Ireland was not an afterthought for Cromwell, but his urgent necessity since the very beginning. The Civil War began in Ireland, and it was finished here. History books following a linear narrative look at the Cromwellian invasion as a secondary campaign after the shouting but they miss the point: Cromwell fought all through England in order to get to Ireland.
The order of events and motivations gets jumbled as the ages pass. Lives, deaths, votes, decrees, battles – all can be put in strict chronological order, but the motivation is muddled. Those who were there, as Thomas Hobbes was, could provide a view of how it all unfolded.
The first rebellion was against Scottish bishops in 1639, but Ireland touched off the convulsion of the three kingdoms, in 1641. Rebels descended upon Protestant towns and slaughtered all they found: in Westminster, Parliament demanded action and for its own appointees to be put in command, as they did not trust the King – after all, the rebels claimed to be acting in his name and Queen Henrietta was after all a Papist. We can imagine the rising desperation in the Commons at fears that day by day more blood was being shed and nothing done; within months the breach was made.
Hobbes however looks further back: the breach between the rising middle classes and the King had been going on for years. In Behemoth he identifies several classes of men and their motivations – Papists, Protestant radicals, educated men misreading Greek and Roman ideas, the City merchants envying Holland, and men with nothing to lose. It weakened the authority of the Crown, and this weakness, Hobbes says, emboldened the Roman Catholic Irish lords to rise up. When they did, it burst open the breach in the other kingdoms.
From 1642, bloody war raged across England and Wales, a war each side had expected to be brief but which lasted for years. In all those years the Confederates controlled most of Ireland, doing their will, which to the imagination of the Protestant English, and possibly in reality, was a bloody one. By the end of the war in England in 1649, Cromwell was in undisputed command, and he turned at once to the business which had been tormenting for eight long years: Ireland.
Perhaps Cromwell thought the Irish campaign would be brief too, but it was two years of blood. Vengeance is an ugly word but unavoidable. Cromwell set foot in an Ireland divided by language and cultural attachment, and in territory as the Romanist Confederates had been kept out of much of Ulster, County Dublin and Cork, though the rest of the island was theirs.
The slaughters of 1641 were very much in mind, and the rolling back of English-inspired culture. He set out to terminate the illegitimate government of a cardboard cut-out state that was ruling what naturally is part of the single British-Irish nation, to defeat genocide (as we would now call it) and to de-Catholicise the island. It is a familiar motivation. That the majority still clung to the Church of Rome could only have been put down to the waywardness of the local lords, who would therefore be extirpated for the better edification of the people. Those still stubborn, not accepting the Gospel, would be driven beyond the Shannon and their places given to sounder men. In the event, more were killed by sword and famine and it placed a vital spark in a determination to resist reformation.
All that followed, followed logically. In our day it looks like vicious persecution and murder, and it felt like that at the time, but it was considered necessary by those who did it.
The war was brief compared to many that had torn at Ireland and brought a brutal peace after centuries of continual turmoil. The collective memory kept it running for centuries though: Flanders and Swann were not far wrong when the sang over-jovially “They blow up policemen, or so I have heard, and blame it on Cromwell and William The Third”. The retelling of grievance over generations, expanded with each telling, is a danger to conquerors and may blow up even three hundred years later.
In our day maybe it can subside. It is all seems so distant: the unleashing of deadly fury with religious zeal to defend, and then defeat, the Roman religion in Ireland – when that religion is now being freely abandoned by the descendants of those same Irishmen. What another generation will think, I cannot tell.
- How the war began
- Ireland bused, abandoned
- Cromwell and the parliaments
- Turbulent Parliamentarians: the Cromwell approach
- Cromwell despairs of Parliament again
- Military coup in Westminster
- Fall of the House of Cromwell
- Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England, and the Councils and Artifices by Which They Were Carried on from the Year 1640 to the Year 1660 by Thomas Hobbes
- Thomas Hobbes – Behemoth (Clarendon edition)
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
- Killers of the King by Earl Spencer
- Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Earl Spencer
- Charles I and the People of England by David Cressy
- Cromwell, Our Chief of Men by Lady Antonia Fraser
- Civil War London by David Flintham
- Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tom Connelly