Reviewed by Martyn Bennett (History Section, Nottingham Trent University)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2000)
Nothing allegedly epitomises Britain's colonial policy in Ireland as much as the campaigns of Oliver Cromwell in 1649-1650. The unarguable brutalities of the New Model Army at Drogheda and Wexford seem to summarise not only the colonial experience, but also the attitudes of the man who was to become the leader of the British and Irish Republic, towards the Irish. For James Scott Wheeler the task here was not just to write an up-dated account of the campaigns of Cromwell, his immediate predecessors and his successors, but to rewrite a story "everyone knows." Cromwell's stay in Ireland is part of the myth of the relationship between Ireland and Britain and has informed the attitudes of many of the citizens of one and the subjects of the other.
This series of known truths had been re-examined in recent years. Recently Tom Reilly has questioned the spectre of Cromwell the ogre, following the example of University College, Dublin graduate Jason McElligott. In the inaugural edition (May 2000) of BBC History, Professor John Morrill questioned whether Cromwell should be considered a war criminal. Reilly and McElligott considered that Cromwell's reputation needed reassessment, and Morrill argued that treating Cromwell as a war criminal would be anachronistic. James Scott Wheeler's book comes at a propitious time; a full-length study of Cromwell's campaign, set against the context of the twelve years of war in Ireland is very much needed. The author points out that the principal full-length works on Cromwell's Irish campaigns were published in the last century, the twentieth century has seen some excellent brief studies, but nothing in the way of a full-length study had been undertaken (Reilly's book was in production as Wheeler wrote).
Cromwell in Ireland is a fast-paced military history. I was initially reminded of Charles Petrie's detailed volumes on Napoleon's campaigns written in the nineteenth century, but this was illusory. Petrie's work was immensely detailed and heavy of touch except for the battle descriptions; Wheeler's book never loses pace. The reader accompanies the leading participants around Ireland with grace and style.
The book begins with an assessment of the links between the wars across the British Isles, from the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in 1641 until 1648. This is an important element to the work. Cromwell's appearance in Ireland was not arbitrary, but the beginning of the final stage of a twelve-year war between the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny and the English/Welsh regimes and the Kingdom of Scotland. The second chapter begins to focus on this final phase, whilst the third details the preparations and Cromwell's arrival. More than this, Wheeler sets the scene for Cromwell's arrival by echoing the situation.
Perhaps the most important battle fought between 1649 and 1653 happened before Cromwell arrived in Ireland. At Rathmines, south of Dublin on 2 August 1649 Michael Jones defeated the army of the Confederation-Royalist alliance. This victory not only took pressure off the deep-water port of Ringsend where Cromwell would soon land, but also defeated the only major attempt to unite the various military forces in the alliance. The three succeeding chapters analyse Cromwell's campaign, from Drogheda until he embarked for England in late May 1650. The book does not end there, for three more chapters Wheeler continues his analysis of the war in Ireland, firstly under Cromwell's son-in-law, Henry Ireton, and then under Edmund Ludlow. The final chapter examines, briefly but effectively, the results of the conquest.
The structure may at first seem surprising. Of ten chapters, Cromwell really dominates the scene only in three. But this is deliberate. Part of the myth of Cromwell has been his centrality. For scholars of the mid-seventeenth century, Cromwell is always problematic. The early attempt to define blame and redirect recrimination in the aftermath of the Restoration was to shift Cromwell very much to the centre stage, not just for the period when he was the leader of the Republic (1653-1658) but for the entire civil war period (defined here as being 1641-1660).
In Ireland this tendency has been all the more resilient. Wheeler's book is concerned to demonstrate the illusory nature of this. A side-effect is that it also re-addresses Cromwell's brutality, not head on as Reilly, MacElligot and Morrill's article do but by clearly locating Cromwell's campaign within the context of the twelve years war. Drogheda and Wexford did witness horrible brutality; civilians and clerics were murdered alongside disarmed and defenceless soldiers. At Drogheda, Cromwell was responsible by commission. At Wexford, he lost control of his men. Terrible actions indeed but they sit alongside the brutalities of Lord Inchiquin, Sir Charles Coote, Henry Ireton and Lord Broghill, a collection of English, Anglo-Irish, and Gaelic Irish commanders who all behaved at least as barbarously. Wheeler is able to go beyond the military narrative, demonstrating why Cromwell was a man of his times with regard to his brutality and how the war linked into the politics of Charles I's three kingdoms and the emergence of the first British and Irish Republic. The account of Cromwell's humiliation by the brilliant Hugh O'Neill at Clonmel is particularly good. This is a great book, deserving of a wide audience, and James Scott Wheeler deserves praise.
. T. Reilly, Cromwell an Honourable Enemy (Dublin: Brandon Books, 1999); J. McElligott, J., Our Chief of Enemies (Dundalk, Ireland: Dundalgan Press, 1994).
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Martyn Bennett. Review of Wheeler, James Scott, Cromwell in Ireland.
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