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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 25 June 2009
Robert Walker’s 1650 painting of Oliver Cromwell
Robert Walker’s 1650 painting of Oliver Cromwell
Evil Oliver’s legacy of enduring hate

His brutal treatment of the country has ensured that, even hundreds of years on, the divisive Oliver Cromwell remains an icon of profound evil in Ireland, writes Peter Berresford Ellis

God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland.
By Micheál Ó Siochrú, Faber £14.99.

Peter Berresford Ellis’ own study, Hell or Connaught: The Cromwellian Colonisation of Ireland 1652-1660, is published by Blackstaff Press, Belfast

EVEN today, in Irish-speaking parts of Ireland, the worst curse that one can utter is “Malacht Cromail ort” – the curse of Cromwell on you!
Oliver Cromwell’s image in Ireland resonates down the centuries as a symbol of evil and loathing.
Stephen Fry, launching Heritage Sector’s History Matters in 2006, related a story that after the Labour Party’s victory in 1997, Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, was paying a call on Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary.
As he entered the room, a large portrait of Cromwell above Cook’s desk confronted him. He turned and immediately left saying he would not enter until the picture of “that murdering bastard” was removed. Cook, anxious to avoid a diplomatic incident, obliged.
The story, which is retold in the introduction of God’s Executioner by Dr Micheál Ó Siochrú, has been the occasion of some amusement from English reviewers of the book, dismissing it as “typical” Irish emotionalism. There has always been a singular lack of understanding in this country as to why Cromwell is such an icon of evil in Ireland. This book certainly is one that ought to help to dispel that ignorance.
While it focuses on Cromwell’s ferocious nine-month military campaign in Ireland in 1649-1650, it is not only that which has caused his name to become a curse word.
Even before the surrender of the last Irish garrison in County Cavan, in 1653, the Cromwellian statistician, William Petty, was estimating that, during the conflict, sword, plague and famine had wiped out one third of the Irish population. That was a total figure of 616,000 men, women and children. In addition, 40,000 Irish soldiers were allowed to transport abroad to take service in European countries on condition they never return.
Although Irish guerrilla groups, the Tories (from the Irish word for a “pursuer”), fought on in isolated bands, worse was to come during the rest of the 1650s when Cromwell ruled Ireland, firstly through his sons-in-law, Henry Ireton and Charles Fleetwood, and then with his own son, Henry Cromwell.
More than 100,000 Irish men, women and children were to be rounded up in raids by Cromwellian soldiers and forcibly transported to the New World colonies as “indentured labourers” to plantation owners. This was a euphemism for a slavery that was, in many ways, worse than the fate of African slaves.
Cromwell’s government supplied the Irish free of charge. Therefore, plantation owners did not have to buy them as they did Africans. If the Irish died, they were replaced free and so could be worked to death within the time of their “indentures”. The Africans were valued as “property” and, as financial investment, usually better valued.
No wonder Irish and Africans found common cause.
Cromwell’s administration set to work with a will on their policy of genocide in Ireland. Firstly, all priests were banned from Ireland on pain of death and £5 was offered as a reward for them dead or alive. A reward of £5 was also offered for the head of an Irish “rebel”. Needless to say, if you brought in a human head to claim the reward, the administration was not too particular about the evidence as to whether this was the head of a “rebel” or some poor “unfortunate”.
Moreover, English soldiers decided heads were too heavy to carry back to their superior officers, and so started to bring in just the scalps.
But Cromwell’s worst excess in Ireland was his “final solution”. This was the forcible removal of the entire Irish population to an area east of the river Shannon, in the inhospitable region of Connacht and County Clare, by May 1, 1654. After that date, any Irish found on the west bank of the Shannon was liable to immediate execution. In this “reservation” the Irish were to be controlled and eliminated.
From July, 1654, Cromwell’s soldiers were making raids to discover Irish who still lingered west of the Shannon and they were either executed or, if lucky, shipped off to the colonies.
Irish lands were given to those English merchants who had invested in Cromwell’s conquest and to his soldiers.
God’s Executioner deals with the atrocities that Cromwell personally conducted, the notorious massacres at Drogheda, Wexford, Waterford and elsewhere. They were certainly brutal enough to earn him a place in history, even against the standards of the day. Not only surrendered garrisons were slaughtered but the civilians, including women and children and the elderly and infirm.
Among those slaughtered were, of course, many English Royalists who were in arms against the Parliamentary forces. In January, 1649, the Royalists had agreed a treaty with the Confederate Irish Parliament at Kilkenny.
This is an excellent study although, I am bound to observe that the author seems not to have heard of my own study, first published in 1975. I would make allowance that my study is more about Cromwell’s administration than his military campaign in Ireland. Even with this caveat, God’s Executioner is an important account and, with others, should leave people in no doubt why Cromwell for the Irish is an icon of evil.

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