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Confederation of Kilkenny

Confederation of Kilkenny

In October 1641 Irish-Catholic insurgents attempted a bloodless coup. The insurgents were fearful of the Scottish covenanter and English parliamentary opposition's forcing Charles I into intensified anti-Catholic measures and sought to secure their position within the Stuart composite monarchy. The coup failed to secure strategically important ports and, moreover, it was quickly accompanied by a popular Catholic uprising marred by widespread atrocities against Protestant settlers. Shocked and temporarily united by exaggerated reports of a general massacre of settlers, Charles I and the English Parliament agreed to mobilize a large army of reconquest. This would be financed by loans "adventured" on the promise of postconquest repayment from a land bank of two and a half million acres of Catholic-owned Irish land. This attribution of collective guilt, also apparent from the indiscriminate brutality of the government counterattack, brought home to the insurgents that they could make no negotiated settlement in the short term.

The Confederate Catholics

In this crisis a national ecclesiastical congregation convened at Kilkenny in May 1642 and invited Catholic lay leaders to join them in setting up a new government for the two-thirds of Ireland under insurgent control to coordinate a nationwide military effort. The generally accepted name of this government, the "Confederation of Kilkenny," is retrospective; the participants described themselves as "Confederate Catholics," emphasizing that they were bound as individuals by an "oath of association." The Confederation of Kilkenny was so called because the executive or supreme council (first convened in June 1642; the last was convened in January 1649) most commonly convened in Kilkenny. The general assembly, or quasi-parliament, the other main organ of government (first convened in October 1642) met on nine occasions altogether.

Negotiations with Charles I

The motto of the Confederation Pro Deo, Rege, et Patria Hiberni Unanimes (literally, We Irish united for God, king, and country) encapsulated the Irish-Catholic aspiration of reconciling religious affiliation with secular allegiance to a Protestant monarch, a utopian aspiration, perhaps, in a Europe where religious and political loyalties were inextricably linked. The cease-fire of September 1643 between the Confederation and Charles I, and the protracted search for a definitive treaty illustrate the complexity of reconciling these aspirations. Charles I refused to grant the concessions demanded by the Confederate Catholics in return for their sending an army of ten thousand soldiers to support him in fighting the English Parliament and Scots Covenanters. He would later prove more accommodating as his military position weakened, but definitive agreement nonetheless proved elusive.

To judge from the attitude of the secretary of the council, Richard Bellings, most of the supreme council would have been content with verbal assurances from the king on the key issue of religion, to the effect that he "would soon redress our grievances and tolerate the free exercise of our religion." The opportunity for a definitive agreement existed only so long as this council could continue to monopolize Confederate policy making and marginalize potential opposition from the clergy and the general assembly. The clergy, on the contrary, aspired to religious freedom rather than toleration. Given the need for a timely agreement, the king's choice of James Butler, earl of Ormonde, as his deputy and intermediary in Ireland was unfortunate. Admittedly, he had influential partisans among the Catholic leadership, including his close relatives and clients. But, regardless of family affiliations, he was a member of the Protestant community in Ireland and, as such, more reluctant than Charles I to offer concessions to Irish Catholics, preferring to subvert such peace efforts, as he did with the mission of the earl of Glamorgan in 1645, and to foment divisions within the Confederates.

The Intervention of the Papal Nuncio

The clergy remained quiescent until the arrival of a papal nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, late in 1645. The nuncio urged what one might call an "Ireland first" strategy: the Confederates should intensify their military effort to seize the remaining hostile enclaves and ports. Then they could send help to the king or, at worst, be in a better posture to deter invasion in the event of a parliamentary and covenanter triumph in Britain. To date their larger operations, such as the expeditions against the Covenanters in Ulster and Scotland in 1644, had been primarily intended to bolster the royalist war effort in Britain. Rinuccini's strategy and his prestige were boosted by the Irish victory over the Scots Covenanters near Benburb, Co. Tyrone, in June 1646.

To forestall a resurgent clerical interest, the supreme council concluded a definitive peace with Ormonde, who retained control of Dublin and its hinterland, on 30 July 1646. It quickly became apparent that the supreme council had misjudged the mood of the populace and, more importantly, the clergy and the Confederate Catholic armies. The manner in which the clergy administered the oath of association implied that they were the legitimate arbiters of that oath; on 12 August a specially convened ecclesiastical congregation declared unanimously that the peace violated the oath, mainly because of the lack of religious concessions. The Ulster army, fresh from Benburb, most of the Leinster army, and some units of the Munster army backed Rinuccini and forced Ormonde to return to Dublin. Rinuccini was able to oust the "Ormondist" supreme council and have it replaced with a new "clericalist" executive, soon superseded by pragmatic moderates advocating consensus, the primacy of the general assembly and a more favorable peace treaty with the royalists.

Descriptions of the power struggle in 1646 as a clash between "Gaelic" or "Old Irish," and "Old English," respectively, are simplistic. The fault lines did not open around putative ethnicity alone but involved class interests, familial allegiance, individual religious conviction, and pragmatic assessment of what objectives were reasonably achievable.

"Affliction gave the rejectors of the late [1646] peace understanding," crowed Bellings. The first "affliction" struck when a large Ulster-Leinster composite army besieging Dublin broke up in mutual recrimination in December 1646. Ormonde subsequently (July 1647) surrendered Dublin to a parliamentary army. In August 1647 Thomas Preston's Leinster Confederate army captured nearly all Dublin's satellite garrisons, but he was intercepted and his army annihilated at Dungan's Hill, Co. Meath. In November the parliamentarians of Munster, led by Murrough O'Brien, Lord Inchiquin, inflicted a heavy defeat on a Confederate army at Knocknanuss, Co. Cork.

Failure of Irish Objectives

At this critical juncture the threat of a concerted attack on Kilkenny from the Dublin and Cork enclaves receded with the creation of a new pan-archipelagic royalist coalition of moderate Covenanters or "Engagers," English royalists, and disaffected parliamentarians. One of the latter, Inchiquin, agreed to a cease-fire with the supreme council in May 1648. A week later Rinuccini excommunicated all supporters of the cease-fire. On this occasion, in contrast to 1646, he did not enjoy the unanimous support of the clergy or, indeed, of a political nation disheartened by the military reverses of the preceding eighteen months. In follow-up negotiations the Confederate Catholics secured significant concessions compared with the 1646 agreement, and in January 1649 the Confederation was subsumed within a new royalist alliance in Ireland headed by Ormonde. A factional civil war in the summer of 1648 saw the bulk of Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulster army threatening Kilkenny from the midlands before being forced to retreat north in the autumn by converging counterattacks.

However impressive the achievements of the Confederate Catholics in mobilizing large military forces with minimal foreign aid, any assessment must be overshadowed by Oliver Cromwell's destruction of Irish-Catholic political and military power in the 1650s. The Catholic Confederates might have been able to avert this by securing an earlier definitive agreement with the king and by sending timely military aid to avert a parliamentary victory in the first English Civil War. Alternatively, they might, with the aid of foreign powers, have been able to secure control of Ireland and deter any future intervention; "by failing to decide between these viable but incompatible policies, the Confederates failed to achieve their principal objectives and thus safeguard their own survival" (Ohlmeyer 1993, p. 119).

SEE ALSO Butler, James, Twelfth Earl and First Duke of Ormond; Cromwellian Conquest; Darcy, Patrick; O'Neill, Owen Roe; O'Mahony, Conor, S. J.; Rebellion of 1641; Rinuccini, Giovanni Battista; Primary Documents: Confederation of Kilkenny (1642)


Cregan, John. "The Confederate Catholics of Ireland: The Personnel of the Confederation, 1642–1649." Irish Historical Studies 29, no. 116 (1995): 490–512.

Lenihan, Pádraig. Confederate Catholics at War, 1641–1649. 2001.

Lowe, John. "Some Aspects of the Wars in Ireland, 1641–1649." Irish Sword 4, no. 15 (1959): 81–87.

Lowe, John. "Charles I and the Confederation of Kilkenny, 1643–1649." Irish Historical Studies 14, no. 53 (1964): 1–19.

Ohlmeyer, Jane. Civil War and Restoration in the Three Stuart Kingdoms: The Career of Randal Mac Donnell Marquis of Antrim, 1609–1683. 1993.

Ohlmeyer, Jane. "Ireland Independent: Confederate Foreign Policy and International Relations during the Mid-Seventeenth Century." In Ireland from Independence to Occupation, edited by Jane Ohlmeyer. 1995.

Ó hAnnracháin, Tadhg. "Rebels and Confederates: The Stance of the Irish Clergy in the 1640s." In Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, edited by John Young. 1997.

Ó Siochrú, Micheál. Confederate Ireland, 1642–1649. 1999.

Pádraig Lenihan

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