An actor was now to descend upon the scene, whose character has excited more controversy than that of any other personage of those times. Honoured as a saint, or reprobated as a hypocrite, worshipped for his extraordinary successes, or anathematized for the unworthy artifices by which he rose--who shall deal out, with equal hand, praise and blame to Oliver Cromwell'? Not for the popular writer of Irish history, is that difficult judicial task. Not for us to re-echo cries of hatred which convince not the indifferent, nor correct the errors of the educated or cultivated: the simple, and, as far as possible, the unimpassioned narrative of facts, will constitute the whole of our duty towards the Protector's campaign in Ireland.
Cromwell left London in great state, early in July, "in a coach drawn by six gallant Flanders mares," and made a sort of royal procession across the country to Bristol. From that famous port, where Strongbow confederated with Dermid McMurrogh, and from which Dublin drew its first Anglo-Norman colony, he went on to Milford Haven, at which he embarked, arriving in Dublin on the 15th of August. He entered the city in procession, and addressed the townsfolk from "a convenient place." He had with him two hundred thousand pounds in money, eight regiments of foot, six of horse, and some troops of dragoons; besides the divisions of Jones and Monck, already in the country, and subject to his command. Among the officers were names of memorable interest--Henry Cromwell, second son of the Protector, and future Lord Deputy; Monck, Blake, Jones, Ireton, Ludlow, Hardress Waller, Sankey, and others equally prominent in accomplishing the King's death, or in raising up the English commonwealth.
Cromwell's command in Ireland extends from the middle of August, 1649, to the end of May, 1650, about nine months in all, and is remarkable for the number of sieges of walled towns crowded into that brief period. There was, during the whole time, no great action in the field, like Marston Moor, or Benburb, or Dunbar; it was a campaign of seventeenth century cannon against mediaeval masonry; what else was done, was the supplemental work of mutual bravery on both sides. Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry, and Carlingford fell in September; Arklow, Enniscorthy, and Wexford in October; Ross, one of the first seaports in point of commerce, surrendered the same month; Waterford was attempted and abandoned in November; Dungarvan, Kinsale, Bandon, and Cork were won over by Lord Broghill in December; Fethard, Callan, and Cashel in January and February; Carrick and Kilkenny in March; and Clonmel, early in May. Immediately after this last capitulation, Cromwell was recalled to lead the armies of the Parliament into Scotland: during the nine months he had commanded in Ireland, he had captured five or six county capitals, and a great number of less considerable places. The terror of his siege-trains and Ironsides was spread over the greater part of three Provinces, and his well-reported successes had proved so many steps to the assumption of that sovereign power at which he already aimed.
Of the spirit in which these several sieges were conducted, it is impossible to speak without a shudder. It was, in truth, a spirit of hatred and fanaticism, altogether beyond the control of the revolutionary leader. At Drogheda, the work of slaughter occupied five entire days. Of the brave garrison of 3,000 men, not thirty were spared, and these, "were in hands for the Barbadoes;" old men, women, children and priests, were unsparingly put to the sword. Wexford was basely betrayed by Captain James Stafford, commander of the castle, whose midnight interview with Cromwell, at a petty rivulet without the walls, tradition still recounts with horror and detestation. This port was particularly obnoxious to the Parliament, as from its advantageous position on the Bristol channel, its cruisers greatly annoyed and embarrassed their commerce. "There are," Cromwell writes to Speaker Lenthall, "great quantities of iron, hides, tallow, salt, pipe and barrel staves, which are under commissioners' hands to be secured. We believe there are near a hundred cannon in the fort and elsewhere in and about the town. Here is likewise some very good shipping; here are three vessels, one of them of thirty-four guns, which a week's time would fit for sea; there is another of about twenty guns, very nearly ready likewise." He also reports two other frigates, one on the stocks, which "for her handsomeness' sake" he intended to have finished for the Parliament, and another "most excellent vessel for sailing," taken within the fort, at the harbour's mouth. By the treachery of Captain Stafford, this strong and wealthy town was at the mercy of those "soldiers of the Lord and of Gideon," who had followed Oliver to his Irish wars. The consequences were the same as at Drogheda-- merciless execution on the garrison and the inhabitants.
In the third month of Cromwell's campaign, the report of Owen O'Neil's death went abroad, palsying the Catholic arms. By common consent of friend and foe, he was considered the ablest civil and military leader that had appeared in Ireland during the reigns of the Stuart kings. Whether in native ability he was capable of coping with Cromwell, was for a long time a subject of discussion; but the consciousness of irreparable national loss, perhaps, never struck deeper than amid the crash of that irresistible cannonade of the walled towns and cities of Leinster and Munster. O'Neil had lately, despairing of binding the Scots or the English, distrustful alike of Coote and of Monck, been reconciled to Ormond, and was marching southward to his aid at the head of 6,000 chosen men. Lord Chancellor Clarendon assures us that Ormond had the highest hopes from this junction, and the utmost confidence in O'Neil's abilities. But at a ball at Derry, towards the end of August, he received his death, it is said, in a pair of poisoned russet leather slippers presented to him by one Plunkett; marching southward, borne in a litter, he expired at Clough Oughter Castle, near his old Belturbet camp, on the 6th of November, 1649. His last act was to order one of his nephews--Hugh O'Neil--to form a junction with Ormond in Munster without delay. In the chancel of the Franciscan Abbey of Cavan, now grass-grown and trodden by the hoofs of cattle, his body was interred; his nephew and successor did honour to his memory at Clonmel and Limerick. It was now remembered, even by his enemies, with astonishment and admiration, how for seven long years he had subsisted and kept together an army, the creature of his genius; without a government at his back, without regular supplies, enforcing obedience, establishing discipline, winning great victories, maintaining, even at the worst, a native power in the heart of the kingdom. When the archives of those years are recovered (if they ever are), no name more illustrious for the combination of great qualities will be found preserved there than the name of this last national leader of the illustrious lineage of O'Neil.
The unexpected death of the Ulster general favoured still farther Cromwell's southern movements. The gallant, but impetuous Bishop of Clogher, Heber McMahon, was the only northern leader who could command confidence enough to keep O'Neil's force together, and on him, therefore, the command devolved. O'Ferrall, one of Owen's favourite officers, was despatched to Waterford, and mainly contributed to Cromwell's repulse before that city; Hugh O'Neil covered himself with glory at Clonmel and Limerick; Daniel O'Neil, another nephew of Owen, remained attached to Ormond, and accompanied him to France; but within six months from the loss of their Fabian chief, who knew as well when to strike as to delay, the brave Bishop of Clogher sacrificed the remnant of "the Catholic Army" at the pass of Scariffhollis, in Donegal, and, two days after, his own life by a martyr's death, at Omagh. At the date of Cromwell's departure--when Ireton took command of the southern army--there remained to the Confederates only some remote glens and highlands of the North and West, the cities of Limerick and Galway, with the county of Clare, and some detached districts of the province of Connaught.
The last act of Cromwell's proper campaign was the siege of Clonmel, where he met the stoutest resistance he had anywhere encountered. The Puritans, after effecting a breach, made an attempt to enter, chanting one of their scriptural battle-songs. They were, by their own account, "obliged to give back a while," and finally night settled down upon the scene. The following day, finding the place no longer tenable, the garrison silently withdrew to Waterford, and subsequently to Limerick. The inhabitants demanded a parley, which was granted; and Cromwell takes credit, and deserves it, when we consider the men he had to humour, for having kept conditions with them.
From before Clonmel he returned at once to England, where he was received with royal honours. All London turned out to meet the Conqueror who had wiped out the humiliation of Benburb, and humbled the pride of the detested Papists. He was lodged in the palace of the king, and chosen "Captain-general of all the forces raised, or to be raised, by the authority of the Parliament of England."