The victors were extreme in their desire to punish the losing side in a protracted civil war. They were determined to seize land from the losers and award it to soldiers who served in the victorious army. One moderate voice, Vincent Gookin, however, cautioned moderation. Total revenge would harm the economy. Mr. Gookin argued that allowances should be made for those who simply followed the leaders and the higher-born who helped start the civil war. No, this was not Reconstruction in the United States. It was the days and months after the end of the rebellion in Ireland that ended in 1653. The Irish Gaelic and old English forces fought for their freedom. They had been oppressed by the English for decades prior to 1641. The uprising started about the same time in several locales throughout Ireland.
There were always tension between the Irish Catholics and the Protestants. But, those tensions rose to fever pitch when the Puritans seized control of the Parliament and executed King Charles I in 1649. Vincent Gookin was a prominent Protestant in Ireland who fled to England during the long war. When the wars ended, he returned to Ireland and preached a more moderate punishment of the Irish Catholics and Old English Catholics. The Puritan radicals wanted to force all the Irish Catholics out of eastern Ireland into Connaught, the western most province. Mr. Gookin lived in Ireland. Most of the Puritans lived in England. The Puritans relied on stereotypes of the worst sort about the Catholics, convinced they were evil marauders.
As the wars wound down in Ireland, the Tories fought effectively throughout the island. “Tory” derived from the Irish word, toraigh, meaning to hunt or pursue. Bands of former soldiers roamed the countryside making war generally on the Parliament forces and sometimes on Protestant civilians. The Tories operated in large numbers, regiments of 1500 soldiers or more. Lacking artillery or siege craft, they could not assault large garrisons or towns. But, they were exceedingly effective. The Puritan response to the Tories was often collective punishment. The commanders would order entire populations into specific corralled areas in a county. Anyone (meaning any civilian) found outside of those reservations was to be “taken, slain and destroyed.” Echoing tactics which would be used in the Boer war in the 1890’s, the Puritan commanders would make war on the Catholic civilians.
Or, the Parliament forces would fine the residents of a barony for failing to warn the Protestant commanders about a Tory raid or attack.
The Puritan commanders imposed passage requirements. To enter or leave a town required a pass from the local Parliament force commander. During Reconstruction in the United States, Union commanders also imposed similar travel restrictions. The Puritans dictated that anyone found without a pass would be given no quarter. The wars of the 1640’s and 1650’s were vicious and brutal. Both sides committed atrocities. The rules of war were well developed by then in the Continental wars. But, in Ireland, both sides, especially the Parliament forces disregarded the fundamental principles of a rule based war. Oliver Cromwell to this day is reviled in Ireland for massacring defenseless towns after they surrendered to him.
Drogheda was the first such town he massacred. Cromwell was a skilled colonel of cavalry during the English civil war. By the time he entered the Irish version of the civil war in 1649, he was the trusted, mostly unbeatable army commander of the Puritan forces. He was also a true believer. He was convinced that the Papists, as he referred to the Catholics, were the devil incarnate. In the 1650’s, in the European wars, it was accepted that if a garrison surrendered without an agreement, the defenders could be executed. The decision to execute was up to the local commander. It was also a recognized principle of war that unarmed civilians would not be killed. But, In Ireland, those rules were often ignored. Gen. Cromwell believed he was acting for God when Drogheda surrendered without an agreement. The force defending Drogheda was an Irish Catholic regiment who were fighting in the name of King Charles I. Many of the leaders of the defenders escaped from the town before the Parliament forces could enter. The entire town was not killed. But, hundreds of non-combatant Irish Catholic residents of the town were killed by Cromwell’s men. Numerous Protestant residents were also killed.
A few weeks later, Cromwell did the same thing at Wexford town, killing after the surrender, all the men, women, children of the town “to a very few.” After Drogheda and Wexford, many towns would surrender, but they would always secure an agreement first. But, Gen. Cromwell had made it clear this Irish war would end soon, and it would end bloody. The last royalist army to surrender was in October, 1652 at Limerick city. This was the last “publicly entertained” army in the field. The Tories, however, continued.
The Tories operated throughout the otherwise Parliament controlled areas near Dublin. The last Tory unit of any size surrendered in October, 1653. Galway town secured an agreement for surrender. But, after the wars had ended the Parliament would disregard that agreement and seize the property held by Catholics, forcing many residents out into the country side. In 1660, when Puritans would lose their power and King Charles II would assume the throne, the English government would still seek retribution on the Tories and all soldiers who operated secretly or not “publicly entertained.”
When Oliver Cromwell left the island in late 1649, much of the hard work had been done. The ”Great Protector” had vanquished the largest armies in the field. And, the bitterness among Irish Catholics ran deep. In 1997, Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, paid a call to the new British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. But, Mr. Aherns stopped as soon as he entered the office. He saw a large painting of Oliver Cromwell on the wall of Mr. Cook’s office. The Irish prime minister refused to enter that office while thatpainting hung on the wall.
That is how most civil wars end. The bitterness and anger ran deep and wide. The United States civil war was different. Yes, the Radical Republicans wanted revenge. They believed the Southern fire-eaters had started the war. As with the Irish civil war, there were Republican moderates who simply wanted to bring the country back together. Andrew Johnson was largely impeached because he advocated a moderate course for Reconstruction. The Irish soldiers on both sides, Union and Confederate, knew their history. They all recalled Oliver Cromwell and his atrocities.
To this day, Oliver Cromwell is easily the most reviled name in Irish history. We are fortunate that our civil war truly did end when the last Confederate army surrendered. Oliver died in 1658. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Soon after his death, the Puritans lost power. Oliver’s body was dug up, tried for treason, and executed, even though he had long been dead. Even in England, many hated the man. For more about Oliver Cromwell from the Irish perspective, see this piece.
Michael O’Siochru, God’s Executioner (London: Bloomsbury House 2008), pp. 1, 195-200, 210-211, 240-241.