Dividing and conquering

Was Oliver Cromwell a cursed figure or a most beloved Briton? Jean Morley talks to Dr. Mícheál Ó Siochrú , author of God’s Executioner

Was Oliver Cromwell a cursed figure or a most beloved Briton? Jean Morley talks to Dr. Mícheál Ó Siochrú , author of God’s Executioner

Oliver Cromwell. Mentioning the name is like throwing a turnip to a herd of pigs. At best, expect some rambunctious snorting, at worst, a clash between the wildest of bores. Three hundred and fifty years since he last stomped Irish soil, the English parliamentarian still meanders into everyday life.

Voted one of the greatest Britons of all time by BBC television viewers in 2002, he has more recently resurfaced in rumours about Bertie Ahern. According to Stephen Fry, the former “Teflon” Taoiseach was so enraged by a portrait of Cromwell hanging in Robin Cook’s office that he refused to enter into negotiations with the British foreign secretary until the picture had been removed. With this ability to raise hairs on the baldest of men, Cromwell is naturally suited to the Irish media. Since the documentary series God’s Executioner was broadcast in September, the military leader has been re-examined, dissected in the letter pages of the nation’s newspapers, and filtered into the babble of talk radio shows. Dr Micheál Ó Siochrú is the man behind Cromwell’s conquest of the airwaves, the co-creator of the TV series and writer of the book upon which it is based. I meet Dr Ó Siochrú, who is also a lecturer in Trinity’s History department, to discuss the leader’s legacy, the problems of history and Bertie’s spontaneous attack of militancy. “Well he said it might not have happened exactly as I recorded,” Ó Siochru laughs. “Bertie explained that, while there was no walkout from Robin Cook’s office, there was an ‘exchange’ over the portrait, during which he made his views known in a forceful manner.” What exactly that entailed we can only imagine, but Bertie seems eager to endorse Cromwellian debate. Most recently, he presided over the Book launch of God’s Executioner, held in the Long Room last month. But what is it about Cromwell which arouses such passion? Dr Ó Siochrú’s book provides a myriad of possible answers, documenting the massacres of Cromwell’s nine-month campaign. Particularly brutal were the devastations of garrison towns in Drogheda and Wexford. Many of the victims were women and children, either killed outright or deported abroad.

But this veritable genocide, attributed to Cromwell, can be difficult for us to fully digest. Is there a chance that he acts as handy scapegoat, a man to be blamed for the ills of his time? Perhaps we need hate figures, Bushes or Stalins, to avoid actively interrogating entire regimes. “It’s funny, in a way I have been really overwhelmed by the Cromwell project. He really has survived as one of those hate figures, with an awful lot of what went on being dumped on his doorstep. But he was a most high profile military leader and that success has certainly elevated him. That kind of survival may show that, yes, people want to put a face on a whole series of events. We can talk about economic development and colonial expansion, use the most theoretical terms. They’re all ephemeral things, but put a face on it and you can say ah! It’s his fault! Cromwell’s been a victim of his own success in that regards.”

But nevertheless, to Ó Siochrú, Cromwell’s actions can never forgotten. “There is no excuse for what happened here, it’s a permanent blot on his political career. Even his strongest supporters have conceded that what happened on this island was pretty reprehensible. His acts were excessive and dishonourable, a clear contravention of what were understood to be the rules of war. Written conventions. A lot of the time, when somebody tries to be an apologist for Cromwell, they point out that the seventeenth century was a bloody time. But there’s a very simple answer to that. They had their own standards in those days and what happened was clearly a breach of those standards.” Even contextualisation itself as a risky business.

“Our information about Ireland at this time has become naturally selected, as it’s been burnt, lost, destroyed and stolen. The idea that we ever would have the full picture or that this is absolutely the definitive story is just impossible” If we’re wary of creating a context in which to judge Cromwell, perhaps we should look at how he judged himself. “Cromwell is a man troubled by his conscience. He knows that he’s stepped over the mark. We see this in the way he attempts to balance out his writings. He would send letters back to parliament, in which he would try to explain things away. However, all the while he was kept going by his fervent religious beliefs.” The idea of man using religious rhetoric to justify atrocities has an eerie resonance in recent times. Two weeks before the US elections, I’m tempted to ask the most obvious question. Before I can, Dr Ó Siochrú stops me, advising caution in drawing parallels between Cromwell and the political landscape today. “His beliefs keep him going and yes, you can see an awful lot of this in religious fundamentalists today, using God to justify their actions. Indeed there are those who point to a similarity of language between 17th century English fundamentalists and right-wing Republicans today. It’s always the Old Testament of course: an eye for an eye and all that. But we must be cautious in scripting parallels. Similarities are not always as direct as we think.” It seems Dr. Ó Siochrú is constantly concerned with a sense of balance, but when I suggest as much, the writer disagrees. “I would not even call it that; it is merely an attempt to lay out the sources. I try, as much as possible, to let them speak for themselves. Despite my own socio-political views, I want to lay down the facts. What I was trying to do was cut through the polemic of the last couple of hundred years to see what actually went on in Ireland.”

There must have been times when the evidence contradicted his views on Cromwell. “There are things in this book that I found difficult, things that I could not have, ever, expected at all; like the fact that quite considerable numbers of Irish Catholics ended up joining the New Model Army. Catholics fought for English parliamentarians during the war. I had never seen that written anywhere and discovered it only by reading the sources.” Given the complexities of the situation, it seems particularly important that Ó Siochrú present a composite picture.

But is TV the best medium for doing so? We’re all susceptible to the “Braveheart effect”, horrified into forgetting a wider set of events by depictions of burning villages. But this is not a viewpoint shared by Ó Siochrú, who points out the value of television to the modern historian. “What I was anxious to do with the TV series was to show the layers, I felt that we had to get Irish historians, English historians, whatever to give their very different viewpoints. At times they completely disagreed with my interpretation” Also, the medium of film allows interesting effects. “What takes an entire page to describe can be flashed on a screen within seconds.” It seems television audiences are not the Homeric slobs we might have believed, but have a genuine interest in history and politics. “Producers often say ‘Well we must get down to the lowest common denominator so that Joe Bloggs who does not know a thing about history can understand.’ Well, somebody who’s going to sit through two hours of a history documentary is going to have a basic interest. It’s possible to be a little more complex and a little more sophisticated in programme-making than people will let on.” So how then should we judge Cromwell? Should he be ripped out of history books for crimes to humanity? Or diluted by reference to his particular context?

Ó Siochrú’s book advises against an impassioned stance; “He is somebody to be closely studied and understood, rather than revered or reviled.” Our grannies might not agree, our hearts might beat against it, but it seems a most sensible piece of advice.