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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 73

There’s one more sad story to tell before I get ready to leave these shores, and that story has Wexford at its centre. As I walk along the bustling streets and fishing boat quays of this friendly town, there is little to show of events about as dreadful as any witnessed on these islands in the last thousand years.

In 1649 Wexford was the site of a second massacre in Ireland in the space of a month. The terrible brutality of the massacre at Drogheda is well known and justified by historians on the grounds that it was, in line with the rules of battle in the seventeenth century, and that it was intended to save bloodshed later on. It was the same moral argument that was used in dropping the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945. It was agreed that it was a terrible thing to do, but it is also conceded that it shortened the war and saved maybe a million American and Japanese lives. It sent out the massage that we have a fearsome fighting machine and if you don’t surrender, this is what will happen. The action at Wexford didn’t shorten any war and it led on to enormous loss of life.

Wexford was different from Drogheda on a number of points, though the scale of the massacre and the inclusion of many innocent civilians is on a par. Over two thousand men women and children were put to the sword. An eye witness* spoke of how the English soldiers used children as human shields to reach the surrendering Irish. One young woman was ‘saved’ from the crypt of the church  (hundreds were seeking sanctuary), where she was found taking refuge. A gallant English soldier carried her outside where she was run through by another soldier. Our hero simply robbed her of her money and jewels and threw her, still alive, over the works.

Negotiations for surrender were ongoing at the time of the first killings and it is felt that either Cromwell lost control of his soldiers or he chose to turn a blind eye to what was happening. If we continue the analogy with the second world war, then Wexford is the second bomb, the one dropped on the city of Nagasaki after, by many accounts, the Japanese military command had already agreed to surrender. One massacre sends out a ferocious message. Two is, in the words of Cambridge professor of history, John Merrill, altogether, “more problematic”.

In strictly military terms the results were mixed. Some towns did surrender without a fight. Others fought on all the more strongly reasoning that there is no point in surrender to an army hell-bent on wholesale slaughter. The town was totally destroyed. The port, which had been home to a fleet of privateers who had caused English shipping a great deal of harm, was burned to the ground.

I recall a conversation in County Clare during a previous visit. It was in the 1980s. Before the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. I was there with a guitar and tin whistle to visit friends and to make some music in the bars of Doolin and Lisdoonvarna and on the island of Inisheer. I had played very little having been overwhelmed by the vastly superior musicianship and folk knowledge of the boys who ran the sessions. There were a smattering of Germans and Americans and a whole host of Dutch folk. For the most part though, they were Irish, and a good number were Clare born and bred. For most of my visit all was well and a gauche young me presumed that my friendly love of all things Irish, and a solid working class pedigree, would help me to fit in. And then I met Peadar. For a while I thought he didn’t like me.

“Look you English c***!” (I might have some reason behind my thinking) “Just because you know a few Chieftains’ songs and you’ve read f***ing Ulysses doesn’t mean we like you.”

I’d drunk two pints of Guinness over and above my coherence level and, though this left me unable to defend myself, it gave me the appearance of having the grace to accept what was coming at me. What was coming at me wasn’t as personal as it sounded. It was directed at my race; my Englishness.

“We’ve had eight hundred f***ing years of you all coming over here, knowing what’s best, taking what you like and leaving f*** all behind for Paddy. We’ve had it up to here with your Strongbow and your Pale and that tw** Cromwell.”

It went on for a goodly while. He’d said it before and I heard him giving it to another whey-faced fellow from Surrey a couple of days later.

My friend Laurence left me to sit on the skewer for a while and then jumped to my defence.

“Oh, you got the wrong Englishman here Peadar. This one is from many generations of the poorhouse, the workhouse and the begging in the street. I’ve met his grandmother, grand woman, still drinking her tea from a jam jar and waiting for yesterday’s rolls from the bakery.” It was all lies but Laurence liked words to fit the occasion. Someone began beating the rhythm of a reel on the bodhran , the tension lifted and we were all soon clattering through ‘The Gravel Walk’.

The reason why I remember it now is the mention of the word Cromwell. Irish readers are all too aware of why the name and the man is hated all over the island. We English are sometimes a little over-protected from our history when that history happened across the sea. Cromwell is a name to get a debate or two going in a Derbyshire pub or a  College seminar room in Norwich. The debate would concern his military success with his New Model Army, his lasting contribution to democracy and limiting the power of the monarch (in his case by having one beheaded). The thing most known about him in this country is that he told the painter Peter Lely to “paint me, warts and all.”

Lely did but English historians often tend to use a little blending powder on Cromwell’s time in Ireland.

I recall another conversation when, as an 18 year old I’d stayed over at a friend’s house, and while his Irish mother was serving up a generous breakfast, I asked her about why the Irish seemed to hate Cromwell. She came from County Wexford. She simply replied, “We don’t talk about that devil in this house.”

It was the end of the conversation and the beginning of my curiosity.

You can generally tell which side the historian is on when telling of Cromwell’s time in Ireland. If the casualty figures are outrageous but accompanied by discordant words like, ‘merely’ or ‘only’, then you are reading an English friendly version. If the figures are three times as many , then you are getting the Irish side.  We don’t have exact figures but we are getting closer. According to Dr Padraig Lenihan of the University of Limerick, “The human cost was enormous. Between one fifth and one quarter of the civilian population perished in the years 1649, 1650, 51, 52 and into 1653. That is Cromwell’s legacy”

The figures are not disputed. When you add to these figures, which match statistically the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s, a further one hundred thousand Irishmen taken to the Americas as slaves (bonded servants), and thousands more who were obliged (under threat of death) to leave for Holland, France and Spain, the devastation is frightening. Catholics were forbidden to have land rights and many were removed to Connacht and Clare. The saying of Mass was prevented and a scorched earth policy led to terrible famine and the destruction of crops and arable farmland.

Cromwell’s actions were motivated by an enormous feeling of doing God’s will combined with a hatred of Catholicism and the Irish. He wanted to punish the ‘heathens’ for massacres he believed had been committed on Protestants in the north in 1641. And he wanted to prevent Ireland becoming a friendly nation with England’s enemies. At that time this largely meant Spain.

Whatever the justifications or the motivations, the legacy has been one of hatred and discontent. According to John Merrill, “The biggest single reason for problems in Ireland and for problems between Britain and Ireland ever since.”

*for further eye witness evidence see Paul Johnson A Concise History of Ireland