17th Century Ireland – the Dynamics of Myth and Fact

According to popular historical tradition, the conflict in Northern Ireland between Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant, is one that has endured consistently and bitterly since the English Crown first set on its course to annex the island in 1169. It has been named an ‘ancient’ conflict (Walker, 2000 101), deeply embedded in the history, politics and culture of modern Ireland, seemingly beyond a resolution. It has been suggested that the past of Ireland, and its history of enmity, oppression, bloodshed and revolt, poses the greatest threat to peace in Northern Ireland today.

Numerous events in Ireland’s past are commemorated and seen to justify one group’s cause and their resentment of the other. Of these events thus held in memory many date back to the 17th century such as the Battle of the Boyne and the onslaught on Protestants during the Insurrection of 1641. It would indeed appear, on the surface, that the past preys upon the present, fuelling current hostilities, but is the past at the same time being preyed upon by the present, exploited to suit an agenda?

The intent of this essay is to assess the major events and changes that took place in Ireland during the first half of the 17th century and compare them with modern perceptions of this period in an attempt to understand the dynamics of myth and fact in present-day tensions in Northern Ireland.

Modern Popular Perceptions of 17th Century Ireland

Brian Walker, in his “Past and Present”, quotes a South African church leader who had been struck by the following impression of Northern Ireland:

One notices how people are gripped by the past, remembering the past, feeding on the past; people are constantly remembering this betrayal or that battle; this plantation or that pogrom; this martyr or this murderer … these realities of the past feed into the present in Ireland more than anywhere I have been (Walker, 2000 101)

Yet are these events remembered and commemorated thus truly “realities of the past”? Or are they acts of selective memory, entrenched in a tradition with origins in a more recent set of conflicts, which transfer their reality on the past? Is the past with which opposing groups in Ireland identify coloured by their need for an identity? Why such a separatist “us or them” mentality? And why do the events of the 17th century in particular stand out among the grievances held by one group against the other and vice versa?

Brian Walker writes that other nations ‘are influenced but not controlled by their history’ (Walker, 2000 103) – in modern Northern Ireland the past and the present would appear inextricably entwined. The stress on Irish history, whether by its native population, the media or by foreign comment seems disproportionate. Walker quotes Liam Kennedy who comments that ‘the Irish record is no worse than the modal European experience’ (Walker, 2000 103). Much turmoil, hardship, bloodshed and insurrection can be found elsewhere in European history, but in Ireland past events are part of contemporary arguments and appear fresh in memory. If other European nations have been able, at least in part, to resolve religious and cultural divides or, at least, to create systems where tolerant co-existence is possible, why not Northern Ireland? Why and how is Northern Ireland unique in this respect?

According to the popular historical tradition of the Catholic-Protestant enmity in Northern Ireland, this enmity has endured consistently for centuries. If the conflict between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland has indeed been continuous since the 17th century, or even dates all the way back to 1169, the tradition suggests that no peace is possible. In doing so, the tradition is fatalistic, assuming that the past of Northern Ireland is ‘uniquely significant’ (Walker, 2000 105) in that its history of oppression, religious persecution and violence and the accumulated resentment between Protestant and Catholic undermines any hope of reconciliation. Such a fatalistic historical tradition re-enforces itself and justifies the unflinching ideology and bitterness of both Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist views and sentiments. Furthermore, this rendition of history would justify current distrust and hostility and consequently the divide between the Catholic and Protestant populace in Northern Ireland.

Within the historical tradition of enmity, the 17th century plays a central role. The events of the 17th century are today considered of the utmost import to Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists alike and are cultivated and used as political and emotional ammunition in the quarrel between the ostensibly divided populace of Northern Ireland. These events have become part of a historical tradition with which Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists identify and by which they justify their mutual animosity. In the mind of Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists today, the conflicts and transgressions of the 17th century stand as a milestone in the tradition of Catholic-Protestant enmity in Northern Ireland, marking the hour when the division between Protestant and Catholic was defined for the centuries to follow. What makes the 17th century so rich in ammunition is that it would appear that a clear division between Catholic and Protestant did indeed exist during this period and no less due to the unrest and the many social and political changes which marked 17th century Ireland; changes and events that brought hardship and misery to both Catholics and Protestants alike. The Catholic Irish of the 17th century were the target of massive relocations, the seizing of property and lands, and political marginalisation and social and cultural demonization. During the same period, Protestants who migrated to Ireland found themselves resented and the victims of bloody revolts and Catholic conspiracies. Thus sound the grievances which are aired to this day in the Northern Irish controversy.

With so much stress lain on the historical legacy and the persisting enmity between Catholic and Protestant, it is a curious thing to know that the events that one may witness in the media of the Orange unionist parades as they progress through the streets of Northern Ireland are not a tradition that can be justly named ancient, despite whatever we are told of the ancient enmities between Protestant and Catholic Irish in Northern Ireland. The traditions, as we know them today, of the annual organised Protestant commemorations and celebrations of Irish historical holidays such as the Battle of the Boyne are just barely over a hundred years old. It was not until the late 19th century that the events of the 17th century became so momentous in the Northern Irish mind, Protestant unionist as well as Catholic nationalist, as to be commemorated én masse. Indeed, the events of the 17th century do not appear to have weighed heavily upon the minds of either Protestant or Catholic, nor would it appear to have divided them, until the late 19th century.

However, this tradition of Protestant assembly and demonstrations would gain massive support over a few decades; after World War I Orange supporters gathered by the tens of thousands under one flag. Traditional Irish holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day became shunned or ignored by many within the Protestant community, whilst Armistice Day, a traditional British commemoration – ergo, a holiday which re-enforced the link to England – became highly prized (Walker, 2000 79-100).

Furthermore, what is rarely mentioned within the popular historical tradition is that in the past Catholic and Protestant Irish have been united in common cause, e.g. when Irish Protestants partook in the 1798 rebellion as United Irishmen, during which they fought and died along side of Catholics against British forces. This is but one historical fact which escapes the tradition of Catholic-Protestant enmity in Northern Ireland; and, indeed, such a fact would defy the perception of a continual struggle between Protestant and Catholic. That neither Catholics nor Protestants have been, nor indeed are today, divided into two distinct groups, united, one against the other, is another matter frequently ignored. That there have been lengthy peaceful periods in Irish history where the religious divide did not lead to violence or turmoil, is also ignored.

These omissions in the historical tradition, along with the relative brevity of the modern tradition of commemorating past events, would not only point to the historical tradition as being selective, but also suggest that it has its origins in more recent conflicts and changes in Northern Irish society, rather than the distant past. If we can assume the current historical tradition of the Catholic-Protestant enmity to be selective, it follows to ask whether the historical tradition is also fallacious?

In the following chapter, I will recount the major events and changes which occurred in Ireland during the first half of the 17th century and how they impacted both the Catholic and Protestant populace of Ireland at the time. I will pay special attention to historical facts which may support or deny the claims of the popular historical tradition that the conflict between Catholic and Protestant was continuous during this period and that the divide between Catholic and Protestant was clearly defined. I will also consider the claims of transgressions ostensibly made by one group against the other.

17th Century Ireland

What is necessary to clarify from the beginning, however, when relating of the events and changes in Ireland during the first half of the 17th century, is that Irish society at the time was not divided into two opposing cultural and religious populations. Historians make the demographical distinction between at least three groups in Ireland during the 17th century, namely the Gaelic Irish, being the original Celtic inhabitants of the isle and Catholic by faith; the so-called Old English, who were English by descent and primarily Catholic by faith, many of which could trace their ancestry back to the Anglo-Normans who took part in the initial conquest of Ireland; and finally the so-called New English, being Protestant newcomers from England and Scotland. In addition, some make the further distinction of dividing the New English into Anglican Protestants and Protestant non-conformists, or Dissenters, principally represented by Scots settlers of varying Protestant denominations of Calvin extraction, notably Presbyterianism.

The English crown first set on its course to annex Ireland in 1169, but it was not until the reign of Henry VIII that complete conquest was seriously undertaken. Until Henry VIII’s reign, the British had held a number of strategic coastal ports and areas, notably The Pale, a narrow strip of rich coastal land which included Dublin. This was the main base of the Old English who, despite their long presence in Ireland and increasing intermarriage with the local Gaelic Irish, looked to England as home and perceived themselves as English. That Ireland must come under British control was a security issue; strained relations with Catholic continental regimes, notably Spain, following Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, made the overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland a security risk and a potential back-door to England for her enemies.

The influx of the New English began in the latter half of the 16th century, but did not make its mark on Ireland until the time of the plantations in the early 17th century. Indeed, the bulk of the migration of Protestants to Ireland did not pick up speed until after the 17th century. They were initially comprised of undertakers, i.e. soldiers decommissioned from the English army who had been granted land in Ireland, and adventurers looking to explore financial opportunities on the new frontier that was Ireland, including trading companies, but these were later joined by English and Scotsmen of lesser means who were looking to improve their basic living conditions. Although the New English had their Protestant faith in common, they adhered to different Protestant schools of thought, ranging from liberal Anglicanism to devout Calvinism. The diversity within the New English would soon branch out into divisions within the Protestants in Ireland, as I will explain later.

Initially it would be the Gaelic Irish who would feel the seriousness of the Tudors’ intent to bring all of Ireland under their rule. One by one, the Gaelic lords were made to submit to the English Crown. However, with the introduction of a new state religion, Anglicanism, and a new Church of England and Ireland with the British monarch at its head, religion became a political issue; a man’s professed religion became a statement of loyalty to not only his faith, but to king and country also, and as such could be called into question. The specific question that would matter for many Irish was how a Roman Catholic residing in the British Kingdoms could be loyal to both monarch and to the Roman Catholic Church at the same time. This was a point of interest and a means of exploitation for the New English, whose own loyalty could not be questioned on religious grounds, and many Gaelic Irish would be dispossessed of their lands, titles and even freedoms as their loyalties were challenged. The Old English did not feel the true burden of suspicion and threat of dispossession until the 17th century; they enjoyed a privileged position, despite their adherence to Roman Catholicism, not only due to their English antecedents, which they made certain to stress, but also their familiarity with English government, law and culture.

For, as Brendan Fitzpatrick puts it, although the conquest of Ireland began as a military venture, ‘it was, more than anything else, legal’ (Fitzpatrick 1). As the Gaelic chiefs submitted to the English Crown, they were faced with terms, contracts and legal details of which few had understanding. The Old English were able to defend themselves in the courts and to understand and articulate their rights, whereas the Gaelic Irish, unaccustomed to British law, were targets for speculators who had an eye on their lands. The British legal and political system was simply quite alien to the majority of the Gaelic Irish; the Gaelic Irish culture had existed on the fringe of Europe in relative cultural and political isolation and had as a consequence not assimilated those political and legal structures which had become a matter of course elsewhere in Europe.

The frustration of the Gaelic Irish broke out in a number of localized revolts, as resorting to arms was the only means by which the Gaelic lords could raise their voice against the exploitation of which they were the victim. It is to be noted that although Gaelic lords took up the sword repeatedly during this time, their main grievance was not against the English monarch as such, but against those who sought to dispossess them.

Although the Gaelic Irish and the Old English had Catholicism and geography in common, they did not share common cause or solidarity at this time. Few Old English extended help or legal advice to the Gaelic Irish – some Old English, like the New English, did not shy away either from taking advantage of the Gaelic Irish, and many supported the dispossession of the Gaelic lords. The Earl of Tyrone, who led the last revolt against the English during the reign of Elisabeth I, publicly chastised the Old English for their lack of support of their brothers in the faith and more or less blamed their neutrality for his failure to repel the English. However, the general English perception of the Gaelic Irish as an uncivilized and barbarous people was shared by many Old English who saw no reason to sympathise with the Gaelic Irish nor risk their own privileged position. The nature of the Catholicism as practised by the Gaelic Irish and the Old English respectively were not identical either; although both saw to the Pope as their religion’s supreme authority on earth and observed similar service, the Catholicism of the Gaelic Irish was more fundamental and more akin to the Roman Catholicism as practised in Spain than to that of the more modern and moderate Catholicism as practised in Northern Europe by the Old English. The Old English had a much more practical approach to religious politics; as long as they could practice their faith undisturbed, they saw no need to make a fuss. That the Old English enjoyed such religious freedom as practising Catholics was to many in England a source of indignation (Canny 172). Indeed, few classes in the British Kingdoms enjoyed as much freedom as the Old English; they were truly privileged and considered themselves, and were, the elite of Ireland.

However, the conditions of both the Gaelic Irish and Old English would markedly change when the House of Tudor was replaced by the House of Stuart at the turn of the century. Initially, the prospect of the crowning of James I in 1603 as King of England, Scotland and Ireland was met with enthusiasm by the Gaelic Irish, as rumour had it that the king had Catholic sympathies, to the degree that a spontaneous revolt broke out in Ulster in the anticipation that the new monarch would set things right in Ireland and deal with the Protestant speculators.

Regardless, however, of whatever sympathies the king might have had or not, his main objective was not to protect the rights of his Catholic subjects specifically, but the stability of the realm. James I would, along with his heirs, see conformity, political as well as religious, as the means to ensure that stability. Having had to rule Scotland during the rise of Calvinism there, James I had witnessed at first hand the unrest that religious diversity could bring in its wake. Religious uniformity across the British Kingdoms was his solution to that threat. Now, more than ever, religion would become synonymous with politics and loyalty. It would be one people under one church under one king.

In 1604 a demand of divine Protestant service for all men in Ireland was made along with the introduction of the Oath of Supremacy. The Oath of Supremacy was a proclamation of fealty to the English Crown, stating that its authority was supreme to all other institutions, religious included. The Oath was required for anyone who would hold civic office or practice law in Ireland. It was aimed at Catholics, as a good Roman Catholic could never in good conscience acknowledge any one man or worldly institution as being superior in authority to the Roman Catholic Church. For the Gaelic Irish this had little import as at the time there were no Protestant churches to speak of in the Gaelic areas and they had no access to civic office to begin with. For the many Old English who were Catholic, however, this was a crippling blow; they were effectively barred from official political power and forced to attend Protestant service under threat of fine or prison or worse, namely being suspected of disloyalty to crown and kingdom and risk dispossession of their estates and titles. Any refusal of the divine service was considered an ‘affront to the authority of the crown’ (Canny 173); divine service had become a proclammation of loyalty to the English Crown, rather than to one’s faith. To be Catholic was to be suspect.

It was not the intent behind these measures to insist on conversion to the Protestant faith, but to ensure stability and loyalty through conformity. If, however, a Catholic would choose to convert, it would greatly improve his situation. It was not so much religious oppression as it was fear of unwanted influences from outside the British Kingdoms, notably Spain, and potential domestic unrest due to religious diversity. To ensure that these unwelcome religious and foreign influences did not further jeopardize the stability of Ireland, all Catholic clergy were expelled from Ireland in 1605. Concurrently, Catholicism was by many in England and Scotland regarded as a poison which sought to undermine English culture and the prosperity of the British Kingdoms. Some even went as far as excusing the apparent barbarity of the Gaelic Irish and their reluctance to adapt to “civilised” conditions as being a drawback of their faith (Canny 173). Catholicism was an evil; seductive, poisonous, and responsible for holding back progress. The general thought on the matter of Ireland and the native Irish was that, if the Catholic influence was once removed, it would be possible to civilize the locals.

In 1605, James I sent out a proclamation that all of his subjects were free and under his protection and with no obligation to any other lord. This proclamation was meant to undermine the authority of the remaining Gaelic chiefs to whom the Gaelic Irish still looked to for leadership. Further administrative duties were added to the burdens of the Gaelic chiefs and few had the means or understanding to deal with them. Those who were capable were targeted with further harassment and saw their titles, lands and loyalties questioned repeatedly. Gaelic lords were requested to submit their titles to the Crown in order that they might be confirmed. However, as soon as the lords had submitted, those very titles were called into question. Those who objected, risked complete confiscation of title and lands; those who complied would generally be permitted to keep two thirds of their lands. Ultimately, these measures would lead to the so-called “flight of the earls” in 1607 when a number of Gaelic lords fled under threat of trial (or, in some cases, no trial) and imprisonment or execution to the continent where they would remain in exile in Spain and France for many years.

Over the following 20 years a number of heavy financial burdens were lain on the inhabitants of Ireland, including heavy customs on export and import from and to Ireland. A succession of monopolies were given to English traders on the export of Ireland’s primary tradeable produces, wool and cattle, which meant that the traders grew rich and the Irish were forced to accept any price they were offered for their goods and livestock by the monopoly holders. Gaelic traders were banned from towns and town trade charters were dissolved at the slightest suspicion of disloyalty to the crown. All of this meant that merchants and landholders in Ireland, regardless of denomination, saw their livelihood undermined.

The most extreme of the English Crown’s schemes in Ireland, however, would be the plantations.

The Ulster Plantation would become James I’s flagship in his plan to civilize Ireland and have it conform with the rest of his kingdom. The purpose of the plantation scheme was twofold; on the one hand to ensure stability in Ireland, by introducing English local government standards and culture, and on the other to make it pay its own way, by introducing English standards of agriculture and commerce. Ireland was both a slumbering threat and an expense that the Crown could not afford.

In 1609, the plantation scheme for Ulster was set into effect. Ulster, at the time, was almost entirely Gaelic; by the end of the effectuation of the scheme, only a fifth of the population in Ulster would be Gaelic. A few Gaelic landholders were permitted to stay, if it was judged that they would cause no trouble and adhere to the standards dictated. The larger part of Ulster was divided into farmable plots and re-allocated to new owners, the majority being undertakers and Scots and English settlers. The plots were granted on the condition that English agricultural standards would be observed and that no landowner would take on Gaelic tenants. Naturally, the Oath of Supremacy was obligatory for any settler, save for the Gaelic Irish who had been permitted to remain in the area, but if any Gaelic landowner were to hope that his land should pass on to his heirs, that heir would have to take the Oath as well.

With the massive relocation of locals, the opportunity arose to rid Ulster of any potential troublemakers and surplant them with hard-working, reliable Protestants. The majority of these potential troublemakers were divided among the southernmost regions, principally Munster and Connacht, in so small groups as was hoped would not get into mischief. Others were conscripted in armies overseas. The government’s fear of potential Gaelic conspiracy and revolt would find expression in a wide number of precautions and restrictions, e.g. Gaelic Irish were forbidden to practice their century-old custom of following their grazing herds for long periods of time, as it was feared that they might congregate in the hills and plot against the authorities. Among the statutes for acquiring a plot in Ulster, was included that planters should undertake the building of defensive structures, specifically with any Gaelic unrest in mind.

Despite the reasonably successful progress of the Ulster Plantation over the next decade, the king would be appalled at the progress report of 1619. Housing and the building of towns had proceeded as planned and farming was being conducted according to the conditions whereby the plots had been granted, but it was clear that the majority of the planters had had difficulty in upholding their side of the agreement. As many as half of the original planters of 1609 had had to abandon or sell their plots (Canny 210), many of which had been bought for a pittance by other, more successful planters with the result that a number of planters had come to preside over large tracts of land, as was not the initial intention behind the Plantation. The New English were not shy either to take advantage of their brothers in faith. Contrary to the statutes, a great many Gaelic tenants and labourers were found to be living and working in the Ulster Plantation. In fact, the Gaelic population in the area had risen to a quarter of the entire population (Canny 210). Much of Ulster was poor land, which yielded little crop, and many plots were furthermore isolated from waterways or townships which had made living hard for many planters. In particular the Scots planters had found it necessary to take Gaelic tenants to get by; the English settlers in general had been of better means from the beginning and indeed the majority of those who had acquired further plots were English who had speculated in the troubles of their neighbours.

What further exasperated the king was that Ireland was not paying its own way yet; it had cost the crown an estimated £47,170 (Canny 244) during 1609-1619. Anti-Spanish lobbyists and reformists, who supported the plantation scheme and would see Ireland become altogether English, had attempted to suppress this information. Meanwhile, a splintering was forming amongst the Protestant planters; a hardcore grouping of English undertakers and servitors had emerged who were highly anti-Gaelic and looked upon the other planters, in particular the Scots, who had taken in Gaelic Irish tenants, with rising dismay and were eager to pass the blame of the “failure” of the plantation on them. Much of the financial failure, however, was due to corrupt administrators and poor initial planning.

The Ulster Plantation was promptly re-divided into plots of the initial size intended and a more rigorous control of the plantation’s running was put into effect. Within few years, commerce and revenue increased.

On the sidelines, the Old English saw their former influence and position melt away. The plantation scheme in particular was a threat to what now was their only advantage; their still substantial wealth. That Ulster would be only the first of many plantations to come was just a matter of time and the Old English looked with increasing misgiving to their own lands that might one day be claimed for plantation.

In 1625, the Old English saw their chance to put their wealth to use and regain some of their former influence. They offered the then king, Charles I, to pay for the fortification of Ireland which had been denied him by Parliament. The Protestants of Ireland sounded an uproar; the idea of the Old English having influence on Ireland’s defences was unacceptable. Charles I, however, accepted the offer, presumably thrilled at the opportunity of bypassing Parliament’s decision. Charles I looked upon sovereignty as just that; as superior and as a power that should not be encumbered or restricted by any other institution. The Old English, who remained true blue royalists, and in particular their wealth, were a means that might allow Charles to assert himself in the face of the Parliament that would dictate to him.

In return for a subsidy of £ 3,000 a month to be used for the fortification of Ireland and the arming and training of an Irish force, it was agreed that the laws imposed on Catholics in Ireland would be alleviated. This included the annulments of the demand of divine service, the insistence on the Oath of Supremacy and the ban from court on Catholic lawyers. These exceptions would be known as the Graces. In 1628 Catholic priests were permitted to return to Ireland.

The Graces would be the first spadeful with which Charles I would dig his own grave, as he was seen to put religion up for sale by his Protestant subjects.

However, in 1629 peace broke out in Europe and negotiations between England and its enemies France and Spain were conducted. This meant that there no longer was any urgency for the fortification of Ireland. Over the next few years new sanctions against Catholics took place and although the Graces had been formally agreed upon and some already had been put into effect, all the while the subsidy flowed from the Old English purse, the Graces were not legislated upon. Eventually, the Old English ceased the subsidy to which Charles promptly responded by threatening with the reinstallment of former laws – which is what happened.

The Old English would never be able to reply or react to this threat, for the letter pertaining to it would never reach them. Why this was, is a matter of speculation, but it may be that the newly appointed Thomas Wentworth as Lord Deputy of Ireland, who assumed office in 1633, had a hand in this. Certainly, he took pains to sabotage the implementation of the Graces.

Wentworth was above all a practical man and a king’s man. His sole purpose in Ireland was to raise the revenue. A stout believer in the Stuart plan of civilizing Ireland by plantation, he would do his all to ensure its success and keep unwanted Catholic influence from interfering with it. Objective in public, in truth he despised both Catholics and what he deemed to be Protestant extremists, i.e. the Scots, as his private correspondence shows (Canny 279). The Scots population had a marked tendency to concentrate in certain areas and many Scots planters were related by blood and marriage. Moreover, they kept close communications with their relatives who remained in Scotland. Wentworth saw this as a threat to the ideal of religious conformity. The Old English were entirely an evil in Wentworth’s mind; they were directly responsible for undermining the Church of Ireland and the civilization of Ireland. That the Old English should benefit from the Graces was entirely unacceptable. Wentworth would shock the Old English when they realized that he, along with most English and Scots, saw them and the Gaelic Irish as being one people, the Irish. No longer could the Old English remain confident in their elitist perception of themselves. With the planning and initial preparations for a plantation in Connacht, Wentworth would altogether antagonize the Old English.

Meanwhile, Charles I was well on his way to antagonizing most of his Scots and English subjects. His grand plan for the kingdom was, like his predecessors, stability based on conformity, that is to say a conformity dictated by him personally. Along with a number of select bishops, he devised a reformation of the Church of England. His particular brand of Protestantism was Arminian in nature, with ceremonies and service bordering on that of the Roman Catholic Church. Taking the doctrine of one people under one church under one king quite literally, he deemed he had the sovereign right to mould the Church of England, and consequently the faith of all his subjects, according to his own religious beliefs. His new prayer book, which he published without Parliament’s consent, was received with outrage by Scots Calvinists and Presbyterians in particular. It was considered popish and even treasonable. Charles further managed to also antagonize nobles throughout Scotland and England by declaring that all who had in their possession former monastic lands only occupied that land with his good graces, i.e. it was in his power to deprive them of selfsame land at his whim and convenience.

The prayer book would set alight the Covenanter Rebellion in Scotland. What Charles had failed to include in his calculations was that, according to Calvin doctrine, if you find your monarch lacking in godliness it is your duty to depose him – which the Scots set about to do. As a direct consequence, Scots in Ireland were demanded to take the infamous Black Oath, in which they vowed allegiance to the English Crown and stated that they would fight their own kinsmen if need be.

Meanwhile, the Old English had had all they could stand of Wentworth and pressed for his removal, making the best of the few advantages they had while they still had them and the little influence they still had at court. Wentworth would eventually be charged with treason, condemned and executed. However, even before the death of Wentworth, the Old English would discover their mistake when they became aware of the dire straits their king was in and with what incompetence he dealt with his Scottish predicament. Wentworth, albeit political differences, had been one of Charles I’s most capable supporters. The Old English had now only Charles and his supporters at court and in office were dwindling by the hour.

Popular legend in Protestant unionist circles has it that the Insurrection of 1641 had been years under way, backed by a widespread conspiracy among Catholics of all classes and orders, including the Old English and the Vatican. This claim being doubtful, it is a fact that on the 22nd of October 1641 a number of the Gaelic gentry in Ulster took up arms and during the next two days systematically seized fortifications and garrisons. It would appear that they intended to take Dublin as soon as Ulster was secured, but they never got that far. Nor did they seize all of Ulster. Over the following weeks, Gaelic lords would take up arms all throughout Ireland in what seems to have been a chain reaction of insurgence. The insurrection did not spread equally nor simultaneously across Ireland and bore few signs of general organization. What appears apparent is that the leaders of the localised revolts were not aware of the possibility of, and certainly not in control of, the peasant uprising among the local civilian Catholic population who took the opportunity to settle old scores. Local Catholics would turn out local Protestants from their homes, forcing them to sign over their property and taking their money and even the clothes on their backs. Deaths occurred when Protestants put up a fight. Catholic churches and monastic lands were reclaimed. Reportedly, Protestant dead, who had been interred there, were dug up and their bodies destroyed or even converted to saltpetre for gunpowder manufacture. Even more disturbingly, a number of atrocities were reported, most notably one at Portadown where some 100 Protestants were stripped and forced into the river’s icy waters to their death (Canny 485). Such reports ran like wildfire and would later be counted among the transgressions held in memory by Protestant unionists today. Few, however, are documented. Interestingly, in areas with active presence of Catholic clergy, there seems to have been better control of local outrage, e.g. in Leitrim. With typical Jesuit stoicism, the plan of the Catholic clergy was to gradually convert, not to kill or banish, and they urged their flock to be tolerant, compassionate and patient.

The reasons for the revolt would later be termed as a ‘pre-emptive strike’ (Canny 489) against anticipated intensified persecution of Catholics. It may also be that certain Gaelic lords saw the chance to regain lost power or a bargaining advantage during the king’s domestic troubles. Whatever the initial reason of the initial insurgents, it was a mess. The call for battle would as often as not be in the name of the king, who was rumoured to be dead, and his Catholic queen, believed besieged by Protestant rebels in England. That the king and queen still were still some years from such threats was not known to the general populace; since the onset of the Covenanter Rebellion in Scotland, information had been scarce. The Scots rose to arms forming their own militia in Ulster, in anticipation of combat. The Catholic leaders of the Ulster insurrection stressed that they had no quarrel with the Scots, but only with the English, which suited the Scots fine. However, another militia army of combined Scots and English planters was formed and went against the Catholic insurgents, after which the Catholics made little distinction between Scots and English, neutral or otherwise. Soon there were numerous independent armies throughout Ireland; in Ulster alone there was at one time as many as six.

In April 1642, Charles I sent Major General Robert Munro into Ulster, but soon learned that he could not depend upon him. Monro was an extremely poor choice; he was Scots, a Covenanter and supplied by Scotland, and once he had secured the areas with the highest concentration of Scots population he stopped in his tracks and would hold that part of Ulster until 1650 when he was defeated by Oliver Cromwell.

During the first months of the Insurrection, the Old English stayed neutral, but by the spring of 1642 the situation had become insupportable as various Ulster armies threatened the borders of The Pale. This led the Old English into an attempt to mediate between the battling armies, the clergy and the English. In the summer of 1642, the Catholic Confederation was formed, composed mainly of Old English gentry and Catholic clergy. In 1645, the Vatican sent Archbishop Rinuccini to be nuncio to the Confederation, with a heavy purse and the intent to ensure Catholic rights along with peace in Ireland. Charles I saw the opportunity to once again capitalize on the royalist Old English and requested, in a last desperate attempt to secure his crown, Irish troops to fight off his domestic enemies in England and Scotland. However, this was thwarted by his own representatives.

All in all, despite attempts made, principally made by Rinuccini and the Old English, to negotiate, no definitive agreement was ever accomplished and eventually, after eight years of unrest, Oliver Cromwell would arrive to subdue the remaining armies in Ireland, following the deposing of Charles I by the Parliamentarians.

As can be understood from this account, the only time during this period that the Catholic can be seen as having co-operated was during the few years after the 1641 Insurrection. Even then it was with apparent tensions and only from dire necessity that the Old English reluctantly negotiated with the Gaelic. That the Protestants were divided is apparent. The Protestants would not join under common flag until the coming of William of Orange for whom they fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1698 against the Old English who once more and for the last time would be enamoured of the hope in a Stuart king, the last of the line, promising to restore their lost glory, onto their ruin.


When Oliver Cromwell was asked to defend the savagery of his men during his Ireland campaign and the massive number of deaths that his re-conquest of Ireland had demanded, he justified it by reminding Parliament of the Protestants who had died at the hands of the Catholic rebels. The number of Protestants who ostensibly died during the Insurrection of 1641 would over a short span of years assume a horrifying 154,000 dead. According to Cromwell, the severity of his campaign had been righteous and necessary, and would safe keep Protestants and the realm for the future:

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood, and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future (Barnard 27)

The 154,000 Protestant deaths have become a part of the myths which surround 17th century Ireland – and myth is what it is, for in 1641 there were not even that many Protestants in all of Ireland. It has been estimated that 3,000 dead is a more likely number, if that many. A high figure, nonetheless, it compares not with the estimated 400,000 (Canny 571) Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, most of which were civilians, who died of privation and disease during the re-conquest where both Cromwell and the rebel armies led a scorched earth policy, destroying housing, crops and livestock as they advanced or retreated across Ireland. Up towards a fourth of Ireland’s entire population thus succumbed.

Curiously, this is another of the facts which have escaped the historical tradition of enmity between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland – perhaps because it reflects badly on the history of Catholics and Protestants alike – but the legend of the 154,000 Protestant dead is very much alive. Precisely the Insurrection of 1641 is an event which is held in bitter reverence by Ulster unionists in particular. However, it is ‘unlikely’ that this reflects ‘a deep-seated historic memory’ (Walker, 1996 3). Today there are few Protestant families that can trace their lineage back to the Protestant who were settled in Ireland in 1641. The ancestors of most Protestants that live in Northern Ireland today migrated to Ireland in the years after the Battle of the Boyne in 1698.

Unionists in Northern Ireland today are perceived as having a ‘siege mentality’ (Walker, 1996 1). Brian Walker speaks of a ‘selective historical perspective’ typical of Protestant unionists; a perspective riddled with myth, stressing a separatist agenda based on a long history of enmity. That this separatist tradition is fairly recent and that Catholics and Protestants have laboured together for mutual causes in the past, are details which are ignored. That the Protestants themselves have not been always, and are not now, joined under a common flag and in common front against Catholic nationalists, is another detail which is ignored at best. There seems to be a overpowering need for the Protestant unionists to feel they are justified and unified in and by the past (Walker, 2000 107). The events of the 17th century have assumed a disproportionate importance because, from the standpoint of a selective historical tradition, they can be interpreted in such a way that it enforces the selective identity by providing ‘a strong continuous sense of history’ (Walker, 1996 1) where Protestants are seen as besieged and victimized by Catholic Irish and justifies their “descendents” in their distrust and hostility toward Catholics.

Among Catholic nationalists there is also a nurturing of the past and its memories. Heroes of the legends of yore have been exhumed and re-instated as shining examples of Irish valour and resistance against oppression. To be Irish is to resist; to resist is both a source and a resource of nobility. To die for nation and religion is nobler still. Again, the traditions of cultural identity came to be, not in ancient times, but within the last hundred and fifty years. Albeit many of the folk heroes date back to the Celtic heyday, these have been unearthed and re-adjusted by nationalist writers to serve a nationalist cause. The Catholic separatist tradition of history is as bound in myth and half-truth as is the Protestant. Walker quotes a former I.R.A. volunteer, who explains:

It was the discovery of the tragedies of Irish history which first caused my desire to give myself to the I.R.A. … these writings [of the end of former patriots] ignited in me a passionate patriotism and an equally passionate desire to emulate the heroic deeds recounted therein (Walker, 2000 110)

Walker suggests a number of changes within Northern Irish society during the first half of the 20th century which have aggravated the divide between Protestants and Catholics (Walker, 2000 103-105). Most significantly is the policy of education which was introduced after World War I in Eire and Northern Ireland respectively; after 1921 Irish history was respectively given greater import in Eire and downplayed in Northern Ireland. The intentions behind this followed a similar scheme; to further a sense of national identity in the young (Walker, 2000 105). The consequence of the meagre information afforded to the young Catholics of Northern Ireland, meant they sought out, and were perhaps more susceptible to, the traditions of their elders, in the form of legend, word of mouth, song and commemorations of the past, rather than a critical knowledge of the past (Walker, 2000 106). In similar fashion, the siege mentality of the militant Protestant groupings was re-enforced by the cultivation of an Anglophile, Protestant historical and cultural tradition.

This lack of critical understanding of the past and the obsession with identity are among the key factors that have brought by the current division between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, fostering a tradition of selective memory which represents a half-truth of the historical facts. In as much as it has dawned on some that the past is not an absolute and that the tradition of this past as it is presented by opposing groups is, at least in part, fallacious, the historical tradition prevails. Being tied to a selective past is ‘not helpful’ (Walker, 2000 120), neither is investing one’s allegiance and emotions in such a past. Furthermore, an obsession with the past can alienate us to the present; it colours our perspective with too much emotion and renders any rational effort ineffective. What is needed is a critical perspective, un-alienated to the present, to deal with the present. If the past is to serve as an aid toward peace, it is to be a shared past, rather than a selective; by informing how history has affected all sides, those sides may open up to understand those who, or who they think, oppose them (Walker, 2000 121).

The religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland is not unique. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium etc. have all felt the heat of religious and nationalist fire and the discontent of the minority, yet they have risen above the burdens of the past; they have passed on into the present in order to deal with those conflicts as effectively as they can. It is the historical tradition of the militant Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists that is both unique and uniquely disruptive and pervasive, seeping into the media and the negotiations for peace and tolerance. It is not history which undermines the possibility of a reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but the historical tradition that presumes to represent it.

Works Cited

  • Barnard, Toby. The Kingdom of Ireland, 1641-1760. Hampshire and New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British 1580-1650. Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Fitzpatick, Brendan. Seventeenth-Century Ireland – The War of Religions. Totowa, New Jersey : Barnes & Nobles Books, 1989.
  • Walker, Brian. Dancing to History’s Tune – History, Myth and Politics in Ireland. Belfast : The Institute of Irish Studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast, 1996.
  • Walker, Brian. Past and Present – History, Identity and Politics in Ireland. Belfast : The Institute of Irish Studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast, 2000.

Additional Bibliography

  • Ohlmeyer, Jane H. Ireland from Independence to Occupation 1641-1660. Ed. Jane H. Ohlmeyer. Cambridge and New York : Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Scott, David. Politics and War in the Three Stuart Kingdoms, 1637-49. Hampshire and New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.


Copyright © 2006, 2014, 2015 Kirstin Sørensen

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