Rebellion of 1641

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Rebellion of 1641

Both the Old English and the Irish harbored grievances relating to land and religion that reached back to the English conquest of Ireland during the sixteenth century and the associated policy of plantation. Plantation had injected English and Scottish settlers into various parts of Ireland, but particularly Ulster, to the disadvantage of the former inhabitants. However, a rebellion was not inevitable, and it took most contemporary observers by surprise. In 1628, with the granting of the Graces, it appeared that the king was prepared to address the issues of security of land tenure, and even though the confirmation of these concessions into law was long delayed, in August 1641 bills giving them effect had been forwarded to Ireland. Even on the matter of religion, Catholicism enjoyed a degree of informal toleration. What transformed the situation was the successful Scottish challenge to the Crown from 1637 to 1641. As many Irish leaders remarked, they learned how to use force from the Scots. Moreover, the Scottish crisis diminished the Crown's authority in both Ireland and England, and in the latter the consequence was the rise in influence of extreme Protestants whose rhetoric aroused fears in Ireland of the intention to extirpate all Catholics.

The plotting of preemptive action by the Irish was complex and is much debated by historians, but it is generally agreed that by October 1641 Sir Phelim O'Neill and other Irish gentry in Ulster had agreed to seize many English-controlled centers in that province. Simultaneously, colonels, who had recently arrived in Dublin to recruit soldiers for Spanish service, were to surprise Dublin Castle with the aid of some other Irish gentry from Ulster. Sir Phelim struck on 22 October, and by the next day such towns as Dungannon, Charlemont, Portadown, and Newry had fallen to the insurgents. Meanwhile, the MacMahons in Monaghan, the Maguires in Fermanagh, and the O'Reillys in Cavan seized centers of power in their counties. Thus, by early November the Irish controlled most of five northern counties. Had Dublin also been taken, English authority in Ireland might have been overwhelmed quickly, but this venture was betrayed to the government at the last moment.

Before he knew that Dublin had not been taken, Sir Phelim indicated that he intended to negotiate with the king from a position of strength, on the Scottish model, while leaving settlers in possession of their estates. But news of the failure in Dublin necessitated a forceful effort to gain as much additional territory as possible. O'Neill, who at first managed to create division between Scottish and English settlers, advanced as far north as Strabane and to Lurgan in the east by December, but as news that Dublin had not fallen reached the north, settler resistance prevented further Irish expansion in Ulster at this stage. To the south, the MacMahons had penetrated Louth by 1 November, and by 21 November they, with the assistance of the O'Reillys, had begun to invest Drogheda. An English relief force was intercepted at Julianstown and routed on 29 November.

Julianstown persuaded the Old English lords of the Pale to join with the northern insurgents at a meeting held on Crofty Hill on 7 December. They had become deeply suspicious that the Dublin government intended to use the crushing of the rebellion as an excuse both to extend plantation at the expense of the Catholic community as a whole and to end the tacit toleration of their religion. Important as these fears were, their action must also have been influenced by the popular support of the rebellion beyond Ulster before they met with the Irish leaders at Crofty. Leitrim, in Connacht, and Long-ford, in Leinster, had risen almost simultaneously with Ulster, and popular support, as demonstrated by attacks on settlers, was manifest in Louth, Meath, and Westmeath as early as October. By the end of November Catholic elements had begun to move against Protestants and the government's authority in virtually every county in Leinster save County Dublin. In Connacht the situation was more complex. The earl of Clanricarde, though Catholic, remained loyal and delayed rebellion in Galway, but in counties Sligo, Mayo, and Roscommon there was support for the rising before the meeting at Crofty. Only in Munster was there delay in providing support on the popular level, and, significantly, when the rebellion did break out in the province, it was usually the Catholic proprietors who led it. By May 1642 the Catholic community was sufficiently united that, in conjunction with the church, it was able to create the Confederation of Kilkenny, and in July it received reinforcement in the north with the arrival of Owen Roe O'Neill, the leader of the Irish exiles on the continent and a man of proven military ability.

Reference to the popular dimension of the rebellion raises one of the most contentious issues associated with it, namely, the treatment of Protestant settlers. Economic conditions had already deteriorated when the Scottish crisis interrupted trade, and almost as soon as the rebellion began, the Irish population below the level of the gentry began to rob their Protestant neighbors, to whom they were often in debt. Thus, although Sir Phelim and many other Irish leaders had not intended spoliation, they had in effect unleashed a peasant rising over which they had little control. After about two weeks, there were instances of settlers being killed, particularly when they attempted to resist robbery. There were also reports by settlers of torture being applied to those who would not reveal where they had hidden their wealth. Large numbers of settlers fled after they were attacked, with those in the north often crossing to Scotland, and those leaving the southern counties of Ulster finding refuge in Dublin and then sometimes crossing to England. Some, however, never reached sanctuary because they had been stripped naked and died of exposure in the cold weather. Others died while in captivity at the hands of their captors, although many remained captive for months or even years without being harmed. It is impossible to calculate the number who died during the first months of the rebellion. The number was not insignificant, but some additional points relating to these noncombatant casualties require emphasis. First, Irish leaders generally opposed atrocities, though local commanders sometimes initiated them. Owen Roe O'Neill put an end to them on his arrival. Second, there were relatively few cases of mass murder. Such incidents did occur, usually after an Irish defeat, when some thirty to one hundred colonists were killed at one time. The most notable instances were those at Augher, Portadown, Belturbet, and Monaghan in Ulster, and at Sligo and Shrule in Connacht. Third, some Protestants reported that priests and sometimes laypeople intervened on their behalf, though there were other reports in which priests were described as justifying atrocity or as denouncing Protestant accoutrements, such as Bibles, in a manner that encouraged hostility toward their owners. Fourth, contemporary accounts of the rebellion by Englishmen, such as Sir John Temple's, published in 1646, vastly exaggerated the number of British murdered and claimed that the killings were premeditated. The purpose of these accounts was to encourage a reconquest of Ireland by the English. Fifth, the intensity of the Irish reaction at the popular level toward the settlers (which in some instances extended even to the slaughter of English-type cattle) reflected a level of hostility toward the settlements that is hard to detect in sources predating the rebellion, and that substantially exceeded the animosities harbored towards the British within the Catholic elite. Finally, settler treatment of the Irish in quelling the rebellion equaled the ferocity that had been displayed against them.

SEE ALSO Bedell, William; Confederation of Kilkenny; English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690); Graces, The; Old English; O'Neill, Owen Roe; Rinuccini, Giovanni Battista; Solemn League and Covenant; Wentworth, Thomas, First Earl of Strafford; Primary Documents: Confederation of Kilkenny (1642); Speech to the Speaker of the House of Commons (1642); From A True and Credible Relation (1642); From A Remonstrance . . . Being the Examinations of Many Who Were Eye-Witnesses of the Same, and Justified upon Oath by Many Thousands (1643); On the Capture of Drogheda (17 September 1649); From The Interest of England in the Irish Transplantation Stated (1655)


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Michael Perceval-Maxwell