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OLIVER Cromwell - you either love him or loathe him. And it usually depends which side of the Irish sea you are on.

To some he is a villain. A coldblooded dictator, responsible for mass murder in Ireland, ethnic cleansing and the execution of a king.

Others hail him as a hero. The father of British democracy, a devoted family man and a military genius.

He led the Roundhead army to victory over the Royalists during the English Civil War and became Lord Protector during the only period in history when this country was a republic.

It was 350 years ago this week that Cromwell died, yet his name still stirs up mixed feelings.

Irish hostility to him remains. Shane MacGowan in the lyrics to The Pogues song Young Ned Of The Hill wrote: "A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell, you who raped our Motherland, I hope you're rotting down in hell."

And eight years ago there was trouble when Cromwell's Death Mask went on display in Drogheda Heritage Centre.

Demonstrators picketed the Centre, incensed that it was on display in the Irish town where he is said to have killed thousands.

Now Micheal O Siochru is fuelling the fire with his book, God's Executioner, which brands Cromwell a brutal war criminal.

When Drogheda and Wexford refused to surrender during Cromwell's bloody Irish campaign from 1649-50, he ordered the slaughter of everyone in both towns - 7,000 men, women and children.

Dr O Siochru says: "For the majority of Irish people, Cromwell is a great bugbear of the past.

"His massacres in Wexford and Drogheda went beyond the accepted behaviour of war.

"As commander-in-chief, he has to take ultimate responsibility." Like the Irish, monarchists don't like Cromwell much, either. After all, he signed the death warrant of King Charles I. But Cromwell had only been dead two years - given a lavish state funeral in 1658 - when the English monarchy was restored.

By then he was so reviled that his decomposing corpse was dug up, hung, drawn and quartered. Then the head was displayed on a pike outside Westminster Hall for over 20 years.

It's hard to reconcile such hatred for a man who, as Lord Protector, was the closest this country has ever had to a President. One who backed religious freedom and people's rights, who refused to make himself king, and insisted a portrait painter depict him "warts and all".

"Cromwell has always been and will continue to be a divisive figure, viewed as a villain by many in Ireland and feted in England as a true hero," says Dr Patrick Little of the Cromwell Association.

"His complexities, the way he divides opinion, is partly why his appeal has proved so lasting.

"The massacres were both terrible acts of war, which have caused much resentment over the centuries. But you have to put them in context. They sent a warning to other towns that resistance was futile - it may have saved lives in the long run."

Born into minor Cambridgeshire gentry in April 1599, Cromwell spent a year at Cambridge. But on the death of his father, Robert, in 1617, he quit college to manage the estate in Huntingdon and look after his mother and seven sisters.

Three years later he wed Elizabeth Bourchier and they had nine children. He became an MP in 1628, converted to Puritanism, and fought the Royalists when Charles I tried to dismantle Parliament in 1642.

His quick military mind saw him promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General . …