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The curse of Cromwell

Having taken the walled towns of Drogheda and Wexford, and slaughtered their garrisons, Oliver Cromwell relentlessly pressed on. Opposed to him were the Royalists, many of them Protestants and English, and the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny. Towns along the Munster coast surrendered to him without a fight. Kilkenny capitulated at the end of March 1650.

But Parliament’s Commander-in-Chief did not have everything his own way. Cromwell lost some 2,000 men during his assault on the Tipperary town of Clonmel in May 1650. A few days later, he returned to England, leaving his son-in-law Henry Ireton in charge.

In the north the native Irish appointed Bishop Heber MacMahon as their leader. But it was hopeless: the parliamentarian cavalry slaughtered his men at Scariffhollis, overlooking Lough Swilly, on 21st June 1650. The victor, Sir Charles Coote, put his prisoners, senior officers included, to the sword. Later captured in Enniskillen, Bishop MacMahon was hanged and his head was then fixed on one of the gates of Londonderry.

In the south Ireton besieged Limerick for two months. He brought in heavy guns by sea, including mortars firing exploding shells. A battery of 28 guns pounded the city for days. When citizens attempted to leave Ireton had them hanged, including one little girl. On 27th October the city surrendered. Apart from nearly a thousand men of the garrison killed in the fighting, Ireton reckoned that about 5000 persons had perished ‘by the sword without and the famine and plague within’. Galway was the last city to submit, in May 1652.

Boats had to be dragged by oxen to the lakes of Killarney before Lord Muskerry would surrender Ross Castle in June 1652. Fighting did not actually stop until February 1653 when the western islands of Inisbofin, Inisturk and Clare Island surrendered.

The destruction of war was evident everywhere. Dr William Petty, the Army’s Physician-General, estimated that 504,000 native Irish and 112,000 colonists and English troops had perished between 1641 and 1652. Petty reckoned that another 100,000 Irish men, women and children had been forcibly transported to the colonies in the West Indies and in North America.

Famine swept through the country and then bubonic plague began to take its toll. Colonel Jones wrote:

'It fearfully broke out in Cashel, the people being taken suddenly with madness, whereof they die instantly; twenty died in that manner in three days in that little town.'

Colonel Richard Lawrence wrote:

'About the years 1652 and 1653 the plague and famine had swept away whole countries that a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature, either man, beast, or bird, they being either all dead or had quit those desolate places.'

Campaigning troops had routinely destroyed stores of food and seized the rest for their own use. Colonel George Cooke, Governor of Wexford, reported in 1652:

'In searching the woods and bogs we found great store of corn, which we burn, also all the houses and cabins we could find; in all of which we found plenty of corn: we continued burning and destroying for four days…He was an idle soldier who had not a fat lamb, veal, pig, poultry or all of them, every night to his supper. The enemy in these parts chiefly depended upon this country for provision. I believe we have destroyed as much as would have served some thousands of them until next harvest.'

Feeding on corpses of cattle, horses and – no doubt – people, packs of wolves grew fat and numerous. In December 1652 a public wolf hunt was organised in Castleknock on the very outskirts of Dublin. Military commanders received orders to organise wolf hunts in their area. One Captain leasing land in Co Dublin paid part of his rent in wolves’ heads, each one worth £5. By March 1655 £243 5s 4d had been paid out in rewards for killing wolves. The going rate was £6 for a she-wolf, £5 for a dog-wolf, and forty shillings for a cub.

Retribution did not end with the fighting. People wondered when the trials and executions would stop. Despite a safe conduct, the poet and musician Piers Ferriter was hanged at Killarney, together with a bishop and a priest. Theobald Burke, Viscount Mayo, faced a firing squad in Galway city. In February 1653 Colonel Robert Venables reported:

'It hath pleased God to deliver into your hands the ringleader in the late bloody massacres and rebellions, Sir Phelim O’Neill.'

Convicted in Dublin, he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

By 1654 more than 200 men had been tried and executed by Cromwell’s special commission. Catholic priests had been given twenty days to get out of Ireland. Many who dared to stay were hunted down and executed. For the majority of the Irish the greatest fear was confiscation of their lands. Cromwell was now putting into effect his threat to Catholics to go ‘to Hell or Connacht’.

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