From The Nation, 10 January, 1846.
A book to be opened with reverence – to be read with earnest, deep attention – to be dissented from on no light grounds – and then only with reluctance and pain. The greatest writer, and profoundest philosopher, now living upon English soil, with eloquence, the like of which has not uttered itself in English speech since John Milton’s time, deals in this book with the most glorious and terrible epoch of his country’s history, and the divine (or diabolic) man, who is at last recognised, and will through all time be acknowledged, as the type of that heroic (or fanatic, or fanatico-heroic) age of England.
To English historic literature this is a precious accession; and the inhabitants of that country will do well to study it with what earnestness yet remains amongst them, in hope of curing to some extent that loathsome disease, half mealy-mouthed cant, and half sneering facetiousness, which is fast eating away the old heart of England. England uses not now the speech that Shakespeare spake, nor “the faith and morals holds that Milton held;” nor yet any other assignable faith or morals, nor even any very significant speech.
“The age of the Puritans,” says this, their modern expositor and apostle, “is not extinct only and gone away from us, but it is as if fallen beyond the capabilities of Memory herself; it is grown unintelligible, what we may call incredible. Its earnest purport awakens now no resonance in our frivolous hearts. We understand, not even in imagination, one of a thousand of us, what it ever could have meant. It seems delirious, delusive; the sound of it has become tedious as a tale of past stupidities. Not the body of heroic Puritanism only, which was bound to die, but the soul of it also, which was and should have been, and yet shall be immortal, has for the present passed away.”
And truly not without a solemn and awe-struck sense of the boldness of his enterprise, does our “vehement friend,” as he names himself, venture upon the task of disentombing this old Puritanism, and presenting it and its stern preacher once more in visible shape before men’s eyes. Hear him again: –
“Behold here the final evanescence of formed human things; they had form; but they are changing into sheer formlessness. Ancient human speech itself has sunk into unintelligible maundering. This is the collapse, the etiolation of human features into mouldy blank; dissolution; progress towards utter silence and disappearance; disastrous, ever-deepening Dusk of gods and men! Why has the living ventured thither down from the cheerful light across the Lethe-swamps and tartarean Phlegethons onwards to these baneful halls of Disand the Three-headed Dog? Some destiny drives him. It is his sins, I suppose – perhaps it is his love – strong as that of Orpheus for the lost Eurydice, and likely to have no better issue.”
Our impatient friend seems almost to despond; yet bravely he does venture down, and “fronts Cerberus and Dis,” and not to no purpose; for in these old letters of his Highness Oliver, with the editor’s own most eloquent (if somewhat sybilline) annotations – reverential as the exegetical commentary of some Adam Clarke or Scott, upon the Holy Scripture – he does, indeed, present to that frivolous English nation a true Epos of their most heroic age.
Or, these two volumes may be regarded as an elaborate answer to the important query – should Cromwell have a statue? – a statue, namely, amongst the kings of England, in their new Houses of Parliament. And viewing them thus, they do distinctly prove (to the mind of this present reviewer) that this questio vexata must be answered most emphatically in the negative. No; Cromwell ought not to have a statue – on the simple ground that such a juxta-position would introduce the kings of England into much higher society than they have any kind of title to aspire to; for, independent of his enmity to kings and kingships, overlooking the fact that this mission was to bind their kings in chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron, Oliver Cromwell belongs to that higher rank of mankind of which a succession has been kept up in the world, and which, by God’s providence, will never fail – a succession more august than any regal dynasty, when Tudor, Plantagenet, Bourbon, Brandenburgh, or Brunswick. Those men – namely, who have arisen from time to time to prove to all the earth that Manhood is greater than Heraldry – those men and their works stand as eternal mementos, or rather as charters and muniments of titles, of the indefeasible manhood of man; and constant reference to them shall prevent the Soul from being altogether smothered and choked out of the world by what our friend call “Flunkeyism, Cant, Cloth-worship, or whatever ugly name it have.”
Measure the value and force of Cromwell, by the instruments he employed to govern withal – and consider what a distance there is between his Secretary of state and any functionary of that office since – what a distance! from John Milton down to Sir James Graham! Let the human imagination try if it can conceive that Melesigenes, in his Home-office, manipulating the folds of post letters – say the letters of Mazarin to a Frenchman in London – softening the seals, and adroitly re-folding, re-sealing, and delivering them, as if nothing had happened! Quite another kind of secretary was Cromwell’s – quite other kind of officers, in general than any “illustrious person” of our day would employ; and we od not find that he had any Garter-King-at-Arms at all! To erect a statue to this man amongst the legitimate Edwards, and Henrys, and Georges of England, were a strange way of writing history in marble.
A precious accession, we say, is this book to English history; and looking at it, and at the hero of it, from the English side of the channel, our estimate of the whole matter were what we have ventured to intimate above; and we do heartily wish that Thomas Carlyle had not undertaken to “elucidate” that portion of Cromwell’s letters which relates to Ireland and his wars here. Why could he not have printed these letters without any exegetical commentary at all? – so would he have caped the grave charge of undertaking to instruct mankind upon matters of which he is (why not say it?) profoundly ignorant. He does not know the facts of Irish history – he has not read books upon the subject – has not formed to himself the faintest conception of the Irish war; so difficult is it for the English mind to admit the fact, which, however, is indisputable, that the Irish are one nation, and the English another, or to view Irish affairs by the light of that fact, and not otherwise.
Our vehement friend even admits his ignorance. “The history of the Irish war,” he says, “is, and for the present must continue, very dark and indecipherable to us.” Why must it continue? Oh, noster Thomas! – if thou wouldst only read books. And, again, he says –
“The history of it does not form itself into a picture, but remains only as a huge blot – an indiscriminate blackness, which the human memory cannot willingly charge itself with!”
If such be the state of our friend’s information upon the subject, were it not better to be silent on that point, than to say this, for instance –
“November 1st news came to London, to the re-assembled Parliament, that an Irish rebellion, already grown to be an Irish Massacre, had broken out. An Irish Catholic imitation of the late Scotch Presbyterian achievements in the way of ‘religious liberty’ – one of the best models and one of the worst imitations ever seen in this world.”
Now, suppose we admit that the Scottish Covenant, by which they engaged themselves to permit no religious worship but their own, was an “achievement in the way of religious liberty,” nothing could be further from, an imitation of it, successful or unsuccessful, than the war that broke out in Ulster in 1641. In that transaction “religious liberty,” if an element at all, was a very inferior and secondary consideration. That Ulster war, in short, arose from a unanimous movement of the plundered Irish inhabitants who had been driven from their lands thirty years before, at the “plantation” of Ulster, to repossess themselves of their own property, finding that they were at length strong enough to do it. And it was not a “Rebellion,” but the renewal of a national war against the most outrageous tyranny and robbery that any country ever suffered. And as for the “Massacre” all writers, who have with honesty and due information examined the facts, do admit and proclaim that the plan of the resumption was simply to drive the robbers away, and shed no blood, save what might be necessary, to overcome resistance to the business they had in hand, and which they felt they had an absolute right, at whatever risk of bloodshed, to effect. This was the “Irish Rebellion grown to be an Irish Massacre.”
But, coming to the period of Cromwell’s accursed invasion of Ireland, we find Mr. Carlyle saying, “This [Cromwell’s] is the first king’s face poor Ireland ever saw – the first friend’s face, little as it recognises him – poor Ireland!”
Here universal Ireland and Thomas Carlyle are at issue; and, once for all, we side with Ireland. We, being Irish, and not English, do hold to the opinion that Oliver Cromwell was strictly and literally a curse to this unfortunate country, inflicted upon us, doubtless, for our sins – that, instead of being, as our vehement friend preaches, a “God’s message,” his whole mission and teaching here were a genuine gospel of the Devil, and an authentic emanation from the Gehenna of Fire. By this we mean (omitting and discountenancing all “inarticulate shrieking” over Cromwell’s bloodthirstiness) that what he came to do here was impracticable – that his Puritan Evangel, however acceptable in England and Scotland, was to Ireland an abomination; because Ireland had a Faith antagonistic to it, incompatible with it, and strong enough to resist it, to conquer it; a Faith stronger than death; and, therefore, that all his slaughters and burnings – while he thought, possibly, that he was wielding the sword of the Lord and of Gideon – while he thought himself verily commissioned by Heaven, to slay Og, King of Bashan, and Sihon, King of the Amorites, and to smite the Amalekites, hip and thigh – were only so much driftless and brutal butchery; that, further, the event has proved this Puritan avatar, in Ireland, to have been no radiance from heaven, but a lurid glare from the bottomless pit – no God’s truth, but a devil’s he; because no good ever came of it: – Puritanism never throve here, and never will thrive, and of all that Cromwell Invasion the whole result has been bitter hatred (a deep and wide-spreading root of bitterness that may bear bloody fruit yet) – that, and a certain residuum of the robber army of Roundheads, whose descendants are named “Cromwellians,” and have been ever since noted as the stupidest and most anti-Irish of the thick-headed, top-booted squirearchy of this country.
But Thomas Carlyle tells us that, by Cromwell and his Cromwellians, “the truth was spoken to them, so as they had never before seen it since they were a nation;” and he believes that but for the “Ever blessed Restoration” Ireland would have soon become a very exemplary nation of crop-eared Roundheads, a perfect Puritan Little Zion and Paradise of “Swaddling Poundtexts.” Only hear him: –
“Ireland, under this arrangement, would have grown up gradually into a sober, diligent, drab-coloured population – developing itself most probably in some form of Calvinistic Protestantism. For there was hereby a Protestant Church in Ireland, of the most irrefragable nature, preaching daily in all its actions and procedure a real gospel of veracity, of piety, of fair-dealing, and good order to all men; and certain other ‘Protestant Churches of Ireland,’ and unblessed real-imaginary entities, of which the human soul is getting weary, had of a surety never found footing there! But the Ever-blessed Restoration came upon us. All that arrangement was torn up by the roots, and Ireland was appointed to develop itself as we have seen. Not in the drab-coloured Puritan way – in what other way is still a terrible dubiety to itself and us.”
As to the facts of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, the reader will not find in Mr. Carlyle’s book, what is nevertheless a fact, that in Drogheda and Wexford, his hero not only “put the garrison to death,” as he mildly phrases it, but butchered the townspeople, men, women, and children. It may be, in our sanguinary friend’s opinion, quite immaterial whether he did so or not; but let the truth be told. In Drogheda, Clarendon tells us, “he put every man that related to the garrison, and all the citizens, who were Irish, man, woman, and child, to the sword.”1 Philopater Irenaeus, a contemporary history of that war, to which Sir James War gives a high character for veracity, says, “Necnon universis Catholicis praesidiariis militibus, et civibus ad quatuor ferè millia miserum in modum trucidatis.”2 All which, Cromwell informs us, in one of the letters published in this book, “is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood,” alluding, in his ignorance, to what the English writers called the “Massacre of 1641” – a transaction in which not one of all those murdered citizens had act or part – on the contrary, Drogheda was itself besieged by Sir Phelim O’Neill and his northern Irish; and if he had got admission, he would assuredly have murdered them seven years before Cromwell had the killing of them.
And at Wexford, he made, says Carte, nearly as great a slaughter as at Drogheda: “Universis propè vibus trucidatis,” says the Philopater Irenaeus: – of whom two hundred women3 were slain at the foot of a cross in the market-place, whither they had betaken themselves as to a sanctuary. This is the famous massacre of the women of Wexford, which we have seen denied repeatedly by an English newspaper (the Standard), the writer of whom tells us that Lingard is the only authority for the story; although MacGeohegan had stated it nearly a hundred years before, and the local tradition, no light authority, has told it with horror ever since. Indeed Cromwell himself, in his letter detailing the “Mercy” of Wexford says: –
“When they were come into the Market-place, the enemy making a stiff resistance, our forces brake them; and then put all to the sword that came in their way.”
The tradition, and the Catholic historians do no more than ascertain the fact that of those who “came in their way,” two hundred were women.
“Rose-water surgeons,” Mr. Carlyle admits, “might have tried it otherwise.” We go further, and say that in all the annals of human warfare, there is nothing recorded more atrocious and detestable than this. However, the Commentator continues, speaking of Drogheda –
“To our Irish friends, we ought likewise to say that this garrison of Tredah consisted mostly of Englishmen. Perfectly certain this; and, therefore, let the ‘bloody hoof of the Saxon,’ &c., forbear to continue itself on that matter, at its peril. Idle blustering and untruth of every kind lead to the like terrible results in these days as they did in those.”
Does our blood-thirsty friend mean to threaten us with another Drogheda?
Well, it is certain, that Sir Arthur Aston, and probably most of his officers, were either English or Anglo-Irish – but the townsmen and their wives, and children, and the friars who “were all,” says Cromwell, “knocked on the head promiscuously, but two” – and the thousand persons (presumably of both sexes) who fled for refuge to the great church and were all slain there – what of these? Oh! noster Thomas! on that transaction “the bloody hoof of the Saxon” must ever rest; the waters of the sea would not wash out that red track; no torrent of fiery hero-worshipping eloquence will burn it away. It stands there, and will stand, one of the grimmest items in the account that lies open between us and England, awaiting the day of settlement.
Thus far we, being Irish and not English, have deemed it right to indicate our view of Cromwell’s relation to Ireland. Yet, we hardly blame our vehement hero-worshipping friend for misunderstanding our history. To an English mind this seems inevitable. Yet we do wish he had not written at all upon the Irish part of the business, but simply printed the letters, and let them speak for themselves. The English Cromwell he knows, and can interpret, with seeing eye and understanding heart; Cromwell in Ireland, and the matters he had to deal with here, are a mystery to the historian, as they were to the hero. Ireland was to Cromwell a blind promiscuous shambles and place of sculls; to his enthusiastic editor it is merely a blackness and a blot.
We have said all we had to say upon this extraordinary book. No book we remember to have read has pained us so much; for, indeed, Thomas Carlyle has long been our venerated and beloved preceptor – at whose feet we have long studied and learned there several things that our “guide, philosopher, and friend” never thought to teach us. Perhaps, the most remarkable thing about Carlyle’s writings is their power of suggesting thoughts that the writer never contemplated; fructifying after a sort he never expected; so that amongst his most ardent admirers and constant students there are, probably, few who agree in his peculiar views.
The seed he has sown sometimes grows up a very strange plant in his eyes. For instance the most zealous Catholic layman of our acquaintance dates his conversion from Protestantism from the time that he earnestly studied Carlyle. Yet is Carlyle strongly anti-Catholic. The writer of these lines believes that he never would have been, as he is, a determined Repealer and Irish Nationalist, but for his reverent study of the same great writer. Yet Carlyle considers Repeal an insane dream, and Ireland (God forgive him!) a nation of very poor creatures.
This publication of documents, it seems, is only preliminary to a more regular history of Cromwell and his times. Will our anti-Irish friend re-consider the views of Irish affairs, and try to gain some insight into them, or failing that, will he let them alone, and leave our history altogether to some Irish pen?
1 Clarendon’s History, vi, 395.
2 Phil, pren. 210.
3 Deux cents femmes. L’Abbe MacGeohegan, published, at Amsterdam, in 1763.