Curse of Cromwell: The Siege
written by Dermot Poyntz
illustrated by Grace Lee
One of the difficulties in assessing an ages-ten-and-up publication is that often the criticism of one audience may in fact be a positive for another. For example, the absence of necessary context and background on the story may alienate some nonspecialists in Irish history while simultaneously serving as a welcome feature for young readers who desire a less canonical or didactic experience. In part, Curse of Cromwell may be trying to serve too many masters and in so doing, limit the appeal of what is, essentially, a critical episode in Irish Diaspora history and culture. Simultaneously, it is a well-conceived and executed instructive tool in sequential format that should cut across age and educational barriers.
For audiences unfamiliar with Poyntz and Grace, Curse of Cromwell is the first in their series of historical epics on Irish history. War of the Two Kings and Plight of the Wild Geese have only recently been solicited by Moccu Press, a graphic novel publisher based in Ireland. Inspired by key events in Irish history, including the factionalism of the 1641 October Rising, Confederate Wars, and Oliver Cromwell's assault on Clonmel in 1650, Curse of Cromwell is a beautifully illustrated chronicle of these moments.
Fictional works based on historical events, particularly those whose mission is education, run into the dilemma of literary license with factual events. Go too far and an author deviates too much from the source material and loses historical credibility and authenticity in the process. Restrict literary freedoms and the end result can be too pedantic and dry (as most historical writing tends to be unfortunately). Poyntz has structured Curse of Cromwell as primarily an illustrated narrative with little to no memorable dialogue. Thus, at times, the pages take on the atmosphere of a straight, historical monograph where the actors have very little personality or agency. Personally, even as an academic historian, I recognize the power of a good, sometimes juicy story to attract students no matter what the material. It can often make a dry lecture topic quite bearable. Cromwell and his Roundheads and the Puritan assault on Irish Catholicism are some of those universal stories of exploitation and aggression, as well as resistance, perseverance, and survival. While Poyntz does an excellent job maintaining a balanced and non-analytical or judgmental approach to the material, the absence of a more contextualized introduction to the book may confuse some readers and thus commit an unintentional disservice to the material.
Characters come and go and enter the story quite frequently but without iconic features which allow them to stand out in the narrative. This is a result more from the absence of dialogue—which would allow a greater connection with the various players—than from some deficiency in the illustrations. Poyntz provides a short list of character biographies at the beginning and end of the book, but some readers may have a disjointing experience having to flip back and forth continually to maintain coherence with the actors and the story itself. Because of its historical nature and the physical geography discussed, Curse of Cromwell may have benefited from a territorial map signifying key places and locales covered in the text, providing readers with a visual guide to maintain landscape continuity.
Isolated from context or previous knowledge, Curse of Cromwell may puzzle readers unfamiliar with Irish and English tensions rooted in land, politics and religion. Yet, within the environment of a classroom either devoted to Irish history or even a single teaching unit or lesson plan on Cromwell and Ireland, the book has massive appeal as a pedagogical tool. Perhaps its greatest strength and draw, however, lay in the often disconnected audiences of younger children and adults, groups who often share few interests. For pre-teens and teenagers, Curse of Cromwell is a superb tool not only to introduce history to a largely apathetic reading audience but also to incorporate non-fiction, sequential formatted books into an existing curriculum. For adults wanting a brief introduction to Irish history that spurs an additional drive to learn more from other sources, Curse of Cromwell succeeds admirably.