A fifty-minute radio programme which mentions Hiroshima, antichrist, massacres, war criminals, Afghanistan, 9/11, ethnic cleansing, Nagasaki, enslavement, bigotry, racism, military dictators, lunacy, zealousness and Adolf Hitler ought perhaps to be of interest to a wide audience. In this case, the subject was Oliver Cromwell, a name which on its own is sufficient to attract considerable attention in Ireland.
Radio history, like television history, is difficult to get right and is rarely satisfactory for the specialist. But specialists need to remember that these programmes are not particularly designed for them, and that for the duration they ought perhaps to exchange their shoes or shades for those worn by the ‘ordinary’ public.
Dr Patrick Geoghegan’s Talking History on Newstalk is one of several history-focused programmes regularly broadcast nationwide in Ireland. Topics of discussion in recent weeks have included the Battle of Waterloo, Mark Anthony, the American Civil War and George Bernard Shaw. On 14 March, the programme took the form of a debate about Cromwell in Ireland, focusing on his nine-month campaign in Ireland in 1649-50 and its legacy.
The panel was impressive: Micheál O Siochrú of Trinity College Dublin; John Morrill of Cambridge University; Eamonn O Ciardha of the University of Ulster; and Senator Joe O’Toole. O Siochrú and Morrill in particular have published widely on the subject of Cromwell, while O Ciardha’s knowledge of the Irish language sources in particular never fails to fascinate.
If anything, fifty minutes was not enough to allow each of them to tease out the points they had to make. A good deal of time was devoted to background and context, which can hardly be done without. Yet the areas of disagreement, inevitably the most interesting aspect, lay in the finer detail. For example, Morrill and O Siochrú diverged on the point of how much blame Cromwell ought to take for what occurred in Ireland in the decade after 1649; massacre; famine; confiscation; plantation; transplantation; and transportation to the colonies. O Ciardha’s point that Cromwell was viewed by Irish contemporaries as just one of a number of English rogues is surely relevant here. A blog post is not the place to tease out these detailed points either; you can find some of my own views on the matter here.
O’Toole’s contribution was certainly the most colourful. He labelled the massacre at Drogheda in September 1649 as ‘our 9/11’, described Cromwell as ‘an absolute racist’ guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing and drew attention to the enslavement of Irish women and children in the 1650s. This traditional reading has a good deal of truth to it, but it has been considerably refined and nuanced in recent decades by historians such as O Siochrú and Morrill.
In sum then, the show certainly highlighted something of the continuing gulf between scholarly research and the popular understanding of Cromwell in Ireland. Thanks to the efforts of O Siochrú in particular, this gulf is not now as wide as it was even ten years ago. This reality was reflected in the content of the listeners’ texts with which Geoghegan peppered his commentary. Although Seán in Wexford insisted that Cromwell was a war criminal, another listener called for Irish people to recognise Cromwell’s ‘intellectual strengths’. While Mairéad in Dublin labelled Cromwell ‘a psycho equal to Hitler’, Richard in Cork felt that ‘we could do with his likes now to knock the country into shape’.
I hope, for Ireland’s sake, that Richard does not have any political or military ambitions!