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New book series on Cromwell sheds light on the brutality of his Irish campaign

Five-volume series lists everything that Cromwell wrote in his life that survives to this day

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most infamous Englishmen who has ever lived.

It would be tempting to conclude there is nothing new to know about his life given the attention he has received since his death in 1658. The advent of the internet, though, as we have seen with the success of the Virtual Treasury that restored many of the documents lost in the Public Records Office fire of 1922, has given a new impetus to historical studies, making it infinitely easier to identify and collect historical documents on a worldwide basis.

The Letters, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell is the most comprehensive compendium to date of everything the Lord Protector did and said in his tempestuous life. This five-volume series features 1,077 manuscript documents by Cromwell. Many have never been made public before.

The second volume of the series is almost entirely devoted to Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland in 1649 and 1650 following the regicide of King Charles 1 in January 1649. He only spent nine months in Ireland, but it took centuries to unravel the impact of the Cromwellian Settlement, which appropriated the land of Ireland for his followers. And the bitterness engendered by his barbaric campaign has poisoned Anglo-Irish relations to this day.


Some 138 documents in the collection relate to his period in Ireland. They include his chilling ultimatum to Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Drogheda, before Cromwell’s forces’ infamous invasion of the town in September 1649, in which he slaughtered most of the inhabitants: “I thought fitt to sommon you to deliver the same into my hands to their use if this be refused you will have no cause to blame me”. They also feature his letter to the Council of State in England after the siege, in which he recounted: “I do not think 30 of the whole number [Irish defenders] escaped with their lives”,

The logistics of Cromwell’s Irish campaign produced much correspondence. A letter in Volume II was only discovered in recent years and bought by Trinity College Dublin in 2014. It is a letter directly from Cromwell to his troops in Ireland about Redmond Roche, a prominent Catholic landowner in County Cork, whose principal estates lay in the east of the county, on the outskirts of the town of Fermoy.

The letter is the sole surviving example of a protection signed by Cromwell in Ireland, but it is unlikely to have been the only one he issued.

The book will be launched on Monday afternoon by the British ambassador to Ireland Paul Johnston and Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole.

Cromwellian expert Professor Micheál Ó Siochrú, who is one of the editors of Volume II, said the life of Cromwell is of contemporary interest. Cromwell was above all an English nationalist of a type not dissimilar to current day Brexiteers, he believes.

“We have had versions and bits and parts. We have recovered the voice of Cromwell. We have identified the key authentic original documents and in doing so restored the voice of this key player in Anglo-Irish relations,” he said.

“This is not of pure historic interest. It is of current interest. We need to understand our past properly in order to engage with the present.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times