Cromwell: the Irish years


God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland By Micheál Ó Siochrú Faber and Faber, 316pp. £14.99OLIVER CROMWELL stands out among a line of English rulers and statesmen, whose record on Ireland is the reverse side of their reputation.

Cromwell took personal responsibility for the atrocities in Drogheda and Wexford. He also changed the face of Ireland in a way that the equally barbarically conducted but long and inconclusive wars of Elizabeth I did not (excluding the ever-honoured foundation of Trinity College). In his introduction, Ó Siochrú relates a walk-out by newly elected Taoiseach Bertie Ahern from the office of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on seeing a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, "that murdering bastard", in his room. Certainly, no English historical figure arouses so strong and visceral a reaction among Irish people. He is not a great hero even to most Orangemen.

His standing in England could not be more different, even when Irish bloodstains are acknowledged. His timbered house in Ely, amid the austerity of the Fens, and beside the cathedral, is on the tourist trail. Radical historians such as Christopher Hill, English Catholic writers such as Hilaire Belloc, have depicted him in sympathetic and positive terms - God's Englishman rather than God's executioner. The statue outside the Houses of Parliament makes a strong statement about where power lies in Britain, should any monarch passing in the state coach to open Parliament be in any doubt. Cromwell's republicanism was of a sort prepared to cut the head off kings, something Wolfe Tone flinched at vis-à-vis Louis XVI. More than any other, Cromwell brought absolute divine-right monarchy in England to an abrupt end, and put parliament centre-stage, even if post-1653 he largely governed without it as a de facto military dictator. The present Commonwealth, though Queen Elizabeth is its head, is, in name, inspired by the mid-17th century period of parliamentary and (narrowly) representative government.

Ó SIOCHRÚ'S STUDY is focused on Cromwell's military campaign in Ireland and the background to it as well as the aftermath. The campaign of 1649-50, continuing under other commanders until 1653, cut off incomplete and unsatisfactory efforts to establish political equilibrium between different religious and ethnic groups in Ireland, and between newcomers and older inhabitants.

The crown and Protestant royalists led by Ormond persistently failed to provide adequate guarantees or reassurances to Catholic leaders of their property, political rights and rights of conscience. The confederate Catholics, at their peak, during the period of Cardinal Rinuccini, equally provided no guarantees of tolerance, where they might permanently gain the upper hand. Hardliners on both sides wanted decisive victory, where winner would take all.

Ó Siochrú's account is written from a standpoint sympathetic to the more moderate confederate position, where earlier Trinity historians might have been more sympathetic to Ormond. A feature of the confederate wars was how everyone ended up allied to everyone else, including the uncommemorated siege of Derry in 1649, where Owen Roe O'Neill combined tactically with the parliamentarians against royalist Presbyterians. Unusual alliances did not have to wait until Ian Paisley went into government with Martin McGuinness to happen.

Cromwell's expedition to Ireland was partly a move to ward off unpopularity at home after the execution of Charles I. Anti-Irish prejudice in England was extreme, and enabled him to get away with and righteously boast about what would never have been tolerated in England. There was nothing honourable about the massacres in Drogheda and Wexford, which, Ó Siochrú demonstrates, were well outside the conventions of war, whatever about the practices, even by the standards of the Thirty Years War. Many civilians were killed in Drogheda, by Cromwell's own testimony, though how many is unclear. The most successful resistance to Cromwell, albeit only for a time, was in Clonmel. Despite the garrison having vanished, he honoured the terms negotiated with the mayor, and Tipperary was largely spared - at the time and in retrospect - the horrors of Drogheda and Wexford.

The Troubles are an expression going back to the 17th century, at least, and were a euphemism used in Charles II's land legislation to describe the civil-war period. Ironically, 17th-century guerrilla groups were described as tories, but by 1680 the term had been definitively appropriated for polemical and journalistic purposes by British politics, where it retains its currency.

Ó Siochrú devotes a final chapter to consequences and aftermath. The transplantation, resettlement, and the skill and political manoeuvring displayed by Cromwellian beneficiaries in Ireland in holding onto their expropriations in radically altered political conditions post-1660 are covered in more detail in books and studies by other scholars. Leading 17th-century political philosopher John Locke denounced such practices, and wrote that a conqueror could make people prisoners but had no right to their estates, and that the charges and damages of war made up by the conqueror to the utmost farthing "will scarce give him a title to any country he shall conquer".

THE ABSENCE OF legitimacy and stability led eventually, as later in France, to a restoration, though that too was no lasting resting place. Cromwell himself instantly became a non-person among what would later become, with a few notable exceptions, an often exaggeratedly loyal Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, which had no inclination to acknowledge its embarrassing origins. Others of Cromwellian descent kept equally quiet, though Charles Kickham had a heroine in a short story set in the time of Grattan's Parliament and the United Irishmen, whom he called "the fair Cromwellian maiden". Transcending conflict requires a deeper understanding of the past, warts and all, and lifting ourselves with difficulty over it, not a glib or complacent revisionism. Ó Siochrú's book, and his forthcoming TV series, will be of considerable assistance in that.

• Dr Martin Mansergh, TD, is Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and for the arts, and author of The Legacy of History for Making Peace in Ireland (Mercier, 2003)