On September 11, 1649, an army stormed the town of Drogheda and as many as 3,500 people were slaughtered, unleashed by the great bogey-man of Irish history – Oliver Cromwell. In this first episode the historical context of 17th century Ireland and the religious conflict taking place in Ireland and Britain unfolds. We meet the main players in the conflict, including Cromwell himself and his Irish adversaries, the O’Neills, the most powerful of all the Gaelic clans. We meet the brilliant General, Owen Roe O’Neill returned from the continental wars with his kinsman Hugh Dubh O’Neill and 300 trained Irish soldiers. Owen Roe was a soldier with over 30 years experience in wars on the continent. But even a battle-hardened veteran like him was shocked at the ravages of war on the countryside.
The aim of the series was to place the viewer as close to the action as possible. As the story unfolds through reconstruction, location footage, CGI, stylised drama, aerials and rostrum, we explored the significance of Cromwell’s campaign from multiple perspectives, bringing new insight and paralleling the events of the 1640s and 1650s with subsequent events in modern history.
We trace the events that led to the first and most infamous atrocities of his campaign at Drogheda and Wexford. The episode climaxes with the death of Owen Roe O’Neill, Ireland’s greatest military leader.
‘By his death the enemy is grown strong and cruel. For now the enemy does not fear the name of General Owen O’Neill, which not long before did sound like a thunderbolt in his ears. As long as he breathed life, we were to stand in possession of this land, now all whipped and snatched out of our hands.’
- Hugh Dubh O’Neill
Who now can stand against Cromwell?
All is not lost for the Irish. Owen Roe’s kinsman, Major-General Hugh Dubh O’Neill, will now emerge from his shadow. He, also, served for many years in the continental wars, and he commands 2,000 experienced soldiers of the Ulster Catholic army. Can he stop Cromwell in his tracks?
The second episode opens with Cromwell’s army unexpectedly beginning to founder. He fails to take two key strategic positions – Duncannon and Waterford, and reaches a low point in the teeming rain of Kilmacthomas, with his army reduced by disease and bad weather. But in the Spring of 1650 he renews his campaign in Leinster and Munster. He captures important towns like Kilkenny and Cashel, but meets his nemesis at Clonmel, where 2,000 of his troops are wiped out by Hugh Dubh O’Neill.
This is the greatest defeat Cromwell suffers in any of his campaigns in Ireland or Britain. In one day, Cromwell lost more men than in the entire English Civil War, Clonmel was the biggest setback of his entire military career. Hugh Dubh O’Neill and his highly motivated, trained and experienced Ulster troops had proved more than a match for the New Model Army. Shocked and incensed, his nose bloodied for the first time in his military career, Cromwell and his army were stopped in their tracks.
Ultimately, O’Neill’s triumph was short-lived by 1651 all but two cities Limerick and Galway have fallen to the invaders. O’Neill makes his last stand at Limerick.
Can the Irish prevail? Sadly not. We follow the campaign to its bitter end and discover the fate of O’Neill and other protagonists, and the bitter aftermath of dispossession.