Irish amateur historian on lonely mission to save ‘bogeyman’ Cromwell from genocide charges

<span>Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Tom Reilly has been mocked, vilified, challenged to a duel and threatened with death for waging a one-man campaign to rehabilitate the greatest villain in Ireland’s history.

The Irish amateur historian has spent three decades attempting to convince his compatriots that Oliver Cromwell, the 17th century English conqueror, was honourable, decent and not genocidal.

Reilly’s contention that Ireland needs to rewrite its history books appears all the more quixotic because he is from Drogheda, the County Louth town and site of Cromwell’s most infamous slaughter.

“We should apologise to Cromwell’s family for blackening his name, for making him a monster,” Reilly, 62, said last week. “We are teaching our children propaganda that perpetuates anti-English prejudice.”

The Puritan leader is, in fact, about to come under renewed scrutiny. Oxford University Press will publish The Letters, Writings, and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, a multi-volume tome of more than 1,000 texts written and edited by leading British and Irish historians.

Drawing on new material and recovered originals, it re-establishes Cromwell’s authentic voice, said Micheál Ó Siochrú, a Trinity College Dublin historian who was part of the academic team: “It’s a lot of detective work to get back to Cromwell’s voice. What emerges is much more the real Cromwell. We see the man for all his complexities. He’s very blunt. He often says what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.”

The MP-turned-general, a polarising figure in Britain where he is viewed both as a tyrant and a hero, combined English nationalism with religious fanaticism, said Ó Siochrú, author of God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland: “If you believe you are God’s agent that justifies any kind of behaviour. In Ireland, his soldiers effectively committed genocide.”

Academic and diplomatic luminaries including Britain’s ambassador to Ireland, Paul Johnston, will mark the Oxford volume’s launch with a roundtable discussion at Trinity College.

Reilly, who has written four books on Cromwell, has not been invited. Some mainstream historians consider Cromwell’s Irish defender a stubborn, blinkered gadfly.

But Reilly, a former newspaper columnist who manages a castle, is not giving up on his quest to vindicate the Lord Protector, no matter the cost. His obsession has brought scorn – “there are people on the street who will point and laugh” – and occasional threats. An anonymous letter threatened to burn down his house with his family inside. “I think about that sometimes in the wee hours of the morning when I hear a creak,” he said.

In 2000, Reilly triggered uproar when he arranged for Cromwell’s death mask to be displayed at a Drogheda heritage centre with the tagline “He’s back!”. The then deputy mayor, Frank Godfrey, challenged him to a duel.

Protesters daubed tomato juice on the walls of the graveyard to mimic blood. In a 2006 letter to the Guardian, he said academics should be “ashamed” for letting children be taught “nonsense”.

“There is no one more Irish than I am,” said Reilly. “But a miscarriage of justice is a miscarriage of justice. Cromwell is a convenient bogeyman. He was an honourable enemy.” Cromwell led an army across the Irish Sea to quell an alliance of insurgent royalists and Irish Catholics in 1649-1650. The invaders killed thousands of people in Drogheda, Wexford and other towns and displaced much of Ireland’s population, leading to famine, disease and bitter folk memories that endure centuries later.

Reilly, who has spent 30 years trawling primary sources, does not dispute the widespread bloodshed, or notorious details such as a Drogheda defender being beaten to death with his wooden leg. However, he says Cromwell’s troops spared civilians and killed almost exclusively enemy combatants – some in battle, most after they had surrendered, a brutal policy but in keeping with the era’s code of war.

Reilly says Irish history books conflate executed combatants with “inhabitants”, implying they were civilians: “It’s wrong. It drives me crazy.” He has expounded his thesis in three non-fiction books – Cromwell at Drogheda, Cromwell: an Honourable Enemy, Cromwell Was Framed – and a novel, The Protector, published earlier this year.

Academics have accused Reilly, who failed history in secondary school, of hero worship and overlooking evidence that civilians were massacred and that the wholesale execution of captured soldiers was extreme even by 17th century standards.

Reilly is unabashed: “They closed ranks when they saw this pugnacious amateur taking them on. If I’m ever proven wrong I’ll shut up and get off the stage.” His books’ modest sales – a few thousand copies, combined – and enthusiastic online reviews are not enough, says Reilly.

“The message isn’t getting through,” he said. He plans to chronicle his struggle to absolve Cromwell in a memoir, titled Making a Massacre. He nurtures hopes of a documentary: “I know I’m right. I think my work will become mainstream.”