11 September 1649
Historian Micheál Ó Siochrú, in his book God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland, writes that ‘the storming of Drogheda (by British parliamentary forces) on 11 September shocked contemporary opinion and established Cromwell’s reputation for cruelty and savagery, which has persisted until the present day.’1 Although now forgotten by most people in Britain, for seventeenth century Ireland it was an horrific epoch defining event, at least as devastating as 9/11 was for the United States.
Cromwell had arrived in Dublin on 15 August 1649 at the head of a well financed parliamentary army to quell a royalist insurrection. He decided to strike first at the town of Drogheda, which lay 30 miles north and occupied an important strategic location on the river Boyne, marking the gateway to Ulster. By 3 September, he had arrived outside the city’s walls, and, after preparing his forces, issued a summons to surrender on 10 September, which was refused.
The superiority in artillery, weapons and discipline of Cromwell’s New Model Army meant the 3000 strong garrison stood little chance. Cromwell’s 10,000 troops rapidly demolished the town’s defences, although one fort within the city’s walls only surrendered after one of Cromwell’s officers persuaded the defenders to lay down their arms, seemingly on the promise of quarter being given, after which, a parliamentary broadsheet admitted, they were ‘all slain.’ It was, as Ó Siochrú points out, ‘a clear breach of the contemporary military code.’2
As the parliamentary soldiers advanced through the streets, Cromwell ordered that no quarter be given. He later recalled that many of the surviving royalist troops fled to St. Peter’s Church ‘for safety,’ but admitted that ‘in this very place near one thousand of them were put to the sword.’3 Cromwell also listed 3,000 deaths from the garrison, claiming that only thirty soldiers, subsequently transported to Barbados, were spared execution. He did not bother to detail civilian casualties, but admitted that among those butchered by his troops were ‘many inhabitants.’ He justified the killing by claiming that the enemy were now ‘filled with much terror,’ and that their slaughter was ‘the righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches.’4 When news of Cromwell’s bloody victory eventually reached England, it was proclaimed from churches across London and a euphoric parliament declared its thanks, noting ‘that the House doth approve of the execution done at Drogheda as an act both of justice to them and mercy to others who may be warned by it.’5
- Micheál Ó Siochrú, God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland, Faber and Faber, London, 2008, p. 82.
- Ibid., p. 87. See also John Morrill, ‘The Drogheda Massacre in Cromwellian Context,’ in David Edwards, Padraig Lenihan and Clodagh Tait (editors), The Age of Atrocity: Violence and Political Conflict in Early Modern Ireland, Four Courts Press Ltd, Dublin, 2008, p. 255.
- Micheál Ó Siochrú, op. cit., p. 84.
- Ibid,. pp. 83-84 and John Morrill, op. cit., p. 257.
- Micheál Ó Siochrú, op. cit., pp. 90-91.
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