Cromwell in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IT is the figure of the great Regicide that looms up at this period like a huge colossus of power and wrath. The English nation caused Oliver Cromwell's body to be disinterred and hung in chains, and buried at the gallows foot. Even in our own day that nation, I believe, refuses to him a place amid the statues of its famous public men, set up in the legislative palace at Westminster. If England honored none of her heroes who were not good as well as great, this would be more intelligible and less inconsistent. She gave birth to few greater men, whose greatness is judged apart from virtue; and if she honors as her greatest philosopher and moralist the corrupt and venal lord chancellor Bacon, degraded for selling his decisions to the highest bribe, it is the merest squeamishness to ostracize the "Great Protector" because one king was among his murdered victims.

England has had for half a thousand years few sovereign rulers to compare in intellect with this "bankrupt brewer of Huntingdon." She owes much of her latter-day European prestige to his undoubted national spirit; for though a despot, a bigot, and a canting hypocrite, he was a thorough nationalist as an Englishman. And she owes not a little of her constitutional liberty to the democratic principles with which the republican party, on whose shoulders he mounted to power, leavened the nation.

In 1649 the Puritan revolution had consumed all opposition in England; but Ireland presented an inviting field for what the Protector and his soldiery called "the work of the Lord." There their passions would be fully aroused, and there their vengeance would have full scope. To pull down the throne and cut off Charles' head was, after all (according to their ideas), overthrowing only a political tyranny and an episcopal dominance among their own fellow-countrymen and fellow-Protestants. But in Ireland there was an idolatrous people to be put to the sword, and their fertile country to be possessed. Glory, hallelujah! The bare prospect of a campaign there threw all the Puritan regiments into ecstacies. It was the summons of the Lord to His chosen people to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land!

In this spirit Cromwell came to Ireland, landing at Dublin on August 14, 1649. He remained nine months. Never, perhaps, in the same space of time, has one man more of horror and desolation to show for himself. It is not for any of the ordinary severities of war that Cromwell's name is infamous in Ireland. War is no child's play, and those who take to it must not wail if its fair penalties fall upon them ever so hard and heavy. If Cromwell, therefore, was merely a vigorous and "thorough" soldier, it would be unjust to cast special odium upon him. To call him "savage," because the slain of his enemies in battle might have been enormous in amount, would be simply contemptible. But it is for a far different reason Cromwell is execrated in Ireland. It is for such butcheries of the unarmed and defenseless non-combatants—the ruthless slaughter of inoffensive women and children—as Drogheda and Wexford witnessed, that he is justly regarded as a bloody and brutal tyrant. Bitterly, bitterly, did the Irish people pay for their loyalty to the English sovereign; an error they had just barely learned to commit, although scourged for centuries by England compelling them thereto! I spare myself recital of the horrors of that time. Yet it is meet to record the fact that not even before the terrors of such a man did the Irish exhibit a craven or cowardly spirit. Unhappily for their worldly fortunes, if not for their fame, they were high-spirted and unfearing, where pusillanimity would certainly have been safety, and might have been only prudence. Owen Roe O'Neill was struck down by death early in the struggle, and by the common testimony of friend and foe, in him the Irish lost the only military leader capable of coping with Cromwell.[1] Nevertheless, with that courage which unflinchingly looks ruin in the face, and chooses death before dishonor, the Irish fought the issue out. At length, after a fearful and bloody struggle of nearly three years' duration, "on May 12, 1652, the Leinster army of the Irish surrendered on terms signed at Kilkenny, which were adopted successively by the other principal armies between that time and the September following, when the Ulster forces surrendered."


[1] He died November 6, 1649, at Cloughoughter Castle, county Cavan, on his way southward to effect a junction with Ormond for a campaign against Cromwell. He was buried in the cemetery of the Franciscan convent in the town of Cavan. A popular tradition, absurdly erroneous, to the effect that he died by poison—"having danced in poisoned slippers"—has been adopted by Davis in his "Lament for the Death of Owen Roe." The story, however, is quite apocryphal.