• James Ireland

Revising Atrocious Cultural Histories through Theatre: Oliver Cromwell and Genocide in Ireland

THERE IS A STATUE of Oliver Crowell out­side the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Whenever lists of the great­est Britons are com­piled he reg­u­larly sits in and around the top ten. He de­signed and ex­e­cuted geno­cide against the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion of Ireland. Yet, by some, he is cel­e­brated.

How can we in­ter­rupt the nar­ra­tive of the “cultural hero” in cases where that “hero” should not be cel­e­brated? How should we best stage cul­tural in­ter­ven­tions in cases where the cul­tural nar­ra­tive has been rewrit­ten to omit in­crim­i­nat­ing parts? One of the most pow­er­ful things about the­atre and other per­for­mance-based me­dia is its abil­ity to cul­ti­vate em­pa­thy. What is be­ing de­picted — per­formed — hap­pens with real live peo­ple. Perhaps, here, in the­atre, we can cre­ate force­ful art, sit­ting peo­ple down in front of it: real bod­ies, real pres­ence, real hu­man be­ings. Perhaps this in­ter­rup­tion of the real with a dif­fer­ent real could work.

In this ar­ti­cle I de­tail some of my re­search as a play­wright in­ves­ti­gat­ing meth­ods to in­ter­vene in the cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion of atro­cious peo­ple. My aim is to cre­ate a piece of the­atre that, when con­sumed, will make some­one feel un­easy — con­flicted — dirty — per­haps a lit­tle cul­pa­ble — at their next en­counter with Oliver Cromwell. In this way, I hope to con­tribute to the rewrit­ing of the nar­ra­tive that sur­rounds him. The play We Didn’t Kill the Wolves (It was Cromwell) has been de­vel­oped as part of the Act II Festival in London. Rehearsal and de­vel­op­ment was di­rected by Catherine V. Mclean, with en­sem­ble mem­bers Mia Kitty Barbe-Wilson, Ceara Harper, Tom Hunter, Magnus Korsaeth, and Louis Vichard. At the time of writ­ing, de­vel­op­ment is on­go­ing.


In 1649, Oliver Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland to re-con­quer the coun­try for England and ex­act re­venge for the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Cromwell com­manded an army that mas­sa­cred civil­ians in Drogheda and Wexford un­der no-quar­ter or­ders, en­acted laws and di­rec­tives that his­to­ri­ans ar­gue amounted to at­tempted geno­cide, and shaped the sav­agery of his suc­ces­sor Henry Ireton’s com­mand. Cromwell signed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland in 1652 and over­saw fur­ther rat­i­fi­ca­tion in 1657 as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The act or­dered sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions, mass land con­fis­ca­tion, and forcible de­por­ta­tions of in­dige­nous Irish to the West of Ireland, and as “indentured ser­vants” to plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean. Irish re­sis­tance was strong as they fought for their lives and cul­ture. They tied branches to­gether in forests to form im­pen­e­tra­ble thick­ets against ad­vanc­ing armies; but the English burned those forests. Estimates sug­gest be­tween 10 to 41 per­cent of the Irish pop­u­la­tion were mur­dered be­tween 1649-53. By 1659, af­ter en­su­ing famine and the set­tle­ment of English Protestants, the drop in the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion has been ap­prox­i­mated by some to be as high as 83 per­cent.

In writ­ing the play around Cromwell, I set some pa­ra­me­ters from the out­set:

  1. Irish peo­ple and their cul­ture would be the pri­mary fo­cus — not the story of the English. There is a place for close analy­sis of the per­spec­tives of colonis­ers, but voices and sto­ries of the colonised should come first. British cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the ef­fects of coloni­sa­tion in Ireland are poor, barely pre­sent­ing the sto­ries of Irish peo­ple from the time of the Cromwellian Conquest — nor from many other points in his­tory.

  2. Oliver Cromwell — al­though not the fo­cus in char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment — should fea­ture. It is a key part of the pro­jec­t’s aims that the au­di­ence leave the the­atre feel­ing cul­pa­ble in the per­pet­u­a­tion of Cromwell’s sta­tus as a British hero.

  3. The play should be within rea­son­able means to pro­duce. This pa­ra­me­ter fore­grounds ques­tions about pro­jected bud­get of re­al­is­ing the writ­ing, po­ten­tial toura­bil­ity, re­sponse to pro­gram­ming trends, and the qual­ity/​en­ter­tain­ment value of the play.

This ar­ti­cle will fo­cus on my de­vel­op­ment of the char­ac­ter of Cromwell, in pur­suit of pa­ra­me­ter two, within a larger body of re­search about po­ten­tial story, struc­ture, genre, style, and form.


This is an extract from an article first published by Arc Magazine on August 7, 2020. Visit to read the complete article.

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