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Oliver Cromwell painting

Oliver Cromwell: the most hated man in Irish history?

Image: Shutterstock

Ah, England. There’s a nation that nobody feels sorry for, ever. England is the anti-underdog, a country and culture synonymous with smug imperialism, casual colonial tyranny, and queuing. Endless queuing.

But is this fair? Why, precisely, does everyone hate the English? Al Murray is getting to the truth of things in his new show, which is helpfully titled Why Does Everyone Hate the English? He has his work cut out for him in the Ireland episode, which takes in religious battles, severed heads on sticks and – even more horrifyingly – the sight of Al trying his hand at Irish dancing.

And then there’s the inevitable, ominous subject of one Oliver Cromwell. The man who helped topple a king, and then embarked on a conquest of Ireland so savage that Cromwell is still regarded by many Irish people as a war criminal to this day. But has his name been unfairly maligned? Could it be argued he was actually justified (maybe, perhaps) in some of his most infamous actions?

The standard 'Bad Cromwell' summary of his exploits in Ireland goes something like this. After having killed Charles I back in England, Oliver Cromwell turned his greedy gaze to Ireland, which teemed with the Catholics he despised, and which he wanted to bring to heel. And so he set off with his army, cutting a bloody swathe through the country, ruthlessly slaughtering soldiers and innocent civilians alike. Take the bloody siege of Drogheda, for example.

Soldiers seeking refuge in a church steeple were burnt alive when the building was set alight

After a stand-off with the commander in charge of enemy forces there, Cromwell ordered the town to be stormed. Thousands were killed in the attack, including an unknown number of civilians. In one particularly gruesome moment, soldiers seeking refuge in a church steeple were burnt alive when the building was set alight. Cromwell recounted how he literally heard someone scream 'God damn me, God confound me: I burn, I burn.'

And as for Cromwell’s assessment of the whole confrontation? “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches,” he said bluntly. And worse was to come during his attack on the town of Wexford.

Here, while Cromwell himself was genuinely trying to negotiate the peaceful surrender of the troops stationed in the town, his own men abruptly launched an attack out of nowhere, in circumstances that have never been fully explained. What followed was basically a massacre of the townsfolk as well as the enemy soldiers, with Cromwell doing nothing to restrain them. Which is why many Irish people aren’t exactly won over by the 'But… But Cromwell didn’t give the order' defence.

Cromwell, a staunch Puritan, regarded Ireland as a dangerous and morally reprehensible bastion of Catholicism

Question is, can his conduct in Ireland be in any way justified? The context is important, and Cromwell didn’t just charge in out of a lust for power and blood. Ireland was, in many ways, a legitimate strategic target. Cromwell, a staunch Puritan, regarded Ireland as a dangerous and morally reprehensible bastion of Catholicism. On top of that, the Irish were in cahoots with royalist forces who still posed a real threat to the new republic Cromwell had helped create after the execution of Charles I.

Just as important were the memories of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, a handful of years before Cromwell’s conquest. This was an uprising of Irish Catholics against Protestant settlers, which soon turned brutal. One of its worst episodes was the Portadown massacre when numerous Protestant prisoners were marched to a bridge, stripped naked and cast into the freezing waters of a river to drown.

While the rebellion was undoubtedly brutal, a lot of anti-Catholic propaganda was also circulated in England afterwards, amping up the atrocities and even throwing in allegations of cannibalism. It was basically 'fake news', designed to inflame the hatred of men like Cromwell. He partly regarded his own actions as righteous vengeance against the 'wretches' who had killed the Protestant settlers.

The siege of Drogheda, though incredibly violent, could be regarded as obeying the rules of warfare at the time. That’s what some historians think, at any rate. Cromwell, to his credit, did send the enemy forces a letter promising that 'the effusion of blood may be prevented' if they surrendered. More generally, Cromwell also laid down rules of conduct during the invasion of Ireland, stipulating that his men should treat civilians with respect and that all food and supplies should be fairly purchased rather than simply plundered.

But, to many, Cromwell’s actions are still beyond the pale, even in the context of his savage times. After he left to attend to other matters, his forces tightened their grip on the country, pillaging towns and forcing Catholics from their land in an example of ethnic cleansing. The long, bloody process of colonising Ireland caused – directly or indirectly – the deaths of such a huge section of the population that the word 'genocide' has even been used. It changed the course of history, leading to turbulent relations with England for centuries to come.

So yes, it’s fair to say that – despite the counter-arguments and efforts at redeeming Cromwell’s actions by some historians – he will likely remain one of the great villains of history to the Irish. And yet another reason why everyone hates the English.