God’s Executioner: Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland review

A full review of Micheal O Siochru’s book by Jason Peacey on the IHR’s Reviews in History site, plus a response from the author himself.

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God’s Executioner – the telly programme

I think this was shown on one of the subscription digital history channels in the UK but I don’t have pay tv so missed it. You can now watch most of the first episode on youtube.

I thought that they had got Roger Allam playing Oliver Cromwell, which would have been an inspired bit of casting, given that he has recently portrayed both Hitler and the evil Anglo-Irish landlord, Sir John Hamilton, in the Wind that Shakes the Barley. But I think it is just a bloke who looks a bit like him. Maybe they couldn’t afford Rog’s fee. Still, a starry cast of early modern historians on show: Ronald Hutton, Nicholas Canny and John Morrill.

Published in: on March 8, 2009 at 1:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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

Cromwell 350 – Things Noted

A quick trawl of the web reveals the following products/events produced to tie-in with the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death.

A number of books are forthcoming or just out on Cromwell. Over at the Guardian, Fintan O’Toole reviews Micháel O Siochrú’s God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland. Also ‘reviewed’ over here by John Carey in the Sunday Times, but with only one paragraph actually discussing the book. Infuriating. A much more engaged and engaging review is offered by Tom Reilly here: mail-on-sunday-review, a word-doc version of a piece which appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday.

Some other Cromwellian offerings:

My personal favourite was finding this Dr. Who audio series , ‘The Settling’, featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Clive Mantle as, you guessed it, Oliver Cromwell, in an adventure set in Ireland in 1649.

As the author, Simon Guerrier says

While The Settling takes some liberties with historical facts as we know them (adding a time-travelling alien, say), I’ve endeavoured to base it as much on real history as possible.

Over here, the Historical Association is advertising a talk by Dr. David Smith on Cromwell ‘350 years after.’ If you fancy Grimsby in January, toddle along. It’s free for HA members.

Over at the Cromwell Association’s website, there is an article by Patrick Little on Cromwell’s funeral (downloadable as a word-document, as he notes, featuring exactly 1658 words!)

Also, can anyone help with this question, posted over at Yahoo! answers?

And finally, of course, over here I asked ‘Just How Evil Was Oliver Cromwell?’