Cromwell Was Framed: Ireland 1649
By: Tom Reilly
Review Written by: Shonda Wilson
There are moments when as a reader, one just wants a book to be good for a variety of personal reasons. Perhaps the author is a favorite or the subject, but either way, the reader picks up the book with a preset desire for an enjoyable reading experience and sadly sometimes that ends in disappointment. This feeling of disappointment occurs frequently for historians when attempting to read what academics call “popular history,” or books written about history, but not by traditionally educated historians. Now, not all popular histories are bad and dozens of popular historians get it right producing well written, documented, and thought out texts on popular historic events and even the most educated historian enjoys those books, regardless of the author’s education. Personally, when I have free time, I love reading books by Sarah Vowell, John Meacham, and Barbara Tuchman all popular historians and each producing high quality, researched, and expertly written texts. Moreover, I am still learning myself and as a mere grad student working towards the coveted PhD, I tend to give these authors a little leeway if the book is geared towards the wider public audience and slated to sell in the major box bookstore market and not merely to academics and experts on a subject (I read mostly those books and they are for two very different types of people). That being said, books written about the past and authors who make specific and controversial arguments in those books have a responsibility to prove what they say and produce a paper trail or evidence to support those arguments and unfortunately that is where myself and author Tom Reilly have issue.
Reilly’s latest book, “Cromwell Was Framed: Ireland 1649” boldly claims that centuries of well trained historians get Cromwell and his intentions in Ireland during the seventeenth century wrong. That claim in itself is not outlandish or new, historians bicker constantly over the most minute of details throughout history, but where Reilly and other historians making such claims differ is in proving their case. “Cromwell Was Framed” mentions documents, letters, and events contemporary to Cromwell’s experiences in Ireland during 1649, but provides little contextual documentation or footnotes regarding said references. The lack of contextual reference seriously threatens the plausibility of his claims. Furthermore, the documents and evidence Reilly often uses to prove his point comes from questionable sources (can we really trust a public statement by Cromwell himself disavowing any desire for violence against the Irish people or believe Reilly without proof that all contemporary published works accusing Cromwell of violent atrocities in Drogheda and Wexford were highly over exaggerated or fabricated). Finally, Reilly has a tendency to argue with historians who panned his first book and lash out at Catholics and his obvious animosity often creeps in, causing disruptions in the flow throughout the text, which left me feeling like a person stuck in an awkward conversation where one friend constantly talks badly about the other. Essentially, I struggled with “Cromwell Was Framed”and often found myself pushing through the book without a desire to go further. Reilly lost me early on and while his writing is fluid, conversational, entertaining, and accessible to a wide audience (vitally important in popular history), his argument never fully solidified and I found it hard to believe because Reilly gave me no concrete proof. As I stated before, although Reilly includes portions of documents and personal letters to support his argument, without source information or context, it is very difficult to determine authenticity.
Tom Reilly likes Oliver Cromwell and uses his book to consistently excuse Cromwell’s violent military actions throughout Ireland citing Cromwell’s right of military conquest when one town refuses to surrender or making semantics arguments in regards to public statements that referred to massacres of men, women, and children (he claims document wording has been misunderstood to and massacres overstated). When the author fails to excuse Cromwell’s behavior, he shifts responsibility, often placing blame historical misinterpretation, a conspiratorial contemporary press (who often all met together at the same place to formulate their lies), and the Catholic Church (he does this often). For example, early on in the text, after including a very large document Reilly uses to argue Cromwell’s issues with Ireland resided with the Catholic Church and not the Irish population (something quite hard to separate when one considers the percentage of Irish Catholics in the seventeenth century), he states plainly, “It was the Catholic clergy that was the source of Ireland’s woes and it was they with whom he had major issues, not the people of Ireland.” I do understand how, from Cromwell only, Reilly makes the claims he does in the text, but without a comprehensive look at all sides of the argument and adding to those claims an obvious bias, the lack of reference again creeps in as a hinderance to Reilly’s argument. Moreover, if Reilly offered solid proof of a conspiracy against Cromwell in the press, some evidence that the contemporary poems and stories referencing the massacres in Ireland were false, I would love to see it and I believe the inclusion of such proof would drastically improve the validity of Reilly’s argument. Without such, as a reader, I found it very hard to agree with Reilly’s claims and often agreeing with the historians he refuted in the text who cited Cromwell’s own denial of ill intentions as a strategic military and political move.
When I picked up Reilly’s book, I wanted to immerse myself in his alternate view of one of history’s famed villains. Despite his lack of academic background, I opened my mind and readied myself to take his thesis seriously, look at his evidence, and consider the idea that perhaps other historians mistakenly blamed Cromwell for atrocities that (as Reilly claimed) did not exactly sit well with the subject’s personality, but Reilly’s argument never solidified for me. In other words, I wanted to give Reilly and Cromwell a chance and believe him when he (Cromwell) said: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you might be mistaken.” The documents Reilly did include to supplement his own claims were highly interpretive (the author himself acknowledges this) and he offers no context or reference to said documents apart from copying and pasting them into his book (sometimes in their complete form, but again without context). Furthermore, every chapter in the text includes Reilly’s obvious issue with the negative criticism he received from his earlier work and this proves to be disruptive to the issue at hand (Cromwell’s behaviors in Ireland). “Cromwell Was Framed” read well, I enjoyed the author’s ideas and wanted to give them a chance, but the fractured nature of the text and the lack of contextual documentation and solid proof often left me questioning his conclusions. Reilly’s book had good points and great ideas, but without the solid evidence, I struggled as a reader to believe his argument. To be perfectly honest, if Reilly tweaked his text slightly by offering extensive notes on his sources, provided contextual resources on said sources, and cut out his arguments against historians who disliked his first book, I believe my issues with “Cromwell Was Framed” would dissipate. With that in mind, I am going to recommend those interested in Oliver Cromwell read “Cromwell Was Framed.” While I personally believe that Reilly lacked concrete evidence, I found the book entertaining, highly readable, and his argument compelling due to its very different take on the actions and personality of a man often depicted as a “bad guy.”