Of cabbages and king-killers

An Irishman’s Diary on one of Cromwell’s lesser-known legacies

‘It was apt that when Dublin City Council this week announced the creation of designated “quiet areas” in the capital, the Cabbage Garden was one of only two city-centre parks to make the list.’ Above, the Cabbage Garden in Dublin, with the Huguenot cemetery in foreground

‘It was apt that when Dublin City Council this week announced the creation of designated “quiet areas” in the capital, the Cabbage Garden was one of only two city-centre parks to make the list.’ Above, the Cabbage Garden in Dublin, with the Huguenot cemetery in foreground

Thu, Aug 8, 2013, 01:00

One of the lesser atrocities for which we may be able to blame Oliver Cromwell, I have learned with grim satisfaction, is the introduction of the cabbage to Ireland.

Yes, it appears that this, the second-most stereotypically Irish vegetable, is also a modern interloper, even more recent than the potato. It was brought here in 1649, if not by the man himself, then by his troops.

Frustrated that their favourite vegetables were not available in Dublin, they rented a piece of land in the south inner city and grew their imported own. Three and a half centuries later, the plot is now one of Dublin’s smaller and lesser-known municipal parks. But the horticultural milestone is still commemorated by its name: the Cabbage Garden.

Now, I am not entirely convinced that the vegetable could have been unknown in Ireland before Cromwell (the claim is included in a short history of the park posted near the entrance). Even so, I’m happy to believe it.

Since early childhood, I have felt oppressed by the sight of cabbage on a plate and by the insistence of authority figures that I couldn’t leave the table without eating it. Clearly, although I didn’t realise it at the time, my objections were conscientious.

Henceforward, I advise younger readers faced with a similar dilemma to plead political motivation. If your mother claims the vegetable is good for you because it’s “full of iron”, try suggesting that Cromwell’s nickname – “Old Ironsides” – related to a condition he acquired from cabbage poisoning. Then ask her if she wants you to grow up as a regicidal tyrant too.

In the meantime, I’m also pleased to report that, when I visited it yesterday, the aforementioned garden was 100 per cent cabbage-free, although it remains one of Dublin’s more unusual green spaces.

It must be the only public park anywhere that combines a small, enclosed football pitch with an even smaller, unenclosed cemetery. The latter dates from a few years later than the cabbages – the 1660s – when it became a burial place for the parish of St Nicholas Without (so named because it was just outside the city walls).

It later served the same purpose for local Huguenots. And the vestiges of the old cemetery may or may not have been an influence on the decision. But either way, it was apt that when Dublin City Council this week announced the creation of designated “quiet areas” in the capital, the Cabbage Garden was one of only two city-centre parks to make the list.

The related church of St Nicholas Without, which used to form the north transept of St Patrick’s Cathedral, is now no more (the 19th-century Catholic church of the same name is on nearby Francis Street). But by coincidence, I had reason recently to visit another medieval and still-standing Church of St Nicholas – the one in Galway – which also has a Cromwellian connection.

The Collegiate Church, as it’s known, claims the title of “largest medieval parish church in Ireland still in constant use”. And it has had some very famous visitors down the centuries, none more so that Christopher Columbus, who “almost certainly” worshipped there during a visit to Galway in 1477.

Its former parishioners include another very well-known name: Jane Eyre. No, not the fictional character created by Charlotte Brontë. This was a very pious woman who, in 1760, according to a wall plaque, donated £300 to a fund from which “the yearly sum of £24 [was] to be distributed in bread to 36 poor objects on every Sunday for ever”.

Forever is a long time, unfortunately. Although you could probably still find 36 “poor objects” on any given Sunday in Galway without difficulty, the Jane Eyre perpetual bread scheme seems to have lapsed at some point. According to the church website, “what happened to the £300 is unknown”.

The building’s other impressive features include a “Lepers’ gallery”. But the name is misleading. Sufferers from the disease were not allowed enter medieval Galway. So the only lepers likely ever to have been found in the church were of the kind so described – by Ted Walsh at least – for their ability to jump fences, at Ballybrit and elsewhere.

In fact, we know that during one of the less glorious periods of its history, the Church of St Nicholas was forced to house horses. And who was responsible for this outrage? Yes, you guessed it: Cromwell. After a nine-month-long siege in 1652, his troops occupied Galway where, no doubt deranged by all the cabbage eating, they deliberately desecrated the church, knocking the heads and hands off statues, and using the place as a stable.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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