Cromwell in Kilkenny

Another legend relates to the profanement of Kilkenny’s Market Cross by Cromwellian soldiers. This magnificent stone structure stood close to the present location of the same name. Four columns supported it and devout folk could ascend it on its four sides by flights of stone steps. From its highest point rose a sculptured figure of the Crucifixion.

Shortly after the occupation forces entered the city, a band of troops gathered in the market place around this monument. Aiming their muskets, they opened fire on the Crucifixion symbol to aggravate locals and show them who was in charge. They then broke off pieces of the monument and scattered these on the street.

This part of the story is believable, and the incident would have been quite typical of Cromwell’s troops in the aftermath of a military triumph. But the legend goes on to describe what became of the “profaning scoundrels” who desecrated the Market Cross. Within a few days, each of the seven soldiers involved had died of “a strange malady”…Heaven’s revenge, locals believed.

Outside the city, Governor Axtel made his presence equally felt. He had no qualms about suppressing any hint of opposition to Cromwellian rule within his jurisdiction.

After hostilities had ceased, he instructed his troops to round up fifty inhabitants of Thomastown and execute them as a reprisal for an ambush mounted the previous day in the district by a mixed group of Royalist and native Irish fighters.

A makeshift gallows was erected. The men and women chosen were hanged one by one as families and friends were compelled to watch. The scene of unspeakable horror was preserved for a week to ensure that locals got the message.

On Axtel’s orders, Cromwellian troops shot and killed a group of forty men, women and children in a field near Kildonan Wood.

Axtel had a Fitzgarret of Brow beheaded because the man’s father had fought in the King’s army against Cromwell. The sons of the Butlers of Ballykeeffe and Bonnettstown were hanged for the same “offence”.

Francis Frisby, a former servant of the Earl of Ormonde, also drew the wrath of Axtel and his Roundhead goons. A protestant and Englishman, Frisby was tortured to death in Kilkenny Castle.

Captain Thomas Shortall was hanged by Axtel simply because he owned a fine estate two miles outside Kilkenny that the Cromwellians had their eyes on.

Though all Catholic clergy had been ordered to leave Kilkenny from day one of the occupation, some remained out of loyalty to believers. But a Decree of banishment in 1653 forced these brave clerics to depart also…with the exception of a few who were promptly arrested. A Baptist community thrived under the patronage of Governor Axtel.

For a short period after the siege, Kilkenny was allowed to retain its Mayor and Corporation. But these were then abolished. Axtel ordered the confiscation of all property held by the citizens when a nationwide campaign of ethnic cleansing commenced in 1654.

Cromwell’s Order of Confiscation decreed that Kilkenny, among certain other towns and cities, was to be cleared of its citizenry. Though this draconian ruling was not completely enforced in the case of Kilkenny, many householders had to pack their belongings and say goodbye to the city they had lived and grown up in.

With Cromwell’s chilling admonition: “To Hell or to Connacht” ringing in their ears, they moved to the desolate West of Ireland to begin their new lives in exile.

It was mainly wealthier citizens who were transplanted. Their servants and labourers were deemed useful to stay behind and serve their Cromwellian overlords.

There were few tears shed among the oppressed people of Kilkenny City and county when, in 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. His commonwealth regime disappeared two years later with the restoration of Charles II to the English Throne.

– John Fitzgerald

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