September 17, 2015

Oliver Cromwell reviled in the annals of Irish history

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

No figure has been more hated by the Irish people than Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the fanatical and puritanical Lord Protector of England, who in 1649 led a most vicious genocidal assault on Ireland. His campaign was intended to wipe out the Catholic religion and consolidate English rule in Ireland. In particular, Cromwell’s assault was focused on the subjugation of the Catholic Norman-Irish aristocracy which had come to Ireland in the 12th century and after.

The most drastic aspect of the Cromwellian expedition was a concerted confiscation and destruction of food supplies, leading to the death from starvation of about 20% of the Irish population. 

Part of the Cromwellian campaign was to move the whole Catholic population to the western province of Connaught in order to make way in the three other provinces for new English settlers. Those who refused to go west were subject to death. Thus the war cry ascribed to Cromwell, “To death or to Connaught.” From this came the Irish curse—used in some places even today—“The curse of Cromwell be upon you.”

Cromwell’s hatred of Catholicism led systematically to the destruction of Catholic properties and churches. An account of the Cromwellian assault on Catholic faith and culture is most poignantly set out in a book titled, The Diocese of Meath Ancient and Modern, by Rev. A. Gogan, and published in 1860. 

Cogan writes: “Yes, we were robbed of all this world [of Catholic tradition]. The Catholic charities of our forefathers were torn from us and confiscated. Our churches were levelled, our altars overturned, and our sanctuaries profaned. Our priests were hunted to the caverns of the wilderness, and the same price was fixed upon them as upon the head of a wolf. After having robbed us, they reproached us with our poverty; after having burned our books, levelled our schools, and murdered and banished our teachers, they belied our history and taunted us with our ignorance.”

Cogan continues: “All these ancient [churches and monasteries] have been swept away. The hand of the spoiler has torn up these sanctuaries of the faith and charity of our fathers. Their halls are no longer filled; the door of hospitality is no longer open to the poor man, the traveler, or the wayfarer. Silence, the silence of the grave, reigns around those holy places, where the cheerful laugh of youth, the pious chant of the months, the sacred song and the holy sacrifice, amidst incense and ceremony, once resounded. All that the powers of this world could effect has been done. The monastery, the gorgeous temple, the abbey church have disappeared. The abbey lands have been seized, the patrimony of the poor was confiscated.”

The historic relationship between Ireland and England is massively complex, and it takes careful study to figure out the various alliances that were made, reconfigured, and reversed over the centuries. Fairness to the English requires the student to recognize the strong opposition to Cromwell that arose in the English parliament. After Cromwell’s death, he was dug up, decapitated, and displayed publicly in London. Centuries later, Winston Churchill, probably England’s greatest prime minister, did not hesitate to condemn Cromwell in the British parliament in the most unambiguous terms.

The state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 was the first time a British monarch had set foot in Ireland since Irish independence nearly a century ago. The Queen acknowledged the “the sad and regrettable mistakes” in the British relationship to Ireland. Her visit was a moment of extraordinary healing.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.