Fellow in Focus with John Morrill discusses Cromwell’s legacy as most controversial figure in Irish and British History
20 September 2019 –Eminent Cambridge historian Professor John Morrill discusses his academic career and his upcoming Trinity talk on ‘Cromwell, Priestcraft and the "Deluded and Seduced People of Ireland”’ on the 23rd of September.
Professor John Morrill is currently a visiting research fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with the School of Histories and Humanities. Since 1997 he has been a Professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge, a university he joined in 1975, after training and teaching in Oxford and Stirling.
He recently sat down with Micheál Ó Siochrú, Trinity Professor of Modern History and Head of the Department of History, to discuss his distinguished academic career and the focus of his current research, Oliver Cromwell.
The two historians have been working on a new multi-volume (and online) edition of all the recorded words of Oliver Cromwell, which was facilitated by the development of a Virtual Research Environment created for the project by High Performance Computing at Trinity. Professor Morrill is the General Editor of this multi-volume collection which is currently going to press.
Having clarified that Professor Morrill’s list of publications “would take an hour to read out”, Professor Ó Siochrú asked him what he thought about the balance between teaching and research outputs, particularly in a highly pressurised academic environment dictated by research grant deadlines and funding applications.
“I’ve always said, by our teaching we affect a relatively small number of people deeply. By our writing, we affect a lot of people shallowly”, Professor Morrill responded. Having supervised an astonishing 127 PhD students during his lengthy career, he said that scholars can’t underestimate the influence their teaching may have, and how students go on to subsequently influence an even wider network of people.
Professor Morrill was one of the key members of the 1641 Depositions Project, which created digital witness testimonies of experiences of the 1641 Irish rebellion. Commenting on what first attracted him to the 17th century as a historian, he said initially it was military history. Such was his enthusiasm for the subject, that his teacher in 6th forum prompted him to teach the class on this subject.
Although he would later go on to describe himself broadly as historian of society, religion, politics and culture, it was the historical wars of the 17th century that first captured his imagination.
“Once we’ve completed the multi-volume edition of all Cromwell’s works, which will transform our understanding of what he wrote or said, I’m going to write a big biography and I’m going to engage military history very much in that.”
The reason he is focusing on Cromwell is because he has a unique ability to inspire people in believing that god is on their side and that “they can’t lose”, even if he isn’t “a creative or innovative general.”
Prompted further to describe his personal fascination with the controversial historical figure, Professor Morrill referred to his own faith as a committed catholic and “all the problems of being a catholic.”
He is constantly drawn back to Cromwell because “his faith both frees and limits him.”
“Cromwell for me represents someone who tried to live out his faith in a very active, public life and I find it much easier to study that phenomenon in someone whose faith is actually something that I’m quite compelled by.”
His upcoming talk as part of Trinity’s Early Modern History Seminar Series will discuss the true meaning of the sinister-sounding and provocative Declaration of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for the undeceiving of a seduced and deluded people, where he will highlight his arguments on Cromwell’s intentions towards Irish Catholics.
In fact, the focus of his current fellowship in Trinity is to look at how the Irish reacted to Cromwell. Through the Library of Trinity College he is able to source local material and an online catalogue central to his research.
“I know a lot about Cromwell in Ireland – but I’ve got a patchy knowledge of all the contemporary references to how he was received. I have been able to pick up quite a lot, both about Irish responses to Cromwell’s presence but also Cromwell’s understanding of the Irish situation is much deepened by understanding the internal problems of the people that are opposing him.”
Using this time to write a sample chapter for what will eventually become an 18-chapter major biography on Cromwell, Professor Morrill said he has been moved by accounts such as that of Gaelic leader of the north, Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill, “who stood away from the royalists, and a lot of his fellow Catholics, in trying to reach an agreement with Cromwell.” Filled with anguish and agony about “his decision in the end to bite the bullet and support a protestant king”, the letters Ó Néill wrote in his last days were particularly compelling, Professor Morrill says.
Trinity Long Room Hub Fellowship
Professor Morrill is also engaging in a separate research project as part of his fellowship which looks at the story of a school master in the west of Ireland who was sacked by a priest in 1914 for refusing to marry his assistant teacher. In a novel approach to how historians work on resources, he and another former fellow of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Professor John Walter, will write two accounts on the same archive and see if they can be merged. Professor Walter is also a historian of early modern British and Irish history, but he looks at history from the perspective of the crowd and popular political movements, while Professor Morrill is interested in how actions trickle down from those in power. Newspaper accounts reveal what happens when the school master refuses the bishop’s conditions for reemployment and the community divides, leaving Professor Morrill to suspect a nationalist dimension to the story. Professor Morrill will look to the national archives but will also visit the diocesan archives in Galway when he returns in spring 2020.
During his fellowship he has set himself an ambitious target of two encounters with other Trinity Long Room Hub based researchers every day. Sociability and the conversations with other fellows and Hub early career researchers are one of the key reasons he considers the Hub “a very rich environment.”
“There’s a tremendous sense of community here. You have the space to do your work but it’s also a multi-disciplinary environment.” He said, adding “the conversations I’ve had have all been beneficial to me. It’s not just me dispensing wisdom – it’s having a conversation in which both sides can benefit.”