Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Drogheda and the Curse of Cromwell

Drogheda and the Curse of Cromwell
By Adrian McGrath


A statue honoring a bigot and mass murderer stands next to the House of Commons in Westminster in London, England. The fact that this criminal (who was never brought to justice or even officially charged with a crime) still has a place of high regard -- standing next to the very seat of government of Britain, placed there in 1899 during the Victorian Era -- shows us why this story of mindless hatred and atrocities must be told again and again. Never forget his crimes.

Massacre at Drogheda, Ireland, 1649
(Wikipedia)


Although his brutality and war crimes occurred 400 years ago, they had a profound and lasting impact on the Irish -- especially Irish Catholics whom he hated -- and affected the history of the Irish who eventually came to America. Beyond this, the story of his prejudice and injustice should serve as a warning to people everywhere and in all times of the terrible consequences for humanity of pseudo-religious fanaticism, blatant bigotry, and hate.


And can anyone honestly answer this question: Why does this statue to Oliver Cromwell, such a morally depraved and grotesquely intolerant killer, still stand next to the very house of government often referred to as the “mother of parliaments?”


The story begins during the English Civil War when the monarchy of England was at war with the Parliament of England. In this struggle which consisted of a series of wars with many players from 1642 to 1651, the Parliamentary side prevailed. Oliver Cromwell, who began as a fairly unknown member of Parliament ended up as virtual dictator -- called Lord Protector -- of Britain.
His highly trained and well equipped fighting force, called the New Model Army, was successful in battle time and again.


Cromwell began his political/military career in response to the tragic deaths of Protestants in Ireland at the hands of some misguided Irish Catholics during the Rebellion of 1641 where about 5,000 Protestants died either directly from war or even deliberate massacre or indirectly from homelessness or starvation.  An infamous mass killing occurred in the north of Ireland at Portadown in Armagh in November of 1641. About 300 or fewer Protestant civilians were murdered, many forcibly drowned in the cold River Bann. One witness put the number at 100, however. Whatever the number, it was clearly a case of murder and an atrocity.

The Irish were rebelling against something called “The Plantation.” This was a land-grab process which King Henry VIII began, confiscating land owned by Irish Catholics and giving it to Protestants loyal to the British. The stealing of the Catholic lands continued with other English rulers including Queen Elizabeth and on and on to Oliver Cromwell. Land was given to English and later Scottish Protestants, and the Irish Catholics were driven away.


Land in those days was not merely where one lived but also was the means to survival in an agrarian or agricultural society. Land was everything.


Cromwell took the news of the deaths from the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and greatly exaggerated them to the English people, claiming that the Irish Catholics had murdered 150,000 or more. Such a claim was completely false. He then used this exaggeration as an excuse to lay waste to Catholic Ireland in his invasion of 1649 to 1650. (He, of course, did not mention the number of Irish Catholics who had been killed or who suffered under English tyranny over centuries.)


The forces opposing Cromwell in Ireland in 1649 were a mixed bag. There were rebelling Irish Catholic gentry and Irish Catholic peasants, and elite English Loyalists, who were often Catholic, who supported the British monarchy, and Protestants who were loyal to the monarchy. As the old saying goes: An enemy of my enemy is my friend.


Some of the Irish peasants would probably have even favored Cromwell’s views on protecting the rights of commoners; but his religious intolerance, racism, and brutality against the Irish would quickly change their minds.
Statue of Oliver Cromwell
Westminster, London, England
(Wikipedia)



Cromwell landed in Dublin in August of 1649 with 17,000 troops. His first great atrocity occurred at a fortress town 30 miles north of Dublin called Drogheda (pronounced by the Irish as DRAH ha da.) On one side was an odd coalition of the Irish Catholic Confederation together with the English Royalists, loyal to the King. On the other side was Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan Army. (The Puritans originally wanted to “purify” Roman Catholic influences from the Church of England. Cromwell wanted to eliminate Catholicism.)


Cromwell demanded the surrender of Drogheda, but the enemy commander, a man named Sir Arthur Ashton, an English Catholic, refused. Cromwell then attacked the fortified town and conquered it believing himself to be an instrument of God. Ashton was killed along with thousands of other soldiers and civilians -- no quarter being given by Cromwell. No serious effort in distinction was made between soldier and civilian.


The historian Seumas MacManus in his authoritative work called The Story of the Irish Race says that Cromwell in effect incited his troops to atrocious violence by placing with them Puritan preachers who openly hated Catholicism. The slaughter in Drogheda went on for three days.


Cromwell himself wrote a report back to Parliament stating, referring to his soldiers,, “I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town.” He went on to write, “... and that night they put to the sword about two thousand men.” Cromwell added, “It has pleased God to bless our endeavor at Drogheda … I believe we put to the sword the whole number … and now give me leave to say how this work was wrought. It was set upon … by the spirit of God.” (See MacManus above, p. 425, where Cromwell is quoted.)


Crowell’s men killed some of the enemy who had laid down their arms and surrendered. Cromwell’s men sacked Catholic churches and even burned out the steeple of St. Peter’s Church.


Some prisoners were taken alive and were sent as slave labor to the Barbadoes, the British Caribbean colonies where sugar cane and other spices were grown. Some English Royalist officers were beheaded, and their heads were displayed on pikes. Reportedly, hundreds of civilians died.


Many prisoners were sent as virtual slaves to British colonies in America. Cromwell wrote a letter to John Bradshaw, president of the Council of State (the new executive branch of the English government replacing the king), recorded as September 17, 1649, and said: “I do not think that thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives, those that did are in safe custody for Barbados.” Cromwell added, addressing Parliament, “The soldiers in the other tower [a defensive position in Drogheda] were all spared and shipped likewise for the Barbados.” Some prisoners were most likely sent as slave labor to the Caribbean island called Montserrat, where Irish descendants live to this day.

Part of the reason for Cromwell’s savagery at Drogheda was his racism against the Irish, his pseudo-religious bigotry against Catholics (and even some Anglicans), and his hatred of Royalists. But there was another reason: Cromwell wanted to use the massacre as a warning to other Irish cities and fortifications to surrender quickly or become like Drogheda. Cromwell wrote the following to Parliament: “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God on these barbarous wretches … it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions …”


After Drogheda Cromwell went on to commit other atrocities in Wexford notably, and across Ireland. Adding to the prejudice against the Irish, wild stories were contrived that the Irish were not really human and were, in effect, animals with tails. MacManus notes in his book (see above at page 426 footnote 6) that Cromwell's soldiers stated upon capturing some of the Irish that they had tails several inches long. Of course, this was totally false and complete nonsense either the result of self-delusion or a deliberate lie to dehumanize the Irish. It is much easier to oppress and kill an enemy who is not really human.


But the destruction did not stop there. While some Irish soldiers, mainly professional soldiers, whom Cromwell could not defeat or capture were given a deal whereby they could leave Ireland and join the armies of certain foreign lands (these Irish were known as the “Wild Geese”), others were driven westward across the Shannon River to to be trapped on the least hospitable lands for agriculture in the province called Connaught (also spelled sometimes as Connacht).

 For Oliver Cromwell, the majority of the Irish could go “To Hell or Connaught.”  And that expression has gone down in infamy in Irish history. Cromwell allowed many of the Irish peasants to remain east of the Shannon to provide labor for the new conquerors. He hoped that with their Catholic Gaelic leaders gone and the Catholic clergy killed or exiled, these simple people would eventually side with him and support his interests, even converting away from Catholicism. Cromwell, of course, was wrong. The Irish -- or most of them -- remained loyal to Ireland and Catholicism and simply hated Cromwell in return.
Connaught (in green), the west of Ireland
(Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)



The results of this Cromwellian invasion of Ireland were many. The chief physical result was the destruction of the old Gaelic, Irish Catholic rule in Ireland. After Cromwell the power in Ireland was English and Protestant. But … Cromwell failed to eliminate the Irish or their beliefs. And although Ireland would not gain independence until the 1920’s, almost three hundred years after Cromwell, the Curse of Cromwell -- the injustices, murders, and horrors he was responsible for -- instead of suppressing the Irish to nonexistence, backfired, and simply encouraged future Irish rebels to remember and fight harder.

Much like in American history with the expression “Remember the Alamo,” the Curse of Cromwell only provided the impetus for more Irish rebellion and fighting.


Sources and further reading: TV program called “Cromwell: God’s Executioner” by The History Channel and RTE (Ireland), Michael O’Siochru, Tile Films, 2008; Book review of “God’s Executioner” by Michael O’Siochru in The Guardian newspaper, “The face that haunts Ireland’s history” by Finton O’Toole, 2008, at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/aug/24/history; Wikipedia article on the “Siege of Drogheda” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Drogheda#Massacre; News article called “To Hell or Barbados” Feb 18, 2009 by Independent.ie (Drogheda Independent, Ireland) http://www.independent.ie/regionals/droghedaindependent/lifestyle/to-hell-or-barbados-27131463.html ; Wikipedia article on the English Civil Wat at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Civil_War#Ireland ; Wikipedia article on Oliver Cromwell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Cromwell ; The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus, The Devin-Adair Company, New York, 1921, esp. pp 423 to 427. Ireland: A Terrible Beauty by Jill and Leon Uris, A Bantam Book, 1976. The photo of Oliver Cromwell’s statue is from Wikimedia Commons and can be found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oliver_Cromwell_statue_Parliament_Square.jpg;
The public domain artwork of the Massacre at Drogheda can be found at Wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons) at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Massacre_at_Drogheda.jpeg; Map of Connaught (Locator Map of Connacht) is from Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Connacht_locator_map.svg ; Wikimedia article on Portadown Massacre at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portadown_massacre

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