Biddy’s – The Confessional Seal

A Priestly Predicament

There have been volumes upon volumes written about the terrible events that blighted and tore apart Northern Ireland in the thirty years, from 1965 until the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. There is hardly a family in the Province that did not suffer in some way from the terrors, pain, heartache and devastation of the ‘The Troubles’. But, despite all the words that have been written there are none that can truly describe the horrors of those days, except those that have been expressed by people who lived through those dark days. The ‘peace’ that has now existed for the past twenty years is tenuous, to say the least, and has done little, if anything, to remove the bitterness and hatred caused by those years of strife. Among the many stories of those days is a sad tale, which involved a man of faith who was forced to come face-to-face with his own devils.

There was nothing special about the Murphy family. They were simply a group of average individuals living a quiet life in a medium-sized mid-Ulster town. The parents had always been determined to have their children well educated, and all four sons had very much focused their attention on this. Two of the eldest sons had attended university and qualified as Chartered Accountants prior to moving to Australia to make their fortunes. The second youngest son, Martin, had chosen to join the priesthood and, after his ordination, he was assigned a Parish close to home, much to the joy of his pious mother and father. Frank, however, was the youngest son and, although as academically gifted as any of his brothers, but he wanted to enjoy his youth for a while after finishing college, rather than throwing himself into a career immediately.

After the death of their father, the two youngest brothers had spent more of their time with their mother, Annie. She missed her husband dearly but, like a typical Irish mother, she had her sons around her to keep herself active and busy taking care of them. She was a pious and loving woman, adored by all her sons and, in return, she spoiled them terribly. But, the youngest son had always been her favourite, for he was her last child and she would always look upon him as her baby boy. Although she had always shown a little more affection toward him, Annie had never allowed him to become a spoiled, weak and capricious boy. At the same time, however, she did not give her other sons any reason to feel left out, because she made a point of sharing her deep store of maternal love equally between all four boys. Naturally, with the two oldest boys being so far from home, it was Martin and Frank who benefitted most from their Annie’s care and attention.

Martin had been aware, all of his life, that his mother had a special place in her heart for Frank, but he never had any feelings of jealousy toward him. Frank, after all, was the only son who still lived in the home-place with Annie, and Martin was happy that his youngest brother got all that extra attention and love that he undoubtedly obtained from her.

Frank was a gentle, quiet-natured young man who had a great mind and a wonderful imagination. He was greatly admired by his brother, the priest and his mother called him her ‘Little Lamb’. They both expected that Frank would, eventually, achieve a degree of greatness in whatever he chose to do with his life. Annie was not overly concerned about the amount of time that Frank spent with his friends because they knew that he was the type of person who would always maintain the highest standard of personal behaviour when in public. Although Frank had always enjoyed a drink, he was never known to drink to excess. Furthermore, like his many friends, Frank liked to party but always made a point of coming home no later than midnight and completely sober.

The lives of the Murphy family, however, changed abruptly one night in the Spring of 1967. That night, Annie watched the hands on the large mantlepiece clock turn very slowly as the ‘tick, tock’ of the second hand sounded loudly in the quietness of the living-room. The clock struck one o’clock, and the anxiety that had been building up inside Annie that evening had brought a sense of panic to the mother. Frank, in all the time he had gone out with his friends, had never returned later than one o’clock, and he had never brought any trouble to the door.

It was now past one o’clock and, yet, there was no sign of Frank, and no word of excuse received from him. Fortunately, Martin was in the house that night, sitting with his mother. Rather than return the Parochial House after supper Martin decided that he would stay with Annie. He was now well settled on a comfortable armchair, which stood beside the glowing coal-fire to await Frank’s return home. But, as the minutes continued to tick by slowly, he watched his mother’s already well-frayed nerves begin to come apart. With tears forming in her eyes she quietly muttered, “I just wish Frank would come home.

He’ll be alright, Ma! He’ll soon be coming through that front door as if there’s nothing wrong, kiss you on the cheek, as he always does, and go on to his bed,” Martin told her in a soft, comforting tone of voice.

But, Annie was not comforted by Martin’s soft words. “I don’t know, Martin,” she told him. “He has never been this late and I am really worried that something might have happened to him.

Please stop fretting, Ma,” Martin urged her as tenderly as he could. “He has just been delayed, ma, and he might not be home for an hour or so yet.

But, Annie just could not relax, because her worries over Frank’s whereabouts filled every corner of her mind. She fidgeted nervously in her chair, then she made tea for her and Martin, and then she would go to the front door to see if there was any sign that Frank was nearing home. The hours, however, continued to pass slowly and still there was no sign of her youngest son. Then, as darkness gave way to the light of early morning, Annie’s concerns had grown to a point where she began to cry silently to herself, afraid that she might not see her son again. Martin could only sit and watch silently as those bitter tears fell from his mother’s eyes. He was becoming increasingly angry with his brother’s tardiness, and he promised himself that when his younger brother did arrive he would get a piece of his mind regarding his irresponsibility. At that present moment, he could not show any sign of his anger to his already upset mother. He believed it would be more beneficial to maintain his efforts to keep the old woman calm about his brother’s absence.

Martin managed to settle his mother in the chair beside the fire and began telling her humorous anecdotes about some of his parishioners, in the hope that they would keep her mind occupied with lighter thoughts. Quite suddenly, Annie’s body went rigid and her head turned quickly toward the living room window. “It’s him! It’s Frank!” she cried out. “I can hear his footsteps on the path.” She rose from her seat quickly and, loudly sighing “Thank God!”, she went to open the front door to him.

But, Martin heard the voice of a man, which he knew was not the voice of his brother, Frank. He then heard his mother give a loud and painful groan, and this caused Martin to rush to her assistance. Annie had fainted in the hallway and Martin noticed that it was a uniformed policeman that was giving her assistance.

What in God’s name has happened?” asked Martin anxiously.

The policeman rose up from his knees and helped to bring Annie into the living room, laying her comfortably on the sofa, with a cushion at her head. “I am sorry to be the one that brought such terrible news to you,” said the constable.

What news?

We have found your brother’s abandoned motorbike this morning, lying in a hedge.

Is he badly hurt, or …?

We have not located your brother yet, Father. But, we did find traces of blood on the seat and are concerned for his welfare,” said the policeman, interrupting Martin.

You can imagine the great shock and fear that Martin felt when he received this grave news. Calling a neighbour over to stay with Annie, he asked the policeman to take him to the scene of this apparent accident. He was driven, in a police car, to a narrow lane that turned off the main road and led through a bog, and he eventually came to the scene, which was marked by another police car and several uniformed officers. Some of the police officers were diligently searching the hedgerows on each side of the narrow, bog lane and Martin quickly joined in with their efforts. Even as Martin searched, there was a definite feeling of unease that began to fill his entire body, and he knew in his mind that this lane held some terrible secret for him. Martin had been up all night and was very tired, and yet he knew that this was not the reason behind his feelings of unease. There was a smell of death in the air about him, but Martin continued to search every possible nook and cranny on each side of the lane, thoroughly, for almost a mile.

They could find nothing in their searches. There was not a trace of Frank anywhere. All that was left to be found was the motorbike and its bloodstained seat. As he took a final look around the area where the motorbike was found, Martin was suddenly brought to an abrupt standstill and he called out to the others to join him quickly. The grass in that place was very much trampled down, and Martin could not be sure if this was a sign that a struggle had taken place, or if the police had trampled the grass during their search.  When the police searchers came up to Martin’s position, he was able to discover from them that they had not trampled the grass in that area. They insisted that they had found the area in that condition. Martin now got down on his knees and began to take a closer look at the grass around him and, after a little time, discovered a quantity of fresh blood. Beside this patch of blood, Martin found a thin leather wallet that he knew belonged to his brother, and he picked it up to show the policemen. It all seemed to confirm his worst fears, that his brother Frank was indeed dead. Confirmation of this belief appeared to be supplied by the condition in which the motorbike had been found. From the way it lay in the hedgerow, it was apparent to Martin that this had not been caused by any road accident and indicated, instead, that Frank may have been murdered.

It is almost impossible to describe the pain and agony that tore through Martin’s body at this terrible moment of realisation that his brother was probably dead. There was a terrible rage that filled his heart, which was matched only by the deep sorrow that he felt for the loss. He didn’t want to believe that this tragedy had happened and that there was still hope that Frank would suddenly appear in front of Martin, alive and well. With renewed vigour and his head filled with contradictory thoughts, Martin continued in his frantic search for a body that would give the family closure on what had happened to Frank. Although the search lasted for many hours, stretching well into the evening, Martin had to return home without success. But, Martin found it was a much different home from the one that he had left earlier that day. In those long hours, the stress had aged greatly Annie and Martin now found her in a state of stupor, which had taken hold of her after a wild frenzy of screaming and crying, all brought about by the news she had been given concerning the fate of her youngest son. It was almost as if the light of life had gone out of her, and her heart had been smashed to pieces, rather than broken. Martin was at a complete loss as to what he should do and watched over his mother as she lingered for a few weeks, steadily going downhill and calling out for her dead child.

Sadly, Annie finally passed away one evening as she slept in her bed. As Martin stared down upon her small, pale face he noticed that there was a peaceful expression upon it. There was no longer any trace of the torture and agony she had been feeling since she had first gotten the news of Frank. Although there had not, even yet, been any definite confirmation from the police about Frank’s fate, Martin now felt certain that his youngest brother was dead. He could not, however, comprehend who would have wanted to kill Frank, or why? If it was an accident then why was there no body found? Surely, he thought to himself, no one could hold a grievance, but Martin could not understand who would have had a grievance against such a friendly, harmless man like Frank Murphy.

With so much sectarian hatred prevalent in Northern Ireland at this time, Martin’s first suspicions fell upon ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries. He believed that these dark, evil men murdered young Frank, believing it would be seen as a great victory to kill the innocent brother of a Roman Catholic priest. Yet, he had no proof. Despite the widespread horror that was felt at young Frank’s disappearance and probable murder, there was not a single clue as to who might have perpetrated such a crime. Using every possible contact that he had, both Catholic and Protestant, Martin tried to discover what had happened and who may have done the evil deed. But, all his efforts were in vain, and as the months passed public interest in the event seemed to fade.

The first anniversary of Frank’s disappearance had passed, and the anniversary of his mother’s death was quickly approaching. Since their deaths the young priest had chosen to throw himself completely into his Parish duties as a means of helping him to come to terms with the tragedies that had so changed his life. One Saturday evening, as was usual, he sat in the confessional box in the chapel and made himself available to those who wished to confess their sins and show penance for the wrongs they had done. One of the penitents was known to Martin but appeared to be completely unaware of the form of the religious ritual. He was not a regular church-goer and Martin was, to say the least, very surprised to see this young man enter his confessional. He knelt and began to confess the many misdeeds of his ill-spent life. It appeared that this young man simply wanted to unburden his entire conscience in one go, and he spoke of sins that were filled with unbounded selfishness, oppression, revenge and unlimited passions. There was no sin that this young man had not committed in his short life, everything from theft to betrayal, and from mild sexual thoughts to wild encounters actions were included. Martin had heard many of these same sins during his short tenure as a curate, but the confession of this young man thoroughly shocked him.

Martin would later admit that he was both nauseated and disgusted by this young man and the sins he had confessed. Even the young man himself began to falter as he revealed to the priest each immoral action and thought he had committed. At one point it seemed to Martin that the young man was equally sickened by his faults and had never realised just how extensive and appalling they were. Martin saw both surprise and confusion on the man’s face as he laid out his sins. Then, as Martin began the rite of absolution the young man called on him to stop. “Please Father,” he spoke nervously, “I am not yet finished my confession.

I’m sorry,” Martin replied, “please continue.”

But he could hear the penitent moving uneasily as he knelt in the confessional. Martin felt as if the penitent was fighting with his conscience about whether, or not, he should admit some particularly grievous sin. The man had already confessed to so many unsavoury sins already, and the priest could not quite understand why he was so reluctant now. “You have done so well this far. If there is more that you wish to confess you should continue. Free yourself of your sins and you will feel so much better. God already knows your sins and by you confessing them you are showing that you are aware of how hurtful they have been to him. Return to his love. He wants to forgive you all your sins and break those chains which bind your soul to evil. So, speak freely,” Martin urged the penitent in a gentle voice.

The priest listened to the man sobbing for a minute or two, stopping only to dry his tears and blow his nose. Then, very quietly and hesitantly at first, the young man began to mutter, nervously, that he had killed someone in cold-blood. Martin shuddered at the revelation and, from what he had heard the man say so far, he found it difficult to believe. Clearing his voice, he asked in the calmest tone that he could muster, “Please tell me, how and where did you commit an act of cruel murder? And whatever possessed you to take the life of another human being?

The young man had kept his head bowed during his confession, but he raised his head until he could see the face of the priest behind the confessional screen that separated them. It was also the first time that Martin had seen the penitent. Despite the veil between them, the priest could see clearly the young man’s tear-soaked and reddened eyes. He noticed that they were glazed over and appeared to be ready to pop out from their sockets with terror. The blood seemed to almost drain from the man’s complexion and there was a tremor in his body. Martin now watched in total surprise as the young man slowly raised his clasped hands toward him. It was as if the penitent was praying to him, begging him to that would ease the pain in his entire being. Was this young man seeking mercy from him Martin wondered, as the penitent moved closer? With quivering lips and in a low sobbing voice the man declared, “I am the man who killed your brother, Father Martin!

Martin’s body suddenly went numb. Then, as if hit by a Taser gun, his entire body shook violently, and he was wracked with terrible pain. The priest’s entire mind went into a ‘brain-melt’ as his thoughts were scrambled together and began to spin around in his head, and his heart began to pound so fast that he became sure that it would burst. Maybe it was God, or maybe it was his own instinct for survival that caused Martin to breathe normally once again, and he began to slowly feel his blood run begin to run normally once more through the many tingling vessels in his body. The young priest’s hands were clasped to his breast, but just as his body returned to something like normality, he slumped back in his seat and began to laugh hysterically. It was not the reaction that the penitent had expected and fearing for the priest he went to assist him. Several minutes passed before Martin began to recover his equilibrium and his face was soaked in a cold sweat, and his eyes were filled with bitter, bitter tears.  As Martin became aware of his surroundings again he saw the penitent holding him close, his face wracked with the terrible thought that he had caused the priest to suffer some sort of emotional breakdown. Holding Martin close to him the priest he was pleading for his mercy and not to hand him over to the law. Martin could hardly believe that it was him that was telling the young man, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to worry about me or the police.  Your sins have been shared under the seal of confession, and because of that, I cannot reveal one item to another living soul. You are safe, but I beg you to get away from me now. Just get out of my sight and stay away from me until I feel able to see  you and speak to you again.” With he heard these words the young man released his hold on Martin, moved away from the confessional, and exited the church building.

Martin told me that, after this encounter, he knelt alone in the church and prayed to God for the strength to get him through this. He had, more by accident than by design, met the man who had murdered his youngest brother and, through this crime, had caused the subsequent death of his mother. Although an ordained priest, Martin also considered that he was nothing more than a simple man, would find forgiveness a difficult proposition to grant under such circumstances. Moreover, that he was a priest meant he needed God’s help to hold fast to that sacred calling to which he had dedicated his life. He prayed intensely for God’s blessing to give him the strength to fulfil the words of the Gospel as he professed them – “Love and Forgiveness.” But, God appeared to hold back his blessing for a time and it was only after much prayer and meditation that he felt able to meet the young man again. On this occasion Martin had decided to deal with him with him in the same manner as any other priest, and give him absolution for his sins, setting him a penance that he had to complete.

You often hear people repeat the adage that tells us, “Time can heal all hurts.” But, Martin found that this was not so true when it came to the hurt that filled his heart. Although years had passed by and the pain began to hurt less, it was never totally healed. The ‘Killer’ had confessed his crime to him unbidden, and he had appeared to have changed his previous lifestyle dramatically. He had begun to attend Church services and the holy sacraments almost daily. There were none other than Martin who knew of his crime, and many remarked about just how much he had quietened down since he had begun to attend the Church regularly.

There were some, however, who did not trust that young man, and Father Martin admitted that he was far from being a reformed man. The only difference between the old and the new, Martin said, was that he had become better at hiding his transgressions from public view. In fact, Martin was becoming increasingly suspicious about the young man’s true motives for apparently changing his lifestyle, and for spending so much time in his company. He was sure that all of this was simply to avoid suspicion of being directed at him and, by telling the priest his terrible secret under the seal of the confession, he ensured that his admission of guilt would not reach the ears of the law. By using the Confessional with the priestly brother of his victim he had ensured that Martin would not try to avenge his brother’s death murder.

After confessing his darkest secret to Martin, he had also made the priest aware of why he had committed such a terrible act. that the motive behind the terrible act had been jealousy. He said that Frank, being a handsome and easy-going young fellow had attracted the attention of a certain young lady from a good family. Unfortunately, Frank didn’t know that he had placed himself in competition with this young man, whose attention had been spurned by the same young lady. It was Frank who won through and was walking out with the young lady, and he had even been seen exchanging kisses with her. All these things helped stoke this young man’s jealousy and he sought vengeance. The ‘last straw’ that convinced him to get rid of Frank once and for all was when he personally witnessed them kissing.

He admitted to Martin that he armed himself with a long, sharp knife and hid in the hedgerow along the bog road, which he knew Frank would use to motorcycle home after meeting the young lady. He lay in wait until he heard Frank’s approach and saw the light from the motorbike as it shone on the road. Just as Frank was passing the hiding place his assassin sprang out from his lair, totally surprising Frank and forcing him to stop suddenly. Then, before Frank could recover his composure the assassin drove his knife into Frank’s back, killing him almost instantly. But, the young killer did not tell Martin what he had done with the body, and yet Martin was confident that he would say where he had disposed of the remains and give him the final closure he needed.

One evening, in the middle of Lent, Martin was walking along the very same road where his brother’s life had been so savagely taken. As he walked in the growing darkness, Martin heard the approach of a car behind him and he stopped so that he could allow the car to pass safely by. But, the car did not pass him and chose to stop on the road adjacent to where Martin was standing. The car’s window was wound down and the smiling face of the guilty man appeared, much to the priest’s loathing. Martin did not know why the man was on the same road as he, or why he had stopped to talk. “Good evening, Father,” he said with that sickening smile that Martin hated so much.

Good evening,” replied Martin in a dry and unwelcoming tone.

The young man got out of the car and pointed to a lone tree, standing not far into the nearby bog. “Do you see that tree?” he asked.

Yes,” replied Martin.

“It is close to that tree that your brother is buried,” he said with absolutely no emotion in his voice.

Totally astonished by this sudden revelation, Martin’s mind was not quite thinking straight, and he replied, “What brother?

Your brother Frank, of course,” said the villain. “It was there that I buried the poor man after I had killed him.

Sweet Jesus! Merciful God!” screamed the priest. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he angrily added, “Thy will be done!

Rushing at the villain Martin seized him by the lapels of his jacket and growled into his face, “You damned wretch of a man! You have admitted to shedding the blood of an innocent man who has been crying out to heaven for justice these last ten years or more. I am turning you into the police, now!

He turned ashy pale as he faltered out a few words to say that, as a priest, Martin had promised not to betray him. ” That was under the seal of confession and under that seal, I can never speak of that deadly secret you admitted to. But, God is good, and you now admit your crime in the open, where the seal of confession does not hold me back. At  last, I, the brother of your victim, will be able to avenge the innocent blood that you shed.”

The blood drained from the assassin’s face as Martin tightened his grip and pushed him into the car’s passenger seat. Martin climbed into the driver’s seat and re-started the engine. Totally overcome by events the captive killer did not try to resist while he was driven into the police station, where he was charged with murder and committed for trial.

Reports of Martin’s capture of his brother’s murderer spread far and wide. The Bishop of the Diocese summoned the young priest into his presence and arranged for a dispensation to be given to Martin with regard to the man’s confession. But, Martin did not need to use his dispensation.

Frank’s body was found in the place indicated by his murderer, and forensic science did the rest. The proof provided by the investigators was such that the jury was able to quickly find the killer guilty. The judge complimented Martin on his brave action and heroically observing the obligation of secrecy that bound him. Speaking to the press, the judge declared, “You have witnessed just how the Church of Rome believes that Confession is a sacred trust that cannot be broken. Even when the cause is the avenging of a brother’s murder, it is still an insufficient excuse for breaking that trust.

The Rebellion of 1641

Part 1

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

Newry

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.

Part 2

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.

Torture

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”

[1] The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867

[2] The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867