Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland Micheal O Siochru
Faber, hbk, 316pp 978 0571241217, £14.99
Historians spend a considerable amount of their time and academic energy, perhaps too much of their time, debunking historical myths and correcting popular misconceptions about the past: replacing the black and white certainties with the greys of nuance and the pastel colours of careful qualification and the context and background of unrelieved magnolia. The past is never quite what it seems. Yet, however much historians rewrite history, the myths seem to endure and survive. And now they have a greater opponent than collective false memory.
The poor historian concerned with the accuracy of the historical record now also has to contend with the licence of the dramatist and the new myths of Hollywood. These new authorities who inform and shape contemporary, popular culture frequently play fast and loose with the past. Yet, as with Schiller’s imagined confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I, some of these creative inventions have illuminated history and have said something psychologically and historically significant and profoundly true through a fictional and artistic imagination. I am not so sure that the same can be said of The Tudors that recently graced television screens. Surely a svelte Henry VIII instead of the grossly fat, rotting flesh and corrupt body and soul of that foul monarch is too much to contemplate.
Oliver Cromwell is one of the more contentious characters in our history and his reputation is much disputed by modern cavaliers and roundheads. Much of the debated territory is concentrated on his bloody intervention in Ireland and this book addresses that period. The popular perception of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was one of oppression and merciless massacre with no quarter given, a mercilessness that went beyond the boundaries of conflict even for that conflicted age. This conclusion was reached and firmly held by many; not least, of course, by the Irish with their long memory as they fought and fought again their seventeenth-century past in the recent past and almost to the present.
But for quite a time historians applied themselves to the revisionist task. They considered context and they applied sophisticated nuance to create a new orthodoxy. Given the prevailing ethos, they suggested, Cromwell’s operation in Ireland was not particularly brutal, nor uncommon. It was an age of atrocities. Although atrocious, it was not that atrocious. He was motivated less by religious hatred and bigotry than by military necessity and political reality. And even if the exaggerations were to be accepted, they were at worst an aberration from an otherwise admirable and enlightened record for its time and place.
In this portrait, warts and all, Cromwell was a man of personal modesty and disciplined reserve, highly principled, reluctantly drawn into conflict but able and militarily competent, democratic, prescient, brave in his decisions, consistent in his views. He was the harbinger, if not the founding father, of a progressive, democratic, enlightened age.
Those of us who were unpersuaded, who never bought into that favourable, rosy-hued view and resisted the prevailing revisionist tide, have now received support and vindication from this new book about Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland by Micheal O Siochru. It is all true after all. The warts are all.
Even by the prevailing brutal standards of the time, Cromwell’s campaign was savage and uncompromisingly vicious. His motivation was not military necessity nor political expediency, but rather a visceral anti-Catholic hatred and undiluted bigotry. Cromwell was a militant Protestant fuelled by religious zeal and puritan self-righteousness who regarded Irish Catholics as barbarians, thirsting for blood. Purely as a military exercise, the campaign in Ireland could have achieved its objectives and accomplished its aims without the terror he unleashed. The pacification of Ireland was relatively straightforward with his superior forces. Rather, he chose the tactics of terror and adopted the ethics of ethnic cleansing. The modern language of ethnic cleansing is not out of place. And this is not only the verdict of history. The contemporary record recognized the atrocities of Wexford and Drogheda for what they were.
Nor was he any democrat. He dismissed what elected representatives were left in the House of Commons. He ruled as a dictator and as an unenlightened despot. He forced through the execution of King Charles I by bullying, coercion and physical threats. He was remorseless in his suppression of the Church and pursued a policy of iconoclasm, religious and cultural vandalism. He turned on his former supporters with the same controlled and cynical ferocity that he had applied to his opponents. He did not allow thousands of flowers to bloom; rather, like all dictators, he shot his opponents. He was the epitome of the joyless, fanatical puritan, with that streak of poisonous and nauseating hypocrisy which made him, only very reluctantly, decline the regal office and title which went with his absolute power. Thankfully his rule was short-lived and his dynasty ludicrously brief.
The final indictment is the more powerful in this book because it is written in careful and considered prose. Its forensic power comes from its cool tone and sense of detachment. The murder of the King and the unspeakable massacres at Drogheda and Wexford stand, in the verdict of contemporaries and once again in the verdict of history, to Cromwell’s eternal shame and contempt.
Alexander Fawdon I
The life and times of Pope John Paul I Paul Spackman
Gracewing, 300pp, pbk 978 0 85244 187 9, £12.99
It was thirty years ago that ‘the smiling Pope’, the shrewd but gentle Albino Luciani, died suddenly after a papacy of only 33 days. That short reign, of one of the humblest of the servants of the servants of God, has since been eclipsed by the conspiracy theories as to the cause of his death. It is not so much how he lived as how he died that is remembered now.
This life is a valuable corrective. Born in 1912 of working class parents, a devout mother and an anti-clerical socialist father, Albinos health was at first precarious. It was to be through study and discipline that he grew into a tough leader in the Church. Beginning as a curate in his home church, he soon moved to a neighbouring parish, and gathered academic qualifications and responsibilities, until in 1958 he was consecrated Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII; and translated in 1969 to be Patriarch of Venice. And then, on the death of Pope Paul VI, he was elected, with extraordinary speed after (probably) four ballots, as the 262nd successor to St Peter.
There is rather too much detail, and rather less analysis than I was either expecting or desired, but perhaps because of this, it is a most readable account of the powerful if unexciting life of one of the great leaders of the twentieth century Church – great not for what he did, but for who he was, at a time of great change and uncertainty. I read it on the beach, on holiday, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The short papacy is the least interesting part of the book, if only because Spackman is having to make very little material go a very long way.
His sources are largely English, which makes the two brief references to ARCIC and his direct involvement with the Commission as Patriarch of Venice frustrat-ingly inadequate. The one Pope who knew about Anglicanism, and he dies after only a month! Would it have made any difference had he lived? Would ecumenical relations have deepened to the point where it might have made any difference to the schismatic debates in the CofE over women’s ordination? This is speculation, of course, but I was sorry not to have a serious reference to the question.
Spackman makes it clear that he follows Cornwell’s account in particular for the events of August and September 1978. He completely rejects the conspiracy theories, and the ludicrous suggestions of murder. It is clear he dislikes the Curia and blames them for a great deal of the pressure on Luciani. He does, however, explain satisfactorily the opportunities for the conspiracy theories – the understandable conflict of accounts of the early witnesses, and the regrettable doctoring of the truth in the first press release, designed to avoid mentioning the fact that it was a nun, Sr Vincenza, who first found him dead in bed, in the early morning of 29 September.
This is, as I said, an easy read without being inadequate to the subject. It is clear that Spackman admires John Paul hugely (his successor perhaps only grudgingly). This is not so much a critical biography as a story of a life, and as such should appeal to laymen rather more than the academics. Luciani’s openness influenced the next decade of the Roman Church; his warmth and humility, combined with his great skill as a teacher to all people, remain as a gift to the whole Church.
The best epitaph comes from his own writing (I am sure there is a better translation, but I do not have the Italian original), from something he wrote on his consecration as bishop, twenty years before his death. ‘The Lord does not like to write certain things on bronze nor on marble but simply on dust. If the writing remains, undisturbed, not blown away by the wind, it becomes clear that such is the work of the Lord alone. I am the simple and poor dust: on that dust the Lord has written.’
LET US PRAY
Malcolm David Mullins
Dragon Slayer Press, 48pp, pbk 978 0 9542644 1 3, £6.50
O Thou by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way!
The path of prayer Thyself has trod:
Lord! Teach us how to pray.
In Let Us Pray, Fr Mullins invites his reader to contemplate the importance of prayer, and offers some guiding words on daily prayer, and in particular silent prayer. The book was inspired by his observations of a congregation during Holy Week when, during time set aside in the liturgy for meditation and silent reflection, the majority of congregants appeared at a loss to know what they ought to be doing, let alone how to go about praying silently. Fr Mullins’ sermons on ‘the use of silence in prayer’ are intended to offer suggestions as to how to go about this and provide a possible means of structuring one’s daily, private prayer.
Fr Mullins constructs his four sermons on daily prayer using the well-known mnemonic ‘ACTS’: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. These headings can be used as categories into which one’s daily prayer can be organized. In addition, he suggests various texts which might be used to aid prayer, such as particular psalms and texts from the BCP or other service books. Most particularly, Fr Mullins emphasizes the importance of allowing times of silence during prayer in order to listen to what God might have to say to us, rather than launching into a monologue a la Joyce Grenfell or Stanley Holloway
The last sermon in the book is concerned with silent prayer, of which Fr Mullins provides a sound ‘taster’. Finally, Fr Mullins is careful to place daily, private prayer in the context of a Christian life within the wider Church community. He emphasizes the importance of regular attendance at services of the Eucharist and of the individual’s role as a member of the Church, the Body of Christ.
Let Us Pray is simply and elegantly written and contains a number of quotations which are certain to capture the reader’s attention and sustain his enthusiasm, from writers such as A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame, as well as hymns, and even lyrics from The Mikado.
However, and this really is the book’s only significant flaw, although these quotations are never without purpose, they are generally rather too long, and their length is not justified by what is made of them. It is always welcome to find an individual willing to let others who have said a thing concisely and poetically to speak, but I would have liked to have heard more from Fr Mullins himself, since what he has to say is so worth listening to. In addition, it would be interesting to know which other texts on prayer have informed Fr Mullins’ thinking, and which he might recommend as further reading.
Let Us Pray is an eminently practical text which offers real and realistic examples for those wishing to establish a solid pattern of daily prayer, or an alternative for those people for whom such a pattern is already in place. It is an earnest and interesting book which provides a starting point for structured, meaningful daily prayer and is certainly worth the modest asking price, particularly as sales will be donated to St George’s Church, Harrow.
Let Us Pray is reminiscent of those free recipe cards available in supermarkets nowadays: easy to read, and so promising that you want to go straight home and try it out for yourself. If prayer is ‘the essential food and nourishment of our Christian life’, as Fr Mullins convincingly states, then all I can do is to encourage the reader to pick it up and get cooking.
Rudyard Kipling’s reputation has suffered, or enjoyed, several reversals and turns of the wheel of fortune. The popular bestseller, the talented journalist, the personification of the Imperial ideal of King and Empire, the eminent novelist and man of letters are all aspects of a long literary career. Unfortunately the image of the last-ditch imperialist for some time obscured his many achievements. He came to represent a short-hand, if not lazy, way of referring to a set of political precepts and values that had been deemed to have passed away, and about which there was a degree of embarrassment.
Even his charming children’s stories seemed somewhat tainted by these outmoded principles and conventions; and his poetry was considered, by some, condescending and socially elitist. Yet anyone who could coin the phrase for his cousin Stanley Baldwin about the press barons that they sought to exercise ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’ cannot be all bad.
We now see a more complicated, more morally and politically complex character and personality, and we can also see that his prose and his poetry have resonances beyond their time and place. Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling by Charles Allen [Abacus, £9.99] is admirably clear in setting Kipling in his formative years and journalistic experience in the India of the Raj at the height of the Imperial adventure. It explains much about his future life and attitudes. If you want to see beyond the apparently jingoistic, nationalistic facade, you could do no better than read the magnificent two-volume history of the Irish Guards in the Great War that he wrote [ISBN 9781873376836]. His only son was reported missing presumed dead in that war, having served in that noble and courageous regiment. Kipling had used his influence to have his short-sighted boy Jack commissioned and he and his wife spent virtually the rest of their blighted lives trying to find out how he died and where the lost body was buried. They failed, and his grave only recently seems to have been identified.
In these two volumes he pours his passion, pride and grief into lapidary prose. In its very detachment and scrupulous reserve is etched a moving, if sublimated, emotional commitment and personal engagement. It is not an emotion recollected in tranquility, as such, but searing grief and pain channeled into a powerful, charged narrative: a work of art and a work of parental piety.
Germaine Greer attempts in Shakespeare’s Wife [Bloomsbury, £8.99] a work of rehabilitation on Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, the inheritor of the second-best bed. Dr Greer feels that she has been unfairly traduced and virtually eliminated from the historical record and the narrative of Shakespeare’s life. When this book came out in hardback, it attracted rather disobliging reviews (at least the ones I read were hardly complimentary). I see what those reviewers meant.
Although Dr Greer writes with characteristic combative panache, with a kind of truculent scholarship, the style cannot disguise the evidential hollowness of her argument and assertions. The evidence is simply not there and although her suppositions may be right, her conclusions could equally well be wrong. She constructs a house of straw and one which convinces less and less with the stridency of her assertions.
In my reaction, I was reminded of Hugh Trevor-Ropers eloquently poisonous demolition in a brief article of Dr A.T. Rowse’s similar feat of identifying the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets from a paucity of evidence. Both his method and conclusions were suspect, and led Trevor-Roper to fashion one of the most devastating insults (or backhanded compliments) of the century. Amidst the mounting dross,’ he wrote of Dr Rowse’s considerable output, gold may still be found.’
One of George Orwell’s most prescient comments in his book 1984 was ‘one does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.’ Is it the use of ‘one’ that still marks him out as an old Etonian? In any event, this is not a sentiment that would necessarily endear him to the readers of the left-wing newspaper Tribune (still limping along). Orwell wrote a column in the 1940s, As I please’, and they are represented here in Orwell in Tribune (Methuen, £14.99) in their breadth of interest by Paul Anderton who has exercised an unobtrusive but helpful editorial hand. Orwell was virtually incapable of writing a dull sentence, even if he is sometimes not as consistently right in his prophesies and judgements as 1984 and Animal Farm would lead us to assume.
In the last phase of his long career, Johnny Cash seemed to personify the conscience of America. Perhaps like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, he wrote the lyrics to his country’s post-war song. A recent retrospective on television of his concerts in Folsom prison and San Quentin, which still have a visceral power and which redefined the social possibilities of the genre, pointed up a remarkable performer and a man of immense integrity. He struggled with his demons, but he emerged a wiser and a more considerable human being.
His second wife, June Carter, was integral to that transformation: and if there is a case for re-marriage after divorce, this is it. This memoir, 7 Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, is written by his first wife, Vivian Cash, and chronicles a different Cash. This was before the fame, the drugs and the heavy drink. The young Cash who writes to his wife fairly conventional letters from his days of military service abroad is inevitably and naturally not as interesting, nor as dark, nor as profound and fascinating as he undoubtedly was in his trials and in his maturity. But, nevertheless, there are signals and hints at things to come and these are worth having.
Finally, it has taken me some time to catch up with the novelist William Brodrick, but I read his two published novels during the summer (I use the word loosely, and this year incorrectly) and immensely enjoyed them. Both The Sixth Lamentation [Time/Warner, £6.99] and The Gardens of the Dead [Sphere, £6.99] are satisfyingly complex stories of interconnected lives and crimes where the layers of the past are peeled away to reveal hidden secrets. The time sequences are involved, but you are never lost among the several strands. Characters are rounded and humane, morally intricate and sympathetic; even the most flawed are drawn with understanding.
The author’s humanity always shines through the darkness of individual lives, with especial vividness and empathy in his study of the crippling effects of motor neuron disease. In its forensic clarity and almost self-lacerating, merciless and meticulous attention to detail, it is deeply affecting. Mr Brodrick is a monk turned barrister turned novelist. His principle protagonist is a barrister turned monk. Highly recommended.
A high proportion of unsolicited articles arrive electronically or on paper, by various often roundabout means, with no name attached, and as often as not with no date or title either. Finding the right attribution, on later taking them out of the metaphorical store cupboard, is not always easy, nor entirely successful. Whether the article on p. 29 of last month’s ND was written by a ‘Ron Crane’ is now open to doubt. What is certain, however, is that it was not written by Fr Ronald Crane, well known Area Dean in the Midlands and inspiration of Sheepdip. For any confusion, our apologies.