The Story of Ireland – 1649 – 1658. Cromwell and Transportation.

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My  father, not normally given to blasphemy, would often be heard to say “Oh, Crumell!”, where another might have said “Oh, Damn it”. In fact, it  was sometimes spelt that way in the 17th. century, which gives a clue as to how they pronounced it.

But was Cromwell as bad as he has been made out? Certainly he was a genuinely religious man, if prejudiced. And it was a violent age. Recently a school of thought has emerged among amateur historians saying, basically, that Cromwell was not as bad as he has been painted.  The position of this school is that Cromwell in Ireland was ‘an Honourable Enemy’ in the words of Tom Reilly, the author of a book so titled (‘Cromwell, an Honourable Enemy’). The actions for which he is blamed are assumed by that author to be two massacres, but these were not unreasonable given the standards of the time, argues the school. Maybe. Let us look at the times.

The New Model Army. For a start, death, inflicted death, was commonplace. People were hanged for burglary and even adultery. Soldiers were hanged for all manner of crimes, from falling asleep on sentry duty to desertion. And that was in peace time. So the concept of violent death was accepted as normal. But in addition to this underlying acceptance, Europe had been at war for a generation. The Peace of Westphaila which brought to an end that horrific pan-European conflict known as the ‘Thirty Years War’ had been signed just the previous year. That war had started as a fight for supremacy between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire, and was fought with numerous incidents of barbarity and massacre. Both sides fought for their religions, a casu belli which has excused excess throughout history. During the Thirty Years War the Dutchman Hugo Grotius, generally regarded as the father of International Law, published his De jure belli ac pacis, arguing that individuals deserved protection against the ravages of war, and one of the war’s legacies was a desire by rulers, as well as their subjects, to make war less destructive. But that was an innovation, just the beginning on improvement.

Cromwellian soldier

In Ireland, the old ways still held sway. Basically, if a town surrendered before the walls were breached, its defenders were spared. If not, not. Cromwell’s New Model Army was perhaps the most sophisticated and effective killing machine in Europe in 1649. In a major break with accepted practice, all promotion within the army was on merit, and promotion could not be bought. One of the leading officers, for example, had been a butcher, an inconceivable degree of promotion anywhere else. Discipline was strict, and training thorough. It comprised Regiments of Horse, the élite troops of the army; infantry, who were divided into Pikemen and Musketeers, and – an innovation much in advance of their times – wore red uniforms. And artillery, new modern cannon which revolutionised siege warfare.  Preference was given to Puritans, and psalms were often sung when going into battle. It was a Professional army, the like of which had not been seen since the Roman legions.

The sacks of Drogheda and Wexford. Cromwell arrived with his New Model Army in 1649 to conquer Ireland. The Irish Catholic Confederacy had backed Charles I, their support exchanged for promises of reform when he won, and Drogheda was under an English Catholic officer, Sir Arthur Aston, from Cheshire. A Career soldier and strict disciplinarian, Aston had joined the Confederacy the previous year. Half his garrison of over 3,000 was English too. So in a sense this campaign did not start against the Irish per se, but against Royalists. Cromwell’s campaign was based on first taking Drogheda, a major town on the mouth of the River Boyne just north of Dublin. Cromwell was a cavalry man at heart, and besides he was in a hurry as he had much to do in England, so he paraded his army on the banks of the river on September 10th. and wrote to Aston the following note:

Sir, having brought the army of the Parliament of England before this place, to reduce it to obedience, I thought fit to summon you to deliver the same into my hands to their use. If this be refused, you will have no cause to blame me. I expect your answer and remain your servant, O. Cromwell.

The implication was quite clear  – he could surrender now, or else expect no quarter. Aston refused to surrender and, indeed, put up a stout defence. But the walls of Drogheda were no match for Cromwellian cannon, and the town was taken and it’s defenders massacred on September 11th. It is unknown how many civilians were killed. Aston is said to have been beaten to death with his own wooden leg by the soldiery who thought it had gold coins hidden in it. As Cromwell later wrote: “I do not think 30 of their whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in safe custody in the Barbados.” Deportation to the Barbados where the new Plantations were crying out for labour was an increasingly common way of dealing with unwanted humanity in the 1640’s.

A month later pretty much the same thing happened at Wexford, where the Governor was Sir David Sinnot, who was of Norman stock, descended from Strongbow’s Governor of Wexford, Sir Walter Sinnot. Again, the defenders of Wexford, like Drogheda, were more Anglo than Irish, but of course Royalist. Much of Cromwell’s reputation for ferocity and cruelty in Ireland was based on those two sieges. Towns like New Ross, Carlow and Kilkenny subsequently surrendered on terms. The following spring he mopped up the remainder of Munster before leaving for England from Youghal. This, though, although the end of Cromwell’s personal involvement in Ireland, was far from being the end of the end of England’s  involvement under the Cromwellian Government. The military campaign continued with a vengeance. By the middle of 1652 the New Model Army had twice the force under arms than had arrived with Cromwell, and even so they were meeting Irish armies which were numerically competitive.  This in spite of the fact that by that time some 34,000 Irish soldiers were reckoned to have gone abroad and enlisted in continental armies. It was a major conflagration, but the last Irish stronghold, Galway City, finally fell in 1652, and Irish organised resistance ended in April 1653 when they were defeated in Cavan.

To my mind it was not what Cromwell did during the campaign, but what his administration did afterwards, which explains the odium with which he is remembered. When Cromwell went home his son-in law General Ireton took over in Ireland until he died of a fever in November 1651. Henry Cromwell, one of Cromwell’s sons, took over from him. Both men continued to implement the policy known as the Cromwellian Settlement.

The Cromwellian Settlement. This time round, the whole business of Plantations was attacked with exceptional bureaucratic efficiency. First, a series of  detailed surveys was commissioned. The work was carried out under William Petty, an Oxford Professor of Anatomy and Physician-General to the army in Ireland who would later earn a knighthood as an economist. A man of many talents. The work actually produced the most complete survey of Ireland ever undertaken until then. As the diarist Evelyn commented: “The map of Ireland, made by Sir William Petty, is believed to be the most exact that ever yet was made of any country“.

This survey formed the basis for what was in effect the movement of all Catholics from the places where they had been born and bred, to Connacht. This movement of people, accompanied by the burning of their crops, became institutionalised. Catholic landowners were moved to Connacht where they were given land in compensation for their lost land further east. But all who had taken part in the 1641 rebellion of Rory O’More were to be executed if found, while all those who had been involved in the Irish Catholic Confederation were simply dispossessed, and thousands transported to the West Indies as ‘indentured servants’. They were given an option – ‘to Hell or to Connacht’. An exception was made for those willing to act as carriers of water and hewers of wood for the new Protestant owners of the land.

Then Bristol ‘traders’ were given license to chose men and women for transhipment to the West Indies and sale there as slaves. Over 60,000 people were sold as slaves in this way. And the rest were moved to Connacht, but once there, they could not live within a mile of either the Shannon River which effectively forms the eastern boundary of the area, or the sea. That mile was reserved for, and populated by, Cromwellian soldiers in recompense for their service – money for wages was short. Their erstwhile opponents, the Irish soldiers who had fought in the Confederate or Royalist armies, were allowed to leave the country. This they did in large numbers to find service in the armies of France or Spain. William Petty, estimated that 54,000 men took this option. Priests were not so lucky – bounties were offered for them, and they were executed when found. And all Catholics were, of course, barred from all public office.

Some of the new landowners were like Petty, who was paid with 30,000 acres in Kenmare, as well as £9,000. Many of the new settlers were soldiers, but another major source was people who were owed money by the English Parliament  – they were offered land in Ireland instead. And Protestant landholdings were also increased to the benefit of sitting Protestant landlords who obtained extensions to their holdings.

The population of Ireland, estimated at 1,500,000, before Cromwell, was reduced by two-thirds, to 500,000, at Cromwell’s death in 1658. Of these, 150,000 were Protestant.

This ‘Cromwellian Settlement’, in my view, was Cromwell’s real crime.

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