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24 November 2003 (UK)  »

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The Other Side of the Pale.
14 December 2016 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

I hope this is a review of the documentary I just watched. I'm not sure.

In the 1600s England has absorbed Ireland as part of its empire. There is a pustular resentment among the Irish. They're not all Catholic. Some old English families resent the importing of rowdy new English people into Northern Ireland. The Irish stage rebellions. The British respond with brutal measures of repression, the worst massacres on the archipelago as one commenter puts it. The Irish respond in kind in the 1641 rebellion, with equally inhumane murders of Protestants.

Oliver Cromwell is shocked and angered. He's from a devout Protestant family. I'll mention in passing that he is from "the fens of East Angia," although I have no idea of what a "fen" is (a swamp?) and I can only take an informed guess at East Anglia. I've been to England more than once but can't remember much of it except The Prospect of Whitby, a pub I highly recommend. It was Samuel Pepys hangout.

Like the others of his ilk, Cromwell dresses in black and white, like the image of the Puritans who settled New England. He's elected to Parliament and interprets it as a calling from God. He was strict with himself and his followers. He hated idolatry, which at the time meant religious icons like the crucifix and too many saints. He also hated he Anglican Church because it too closely resembled Catholicism. They hadn't separated themselves enough. His attitudes were consistent throughout his life.

The Irish rebellion didn't stop. Nationalist generals were returned to Ieland from exile and posed a threat. At the same time, Charles I became king, and the monarchy was disturbing. So -- okay, an army had to be sent to Ireland to get rid of the irritating rebels. But who would organize that army -- Parliament or the King? This and other conflicts of loyalty were no small matter. They began the English Civil War, a most destructive engagement.

Cromwell proved to be a fine leader of men and inspired a kind of Biblical loyalty. With no military training he rose in the ranks to become commander of an army. While the Parliament and the King were warring against one another, Ireland took advantage of the opportunity to establish itself as a sovereign state. The Irish rebels were fought by the local English government and Protestants from the north and from Cork. That is -- two wars are going on at once: one in England, the other in Ireland. I mention in passing the war at the Scottish border.

In England, the Parliamentarists won and Charles I lost his head. Many in England thought that this was going a little too far, so Parliament did what governments with little support often do. An army was organized to fight a threat from across the Irish Sea, the hated Catholics. There were material reasons for the invasion of Ireland, of course, but it's likely that the ordinary people who would do the dying thought of it -- as Bill Maher might phrase it -- "a war of my imaginary friend against your imaginary friend."

If all this warfare -- this mixture of hatred and piety -- seems confusing, it gets more so. When Cromwell was commissioned to invade Ireland with the greatest siege force the country had ever seen, he not only had to overcome the fears of the Irish citizenry, which he did to some extent by hanging some of his own soldiers for pillaging, he also had to contend with the remaining Royalists in Ireland who led a mixture of Catholic and Protestant warriors but who had supported King Charles against Parliament.

His demand for surrender from the Royalist capital was reminiscent of Henry V or even Hitler. Something like, "Please surrender to the forces of good and don't make us take your babies and smash their heads against a stone wall." The Royalists retreated to a stone fortification and finally surrendered, whereupon Cromwell slaughtered them all with pikes, guns and bayonets, civilians included. Some had fled to a nearby church for safety. It was burned down.

Cromwell presented a moral argument, with which Niccolo Machiavelli would have agreed. Terrible bloodshed now, just enough to frighten the populace into surrendering without even more bloodshed. A similar argument was used to support the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II.

However, shortly afterward, Cromwell's men didn't wait for a reply to a demand for surrender from Wexford and ran through the streets, killing in a frenzy. And NOT in a frenzy -- civilians were deliberately rounded up and executed and priests were especially sought out.

This series is presented in two parts, made up of reenactments and expert commentary. Cromwell is pretty homely. But I'm about to run out of space so let me just conclude by saying that Cromwell finally routed the Royalists and then isolated the Catholics that he hadn't killed or exported to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations. He turned much of the land over to English settlers. Between Cromwell, starvation, disease, and exile, the original population of Ireland had been reduced by one quarter or more. Alas, by reducing the broth, Cromwell managed to set up a confrontational arrangement that lasted hundreds of years, until 1922, and still festers -- Protestants against Catholics. (Calling Bill Maher!)

Cromwell ruled as Protector, a king in everything but name, until his death, when he was buried at Westminster. Upon the restoration of the monarchy, his remains were exhumed and subject to a ritual execution. But his statue stands before the House of Parliament today.

Let's say he was a controversial figure.

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