17th Century Ireland – the Dynamics of Myth and Fact

Introduction • Modern Popular Perceptions of 17th Century Ireland • 17th Century Ireland : PreludeStuart ReformPlantationsGraces and Covenanters1641 Insurrection • Conclusion • Works Cited • Additional Bibliography


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 injuries, 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, Dancing to History’s Tune 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, Dancing 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, Past and Present 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’ where Protestants are seen as besieged and victimised by Catholic Irish and justifies their “descendants” in their distrust and hostility toward Catholics (Walker, Dancing 1).

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 (Past and Present 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 Protestant and Catholic (Past and Present 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 and cultural identity in the young (Walker, Past and Present 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, Past and Present 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 encourage 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. It is a historical tradition that has proved most intransigent. Being tied to a selective past is ‘not helpful’ (Walker, Past and Present 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, unalienated 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, Past and Present 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 or dispossessed, 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. It is not ancient history which fuels hostilities in Northern Ireland, but the historical tradition that presumes to represent it, and a more recent history of antagonism and violence.

May 2006

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

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