I doubt that TCD historian, Micheál Ó Siochrú, and former television presenter and Conservative MP, Gyles Brandreth (he of the funny jumpers) would think that they had much in common.
But there I was reading Micheál Ó Siochrú’s fascinating new book, God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland, and up pops Gyles on the One Show on BBC1 with his little contribution to mark the 350th anniversary of the death of Cromwell.
Fascinating as Brandreth was — apparently Charles II had Cromwell’s corpse dug up, hung and beheaded — I am happy to report that Ó Siochrú’s book offers a lot more detail on Cromwell’s deeds.
Ó Siochrú recounts a very telling incident in which former Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, Bertie Ahern, visited the British Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, on a courtesy call. Ahern refused to stay in Cook’s office because there was a portrait of Oliver Cromwell hanging on the wall and would only return once the portrait was taken down.
Ahern is quoted as referring to Cromwell as a “murdering b*****d”. Ahern’s reaction to Cromwell is undoubtedly how a lot of nationalists feel about him. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland, which involved the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, are still part of nationalist folk memory.
Ó Siochrú’s argument, that Cromwell conducted a “campaign of terror” against Irish Catholics, will certainly chime with many nationalists.
Some might think it astounding that Cromwell’s campaign can still arouse such passion 350 years after Cromwell’s death. Having read Ó Siochrú’s account of those bloody times, however, it is not in the least surprising that they do. Old wounds run deep.
Ó Siochrú has produced a first-class study and it is well worth reading. You will undoubtedly have a better idea of the man and his times and, yes, our own.
As Ó Siochrú concludes: “Cromwell was no monster, but he did commit monstrous acts. A warrior of Christ, somewhat like the crusaders of medieval Europe, he acted as God’s executioner, exacting revenge and crushing all opposition in many ways, therefore, he remains a remarkably modern figure, relevant to our understanding of both the past and the present, somebody to be closely studied and understood, rather than revered or reviled.”
To use a cliché, if you only buy one history book this year ...