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Fintan O’Toole: Impossible to think of Cromwell in Ireland without acknowledging catastrophe

Cromwell had the intelligence to understand the need for doubt but not the capacity to practise it

When I was 15, I was watching television at home in the way most people did back then: together. On the screen in the corner of the little livingroom was a figure who would never get to present a major 13-part series now: a small man, balding and bespectacled, delivering long monologues about the history of science in Polish-accented English. He was called Jacob Bronowski and he was presenting his BBC series The Ascent of Man.

Bronowski was dealing with the destructive power of illusions of certainty: “the assertion of dogma that closes the mind” to human suffering. He was speaking over images from Auschwitz: an oven door, a tangle of discarded spectacles, the photographs of murdered Jews.

And then we saw him walking towards the shallow swamp where the ashes of millions of people – including many members of his own family – had been dumped. He edged slowly into the water, bent down and lifted a lump of wet, black ash towards the camera.

As he did so, he was still addressing us: “In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.’” At which point, my grandfather let out a low groan, an inarticulate noise of the kind we emit involuntarily when we are smacked on the head.


This was a strange moment for Irish people who were watching TV that night. There was a cognitive dissonance between what we were seeing – an indelible image of the results of zealotry – and what we were hearing: that name Cromwell.

Perhaps no two syllables trigger so visceral a reaction in Ireland. Cromwell still haunts the landscape. Point to a ruined church or castle and someone will tell you that it was destroyed by Cromwell, even if, as is usually the case, it wasn’t. As WB Yeats put it: “You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go:/ Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew”.

In her recent study, The Devil from Over the Sea: Remembering and Forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, Sarah Covington points out that in the files of the Irish Folklore Commission, assembled principally in the 1930s, Daniel O’Connell is the only historical figure mentioned more frequently than Cromwell.

What made that sequence in The Ascent of Man (still one of the greatest in the history of television) so disorienting for us in Ireland was that Bronowski was quoting Cromwell, not as an example of, but as proof against the zealotry that “turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of … tortured ghosts”. He did not know – why should he? – that in one small corner of Europe he was summoning a different nation of tortured ghosts.

I thought again of Bronowski’s film this week when I had to do a rather strange thing, which was to help to launch at Trinity College Dublin, jointly with the British ambassador Paul Johnston, the magnificent new three-volume edition of The Letters, Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell.

It remains impossible to think of Cromwell in Ireland without acknowledging a catastrophe of historic proportions. The great English poet Andrew Marvell could acclaim the results of Cromwell’s short campaign in Ireland in 1649-1650: “And now the Irish are asham’d/ To see themselves in one year tam’d”.

But there was nothing tame about a time of horror in which Ireland lost perhaps a fifth to a quarter of its population through war, famine, plague, deportation and what would later be called ethnic cleansing. What such a cataclysm leaves in its wake is not shame but a blinding, incoherent rage.

Will we ever be able to see past it? Should we even try?

It’s very striking that two of the three editors of the second volume of the new Cromwell edition – the one that deals with the crucial years for Ireland – are the Irish historians Elaine Murphy and Micheál Ó Siochrú. Their involvement reminds us that, for good and ill, our history cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the archipelago.

That history, in its Irish dimension, has been a strange mixture of obsessive over-remembering and amnesia. Cromwell figures both too much and too little.

In the Catholic imagination, he is magnified as Satan. This is understandable because Cromwell saw himself in religious terms, as the instrument of divine vengeance on the Catholics who had murdered Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. The only vengeance the Catholic Irish could deliver in return was to turn his image upside down, making a devil of the godly destroyer.

But in the Irish Protestant imagination, Cromwell is oddly absent. The hammer of the papists ought to loom much larger than he does. But his disdain for Ulster (and Scots) Presbyterians makes him an uncomfortable hero. So, of course, do the small matters of republicanism and regicide. (I imagine that if you wanted to drive Cromwell insane, all you have had to do was to tell him that in 2022, Ireland would be a republic and Britain a monarchy.)

One of the very few Irish Protestant families that liked to claim descent from Cromwell (as it happens, wrongly) was that of the playwright and socialist agitator Bernard Shaw. It perhaps says something that Shaw twice announced (in 1903 and 1927) that he was writing a play about Cromwell – one that never appeared.

What Shaw did do, though, was to create the idea of Cromwell as the English Superman. In The Revolutionist’s Handbook, published as an appendix to his play Man and Superman, he hailed Cromwell as “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions”.

Perhaps he was more right than he knew. Shaw was not thinking of the Nazi Übermensch whose ‘achievements’ Bronowski was scooping out of the water at Auschwitz.

But the Supermen always lead us into fields haunted by tormented ghosts. The more-than-human requires its opposite: the less-than-human. Cromwell, who uttered that great plea that we should think ourselves mistaken, could not do that for himself.

This is why it matters that Irish historians should be so involved in the giving of a voice to Cromwell. For it is the voice, not of God, or Satan, or Superman, but of a man who had the intelligence to understand the need for doubt without the capacity to practise it.

It is not likely that those tormented ghosts will ever be laid to rest. Cromwell became one of our curse words, and curses linger in the air for many centuries. But perhaps the ability to treat him as history rather than as myth is a small step towards the lifting of the curse.