Saturday, September 13, 2014

Flashback, September 1649: Cromwell Enters Irish Infamy at Drogheda

Oliver Cromwell only spent nine months in Ireland, but during that brief time he became a byword for British cruelty and oppression. Much of this owed to the end of the siege of Drogheda, when his army killed wholesale. 

Much about the mass killing on September 12, 1649, remains, surprisingly, in dispute. The massacre, justified by the future self-proclaimed “Lord Protector” as in accordance with the justice of God, certainly exacerbated sectarian unrest in Ireland and spawned a national grievance against the British government as undying as the mid-19th century Potato Famine.

Proximity to England made Ireland a natural launching pad for rebels against the established order. In years past, this would have been the crown. But after 1642, when a faction against King Charles I seized control (thus becoming the “Parliamentarians”), the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny had aided the Royalists. Seven years later, with Charles seized and executed at Cromwell’s behest but with many still loyal to his son, the head of the “New Model Army” had turned his attention to Ireland as part of the campaign to subdue the last pockets of resistance to the new regime.

For an idea of the fate that Cromwell hoped desperately to avoid, I suggest you rent the Helen Mirren 2005 mini-series, Elizabeth I. In one scene, her counselors, asked about putting down a rebellion in Ireland, look like they’ve been asked to swallow castor oil, and the queen can’t help displaying her scorn. Anybody hoping to tame the island would be facing an emerald briar patch, as the queen’s bratty favorite, the Earl of Essex, was about to find out.

Having arrived in Ireland relatively late in the year, Cromwell felt the necessity to move rapidly and effectively—and unlike precursors such as Essex, he actually did so. His “New Model Army” was more open to men of ability than the Royalists and its members were more motivated by zeal (the religious kind--many of the men shared Cromwell's Puritanism, and  ministers of that faith were assigned to each unit). 

Because Cromwell insisted on being well-provisioned and financed even before leaving England, he would not be as likely to bog down in logistics. When it came time for the attack on Drogheda, the commander also possessed heavy artillery that would make short work of the town’s medieval walls.

Even with all these advantages—not to mention his more than three-to-one manpower edge, as well as divisions among the loose coalition of Protestant Royalists and Irish Catholics—the defenders at Drogheda fought vigorously. Annoyed that they refused his demand to surrender, Cromwell was downright enraged when the fighting went into its second day with members of his army even dying.

The result: at the end of the battle, following Cromwell’s orders of “no quarter,” not only had the beleaguered Drogheda garrison been butchered wholesale, but the killing had even extended to civilians.

At this point, apologists for Cromwell swing into action. Under formal rules of warfare at the time, they say, once a demand for surrender had been refused, combatants could not expect mercy if they lost. Moreover, because there was not much in the way of protest at the time, they insist that many, if not all, of the subsequent charges against Cromwell represent propaganda.

This last point is rather rich. A number of apologists are quick to point out that atrocities had been perpetrated against Protestants when Catholics had rebelled in Ireland eight years before. Surely there were a number of the latter. But the victors in Cromwell’s war had as much motive—and far more opportunity—to whip up propaganda than Catholics had. As Jane Ohlmeyer pointed out in an essay for A Military History of Ireland,  as few as 4,000 Protestants may have been murdered in the initial months of the 1641 rebellion—a far cry from the 154,000 claimed by the lords justice 10 years later.

In terms of the “propaganda”: The position of Irish Catholics in the two centuries after Cromwell can be likened to “the view from the bottom rail,” the phrase used by James West Davidson and Mark Lytle in After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection to describe former slaves still in the lower classes of society in post-Reconstruction America. These aged slaves were mistrustful of white interviewers dispatched by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s to ask them about life under the “peculiar institution.”

Irish Catholics had equal reason to fear Cromwell and the new colonial regime he helped institute in their land. They had seen neighbors slaughtered. They knew the same thing could happen to them if they agitated openly against the new regime. In addition, many were illiterate, so they could not have provided a written record, even had they wanted to do so. Whatever they remembered, then, survived in the form of folklore, songs, even coded language--the kind of forms generally regarded less trustworthy by historians.

The horrified countrymen who lived on after the depredations of the New Model Army could not, then, be transparent participants in one of the key questions following the end of the siege: How many died at Drogheda? Cromwell put the number at 2,000; later, Catholics claimed 4,000. Historians have tended to split the difference.

There are far worse ways of illustrating the chasm of miscomprehension on both sides of the Irish Sea than with an analysis of how the siege of Drogheda ended. If you are on the Irish side, words such as “butcher,” “massacre” and “genocide” spring to mind. If you’re on the other side of that body of water (or an Irish revisionist), you might say that we don’t know “exactly” what went on.

But in explaining away everything they possibly can, even to the point of offending common sense, the revisionists fail to take into account the words of Cromwell himself. In a letter written a week after Drogheda, he denies any order to kill civilians, but gives the game away when he expresses his true intentions: “This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.... it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise work remorse and regret.”

In other words: 1) The people of Drugheda had it coming because God was on our side; and 2) the massacre would cause so much fear that nobody would dare to rebel afterward, lest they meet the same fate.

A year and a half ago, while touring London, I spotted Hamo Thornycroft’s statue of Cromwell outside Westminster Hall. At first, I shook my head over the absurdity of Parliament honoring this theocrat who had dismissed it as easily as he had Charles I done away with. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it in keeping with the imperialism the nation was practicing when the statue was first unveiled in 1895.

I didn’t think anything else could make my blood boil as much about Cromwell until I read the assessment of the strongman-turned-dictator by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  For all his almost novelistic vigor as a prose stylist, it is difficult, if not impossible, to take this Victorian politician-historian seriously nowadays because of his blatant biases and his smug self-satisfaction. 

Even given all of that, it came as a shock for me to read Macaulay’s belief that Cromwell’s policy of slaughter, expropriation of land, and forced resettlement in Ireland—what we would term “ethnic cleansing”—didn’t go far enough:  “For it is in truth more merciful to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of generations.” 

In fact, Macaulay, an unabashed admirer of Cromwell (possessor of a “high, stout, honest, English heart”) was less concerned by the mass murder that occurred at Drogheda than by the “great depravation of the national taste [that] was the effect of the prevalence of Puritanism under the Commonwealth.”

If there is anything more shocking than mass murder, it may be a public intellectual justifying it. And then, Macaulay tops even this, as he considers likens the resettlement of English settlers to Ireland--a colonization project pushed by Cromwell--to a phenomenon occurring across the Atlantic Ocean in his time: "This tide of population ran almost as strongly as that which now runs from Massachusetts and Connecticut to the states behind the Ohio. The native race was driven back before the advancing van of the Anglo-Saxon population, as the American Indians or the tribes of Southern Africa are now driven back before the white settlers."

It's much easier to become "the first responsible European to espouse 'civilizing slaughter'" (as biographer Robert E. Sullivan of Notre Dame has called Macaulay) when you regard a subject people as innately inferior to a master race, as Cromwell did.

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