Irish Catholic Confederation of 1642

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


FEW chapters of Irish history are more important, none have been more momentous in their results, than that which chronicles the career of the Confederation of 1642. But it is of all the most intricate and involved, and the most difficult to summarize with fitting brevity and clearness for young readers. In that struggle there were not two, but at least four or five distinct parties, with distinct, separate, and to a greater or lesser degree conflicting interests and views; partially and momentarily combining, shifting positions, and changing alliances; so that the conflict as it proceeded was, in its character and component parts, truly "chameleonic." As for the unfortunate king, if he was greatly to be blamed, he was also greatly to be pitied. He was not a man of passion, malice, or injustice. He was mild, kindly, and justly disposed; but weak, vacillating, and self-willed; and, under the pressure of necessity and danger, his weakness degenerated into miserable duplicity at times. In the storm gathering against him in England, his enemies found great advantage in accusing him of "popish leanings," and insinuating that he was. secretly authorizing and encouraging the Irish popish rebels—the same who had just massacred all the Protestants that were and were not in the newly planted province of Ulster. To rid himself of this suspicion, Charles went into the extreme of anxiety to crush those hated Irish papists. He denounced them in proclamations, and applied to parliament for leave to cross over and head an army against them himself. The parliament replied by maliciously insinuating a belief that his real object was to get to the head of the Irish popish rebellion, which (they would have it) he only hypocritically affected to denounce.

The newly-settled Anglo-Irish Protestants became from the outset of this struggle bitter Puritans; the old families of the Pale mostly remaining royalists. The former sided with the parliamentarians and against the king, because they mistrusted his declarations of intolerance against the Catholics, and secretly feared he would allow them to live and hold possession of lands in Ireland; in which case there would be no plunder, no "plantations." The Covenanting Scots—the classes from whom in James' reign the Ulster colonists had largely been drawn, had just the same cause of quarrel against the Irish, whom the English parliamentarians hated with a fierceness for which there could be no parallel. This latter party combined religious fanaticism with revolutionary passion, and to one and the other the Irish were intolerably obnoxious; to the one, because they were papists, idolaters, followers of Antichrist, whom to slay was work good and holy; to the other, because they had sided with the "tyrant" Charles.

The Catholic prelates and clergy could not be expected to look on idly while a fierce struggle in defense of the Catholic religion, and in sustainment of the sovereign against rebellious foes, was raging in the land. In such a war they could not be neutral. A provincial synod was held at Kells, March 22, 1642, whereat, after full examination and deliberation, the cause of the confederates—"God and the King," freedom of worship and loyalty to the sovereign—was declared just and holy. The assembled prelates issued an address vehemently denouncing excesses or severities of any kind, and finally took steps to convoke a national synod at Kilkenny on the 10th of May following.

On that day accordingly (10th of May, 1643), the national synod met in the city of St. Canice. "The occasion was most solemn, and the proceedings were characterized by calm dignity and an enlightened tone. An oath of association, which all Catholics throughout the land were enjoined to take, was framed; and those who were bound together by this solemn tie were called the 'Confederate Catholics of Ireland.' A manifesto explanatory of their motives, and containing rules to guide the confederation, and an admirable plan of provisional government, was issued. It was ordained that a general assembly, comprising all the lords spiritual and temporal, and the gentry of their party, should be held; and that the assembly should select members from its body, to represent the different provinces and principal cities, and to be called the Supreme Council, which should sit from day to day, dispense justice, appoint to offices, and carry on as it were the executive government of the country. Severe penalties were pronounced against all who made the war an excuse for the commission of crime; and after three days' sittings this import ant conference brought its labors to a close."[1]

"The national synod did not break up till about the end of May, and long before that period the proclamations issued by the prelates and lay-lords, calling on the people to take the oath of association, had the happiest results. Agents from the synod crossed over into France, Spain, and Italy, to solicit support and sympathy from the Catholic princes. Father Luke Wadding was indefatigably employed collecting moneys and inciting the Irish officers serving in the continental armies to return and give their services to their own land. Lord Mountgarret was appointed president of the council, and the October following was fixed for a general assembly of the whole kingdom."[2]

On the 23d of October following the general assembly thus convoked, assembled in Kilkenny, "eleven bishops and fourteen lay-lords represented the Irish peerage; two hundred and twenty-six commoners, the large majority of the constituencies. The celebrated lawyer Patrick Darcy, a member of the Commons House, was chosen as chancelor,and everything was conducted with the gravity and deliberation befitting so venerable an assembly and so great an occasion." A Supreme Council of six members for each province was elected. The archbishops of Armagh, Dublin, and Tuam, the bishops of Down and of Clonfert, Lord Gormanstown, Lord Mountgarret, Lord Roche, and Lord Mayo, with fifteen of the most eminent commoners, composed this council.

Such was the national government and legislature under which Ireland fought a formidable struggle for three years. It was loyally obeyed and served throughout the land; in fact it was the only sovereign ruling power recognized at all outside of two or three walled cities for the greater part of that time. It undertook all the functions properly appertaining to its high office; coined money at a national mint; appointed judges who went circuit and held assizes; sent ambassadors or agents abroad, and commissioned officers to the national armies—among the latter being Owen Roe O'Neill, who had landed at Doe Castle in Donegal in July of that year, and now formally assumed command of the army of Ulster.

While that governing body held together, unrent by treason or division, the Irish nation was able to hold its crowding foes at bay, and was in fact practically free.


[1] Haverty.

[2] Rev. C. P. Meehan's "Confederation of Kilkenny."