Christian. Irish Catholics were not considered Christians, even if they were freemen.

    The planters quickly began breeding the comely Irish women, not just because they were attractive, but because it was profitable,,, as well as pleasurable. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, and although an Irish woman may become free, her children were not. Naturally, most Irish mothers remained with their children after earning their freedom. Planters then began to breed Irish women with African men to produce more slaves who had lighter skin and brought a higher price. The practice became so widespread that in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.” This legislation was not the result of any moral or racial consideration, but rather because the practice was interfering with the profits of the Royal African Company! It is interesting to note that from 1680 to 1688, the Royal African Company sent 249 shiploads of slaves to the Indies and American Colonies, with a cargo of 60,000 Irish and Africans. More than 14,000 died during passage.
    Curiously, of all the Irish shipped
    out as slaves, not one is known
    to have returned.

    Following the Battle of the Boyne and the defeat of King James in 1691, the Irish slave trade had an overloaded inventory, and the slavers were making great profits. The Spanish slavers were a competition nuisance, so in 1713, the Treaty of Assiento was signed in which Spain granted England exclusive rights to the slave trade, and England agreed to supply Spanish colonies 4800 slaves a year for 30 years. England shipped tens of thousands of Irish prisoners after the 1798 Irish Rebellion to be sold as slaves in the Colonies and Australia.

    Curiously, of all the Irish shipped out as slaves, not one is known to have returned to Ireland to tell their tales. Many, if not most, died on the ships transporting them or from overwork and abusive treatment on the plantations. The Irish that did obtain their freedom, frequently emigrated on to the American mainland, while others moved to adjoining islands. On Montserrat, seven of every 10 whites were Irish. Comparable 1678 census figures for the other Leeward Islands were: 26 per cent Irish on Antigua; 22 per cent on Nevis; and 10 per cent on St Christopher. Although 21,700 Irish slaves were purchased by Barbados planters from 1641 to 1649, there never seemed to have been more than about 8 to 10 thousand surviving at any one time. What happened to them? Well, the pages of the telephone directories on the West Indies islands are filled with Irish names, but virtually none of these “black Irish” know anything about their ancestors or their history. On the other hand, many West Indies natives spoke Gaelic right up until recent years. They know they are strong survivors who descended from black white slaves, but only in the last few years have any of them taken an interest in their heritage.

    There were horrendous abuses by the slavers, both to Africans and Irish. The records show that the British ship Zong was delayed by storms, and as their food was running low, they decided to dump 132 slaves overboard to drownso the crew would have plenty to eat. If the slaves died due to “accident”, the loss was covered by insurance, but not if they starved to death. Another British ship, the Hercules averaged a 37% death rate on passages. The Atlas II landed with 65 of the 181 slaves found dead in their chains. But that is another story.

    The economics of slavery permeated all levels of English life. When the Bishop of Exeter learned that there was a movement afoot to ban the slave trade, he reluctantly agreed to sell his 655 slaves, provided he was properly compensated for the loss. Finally, in 1839, a bill was passed in England forbidding the slave trade, bringing an end to Irish misery.

    An end to Irish misery? Well, perhaps just a pause. During the following decade thousands of tons of butter, grain and beef were shipped from Ireland as over 2 million Irish starved to death in the great famine, and a great many others went to America and Australia. The population of Ireland fell from over 9 million to bottom out at less than 3 million. Another chapter, another time, another method…. same people, same results.

    Caomhánach’s in Barbados

    Did the Caomhánach’s in Barbados arrive there as slaves? Yes, definitely. Which Caomhánach’s is hard to pinpoint. The registry at St. Michaels Parish contains the birth and death of a Charles Cavanagh, son of Charles, which suggests that they were freemen, as records were not kept for slaves. There is a record of another Cavanagh living on a small allotment acreage in Barbados, ironically with a given name of Oliver. (Someone had a sadistic sense of humour.) Oliver Cavanagh had to be a freed slave or descended from one, and because his parents are not noted, they had to be slaves. There are records in Ireland of a number of petitions filed over a number of years after Cromwell by Mary Cavanagh, wife of Col. Charles, seeking his pardon and return of lands, indicating Charles was transported. Recently, Jimmy Kavanagh of Dublin has found a registry containing over a dozen Kavanaghs in Haiti. Perhaps someday, we will be able to sort this out, but it is doubtful.

    • Considering the prescence of several punctuation errors in the opening paragraph of Anthony Corrigan’s piece above – compared to the large tracts of error free text that follows, it would be easy for one more cynical than I to conclude that the writer who started the comment was not the one who made all the subsequent points. Disingenuous perhaps, but I suspect it’s true.

      That said, it’s amazing how a forum like this can get blown completely out of proportion with a rant such as this. People are so volatile, especially on this new-fangled t’internet thingy. My mother always told me never to get involved with people. I should have listened.

      My contentions regarding Cromwell are in a very small (yet nonetheless controversial) context. They simply centre around the allegations that Cromwell slaughtered innocent, unarmed Irish people – which he didn’t.

      The scroll that was sent by Drogheda Borough Council to commemmorate those Droghedeans who were transported by him from Drogheda to Barbados, following the sack on the town is simply too stupid for words. They were Royalist soldiers. Get over it.

      In further response to Anthony I have cut and pasted the following sentence from his comment to put it in perspective:

      “In 1649, Cromwell landed in Ireland and attacked Drogheda, slaughtering some 30,000 Irish living in the city.”

      After 20 years of studying the period, and having examined innumerable outlandish propaganda claims surounding the sack of Drogheda – when it comes to historical facts – this is easily the worst miss I have ever seen.

      Tom Reilly

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