17th Century Ireland – the Dynamics of Myth and Fact

Introduction • Modern Popular Perceptions of 17th Century Ireland • 17th Century Ireland : PreludeStuart ReformPlantationsGraces and Covenanters • 1641 Insurrection • Conclusion • Works Cited • Additional Bibliography


Popular Protestant legend 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 organisation. Indeed, organisation was in short supply. 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, where the clergy 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 rely 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 more or less stopped in his tracks and would hold that part of Ulster until 1650 when he was defeated by the forces of Oliver Cromwell.

During the first months of the Insurrection, the Old English stayed neutral, but by the spring of 1642 the situation had become untenable 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 capitalise 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 arrived to subdue the remaining armies in Ireland, Gaelic, Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise, 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.


© 2006, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

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