Take down ‘that murdering bastard’

In the glow of a successful state visit to the UK made by the President of Ireland, it is easy to forget that relations between the two nations have not always been so cordial. As recently as the 1990s, there was a degree of distrust between Dublin and London – even the best of intentions could have unintended consequences. 

In his book following Oliver Cromwell’s murderous rampage through Ireland (God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland), Micheál Ó Siochrú relates the following anecdote to highlight the Great Protector’s ‘poisonous’ legacy.

Oliver Cromwell in a painting by Peter Lely

Robin Cook had recently assumed the position of Foreign Secretary, and decided that a physical manifestation of his ethical foreign policy would be the removal of a monumental portrait of portrait of Maharaja Sir Bir Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana that hung in his private office. As this gentleman had served as Prime Minister of Nepal at the time of the Raj, it was felt to convey an overly imperial impression. In its place was hung solid, sensible and republican Oliver Cromwell.

Unfortunately, one of the first visitors following the replacement was the Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (the prime minister of Ireland). Straightaway, he noticed the painting of Oliver Cromwell. His reaction was instant and explosive – he walked out and refused to return until the portrait of “that murdering bastard” had been removed.

Or did he? This was too good an anecdote not to be repeated in newspapers, magazines and across the internet. But it may never have happened. Bertie Ahern strongly denied the story, telling the Irish Times that: “I can honestly say there was no walkout.” Still, the Taoiseach was not best pleased, and left Robin Cook in no doubt as to his opinion on the ‘great Englishman’, and leaving the Foreign Secretary somewhat surprised by the strength of feeling.