The final English victory over the ‘Native Irish’ in Ulster during the “Nine Years War” (1594 – 1603) gave the English crown control of the entire island for the first time in over five centuries. Sadly, for Ireland and its people the victory also signalled the final collapse of the old “Gaelic Order”. Worse still was that, between 1603 and 1641, King James and his son, Charles I, consolidated their colonial power in Ireland. They achieved this task mainly through a policy of “Plantation”, which simply meant the confiscation of land and subsequently giving it to loyal Protestant co-religionists from England and Scotland.
The Kingdom of Ireland was divided into four provinces. The best land was to be found in the Province of ‘Leinster’ to the east, and the Province of ‘Munster’ to the South. Meanwhile, the western Province of “Connacht”, which was separated from the rest of Ireland by the River Shannon, and the Northern Province of ‘Ulster” were considerably less fertile and remained. Virtually inaccessible. The people in all Provinces were usually to be found clustered together in small rural settlements, which were usually sited around the nearest manorial residence of the local landlord. However, during the summer months, many of the peasant population would gather their cattle and drive them to greener pastures in the highland areas. On these rough grazing pastures, they would build temporary shelters of rocks and sods to shelter their families from the elements.
In the early decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated the population of Ireland numbered in the region of one million people. In demographic terms the population was divided into four distinct grouping –
1. The Native Irish
2. The Old English
3. The New English
4. The Scots in Ulster
The ‘Native Irish,’ were by far the largest of these groups and they lived almost exclusively in rural communities that were traditionally dominated by the leading clan or family, such as the O’Neills, the McCarthys and the O’Briens. Moreover, the ‘Native Irish’ obstinately refused to embrace the new reformed faith, which created deep religious divisions to add to the existing ethnic tensions that already existed between the Irish and the newcomers. But, following the defeat of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in 1603 the old Gaelic political order collapsed. Hugh O’Neill fled into exile on the Continent, where he was joined by thousands of unemployed swordsmen who found work in the Spanish and French armies. Those of the Native Irish elite who had remained in Ireland had to adapt as best as they could.to the New Order. They, however, detested the colonial system that had been imposed upon them, and they deeply resented the power and influence of the minority Protestant settlers.
There were, nonetheless, a few of the old Gaelic aristocracy, such as Donough McCarthy, who appeared to overcome much of the disadvantages of religious and ethnic discrimination allowing them to integrate into the new colonial society successfully. The heir to estates in east County Cork, McCarthy was able to marry into the leading ‘Old English’ family in the country, the Butlers. With this advantage McCarthy could carefully build up a strong network of friends that spanned the entire religious divide. He succeeded his father, ‘Viscount Muskerry’ in 1641, and took his seat in the “House of Lords” just before the outbreak of the Irish insurgency. The subsequent polarisation of Irish society, however, caused ‘Muskerry’ to choose a side and, in early 1642, he openly declared his commitment to the Catholic insurgents. His principal opponent in the Province of Munster throughout much of the 1640s was Murrough O’Brien, “Lord Inchiquin”, one of the few prominent native Irish leaders to forsake the Catholic religion.
The ‘Old English’ were the second largest demographic group in Ireland and were also the principal landowners in the ‘Kingdom’. They had also suffered mistrust and discrimination because of their refusal to abandon their Catholic faith. This group were descendants of the original ‘Anglo-Norman’ colonists and had, for the most part, supported the Tudor conquest and fought against their traditional enemies, the ‘Native Irish’. The King, however, retained his predecessor’s policy of excluding them from government posts, appointing instead the more reliable though unashamed rapacious English Protestant officials who soon began to intrigue among themselves to gain control of the big, landed estates. The ‘recusancy fines’ which were imposed upon those who failed to attend the Protestant services were only a sporadic irritant. The process of ‘Plantation’ in Ulster and elsewhere, although it was mainly directed against the native Irish, succeeded in causing many of the ‘Old English’ families feeling vulnerable about their own land holdings. The ‘Old English’ also dominated the big urban centres of Ireland and, with the exception of the colonial capital, the newly created ‘Plantation Boroughs’ in the Province of Ulster. Only a handful of merchant families monopolised civic power in the land, growing wealthy on trade with the surrounding countryside and the Continent. At the same time, each town jealously guarded its local autonomy from any outside interference, and traditionally excluded the native Irish from residing within the defensive walls of the settlement. But, many of the big cities, however, such as Waterford, Limerick and Galway joined the Catholic insurgency during the 1640s and would subsequently organised the most effective opposition to Oliver Cromwell and his ‘New Model Army’.
At the pinnacle of Catholic ‘Old English’ society Ulick Bourke, Earl (and later) Marquis of Clanricarde, who owned vast estates in Connacht. He enjoyed close relations with the town of Galway, one of the busiest trading ports in the country. His step-brother, Robert Devereux, was the Earl of Essex and the future commander of Parliamentary forces. In fact, it was through the intercession by Essex that ‘Clanricarde’ was appointed to the English ‘Privy Council’ in 1641, and Lieutenant of the town and County of Galway in Connacht. He was, therefore, one of the very few Catholics to hold public office at this time. Bourke returned to Ireland in September 1641, on the eve of the Catholic uprising. Although the vast majority of the ‘Old English’ aristocracy subsequently sided with the Catholic insurgents, Bourke remained loyal to the Stuart Monarchy throughout the 1640s. There was, however, another leading Catholic nobleman, James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, whose father, an English Lord, owned estates in Leinster and travelled to Ireland at the same time as ‘Clanricarde’. He pursued a military career on the Continent, before he joined the Catholic insurgents in Ireland. Although many of his co-religionists were to suspect him of holding royalist sympathies because of his English connections, Tuchet proved himself to be an energetic cavalry commander, and would be one of Cromwell’s most implacable opponents.
The Protestant people living in Ireland made up the third and fourth demographic groups that have been listed. The ‘New English’ group consisted mostly of soldiers and administrators who had settled in Ireland on confiscated lands taken during the ‘Tudor Conquest’ from Catholic Irish rebels in Leinster and Munster. From 1610 the English government sponsored a ‘Plantation’ scheme that redistributed the lands that had been seized from Hugh O’Neill and his northern allies and shared among thousands of Protestant migrants from England, alongside even greater numbers of settlers from Scotland. Although there were tensions that existed between the ‘New English’ and the Scots, their common fear of the Catholic Irish kept such tensions very much as secondary causes for concern. Except for a few centres such as Derry, Enniskillen, and Carrickfergus, the vast majority of the settler population lived in relatively small fortified settlements, constantly afraid of the threat to their security from the various bands of native Irish outlaws sheltering in the woods, bogs and mountains of the Province. Cork, Kinsale, Bandon and Youghal formed the back-bone of the ‘Munster Plantation’. Many of the original Protestant ‘Planters’ from the 1580s had either been killed or driven out of the country during the “Nine Years War” but the settler population soon rose in the aftermath of the rebel defeat, and by 1640 they numbered in excess of 20,000, mainly from the southern and western counties of England.
Two of the leading ‘Planter’ families were the Cootes and the Boyles. Sir Charles Coote fought in the “Nine Years War”, acquiring estates for himself in Connacht as a reward, and he officiated in a member of important administrative position for over forty years. He was violently anti-Catholic and an aggressive advocate for further English plantations. Sir Charles earned for himself a deserved reputation for brutality and was eventually killed during a skirmish with the enemy in May 1642. His eldest son, also called Charles, proved to be an equally uncompromising opponent of the Catholic insurgents and commanded forces that were loyal to the English Parliament in efforts to pacify the West and North of the country.
Meanwhile, Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork rose from humble origins in England to become one of the largest landowners in Ireland. Already and old man by the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641, he died in 1643. One of his younger sons, Roger, Lord Broghill, played a key role during the wars and fought alongside Cromwell during the later stages of his conquest of Ireland. Roger Boyle, like Coote, needed little encouragement to take up arms against his Catholic neighbours. Also, like Charles Coote, Roger showed no mercy to those who opposed him.
The leading Protestant family in Ireland at this time was not a new arrival, but the head of the most important ‘Old English’ family in Ireland known as Butler. He was raised in England as a ward of the Royal Court in a strict Protestant household. The young James Butler, the future Earl of Ormond, enthusiastically embraced the new faith and resisted all the pleas from his extended family asking him to revert to Catholicism. He remained a deeply controversial figure across the religious divide in Ireland, but he retained the unswerving confidence of King Charles I. It was due to this fact that James Butler kept his command of the royalist armies in Ireland for much of the 1640s, and he co-ordinated the military resistance within Ireland against Oliver Cromwell at the end of that decade.
While many of the ‘Native Irish’ looked abroad for a leader, the ‘Old English’ elite, for the most part, placed their hopes in the Irish Parliament, whereas major landowners and representatives of the big towns they retained a powerful, if no longer dominant, influence. Through Parliament they sought to safeguard their landholdings, mitigate the worst excesses of religious discrimination and regain some influence in government circles. But, the crown’s failure to implement the ‘Graces’, which were areas of concessions to Irish Catholics, caused great resentment and intense bitterness among the Irish Catholic population. Over the next ten years there followed a traumatic time for the Catholic elite, both ‘Native Irish’ and ‘Old English’. The situation worsened after Thomas Wentworth was appointed to the commanding position of Lord deputy in Ireland. This man’s increasing use of arbitrary powers, apparently with the King’s full support, negated any remaining influence that the Catholic elite held over the ‘Native Irish’, or in Parliament. Moreover, Wentworth’s continuing policies of ‘Plantation’ now began to threaten the retention of their estates. The time for the Catholic Irish to rise up against what they perceived to be tyranny was not far off.
In 1641 the Puritan Parliament in England went as far as to decree the absolute suppression of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. The main cause for Parliament taking such a step was the effort begun by dispossessed Gaelic-Irish Lords in Ulster to recover those lands that had been confiscated from them in past years. Very quickly this effort by the local Irish of the north to have their ‘stolen’ lands restored to them became an alliance of all Catholic people in Ireland, whatever their origin, to rise up against this persecution. As a people they were determined that their religion should be preserved, and, at the same time, they would defend their rights and property under the monarchy and within the constitution. In this insurrection both the ‘Gaelic-Irish’ and the ‘Old English’ joined together to form what became known to Ireland’s history as the “Confederation of Killarney”.
Although there are many who refer to the original uprising in the north as “The Great Rebellion of 1641”, I prefer to see the event as being more of an insurrection by a dissatisfied people. In most instances those who prefer to call it a ‘Rebellion’ support their claim with various stories of massacres and bloody atrocities on the part of the ‘Native Irish’ alone in a concerted effort to mark an entire people. Even now, in the twenty-first century there are certain groups who continue with these contentious charges to maintain division and animosity among the people for their own political sectarian motives. This, however, this not an attempt to portray the Insurrection of 1641 as being less of a struggle than it was and there was bloodshed on both sides, just as there has been in all the popular uprisings in Ireland’s history that attempted redress long-standing grievances. Without doubt, there were many crimes committed during this insurrection, which must be deplored and condemned by everyone.
Much has been written about the brutal atrocities allegedly committed by Catholic Irish insurgents by men such as Walter Harris, Milton, Borlase, May, Rushworth, Cox, Carlyle, and Froude. In the years since the insurrection these so-called historians have concealed what is the true story of the struggle. Many of the alleged massacres appear to be nothing more than made-up stories without any basis in truth. For the most part these reporters relied upon the depositions taken from alleged eyewitnesses to the events, which were preserved for future generations and are visible on-line at present. Since the beginning of the twentieth century modern investigative historians have studied these depositions in depth and have recognised many of them for what they were meant to be i.e. An attempt by the English authorities of the day to blacken the name and reputation of those Irish Catholics for all time. Instead of furnishing proof of bloody massacres and atrocities the depositions highlight the fact that many of the charges are both baseless and malignant. But, for the moment let us look at how the fuse was finally lit.
On Friday 22nd October 1641 Sir Phelim O’Neill, the respected Catholic landowner, justice of the peace, and Member of Parliament for the borough of Dungannon in County Tyrone, decided he would pay a visit to his neighbour, Sir Toby Caulfield, Governor of Charlemont Fort in the County of Armagh. Without warning, the men accompanying O’Neill seized control of the fort, imprisoning the startled Sir Toby who was to die later in the custody of the insurgents. This unexpected action was the match that lit the fuse of a war that would last for more than a decade and result in the death of over one-fifth of the Irish population. Although Sir Phelim belonged to the powerful and influential O’Neill family, which had ruled over Ulster for centuries, but in many ways, he was not the typical example of a ‘rebel’. His father Turlough Og, had fought for the English crown during the “Nine Years War” and his son, Phelim, received estates in the ‘Ulster Plantation’ as one of those that the crown declared to be “deserving Irish.” Although he had been raised in the Protestant faith as a ward of the English Crown, Phelim returned to Ireland in the 1620s where he reverted to his native Catholicism.
For over a decade, he played a leading political and social role in the local Ulster community and, outwardly at least, he appeared to have assimilated well into colonial society, and was knighted in 1639. As it was with all Irish Catholics, however, O’Neill was still subject to sporadic religious persecution, and resentful of the power and influence carried by the Protestant newcomers. Moreover, he struggled to maintain his family’s estates and, by 1640, he owed the then enormous sum of £12,000 to creditors in Dublin and London. His rank and position in Ulster quickly attracted the attention of similarly disgruntled Catholic landowners, such as Philip McHugh O’Reilly and Lord Conor Maguire, who were anxious to gain his support for a pre-emptive strike against what they considered to be a hostile colonial administration. They had been impressed by the success of the Scottish Covenanters, they sought to gain control of the Kingdom and negotiate with the King from a position of strength. Sir Phelim now allowed himself to become gradually entangled in the complex series of plots that developed over the summer of 1641, involving not only the Ulster Irish but also the ‘Old English’ grandees from that area of Ireland known as ‘The Pale’.
The Ulster Irish envisaged an assault on two fronts with Sir Phelim targeting Charlemont and other key points in southern Ulster as a means of preventing Protestant settlers in the north of the Province from linking up with forces that would undoubtedly be sent from Dublin. At the same time, Lord Maguire’s men would storm Dublin Castle, paralyse the government and gain access to the state’s vast store of weaponry. Successfully rallying thousands of followers to his banners, Sir Phelim executed his part of the plan to perfection. In Dublin, however, a companion of Lord Maguire, Owen O’Connolly, managed to slip away from his companions the night before the planned attack and alerted the authorities in the capital. Acting quickly the authorities rounded up the conspirators, including Maguire, who was subsequently executed in London. Maguire’s failure in gaining control of Dublin left the Ulster insurgents facing the grim prospect of a massive retaliatory action by well-armed government troops.
Within a few days, however, the limited strike that had been envisaged by the leaders of the insurgency sparked widespread unrest in the land, with reports of attacks not only in Ulster, but in North Leinster as well. By the end of 1641, less than two months after O’Neill seized Charlemont fort, the violence had spread to south-west Munster, the furthest point geographically in Ireland from the source of the initial rising. the conspirators, for the most part, belonged to the landed gentry and who were motivated by a mixture of fear, resentment and financial worries. Disillusioned with the existing discriminatory political system they, nonetheless, professed their loyalty to the King, and claimed to have acted in self-defence against the unjust policies enforced by the colonial administration in Dublin.
In his book, “The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland,” the Rev. James Seaton informs us that – “Sir Phelim O’Neill of Kinard or Caledon, in the County Tyrone, engaged to commence the insurrection in Ulster, on the same Saturday by the seizure of its chief places of strength. He was especially charged with the capture of Derry: his relation Sir Henry O’Neill was to be urged to surprise Carrickfergus; and Sir Con Magennis, his brother-in-law, to seize Newry. The Protestants were to be taken and imprisoned with as little violence as possible; and agreeably to the King’s Commission, the Scots were to remain unmolested.”
The administration in Dublin had reacted ferociously to the news that a revolt had broken out in the North of the country and by their action exacerbated an already explosive situation. The day after the rebellion had began in Ulster the Lords Justices, Sir William Parsons and Sir John Borlase (Father of the historian Edmund Borlase) issued a proclamation blaming the disorder on what they called “evil affected Irish papists,” without any distinction being made. The Catholic Lords of “The Pale” were deeply angered by the administrations action and, following complaints made by them, there was a grudging retraction of the proclamation six days later. Although they now identified the Ulster-Irish as the chief culprits in the uprising, their actions had done little to assuage the fears that these Catholic Lords held about the possible heavy-handed tactics that Dublin might just employ in their response to the insurrection. The subsequent refusal Lords Justices to provide these same Catholic Lords with sufficient arms to protect their estates from the Ulster insurgents merely reinforced the general sense of grievance that was felt by all those Catholics not yet involved in the uprising. The insurgents, however, restricted their actions in those first weeks to the theft and destruction of property from Protestant settlers. The evidence that survives does suggest that relatively few people died during these opening weeks, despite the so-called ‘evidence’ produced by some parties after the events.
In early November, Sir Phelim published a proclamation that was allegedly issued by the King, Charles I, authorising Irish Catholics to take up arms on his behalf. This sensational document, although later exposed as a forgery, appeared to give a veneer of legitimacy to the actions of O’Neill and his followers. This, combined with the early successes achieved by O’Neill and his forces, began to attract a growing number of people to his banner from every rank in society. To the ranks of the insurgent forces came small tenant farmers, landless labourers, and notorious outlaws among many others. Most of these men had been drawn to O’Neill’s cause simply to be on the side that appeared to be winning. The local Catholic landowners had become anxious in the wake of the uprising, fearing that there would be a complete breakdown of law and order, and they rapidly assumed command of the insurgents in their areas. But, despite their best efforts, the landowners began to find it increasingly difficult to maintain any control of the rank-and-file supporters. Most of these men had been embittered by long-standing grievances and more recent economic hardships which they blamed on the Protestant newcomers. It wasn’t long, therefore, until the insurgents began targeting the ‘Planters’, particularly in the Province of Ulster.
After suffering several set-backs against government forces in various places, some of the insurgent groups began to adopt a more violent attitude towards their targets. Their initial efforts to drive a wedge between the Scots and English settlers, by limiting their attacks to the latter group, had proved to be unsuccessful and impossible to sustain as the disorder spread throughout the Province. Terrified Protestant settlers felt themselves exposed and vulnerable to attack from their Catholic neighbours, and they fled their homes for the relative safety of the nearest garrisoned town. From there many of the refugees would continue south toward the capital, Dublin. The journey south, however, was filled with danger as the insurgents would frequently attack the defenceless convoys that moved slowly along the road. Men, women and children would be stripped of all their clothes and possessions. Exposed to the harsh winter weather without food, or shelter many of these civilian victims would die by the side of the road.
Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the opening weeks of the insurgency had witnessed brutal and indiscriminate reprisals by the commanders of the ‘colonial’ forces. Sir William St. Leger, the President of Munster, and Sir Charles Coote in the Province of Leinster horrified the ‘Old-English’ communities in those places. St. Leger launched a widespread and bloody offensive across the southern part of the country. Indiscriminately executing large numbers of Catholics, including some of the landed gentry, whether or not they supported the uprising. Whatever the initial intention of the Dublin administration, Coote and St. Leger, the escalating conflict effectively gave them the ideal excuse to confiscate the most lucrative Catholic estates that still survived in Ireland. It was the fulfilment of a policy long favoured by many of the administration’s officials in Dublin.
On the first day of the rising the insurgents successfully captured the town, port and castle of Newry by surprise, which meant that little blood had been shed by either side. It was, however, the beginning of a ‘propaganda war’ that still has ramifications today, almost three hundred and eighty years after the events. A certain Dr. Seaton Reid tells us that when the town of Newry was taken by surprise, by the rebels, fifteen of the local townspeople were hanged. However, Dr. Reid used the depositions of alleged eye-witnesses to make such claims, without recognising them to be little more than hearsay evidence. He states – “On the same eventful day, Sir Con Magennis, at the head of the Magennis’s and the McCartans, led by a Father Crilly, surprised the town and castle of Newry. The Governor, Sir Arthur Tirringham, very narrowly escaped but the entire garrison were captured and disarmed, and fifteen of the townspeople hanged.”
Another rabid anti-Catholic reporter, Walter Harris, for some unknown reason made no propaganda from the alleged sufferings of the Protestant inhabitants of Newry. As a matter of fact, Harris makes no mention of any executions around or within the town of Newry at this time. Yet another self-proclaimed historian of the period and Protestant Churchman, Dr. Knox, seems to mix up events in Newry with what was alleged to have happened in Armagh the following May. He reported the charge of murder in the following manner – “Sir Con Magennis attacked and took the castle and town, destroyed the church, and put many of the inhabitants to the sword.”
 The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867
 The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867