The plot of the 23rd of October had gone off, with great success in the north, and the shockwave that it caused would reach all over Ireland. It would take a few months for it turn into a recognisable war, but the interim period was full of its own kind of bloodshed, a bloodshed that scarred Ireland for generations to come.
The conspiracy had failed in Dublin, but the rebels, who at this point would have numbered little more than the militias of the lords concerned, held numerous towns and forts in the north. Claims from Catholic sources that they controlled a force of 30’000 at this point can only be considered as nonsense. The standing English army would have been caught on the backfoot, probably outnumbered in terms of men (though it would have held an advantage in other areas).
Now that the momentous step had been taken, the question was what to do next. Phelim O’Neill stepped into the role of leader of the rebellion in this moment, thought doubtless calls were already being sent abroad for other to come and take on that responsibility. The capture of key rebel leaders in Dublin would have effected whatever plans the rest had, but the key area of revolt, Ulster, was largely in rebel hands.
Phelim decided to focus on recruitment and legitimising the rebels cause. Only 11 days after his initial uprising he circulated a missive claiming that all he was doing had been approved by Charles I via royal commission, with documents to that effect. This had the result of many of the Catholic gentry who were on the fence choosing to support him. The document was a total forgery of course, but it had the desired outcome.
By now, mobilisation was well under way. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Robert Sidney, was in England (and would never set foot in Ireland during his tenure) and control essentially lay in the hands of the council in Dublin, who were quick to condemn the uprising, relatively bloodless though it had been up that point, and gather what forces they had to counteract it. Some have criticised this reaction, claiming that a more conciliatory tone could have taken the sting out of the rebellion before it ever had a chance to really get started, but the English were accustomed to having their way in Ireland, and the memory of the last two rebellions in Ulster – the Nine Years War and Cahir O’Doherty’s brief insurgency, both of which had been defeated by the direct use of force – would have been to the forefront of many peoples thinking. Perhaps there might also have been a little bit of opportunism to the reaction, as some may have hoped to draw as many Catholic landowners into rebellion as they could, providing a convenient excuse to seize their property in the aftermath. Certainly, the exaggerated death toll was used a decade later to justify wholesale land seizures.
Local lords and landowners throughout the country had already started raising what armed forces they could, mostly as a means of security and protection in a land where law and order was rapidly collapsing. These included Protestants and Catholics, and many shut themselves up in towns to try and ride out the storm. The initial uprising in Ulster had prompted a slew of burnings and despoiling, aimed at the upper planter class, with beating and other similar attacks handed out to the planters themselves. Ulster Catholics considered the land to be theirs, unfairly taken due to English aggression and the acquiescence of the native Irish that had come before. Rory O’Moore travelled to the south-east, meeting with the Viscount Gormanston and other Irish gentry, cementing an alliance that would provide the bedrock for future fighting. The true “Confederate Ireland” began there.
Within two weeks, the English “Long” Parliament had condemned the uprising and pledged money and men to crush it absolutely, issuing strict edicts that any who failed to support them would be considered as traitors. King Charles did the same, though probably without the same vigour. The Parliament, still outraged that Charles had tried to use Irish troops against the Scottish, prevented him from leading troops to the island personally, and his slow response to dismiss Phelim O’Neill’s claims of royal support further antagonised the MPs. In fact, the very response to the rising deepened the schism between royal and legislative, as Parliament issued a decree to raise their army without the King’s knowledge or consent, while Charles was busy appointing his own commanders. The threat to the Irish gentry backfired somewhat, as many of the Old English families especially took it as a sign that they should break ties with London, a view furthered bolstered by some minor rebel military successes (next entry).
By then, things were already starting to spiral out of control, with the rebel leadership powerless to stop it, despite some of the leaderships vocal attempts to stem the tide. English authority and rule of law had disappeared, with more and more of the country declaring for the rebels. Armed militia, some that had been created merely for defensive purposes, now started to run rampant. Several decades of sectarian tensions finally boiled over, and before 1641 had ended, Ireland was in flames.
Beating and robbery turned to house burnings and evictions, which then turned to slaughter. Both sides, the Catholics and the Protestants, were guilty of atrocities, but it is perhaps fair to say that the greater burden of guilt falls on the Catholic side. There are numerous massacres to note, once-off killings of hundreds at a time, mixed with a casual wave of violence which engulfed the country. At Lisnagarvey, settlers beat off a reckless rebel attack and then killed hundreds of captives in the aftermath. At Portadown, in retaliation, hundreds of Protestants were tied up and thrown into a river to drown or die of exposure. In Shrule, escorted Protestants under the protection of Catholic militia were gunned down. On Rathlin Island, Catholic civilians were thrown over cliffs.
Captured soldiers from either side were liable to be killed out of hand. Refugees fleeing to supposed safe areas frequently didn’t make it. The Pale administration sent forces to put down the growing rebellion in Wicklow and Cork, but the campaign waged was so harsh on the civilian population, a stick approach being copied from the book of George Carew, as to merely provoke further uprising. Motivations were attributed to defence of religion, attempts to regain land and just plain old revenge. Many may not have fully believed in the rebel cause, but after joining in on the initial assaults, found themselves unable to take any sort of backwards step.
The violence had the effect of stripping English control away from much of the country, especially in rural areas. Local militia forces in places of predominant English control – Derry, Carrickfergus, Cork etc – managed to fend off piecemeal rebel assaults and retain possession of their lands for the crown, but no one could be quite sure how they would fare if the rebels became more organised. The rebels were able to capture important ports at Waterford and Wexford, but the key centres of power, like Dublin and Drogheda, remained in English hands for the time being. Such places would prove to be launching pads for counter-attacks.
This was very much a scattered uprising, anarchic violence with next to no overall command. Some sources claimed Phelim O’Neill and others tried to get their followers under control, but even if this is true they were unable to make any kind of headway. They also had the concern of actual warfare (next entry) and the command of their own local forces to see too. The violence was simply too widespread, too scattered, too small scale in most areas, for a rebel leadership that had just come into existence to be able to control.
It would not be until the Spring of 1642 that they were able to gain a true modicum of control over the situation, in the face of invasions from factions in Britain, representing both the crown, the Parliament and the Scottish covenanters, all of whom would send armies to Ireland seeking to bring the Irish to heel and to defend the planter class. It would not be until the arrival of a key foreign figure to take command of the Irish forces that this would occur.
On a strategic level, it is hard to evaluate the first few months of the rebellion. There was no real course or direction to it, it was just, at times, mindless attacks with no purpose beyond revenge. The overwhelming nature of this phase of what would become the Irish Confederate Wars was a short term boon to the rebels, as it destroyed much of England’s control over the country and isolated the rest. One could raw similarities between the pace and course of the violence with that of the Munster uprising during the Nine Years War, which similarly caught unprepared English defences off guard and resulted in the destruction of a plantation. In the long term however, the violence would simply encourage and motivate a string of successive enemy armies.
The death toll of the 1641 violence is hotly disputed. Initial reports and propaganda presented a holocaust of Protestant settlers, some of which claimed the number of planters killed to actually be more than the number of planters even in the country. It is far more likely that the initial number of those killed was much smaller, maybe around 4’000, but that number could well have tripled in the winter, as the dispossessed, prisoners and wounded succumbed to cold and starvation.
But the more intangible effect was far more dramatic. The bloodshed hardened attitudes towards Ireland, and set in train events that would culminate with the bloody campaign of Oliver Cromwell over a decade later. The Protestant class and their descendents would not forget the surprise of 1641, and the suffering that they, friends and family endured. This lasting recrimination would source much bitterness, anger and oppression over the following century or more, ingraining an almost inherent hatred between the dominant religions of the island even more than it already had been ingrained.
I want to emphasise that point. Protestant and Catholic had always been in some measure of conflict on Ireland, but never to this level. There had been low level violence, and a religious aspect to the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years War. But I believe that, while religion was a potent motivator at times, those conflicts came from primarily a political issue, namely the rights and powers of native Irish nobles. They would have (and did) fought Catholics if they had to.
1641 was an explosion of popular violence, based against Protestant planter settlers, that was almost unheard of in Ireland before that point. I would argue that the issue of land was the main one, but that was intrinsically tied to religion as well.
While all of the slaughter was going on, the Irish rebels actually did try to fight a war, and the opening shots of that conflict will be the focus of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.