Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: God's Executioner

The name of Oliver Cromwell has always been a controversial one in Irish history and society, famous or infamous for the nine months he spent on this island in 1649 - 1650. The horrors of Drogheda and Wexford, as well as many smaller local incidents mean that, for so many reasons, Cromwell's visit has never been forgotten. In this recent book, Micheál Ó Siochrú, a history lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, re-examines the record of Cromwell, re-assessing his impact on Irish history.

The research is first class, with carefully laid out records of Cromwell's travels and actions while he was in Ireland in what was, to be fair, a complex and confusing time in the history of this island. Following the Rebellion of 1641, a number of different interests emerged, each trying to assert itself and control Ireland, while Britain was engulfed in Civil War between the King and Parliament. Between the Old Irish, the Old English, the Ulster Planters (some of whom were, at different times, either Royalist or Parliamentarian), the political landscape was more fragmented than a clusterbomb. Ó Siochrú patiently explains the situation, keeping readers up to date on developments as they happened, as well as the motivations of the various factions. At one stage it was interesting to read that the Catholic Bishop of Clogher, old Heber McMahon (who is honoured by the local GAA club in Brookeborough) was fighting on the side of the English King!

The main focus is, of course, on Cromwell, and in an opening chapter there is a very good introduction to the man, and how he emerged on the political scene when the Parliament became regicidal. There were some interesting comments on religion, including this on his conversion: 'Famously, he suffered some kind of nervous breakdown or spiritual awakening, and emerged from this experience a committed Puritan, one of the elect.' While the purpose of the book isn't religious, it was interesting that these were the possible alternatives - nervous breakdown or spiritual awakening. Later, it is observed that God's will appeared to be 'the justification for anything he wished to do.'

There is a lot of page space given to the incident at Drogheda, where Cromwell stormed the town, killing man, woman and child. What has, mostly, been forgotten, is that Drogheda was a garrison town, containing a large number of English and Irish Protestant soldiers on the Royalist side, and while this was the main target of the Cromwellian advance, it appears that the town's inhabitants suffered the same fate as the garrison - unmerciful death. The accounts from the time are carefully reported, weighed for inevitable bias, and presented faithfully, leaving the reader to decide on the conviction or otherwise of Cromwell.

But there was more to Cromwell in Ireland than just that day's action at Drogheda. The remainder of the book follows Cromwell through the rest of his nine months in Ireland, and the wider Parliamentarian campaign against the Royalist and/or Catholic forces arrayed against them. It was interesting to read how military campaigns worked in the 1600s, and there are plenty of details about life in early modern Ireland, and the Tories (the guerilla force which was the scourge of Cromwell's forces).

The book is not just for 'geeks' (the description proffered by my wife when she saw my choice of reading on our recent trip to New York!), but for all who may have an interest in Irish history, or a fascination with Cromwell. While some history books may be dull and dusty, this is not one of them. I really enjoyed this book, and perhaps you will too.

1 comment :

  1. One of the quirks of history is that the Cromwellian campaigns saw two bishops of Clogher fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. The Roman Catholic bishop, Heber MacMahon, was general of the rebel forces after the death of Con O'Neill. After three months however, he was defeated at Scariffhollis near Letterkenny and taken prisoner. The bishop was hanged on the Broadmeadow, Enniskillen, then beheaded and his head impaled on a spike at the Castle in 1650. His Church of Ireland counterpart, Bishop Henry Jones, was scoutmaster of Cromwell's army, and later presented the book of Kells to Trinity College.
    From the cache of the Diocese of Clogher Macartan 1500 website