History struts its stuff along the Liffey

A view of Dublin's Ormond Quay

Letter from Dublin /Timothy Kirk

Ormond Quay, Dublin – We live off Ormond Quay on Dublin’s Northside and it occurred to me recently that I did not know who this Ormond was. History is written in the place names around Dublin. Just as Boston renamed King and Queen Streets to State and Congress after the American Revolution, Dublin has changed the names of streets, bridges, and quays to reflect the changing tides of history. Between the Four Courts and the Custom House, the River Liffey is traversed by several stately and renamed bridges. Ormond Bridge became O’Donovan Rossa for the Fenian leader in 1923.  The Essex Bridge became the Grattan, for Irish Patriot Henry Grattan in 1875, and the Carlisle Bridge became the O'Connell for the Great Liberator in 1882. Many Irish people still consider Dublin an English city, a world apart from the Ireland of their farms, townlands, parishes, and market towns of their homeplaces. The process of Ireland taking full possession of their capital city is ongoing. 

The view of buildings along the quays is one of Dublin’s trademark images, the public face of the city.  During the rare moments when the wind is calm and the tidal river’s waters are as still as glass, the reflection of the buildings and sky is magical, as if there is a duplicate city under the water. For this view, we have the Duke of Ormond to thank.

So, who was he? Born in London 1610 as James FitzThomas Butler, he was heir to the earldom of the Catholic Butler Anglo-Irish dynasty. The Butlers are a Norman family and were part of the 12th century English conquest of Ireland.  His father died in a shipwreck when James was just 9 years old, and with his Catholic father’s property under sequestration and his grandfather in prison, Butler was placed under the care of the Archbishop of Canterbury to be raised as a Protestant. When his grandfather was released from prison, Butler went to live with him, but the grandfather did not interfere with his Protestant upbringing. Butler married his cousin Elizabeth, who was also a rare Protestant from the Catholic Desmond dynasty of Munster.  The marriage of Protestants united these dynasties' lands and titles. In Ireland, even now, it's “all about the land.” James inherited the title of Earl at his grandfather’s death in 1634.

The Lord Deputy of Ireland at the time was Thomas Wentworth, who befriended Ormond and made him commander of royal forces in Ireland.  With Ormond’s help, Wentworth implemented a policy of large-scale confiscation of the lands and property of the Catholic gentry, including Ormond’s cousins and in-laws.  In 1641 Wentworth was accused of treason by the Parliament and was recalled to London.  He was initially acquitted of Parliament's charges but after more skullduggery, he was beheaded at the order of a reluctant King Charles I. Sensing the oncoming chaos in England, the Irish Catholic Confederation launched a broad rebellion in 1641 at the news of Wentworth's execution.  As commander of English forces in Ireland, Ormond drove the Confederates from the Pale around Dublin and Drogheda, but by 1645, the Confederation held two thirds of the Island and had established its own government in Kilkenny.

Meanwhile in England, the civil wars had broken out in 1642 between the Royalists loyal to Catholic King Charles I and the Parliamentarians ultimately led by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. In Ireland, Ormond negotiated a ceasefire between the Confederates and his Royalist forces.  When the war in England turned in favor of the Parliamentarians, Ormond surrendered Dublin to Parliamentarian troops in 1647, and retreated west.  In 1649, Charles was executed by Cromwell, who immediately turned his attention to the reconquest and punishment of Ireland.  After the king’s execution, and in the expectation that Cromwell would come to Ireland, Ormond transitioned the ceasefire to an alliance between his English Royalist forces and the Irish Catholic Confederation, his former adversaries, family members, and in-laws. Cromwell landed in Dublin in 1649. When Ormond was routed at Rathmines in his attempt to capture Dublin, his English Protestant Royalist troops mutinied and joined the Cromwellians, and his Catholic Confederation soldiers, who did not trust him, ousted him as leader. In 1650 he fled to France. 

The English Civil War (s) are complicated, filled with palace intrigue, most of which we will skip. The big picture is that the war resulted in the deaths of 3.7 percent of the population of England and 6 percent of the population of Scotland, totaling approximately 80,000 dead in Britain, an enormous loss of life.

The death toll in Ireland was dramatically worse. At least 41 percent of the native Irish population (618,000 of the estimated 1.5 million total inhabitants) were killed by Cromwell’s armies (in battle, mass executions, by starvation and disease). Food supplies were destroyed, water befouled.  The war sparked a famine that was worsened by an outbreak of bubonic plague. In addition to those killed, Cromwell shipped tens of thousands of Irish to Barbados as slaves.  The exact number is debated but 50,000 is the accepted modern estimate.  Most other survivors were driven into reservations “west of Shannon” in the poorest land of Connacht while Protestant settlers from Britain arrived in the east. Today, 365 years after his death, Cromwell remains the most reviled man in Irish history and his threat “To Hell or Connacht!” survives in collective memory. By modern standards, the punishment of civilians for the 1641 Irish rebellion by massacres, starvation, disease, and enslavement would be classified as ethnic cleansing at a minimum.  Academics still debate whether Cromwell’s actions were a genocide.  

The criteria for what constitutes genocide were established by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, an international treaty that criminalizes genocide and obligates state parties to enforce its prohibition. It was the first legal instrument to codify genocide as a crime, and the first human rights treaty unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948The Convention defines genocide as any of five "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." These five acts were: killing members of the group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children out of the group. Cromwell’s vengeful destruction of the Irish people fits all or most of the criteria for genocide and his motto, “Peace Through War,” is eerily similar to that of some leaders today.

Boston played a minor role in Cromwell’s 12 years of Puritan rule.  During his reign, as many as half the graduating classes per year from Harvard College traveled to England to fight on Cromwell’s side or to serve in his ‘Protectorate.’  The Puritans’ virulent anti-Catholicism was a harbinger of what sort of welcome the “famine Irish” would receive when they arrived in great numbers in Boston two centuries later.


Getting back to the view of the Liffey, James Butler, now the Earl of Ormond but stripped of property by Cromwell and flat broke, had fled to Paris where he passed his exile in the constant company of Charles II, the king in waiting. Back in England, Cromwell had died of typhoid in 1658. His son Richard proved an unworthy successor, so Parliament installed Charles II to the throne in the Stuart Restoration of 1660.  In 1661, Charles II had Cromwell’s body exhumed for posthumous execution on the same day that Cromwell had executed his father, Charles I in 1649. Cromwell's corpse was hanged, beheaded, drawn, and quartered. His severed head was mounted on a pike at Westminster Abbey where it remained until 1685 when a storm blew it to the ground. A guard took it home as a souvenir, hiding the skull in his chimney.  It passed into the possession of several individual collectors until it was finally buried secretly by his descendants in 1960 in a plot at his Cambridge College.

King Charles II elevated Butler to the Irish peerage as the Duke of Ormond for his loyal service as a failed commander, reliable companion, and sometime spy. Ormond was penniless but because he was a Protestant, his Irish property was restored, and he was able to expand his holdings and rents from the surviving Catholic Irish. 

The Duke’s decade in Paris strolling along the Seine River made a big impression on him. He admired the elegant buildings that face the Seine, the arched bridges that cross it, and the quays that line it.  At the time, Dublin buildings built along the river turned their back on the Liffey whose marshy banks and docks were used for loading and unloading ships and as a dumping ground.  Ormond used his restored power and influence to reorient development of buildings in Dublin to face the river and to develop the quays and wide bridges that cross the river in the Dublin we know today. Ormond Quay still bears his name and learning the history behind the name puts current events into perspective.

Ireland’s fortunes have changed dramatically especially in the last one hundred years. Born of unspeakable tragedies, Ireland’s large and powerful diaspora in the US has exerted economic and political power on Ireland’s behalf time and again. Other peoples and cultures around the world are not so lucky.  There are no Palestinian Tip O’Neills, Ted Kennedys, or Joe Bidens using American influence to address injustice in their ancestral homeland.

Israel and Palestine

The current crisis in the Middle ast continues to dominate Irish politics. The reasons run deep.  In the eyes of the Palestinian civilians incarcerated in Gaza under bombardment, deprived of food and water, the Irish see their ancestors who were victims of Cromwell and An Gorta Mor. Images of military intimidation and humiliation at checkpoints in the West Bank trigger living memories of the North of Ireland when Catholics were burned out of their homes and deprived of political representation.  The Irish identify viscerally with those who have been dispossessed, denigrated, killed, and left to starve.  The frustration that thousands of Irish protesters on the streets of Dublin express, week after week, is an emotion beyond anger; it is an anguished, wretched disbelief: don't you see what we see?

Ireland has no military power, but it does have hard-earned moral authority, a cultural temerity to speak the truth and a history of supporting struggles for justice, in South Africa, South America, the United States, and elsewhere. Irish President Michael D. Higgins called for a ceasefire after the Hamas attacks, initial Israeli bombing, and the public threat by Israeli generals to cut off food, water, and fuel to Gaza. The Israeli ambassador accused the Irish President of “repeating misinformation,” an extraordinary accusation to level at a sitting head of state. Irish leaders across the political spectrum abhor the Hamas attack. They also condemn the ongoing siege of Gaza as collective punishment. Even the conservative Taoiseach Varadkar has called the ongoing assault “revenge.”  An Israeli cabinet member of an ultra-rightwing party in Israel was quoted by the Times of Israel as saying that the Palestinian people “can go to Ireland or deserts,” adding that those who wave a Palestinian flag “shouldn’t continue living on the face of the earth.”

The phrase “To Ireland or deserts” sounds to Irish ears like “To Hell or Connacht.” The Palestinian flags flying during large peace marches in Dublin these days are proof that the Irish will not be intimidated.