Arts & Books

Book review: The Irishman who thinks Oliver Cromwell deserves an apology

Author Tom Reilly insists Cromwell was a family man with a ‘high moral threshold’

Cromwell was Framed: Ireland 1649
by Tom Reilly, Chronos, £14.99

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Of Oliver Cromwell, Ireland’s pre-eminent historian Roy Foster once wrote: “Few men’s footprints have been so deeply imprinted upon Irish history and historiography.” It could be added, too, that no historical character has come to personify more English misrule and callousness in Ireland, not least within the nationalist narrative.

So it would take a brave soul to take to task the perception that Cromwell was villainy personified. It would be even braver for an Irishman to do so, let alone a native of Drogheda. But this has been the ambition of amateur historian Tom Reilly, who hails from the town that lives on in infamy, in which 3,000 men, women and children were butchered in 1649 at the behest of the future Lord Protector.

The fable of Drogheda, Reilly maintains, was created by Cromwell’s enemy propagandists seeking to “bind the various confederate/royalist factions together” and has been regurgitated over the centuries by Irish nationalists and republicans, and by the Church, each for their own means. Reilly dismisses the “non-primary, post-Restoration” sources of Church historians, with their “disreputable” motives and “baseless allegations”.

“To me, Cromwell was framed and I believe that this book proves it,” the author declares. “Therefore, I have a moral obligation, indeed I am duty-bound by history, to play my part in an attempt to overturn one of the greatest historical miscarriages of justice ever.”

Although the author concedes it likely that parliamentary forces would have killed, and probably did kill, armed civilians, “no prim­ary document whatsoever exists that prov­ides details of the deaths of persons not at arms”. As a consequence, “we, the Irish nat­ion, owe Cromwell an apology for dest­roying his reputation over the last 365 years”.

Reilly finds no recorded incident of strife between the military and civilian occupants of Drogheda in the two years preceding the 1649 slaughter. Rather, the New Model Army enjoyed “cordial relations with the civilian population of Drogheda”.

He also notes that, while in 1641 there were 3,000 people living in the town, in 1659 that number had risen to 3,500. “If the civilian inhabitants had been practically wiped out, it is very unlikely that within a 10 year period the town’s population would have replenished itself.”

When Cromwell arrived in Ringsend, Co Dublin, on July 15 1649, he was “warmly welcomed by both the civilian and military populations of Dublin”. Cromwell was a fair fellow who had nothing against the Irish as a nation.

On the contrary, on the march to Drogheda, when he discovered two of his men had stolen hens from an old woman, he had them hanged. “As for the people,” Cromwell once wrote, “what thoughts they have in matters of religion in their own breasts I cannot reach; but think it my duty, if they walk honestly and peaceably, not to cause them in the least to suffer for the same.”

Nonetheless, Cromwell was a foe of the Catholic clergy, whom he blamed for stirring the impressionable natives into insurgency in 1641. It was the Catholic Church that was to blame for the “horrid massacres”, as Cromwell put it, of that year.

The author has certainly received much attention from compatriots over the years for his attempts to rehabilitate Cromwell. Yet his revisionism would have been even more contentious, say, 50 years ago, when the nationalist narrative and the Church were mostly immune to criticism. Indeed, his invective against the Catholic Church is far from daring. It’s quite in keeping with the anti-clerical mood that has become voguish in the past 20 years in Ireland.

It’s true that history is always moulded and distorted for contemporary purposes, not least in Ireland. And it’s always valuable – imperative, even – to question orthodoxies, as Reilly has sought to do. Yet his demographic study of Drogheda is dubious.

In 1641, as he himself admits, Catholics outnumbered Protestants by five to one. In 1659, the undiminished population of the town was mostly Protestant. One can only assume that some ethnic cleansing and re-settlement occurred.

Cromwell was Framed can at times be tedious, pedantic and self-regarding, with much of it written in the first person. Reilly is also over-indulgent on his subject who, he concludes, “was tender towards children … a family man who had a high moral threshold … acutely aware of the folly that such action would be dastardly deeds that he clearly abhorred”.

Such an obsequious assessment of a man who “only” hated Catholics and killed armed civilians sails close to the kind of “he loved his mum” hagiography beloved of people who write about East End gangsters. Cromwell might not have been the butcher and bogeyman of legend, but he was an anti-Catholic religious fundamentalist, nonetheless. Still, for those interested in the subject, and what really happened in 1649, Cromwell was Framed is worth a peek.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/1/15)