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When Cromwell rode into Callan

by Edited by Jimmy Rhatigan

A Kilkenny town’s wartime heroism is one of the main themes of the latest book by noted Callan author John Fitzgerald. 

Invaders will be launched by Joe Kennedy of Callan Heritage in Keogh’s Pub, Mill Street, Callan on October 6 at 8pm.

The book tells the story of a David and Goliath struggle between the Irish and a supposedly invincible foe, with a focus on Callan’s defiance of the vastly superior army that came knocking on its door in 1650.

Oliver Cromwell’s name still provokes fear and loathing…over three-and-a-half centuries after he departed our shores, following nine months of ravaging. 

There’s hardly a town or village in Ireland that doesn’t have a story to tell of the ruthless conqueror’s cruel deeds.

Some of the stories are a bit dodgy, like the legend that St Brendan’s Church in Clodiagh outside Inistioge, was the only one in County Kilkenny to escape his notice because of its low elevation. 

In fact, the church wasn’t built until over 50 years after Cromwell’s return to England.  

Fireside tales abound about caustic remarks Cromwell is supposed to have made about various town-lands and local characters that didn’t impress him.

A black humorous tale relates to a town that his army had attacked. The story went that half an hour after the soldiers had left the town the local church sexton began ringing the bell from the church tower to signal the all-clear. 

But unknown to townsfolk Cromwell was only 100 yards outside the town, sitting on a rock gorging a leg of mutton.

On hearing the bell, according to legend, Cromwell leapt up from his stony seat, grabbed a musket and shot the unfortunate bell-ringer.

As it turned out, that story has been recounted about several towns up and down the country and some towns had gifted storytellers who made an even better yarn out of it. 

But many of the stories were true…priests were hunted down and hanged, civilian populations massacred, churches torched and families were shipped into slavery.The former MP for Huntington left a trail of devastation.

Cromwell’s unfriendly visit to this part of Ireland (Kilkenny City and County) forms the main setting for the novel.

The story is set in mid-17th century Ireland. A huge expeditionary force under Cromwell’s command landed at Ringsend, Dublin and quickly advanced across the country. 

A key objective is the capture of Kilkenny, which has, for almost seven years, served as the capital of a rebel confederacy. 

Having captured a string of towns, massacring soldiers and civilians in some, Ireland’s deadly foe had Kilkenny in his sights.

In the novel John attempt to recreate that far-off time in Ireland, with emphasis on Kilkenny and his home town of Callan.

He reminds that our county has a rich and proud heritage: One of the greatest castles in the world towers above the city…the old laneways have featured in movies, have never lost their charm, with their time-honoured names enshrined in local culture.

Buildings like Rothe House and the Tholsel take us back to other times, far removed from our 21st century…There’s St Francis Abbey and the Dominican Black Abbey. 

Cromwell is reputed (wrongly) to have invented the game of soccer at the latter venue after a soldier started kicking a wooden statue of a saint around the street,

John has taken a piece of our county’s multi-faceted history and woven his new publication around it. He chose one of the darkest chapters of our past, but, as always in even the worst of times, rays of hope shine through.

In the novel, that terrible age of conquest and occupation lives again, albeit via words and the reader’s imagination.  It revisits that ‘other Ireland’…under attack from the most powerful army on the planet.

In the weeks leading up to Cromwell’s arrival, Kilkenny already had more than enough troubles: Plague ravaged the city. 

In addition to havoc and loss of life it caused the plague turned neighbour against neighbour. 

Fear and suspicion spread faster than the disease.

Some people wore masks (like during our recent Covid Emergency), while others just hoped for the best as they sought to avoid contact with those who had been their friends for years. 

Holy water fonts and stone troughs around the city were filled with vinegar. Citizens were urged to wash their hands…and even their money, in the vinegar, the belief being that it served as a disinfectant.

The city was on edge. If you brushed against someone on the street you’d’ hear a warning to keep your distance. That’s if a sword wasn’t drawn or a pistol cocked. People avoided each other like the plague.

Just when it seemed that the long-suffering citizens couldn’t be any worse off along came the invader from across the Irish Sea.

Callan was in Cromwell’s path as he advanced towards the Marble City. As many towns had surrendered following the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, Cromwell expected another walkover in Callan.

But he hadn’t allowed for an exceptionally brave captain who refused to give up without a fight, or his equally brave wife, who mobilized the women of the town.

The novel tells the story of what happened in Callan and other parts of the country when small bands of Irishmen and women said no to the tyrant.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints. Apart from the captain and his warrior wife, there’s Sir Robert Talbot, Callan’s military governor who wanted to run up the white flag, the town’s mayor who’s caught between rival factions on the Corporation that wanted to fight or surrender.

There was an Augustinian Friar, a cynical publican, and a Cromwellian soldier who kept a diary of his military adventures in Ireland.

Invaders is available from Amazon as a paperback or ebook. Or go along to the book launch to pick up a copy.

John told Kilkenny Press he is looking forward to meeting friends, Romans and countrymen in Keogh’s Tavern on October 6.

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