Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Interview with Writer/Historian Tom Reilly

I recently came into contact with the Irish historian/writer Tom Reilly. His books have concentrated on many aspects of Oliver Cromwell’s controversial military and political campaign in Ireland. I have only started to read Tom’s last two books and would like to review them at a later date. I will therefore reserve comment on his work. I would welcome comments on this interview and Tom’s writing on Ireland and Cromwell.

Q What made you take up the study of history and especially your specialization of Cromwell in Ireland?

A I would love to say that I was always suspicious of the politicisation of Irish history and that my cynicism was piqued when it came to what we (Irish citizens) were being taught about Cromwell in Ireland but that’s not really true. Well, there is a grain of truth about it and that’s to do with me being a cynic, which I believe I am. I was one of those ‘question authority’ types when I wore a younger man’s clothes. (He didn’t seem to mind. ) However, the real reason why I took up this study is because I come from Drogheda – the scene of Old Ironsides’ most notorious deeds. Indeed, I now live in a house, the boundary of which was once the town wall, and furthermore it was into my garden that the breach in the walls was made and the Roundheads poured through in 1649.

I was brought up in this town. My family go back generations here. I used to hang around (what was left of) the town walls and was fascinated about the fact that Cromwell is supposed to have killed all of my ancestors. So, as a young adult, I decided to check the local records to see if there was anything to be gleaned there. And lo and behold, the records go back to the year 1649. In these records, there were the names of hundreds of Drogheda’s inhabitants whose daily lives continued through into the 1650s and beyond, all of whom showed very little signs of being massacred in cold blood. This was not a document (Drogheda Corporation records) that many historians had checked in the past, but it seemed obvious to me, even though I wasn’t a historian. I’m still not. That was the starting point. And I have never looked back since. 

Q Describe how difficult it was for an amateur writing in the current formally academic controlled climate.

A That’s quite an interesting question. So, to start at the beginning, it wasn’t long before I felt that I was on to something. So I wiped the slate clean and dismissed all I have ever heard about Cromwell and I began to read voraciously about the man – SR Gardiner, WC Abbott, Thomas Carlyle, Hillaire Belloc, Pauline Gregg, Ivan Roots, Peter Gaunt, John Morrill, etc. etc. all made an impact on me and none of them seemed to think that Cromwell was a complete bastard. Hmm. That’s odd. It was Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell, Our Chief of Men that gave me a real insight into his personality and as I kept on reading and reading it seemed to me that a pattern was beginning to emerge. Fr Denis Murphy (Cromwell in Ireland) and JP Prendergast (The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland) DMR Esson (The Curse of Cromwell) typified Irish attitudes to Cromwell, whereas English writers tended to be much more circumspect when it came to the stories of civilian atrocities. So I wasn’t alone. Gardiner in particular did not believe the war criminal allegations and copper-fastened my doubt that the stories of indiscriminate massacres of civilians might be just that, stories. That was enough for my cynicism to ignite and it continues to burn in flames today.
But what to do?

So in 1993, in the middle of my research, I wrote an amateurish book called Cromwell at Drogheda, which didn’t really say anything at all except explain the facts of the siege. It was for the local market (1,000 copies) and it sold out.

Finally, I had so much material assembled I decided to write another book. Strangely, for me, this was more about writing than it was about history. Like many amateur writers I wanted to be heard. I brought out (self-published) two more books on local history in the nineties and after completing the first draft of Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy, I sent it to a few publishers (70!!) to see if they’d bite, not for a minute thinking that any of them would.  Steve McDonogh (Brandon Books) rang me one day and I nearly fell out of my standing. He wanted to publish – but the book would need footnotes. I think I said something like, ‘I’m sorry, footwhats?’ Not a clue. I failed second level history at school, so I had absolutely no idea what he meant. Naturally I had encountered footnotes in all of my research because many of the books that I had read had footnotes, or endnotes (I still don’t know the difference, if there is a difference) or references of some sort. But could I actually do this? Me?!

To make a long story longer, I gave it a go. I vaguely knew that if you stated a fact you needed to reference it. So I copied the footnote style of others, (probably various others), went back through the manuscript (this was a hell of a memory test) to see if I could remember where I read this fact and that fact and the other fact. After several more months, I had the footnotes done. I had referenced all of the facts (well, those that I figured needed referencing, my editor never questioned them) that were in the text that identified the location where I got these same facts. Of course, little did I know that I had suddenly dipped my toe into the bewildering world of academia, a world, where a primary source reference can be compromised if that reference comes second-hand from a modern-day publication, or shock horror, if a comma is misplaced. I hadn’t a clue.  I simply thought it was good enough to say where I had read the fact. But hey, the publisher didn’t question my references so I seemed to be getting away with it. After another long wait the book was published. There was no going back now. I had definitely gotten away with it. A book with footnotes eh? Go me.

So what was the question? Oh yeah, how difficult it was writing in an academically controlled climate. Actually, it wasn’t difficult at all first time round. I had no idea that the climate was controlled by academia. But by Jaysus, do I know now!

The academics were horrified. They thought of me as if I was dirt on their shoe. Reviews in most of the national Irish newspapers were bad. ‘None of this is convincing’ said the Irish Times. ‘This is a painfully bad book’, said Dr Jason McElligott and he followed up with, ‘and it is tempting to suggest that its main use will be to teach students how not to conduct research, assess evidence or write prose.’ I was stunned. ‘But, the evidence, I cried. Look at the evidence’.

Thankfully, those without insular opinions embraced the book and its thesis. I began to realise that those who came out against it were simply showing themselves up. Cromwell didn’t massacre unarmed women and children. They knew/know it. Surely this is about balance. If you don’t buy my entire thesis then, c’mon historians, at least come out and agree that the teenagers, granddads, grannies, toddlers and babies of Ireland weren’t slaughtered by Cromwell in 1649. But I digress.

Q What do you make of the current historiography regarding Cromwell?

A I’m going to assume that this means Cromwell in Ireland. I have discovered that there is a vast difference between Irish attitudes and English attitudes (no kidding, right?) to Cromwell. Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my book, which succinctly explains what I make of it:

‘As the crow of antiquity flies, the early modern period is not really that far away in terms of distance in time, especially in Ireland where history has an irritating habit of not going away. This is something that we Irish know to our cost. History and myth have always been close companions; indeed, one is frequently mistaken for the other. Myth is a powerful tool that has been used to shape nations. The axiom that truth is the first casualty of war has rarely been in sharper focus than in seventeenth century Ireland. Irish history is strewn with colourful myths, many of which are associated with Oliver Cromwell.

Often given credit for being personally responsible for founding the British Empire, Cromwell is full of contradiction; a country squire who became an outstanding military commander; a king killer who was offered the crown and refused it; a champion of religious toleration who was terrified of the power of Catholicism; a party reveller who danced late into the night and who banned Christmas; a practical joker who became an enduring symbol of everything Puritanical.

Such is his murderous legacy, Cromwell features in a modern-day cult card game called Terror Top Chumps, a ‘politically charged version’ of the children’s card game Top Trumps (created by Fear Trade Ltd.) alongside Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden; a total of thirty-two terrorists and dictators in all – and has a body count of 600,000 attributed to him. Not by coincidence, this figure has often been used as the entire number of people who died due to famine, pestilence and war during the Cromwellian period in Ireland.’

One of the main problems here is that the seventeenth century experts in Ireland seem extremely reluctant to accept a rehabilitated Cromwell and they still want to perpetuate myths. Oh, hang on, that’s the next question.

Q As you say in the preface you have received much criticism over your book how much do you think this was politically motivated.

A Political motivation is an excellent way of describing some of the hostility towards my work. Without getting personal there are some Irish historians who are very obviously nationalists and even if you took them back to 1649 in a time machine and showed them what happened and they saw it with their own eyes, they still wouldn’t believe it. This is a fact. (Well, inasmuch as it can be since time travel hasn’t been invented yet.)
It is always a source of amazement to me how one’s political inclinations can determine how one views history. It’s unlikely (although not impossible) that any member of Sinn Féin (for instance) would agree with me in a million years. Just not gonna happen. I think this is a tragedy of major proportions. This issue has been an accelerant in the incessant deterioration of Anglo-Irish relations over the years and it is one of the reasons why Ireland holds a huge grudge against England today. It fuels bigotry and insular thinking. Still today, an Irishman will point to Cromwell as the source of all of Ireland’s woes; the bastard that slaughtered whole Irish communities without batting an eyelid.

The biggest issue I have with politically motivated attitudes is the historians. There are many non-historians (lay people I suppose) who really don’t know any better and look to experts to tell them what to think. Well, nuts to that. I don’t need an expert to tell me what to think. I can make up my own mind. That’s why I didn’t use footnotes in my new book, Cromwell was Framed. I will see their book with footnotes and I will raise them a book that ordinary folk can read. And that’s why I reproduced most of the actual primary documents in this new book. There is no need for footnotes, because the documents are there for all to see. I didn’t want to hide behind a reference/footnote  that I have interpreted on behalf of Joe and Josephine Public. I included them so people can interpret them themselves. Besides, I wasn’t going down that road again. I have no idea how to assemble a footnote. So I’m not going to take on the historians at their own game. I’m going to take them on at mine. And hey, if there are any seventeenth century historians out there please tear my work to shreds if you can. Go on. Prove that I’m wrong. Shut me up forever. Make me go away. Make me crawl back under the non-academic stone from whence I came. But if you do try, you better be clear of your facts. Because any rebuttal will be closely scrutinised by the world at large – and who knows, your work may be labelled politically motivated and your reputation might be tarnished as a result. Because that’s exactly what has happened/will happen to the historians I mention in the book. Touché
Q Has there been much discussion on your book in Ireland. If so could you describe it?

A Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy has been virtually dismissed by most historians here. At least the ones who have ventured into print. There are many who have not said anything and who knows what their private thoughts are. But none, and I mean none, have publically come out and supported me in any book that has been written since 1999. It’s virtually impossible for academics to accept the fact that an amateur has had the temerity to state that generations of experts have gotten such a controversial issue in Irish history wrong. Those who have ventured into print with rebuttals of my work are dealt with in the new book. I have proved that they have used disingenuous methods of interpretation to draw conclusions. And they should be totally ashamed of themselves for doing this, especially when this is such a hot political potato. But will they apologise and display any humility or contrition? Will they heck? I know this sounds like another Internet rant. And that’s what it is. But I’m nothing if not honest. And I’ve also waived all royalties for this new book. Why? Because I have been accused in the past of doing this for money. Get real people. This is about history. About righting a wrong.

Cromwell was Framed is probably well on the way to being dismissed by those same historians.  Ah, but here’s the rub. They are going to have to come up with primary source evidence that has not yet entered the public domain if they are to do challenge me in a meaningful way. And I mean primary source proof from the year 1649. Sure, I could be wrong. But until a serious challenge comes along that completely refutes my thesis, then I will continue to have the confidence to shout this from the highest rooftops. The historians are wrong. Cromwell did not commit war crimes in Ireland. Get over it. Have I a chip on my shoulder? You betcha. But hey, is it any wonder? It’s the constant refusal of scholars and experts to accept my work that irks. Call it a desire to be accepted if you will. So, yes, they’re to blame for my attitude. Not me. I see this as the little person versus the might of academia. And so far I’m winning
Q What are your future plans?

A Now there’s a question. I got nothing. If anybody can think of a controversial topic for me to write about let me know. I’m on Facebook. I’d love to find out that St Patrick wasn’t all he was cracked up to be and do an exposé on him. Watch this space.