So, we come to the Irish Confederate Wars, also sometimes known as the Eleven Years War or the 1641 Rebellion, one facet of the War of the Three Kingdoms, a flowery title for the English Civil War (all three of them). That whole period of conflict gets a lot of names.
Everything that happened in Ireland during that time influenced and was influenced by events in England and Scotland. As previously stated, the remit of this series is for conflicts fought on Irish soil or directly involving Irish forces, so commentary on the larger conflict of the English Civil War will be limited. But this entry will serve as a background for the decade of violence to follow, so some analysis will have to be offered, since to treat the Irish war as a completely separate event would be a disservice to history.
Why did England, Scotland and Ireland collapse into civil conflict in the 1640s? I suppose, at its core, it was a violent schism over the extent of the monarch’s power, in terms of religion, law and taxation, in contrast to the power of the Church itself (especially in Scotland) and the English Parliament. The English Civil War was brewing for a long time before it finally erupted.
Charles I is remembered as a somewhat weak and preening ruler, one who struggled to exert his authority and listened to the wrong people. He, much like his father, wanted England, Scotland and Ireland to become unified into one Kingdom, but such an aim was looked upon with some suspicion and nervousness by factions in the English Parliament, who feared an erosion of tradition and the strengthening of the King’s power over them. Parliament was a body with a shaky constitutional status, a thing meant to assist the King in collecting taxes in return for which they were able to suggest laws for his consideration. Parliament could only really enforce its will on the King by withdrawing support for his taxation plans.
Charles needed money to build an army, build a navy and to fight wars. He wanted to and did get involved in conflicts in Germany and France during this period, but his quarrels with Parliament over taxation funds to be collected resulted in what was called the “personal rule” period, where Charles refused to call Parliament for over a decade and was left without much income. England became steadily more isolationist as a result, and efforts like the Ship Money Tax, proposed a few years after the Sack of Baltimore, also came to nought.
Perhaps worse than that though were Charles’ attempts to alter the Anglican religion to better suit his personal vision. Sometimes called “High Anglicism”, this saw the introduction of more ceremonial aspects to the religion, like stone alters instead of wooden ones, fines for non-attendance and a new version of the Book of Common Prayer.
Those who resisted such changes were frequently arrested and punished. It was in Scotland, a place of independent religious traditions, that resistance was most widespread. Charles wanted a unified church across the Three Kingdoms he ruled: the Scottish Church authorities, who thought that Charles was re-introducing Catholic elements to their religion, wanted none of it. It certainly didn’t help that Charles was married to a Catholic.
The unrest turned military, as the Scots organised themselves and raised armed forces to resist both the changes to their faith and any attempts from Charles to enforce them with a sword. This resulted in what are known as the “Bishops Wars”, a series of inconclusive and muddled campaigns and encounters along the Scottish borders. Charles and his army were repulsed and suffered the ignominy of a (limited) Scottish invasion of northern England. When he called a Parliament to try and get funds to raise new armies, all they wanted to talk about was grievances against the crown. Charles dismissed the Parliament within a few weeks, suffered more blundering setbacks against the Scots and then summoned Parliament again. This session, which became known as the “Long Parliament”, was a fractious, bitter affair, as the MPs pushed for harsh anti-Catholic legislation, revocation of Charles religious reforms and the persecution of some of Charles’ most senior advisors and favourites.
It was during this period that trouble flared in Ireland.
The Irish violence that broke out in 1641 had its own unique causes though. The treatment of Catholics was the main one, the key issue that had dominated political life on the island for much of the past 40 years. Most of that period had lacked military activity of any kind, but had still seen much sectarian motivated violence. The Plantations were about inserting a Protestant class of settler – the “New English” and Ulster-Scots – and limiting the power and reach of native Catholics. Under people like Thomas Wentworth, the English administration in Ireland became ever more oppressive to Catholics. Not attending Anglican services was a crime, the government was guaranteed a Protestant majority in the House of Commons, Catholics could not hold senior positions with the state and could not hold higher ranks in the Armed Forces.
To try and counter-act this, Catholics, especially the wealthier class of Catholic synonymous with the “Old English” groups, organised to appeal to the English crown. One of the key things to remember about all that transpired afterward is that most Catholics in Ireland maintained loyalty to Charles I, who at least seemed open to religious reform and toleration. It was the more anti-Papist Parliament and Scottish factions that drew ire.
What Catholics wanted was a unified Kingdom in which they would be placed on an equal footing with those in England and Scotland. Along with religious toleration, this formed a series of proposals dubbed “The Graces” which were frequently presented to Charles. The King seemed open to the idea, especially if it came with a commitment to raise more taxes in Ireland, but they were never implemented, fuelling Catholic resentment and unrest. When Wentworth started proposing new Plantations in the early days of the 1640s, to take place across the Shannon, things reached a fever pitch.
Wentworth left a legacy that is profoundly negative wherever he went. In Ireland, his open dislike of Catholics offended that part of the population, and his backing for Charles‘ reforms annoyed the Protestants, large portions of which were Scottish settlers in Ulster. He would actually be soon withdrawn from Ireland and sent to try and quell the trouble in Scotland (to no avail – he would later be accused of treason by Parliament and executed), and the militancy of the “Covenanters” (named after a document they had signed) provoked the next moves. With the Long Parliament refusing to play ball, Charles turned to Ireland.
After some negotiations, a deal was reached whereby the Irish Catholic gentry, in Ulster mostly, would raise an army (with Protestant officers), assembled around Carrickfergus, whose purpose would be to cross the sea and fight Charles’ cause in Scotland. In return, their religious and legal proposals would be accepted and enacted. It was a daring move, but one with little chance of success. The Irish army raised numbered near 10’000 men and was reasonably well-trained, but the very act of creating it inflamed opinion among the Scots and the Parliamentarians, who now considered Charles to be taking on the role of a tyrant.
The Carrickfergus Army never set sail. Short of money and genuine commitment, it was disbanded by mid-1641. But the fears it raised in Britain led to talks of a pre-emptive strike, a Covenanter or Parliamentarian invasion of Ireland in order to neutralise any possible threat to their plans from the west and to defend the Planter population from any armed Catholic movement. The remaining standing army in Ireland, a nearly entirely Protestant force of less than 3’000 men, was pitifully underprepared to deal with what would follow. As you find throughout the history of Ireland post-1169, the English routinely failed to see when trouble was about to commence, and were all too quick to draw down the number of troops in the army during peacetime.
Into this maelstrom of vicious politics and inevitable war, stepped a number of Irish conspirators. Chief among them was Phelim (or Felim) O’Neill, the Lord of Dungannon, one of the few high-ranking members of the O’Neill clan who actually stuck around when Hugh, a cousin, left in 1607, Rory O’More, who was a prominent landowner in Laois, Connor Maguire a baron of Enniskillen and Hugh Og MacMahon, a noble of Monaghan. Early in the 1640’s, observing the events around them and the continuing repression of their faith and position, they made plans together.
For these men, added to all the above motivations was a financial one. Many Catholic families of the “gentry” class had actually managed to do quite well out of the Plantations early on, selling or renting land, but this sort of opportunity vanished as time passed. Many of the conspirators were actually haemorrhaging money or were heavily in debt as it was. Seeking to reverse the policies of plantation came with hopes that they could reclaim land and finances, to re-assert their families previous positions of power. In that, they were not so different from many Irish rebels over the years.
They also had the possibility of help from abroad coming. The men and descendents of those who had flown from Ireland with Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell had served in foreign armies like those of France and Spain, and many of them still held true to the ideal of returning home to Ireland and freeing it from English rule. Such men, like Owen Roe O’Neill ( a figure of great importance in entries to come), were battle hardened and militarily experienced, and waited only for the right moment to return home and assist in what they saw as an inevitable effort to expel the English from Ireland as the chieftains of the north had tried to do in 1594-1603.
The plot was simple, along with its overall aims in the aftermath. In fact, one of its problems is that it was too simple. Maguire and MacMahon, operating in Dublin, would storm and hold the castle there, the centre of the English administration in Ireland, on the 23rd of October 1641. Whoever held the castle held the strongest point in Dublin, and the fortification had resisted strong attempts to take it before, during Silken Thomas’ rebellion, though that had been over a century earlier.
In the north, on the same day, Phelim and others would gather what men they had and seize several key forts and towns. The aim was to capture a number of strong, fortifiable positions, before the Protestant ascendency knew what was happening.
This was no uprising of liberation or a mad blow for freedom. The aim of the rebels was to hold their positions and the government of Ireland as one holds a hostage, forcing Charles and the Parliament to make good on their previous promises to uphold the Graces and introduce religious liberty to Ireland. Their loyalty to Charles remained unaffected. The conspirators would have hoped that most of the country would support them, and also could see that what little military force that was in Ireland at the time would, all going well, be too scattered and miniscule to oppose them. With the rebels entrenched, they could start making demands and get recognition for their position, even if it was based on a coup.
This was probably all a bit of a reach. Even if the rising had gone as well as it could have, it would not have stopped the coming invasion from Scotland and England, and the rebel forces in 1641 were pitifully small themselves.
As it happened, the plot went only half right. MacMahon, possibly while drunk, made the mistake of divulging details of the rising and the plan to seize Dublin Castle to the wrong people, and when the day came the Castle was well protected from an assault that never happened. Maguire and MacMahon were arrested and eventually executed.
It went better in the north, where Phelim and others were able to take their objectives, attacking and seizing towns like Armagh, Newry and Dungannon. Charlemont Fort on the Blackwater, built by Lord Mountjoy during his last campaigns to defeat Hugh O’Neill in 1602, was allegedly taken when Phelim invited its commander to dinner and captured it afterward. In this very initial stage, there was little bloodshed, only a call to arms issued to the Catholic population and an insistence on the rebel’s honourable intentions.
Perhaps the rebels just could not foresee the extent of the violence that their actions would now unleash. Whether they did or not, the coming months would be among the bloodiest in Irish history, and would go a long way to ensuring the continuing enmity of Protestant and Catholic in Ireland, even up to the present day.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.