War is not the best way of settling differences; it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you. — G. K. Chesterton

Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead




The Curse of Cromwell

The conflicting parties united for the moment to meet the general, who came as a soldier of God to take vengeance on God's enemies.

Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan of the sternest type, high-principled, upright, hard of judgment. With him came the soldiers he had drilled into an almost invincible army. They were fresh from conquest in England and their minds were intent on making the rule of Parliament avail against both Papists and Malignants, as men were called if they supported the doomed king's family. Ireland must have seemed strangely chaotic and turbulent to Cromwell's "Ironsides." They looked scornfully at the quarrels rending different parties, and saw that the new alliance could not last.

In all Ireland only two towns had declared for Cromwell when he first set foot in it—Dublin and Londonderry. The first blow Cromwell struck at Drogheda, a garrison Ormonde had believed impregnable. The town was taken, the garrison put to the sword, and all in arms were slain. Some of the soldiers fled to St. Peter's Church steeple, which was set on fire by Cromwell's orders. Those who escaped death were shipped to the Barbadoes to work as slaves in the plantations. Sir Arthur Ashton, the governor, was one of the first to fall. "All the friars were knocked on the head but two."

Cromwell wrote military dispatches to England describing the siege of Drogheda, and with satisfaction as "a righteous judgment of God, on men who had been guilty of the Ulster massacres." He expressed the hope that it "would prevent more innocent blood being shed."

After the death of Owen Roe, Cromwell marched on Wexford. The townspeople would not have surrendered at his orders but Captain Strafford betrayed the Castle. The troops put ladders to the walls of the town, scaled them and rushed on the Irish in the market-place. It was a desperate skirmish, for the English gave no quarter. A party tried to escape by boat and were sunk and drowned to the number of three hundred. Some two thousand men had been killed when the town was given up to plunder. Cromwell reported that his soldiers "got a very good booty in this place."

Such ruthless measures struck terror into the native population. Town after town surrendered to the victorious general. Then the English sent out a fleet to drive Prince Rupert from the Irish coast and blockade the different ports.

In the winter, Cromwell rested so that his troops might recover from disease, caused partly by the moisture of the climate. He found it easy to obtain supplies from the country people, because he paid for what he got and punished his soldiers whenever they took anything by force. A man in his service was hanged for stealing a fowl from a peasant's cabin, and this served as a deterrent to the others.

In March, Kilkenny was besieged by a strong Parliamentary army. Quarrels had broken out in the Royalist ranks, and Hugh O'Neill, successor to Owen Roe, was hardly as brilliant a general. Sir Edward Butler held Kilkenny for eight days in spite of sickness in the garrison. The soldiers finally marched out with all the honours of war and the town capitulated to Cromwell.

Waterford resisted stubbornly and Cromwell was obliged to leave Ireland before he had conquered the garrison there. There was rebellion against the Parliamentary party in Scotland and there he marched in 1650, leaving his son-in-law, Ireton, as Deputy of Ireland. The war dragged on for two years before Waterford finally surrendered.

Ireton and Coote, who had helped to subdue Ulster, advanced against Limerick, defended resolutely by Hugh O'Neill. When this town was taken the rebels lost all hope. Ormonde could fight no longer for he was unpopular as a Protestant and had to leave Ireland before news was brought that Prince Charles had tried to win over the Scots by a declaration against Popery, the religion of his mother.

The plantation of the island began as soon as conquest was complete. Grants of land had been promised to the soldiers, whose tenure was secured by the banishment of natives. Punishment was meted out with the utmost severity to all who were suspected of any part in the massacre of Ulster. Sir Phelim O'Neill deserved his fate because he had brought shameful dishonour on his nation but many innocent persons suffered with him. Parliament did not believe in half measures. Death or banishment disposed of numberless Irishmen, who would have been in the way of the faithful Puritans, who succeeded to their territory.

The disbanded soldiers were so likely to be dangerous that they were shipped off to Spain, Poland and Austria, which were glad to have such recruits. Over 30,000 crossed the seas, leaving wives and children to a fate far more dreadful than involuntary exile. These were sent to the Barbadoes, where they began a terrible new life in slavery. The merchants of Bristol had dealt in human sale and barter when the first conquest of Ireland was begun. They sent over agents to seize Irish women and children, who would prove a valuable source of income. This horrible transportation was carried on as a regular business, delicate high-born ladies being taken with their tenants and servants, for the men engaged iii the work heeded no plea for mercy. Between six and seven thousand had already been transported when some English women were captured by mistake, and some limits had to be imposed on such transactions in consequence of the indignation that was felt by men who had not troubled about the hapless Irish.

The gentry had to leave their property before a certain date, which did not allow much time for preparation. In the middle of harvest, the drum sounded that was to send them into banishment. The penalty of death was to fall on any man found lingering on his estate after the order of banishment was issued. Winter advanced and the time of the journey advanced too quickly. There was every likelihood of famine if the new year's crop could not be sown. Even the Parliamentary soldiers, so ready in general to do their work, asked for more time that the exiles might gather together what was needful. A short respite was given to the sick and aged before the exodus, began. Across bad roads in wet, wild weather they tramped with the gloomiest forebodings of the life awaiting them in the waste lands across the Shannon. Stragglers were arrested and imprisoned in answer to the impatient demands of the adventurers, who would not wait long for their lands. The walled towns gave up a stream of emigrants, and people of English blood saw that Ireland was not safe for them. Merchants of Cork and Waterford crossed to foreign ports and carried on their trade while Galway, once the centre of a flourishing Spanish commerce, was bestowed as a gift on the citizens of Liverpool and Gloucester in return for men and money supplied to the Parliamentarians during war.

Dr Petty, physician to the Parliamentary forces, undertook the formal survey of Ireland. He received large grants himself which came back oddly enough to native possession when his daughter was married to the Earl of Kerry. The land was desolate indeed after one-third of the population had been expelled. Fields lay waste and so many wolves infested the land that a reward of five pounds was offered for the head of a full-grown wolf and two pounds for that of a cub. They came sometimes to the very walls of Dublin.

Old inhabitants still remained in spite of every precaution. Young and hardy men escaped into the woods, and took to the life of robbers. A price was set by government on the heads of these desperate "Tories." Bands of soldiers sent to capture them

soften adopted the plan of smoking them out of caves, as if they had been savage animals. Savage they undoubtedly became in time, and a continual source of danger to the settlers. Catholic priests, too, lurked in the country against the command of Parliament and were driven to strange shifts. Disguised in various costumes they led a hunted life for the sake of performing secretly the offices of their religion.

The plantation was a failure. No laws could prevent the constant intermarriage with the Irish who remained. Many of these had taken the meanest service in their old neighbourhood rather than face the unknown privations of Connacht, where all inhabitants were divided from their former territory by a ring of armed men. Within forty years of the plantation of Ulster, children of Cromwell's soldiers were proclaiming the ill-success of the attempted banishment by tongues which showed ignorance of a single word of English.