Irish Rebellion of 1641

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE Puritanical party, which ever since Wentworth's execution had the government of Ireland in their hands, began to consider that this desperate condition of their affairs rendered some extraordinary resort necessary, if the island was not to slip totally and forever from their grasp. The situation was evidently one full of peculiar difficulty and embarrassment for them. The national confederacy, which by this time had most of the kingdom in its hands, declared utmost loyalty to the king, and in truth, as time subsequently showed, meant him more honest and loyal service than those who now surrounded him. as ministers and officials.

Hence it was more than likely to be extremely difficult to arouse against the Irish movement that strong and general effusion of public feeling in England which would result in vigorous action against it. For obviously enough (so reasoned the Puritanical executive in Dublin Castle) that section of the English nation which supports the king will be inclined to side with this Irish movement; they will call it far more justifiable and far more loyal than that of the rebel Scotch Covenanters; they will counsel negotiation with its leaders, perhaps the concession of their demands; in any event they will reprehend and prevent any extreme measures against them. In which case, of course, the result must be fatal to the pious project of robbing the native Irish, and "planting" the country with "colonies" of saintly plunderers.

In this extremity it was discerned that there was barely one way of averting all these dangers and disasters—just one way of preventing any favorable opinion of the Irish movement taking root in England—one sure way for arousing against it such a cry as must render it impossible for even the king himself to resist or refrain from joining in the demand for its suppression at all hazards. This happy idea was to start the story of an "awful, bloody, and altogether tremendous massacre of Protestants."

To be sure they knew there had been no massacre—quite the contrary; but this made little matter. With proper vehemence of assertion, and sufficient construction of circumstantial stories to that effect, no difficulty was apprehended on this score. But the real embarrassment lay in the fact that it was rather late to start the thing. Several days or weeks had elapsed, and several accounts of the rising had been transmitted without any mention of such a proceeding as a "wholesale massacre," which ordinarily should have been the first thing proclaimed with all horror. The lords justices and their advisers, who were all most pious men, long and with grave trouble of mind considered this stumbling-block; for it was truly distressing that such a promising project should be thwarted. Eventually they decided to chance the story anyway, and trust to extra zeal in the use of horror narratives, to get up such a bloody fury in England as would render close scrutiny of the facts out of the question.[1]

So—albeit long after date—suddenly a terrific outcry arose about the awful "massacre" in Ireland; the great wholesale and simultaneous massacre of Protestants. Horrors were piled on horrors, as each succeeding mail brought from the government officials in Dublin "further particulars" of the dreadful massacre which had, they declared, taken place all over "Ulster on the night of the rising. Several of the ministers in London were in the secret of this massacre story; but there is no doubt it was sincerely credited by the bulk of the English people at the time; and, as might be expected, a sort of frenzy seized the populace. A cry arose against the bloody Irish popish rebels. Everywhere the shout was to "stamp them out." The wisdom and sagacity of the venerable lords justices—the pre-eminent merits of their device—were triumphantly attested!

For a time there was a danger that the whole scheme might be spoiled—shaken in public credulity—by the injudicious zeal of some of the furnishers of "further particulars," by whom the thing was a little overdone. Some thought twenty thousand would suffice for the number of massacred Protestants; others would go for a hundred thousand; while the more bold and energetic still stood out for putting it at two or three hundred thousand, though there were not that number of Protestants in all Ireland at the time. As a consequence, there were some most awkward contradictions and inconsistencies; but so great was the fury aroused in England, that happily these little dangers passed away smoothly, and King Charles himself joined in the shout against the horrid popish rebellion! The English soldiers in Ireland were exhorted to slay and spare not; additional regiments were quickly sent over—the men maddened by the massacre stories—to join in the work of "revenge." And, just as might be expected, then indeed massacre in earnest appeared upon the scene.

The Irish had in the very first hour of their movement—in the very flush of victory—humanely and generously proclaimed that they would seek righteous ends by righteous means; that they would fight their cause, if fight they must, by fair and honorable warfare. They had, with exceptions so rare as truly to "prove the rule," exhibited marvelous forbearance and magnanimity. But now the English Puritan soldiery, infuriated to the fiercest pitch, were set upon them, and atrocities that sicken the heart to contemplate made the land reek from shore to shore. The Covenanters of Scotland also, who had just previously secured by rebellion all they demanded for themselves, were filled with a holy desire to bear a part in the pious work of stamping out the Irish popish rebellion. King Charles, who was at the time in Edinburgh endeavoring to conciliate the Scottish parliament, was quite ready to gratify them; and accordingly a force of some two thousand Scots were dispatched across the channel, landing at Antrim, where they were reinforced by a recruitment from the remnant of the "colonies" planted by James the First. It was this force which inaugurated what may be called "massacres." Before their arrival the Puritan commanders in the south had, it is true, left no atrocity untried; but the Scots went at the work wholesale. They drove all the native population of one vast district—(or rather all the aged and infirm, the women and children; for the adult males were away serving in the confederate armies)—into a promontory, almost an island, on the coast, called Island Magee. Here, when the helpless crowd were hemmed in, the Scots fell upon them sword in hand, and drove them over the cliffs into the sea, or butchered them to the last, irrespective of age or sex. "From this day forward until the accession of Owen Roe O'Neil to the command, the northern war assumed a ferocity of character foreign to the nature of O'Moore, O'Kelly, and Magennis."

Horrors and barbarities on each side made humanity shudder. The confederate leaders had proposed, hoped for, and on their parts had done everything to insure the conducting of the war according to the usages of fair and honorable warfare. The government, on the other hand, so far from reciprocating this spirit, in all their proclamations breathed savage and merciless fury against the Irish; and every exhortation of their commanders (in strange contrast with the humane and honorable manifestoes of the confederates) called upon the soldiery to glut their swords and spare neither young nor old, child nor woman. The conduct of the government armies soon widened the area of revolt. So far the native Irish alone, or almost exclusively, had participated in it, the Anglo-Irish Catholic Lords and Pale gentry holding aloof. But these latter could not fail to see that the Puritan faction, which now constituted the local government, were resolved not to spare Catholics whether of Celtic or Anglo-Irish race, and were moreover bent on strengthening their own hands to league with the English parliamentarians against the king. Loyalty to the king, and considerations for their own safety, alike counseled them to take some decisive step. Everything rendered hesitation more perilous.

Although they had in no way encouraged, or, so far, sympathized with, the northern rising, their possessions were ravaged by the Puritan armies. Fingal, Santry, and Swords—districts in profound peace—were the scenes of bloody excesses on the part of the government soldiery. The Anglo-Irish Catholic nobility and gentry of these districts in vain remonstrated. They drew up a memorial to the throne, and forwarded it by one of their number, Sir John Read. He was instantly seized, imprisoned, and put to the rack in Dublin Castle; "one of the questions which he was pressed to answer being whether the king and queen were privy to the Irish rebellion."

In fine the English or Anglo-Irish Catholic families of the Pale for the first time in history began to feel that with the native Irish, between whom and them hitherto so wide a gulf had yawned, their side must be taken. After some negotiation between them and the Irish leaders, "on the invitation of Lord Gormanstown a meeting of Catholic noblemen and gentry was held on the Hill of Crofty, in Meath. Among those who attended were the Earl of Fingal, Lords Gormanstown, Slane, Louth, Dunsany, Trimleston, and Netterville; Sir Patrick Barnwell, Sir Christopher Bellew, Patrick Barnwell of Kilbrew, Nicholas Darcy of Platten, James Bath, Gerald Aylmer, Cusack of Gormanstown, Malone of Lismullen, Segrave of Kileglan, etc. After being there a few hours a party of armed men on horseback, with a guard of musketeers, were seen to approach. The former were the insurgent leaders, Roger O'More, Philip O'Reilly, MacMahon, captains Byrne and Fox, etc. The lords and gentry rode toward them, and Lord Gormanstown as spokesman demanded, 'for what reason they came armed into the Pale?' O'More answered that 'the ground of their coming thither and taking up arms, was for the freedom and liberty of their consciences, the maintenance of his majesty's prerogative, in which they understood he was abridged, and the making the subjects of this kingdom as free as those of England.'"[2] The leaders then embraced amid the acclamations of their followers, and the general conditions of their union having been unanimously agreed upon, a warrant was drawn out authorizing the Sheriff of Meath to summon the gentry of the county to a final meeting at the Hill of Tara on the 24th of December."[3]

From this meeting sprang the Irish Confederation of 1642, formally and solemnly inaugurated three months subsequently at Kilkenny.


[1] Several of our recent historians have gone to great pains citing original documents, state papers, and letters of Protestant witnesses, to expose the baseness and wickedness of this massacre story; but at this time of day one might as well occupy himself in gravely demonstrating the villainy of Titus Oates' "informations." The great Popish Massacre story has had its day, but it is now dead and gone. The fact that there were excesses committed by the insurgents in a few cases—instantly denounced and punished as violations of the emphatic orders of their leaders promulgated to the contrary—has nothing to say to this question of massacre. Let it always be said that even one case of lawless violence or life-taking—even one excess of the laws of honorable warfare—is a thing to abominate and deplore; as the Irish confederate leaders denounced and deplored the cases reported to them of excesses by some of Sir Phelim O'Neill's armed bands. Not only did the Irish leaders vehemently inculcate moderation, but the Protestant chroniclers of the time abundantly testify that those leaders and the Catholic clergy went about putting those instructions into practice. Leland, the Protestant historian, declares that the Catholic priests "labored zealously to moderate the excesses of war," and frequently protected the English where danger threatened them, by concealing them in their places of worship and even under their altars! The Protestant Bishop Burnet, in his life of Dr. Bedel, who was titular Protestant Bishop of Dromore at the time, tells us that Dr. Bedel, with the tumultuous sea of the "rising" foaming around him on all sides in Cavan, enjoyed, both himself and all who sought the shelter of his house, " to a miracle perfect quiet," though he had neither guard nor defense, save the respect and forbearance of the "insurgents." One fact alone, recorded by the Protestant historians themselves, affords eloquent testimony on this point. This Bishop Bedel died while the "rising" was in full rush around him. He was very ardent as a Protestant; but he refused to join in, and, indeed, reprobated the scandalous robberies and persecutions pursued against the Catholic Irish. The natives—the insurgents—the Catholic nobles and peasants—en masse, attended his funeral, and one of Sir Phelim O'Neill's regiments, with reversed arms, followed the bier. When the grave was closed (says the Protestant historian whom I am quoting), they fired a farewell volley over it, the leaders crying out: "Requiescat in pace, ultimus Anglorum!" ("Rest in peace, last of the English.") For they had often said that, as he was the best man of the English religion, he ought to be the last! Such was the conduct of the Irish insurgents. In no country, unfortunately, are popular risings unaccompanied by excesses; never in any country, probably, did a people rising against diabolical oppression, sweep away their plunderers with so few excesses as did the Irish in 1641. But all this, in any event, has nought to say to such a proceeding as a massacre. That was an afterthought of the lords justices, as has already been shown.

[2] Haverty.

[3] M'Gee.