By 1641 Ireland’s population could be divided into three diverse groups. First, there were the Native Irish whose Catholic roots extended back more than a millennium to the days of St. Patrick and the other Irish saints. Many of the Native Irish had been evicted from their lands to make room for settlers from England and Scotland. Second, there were the Old English, planters who had ancestral roots in England but whose descendents had assimilated into Irish culture. Like the Native Irish, the Old English tended to be Catholic. Finally, there were the New English, planters who had been recruited in England and Scotland. Most of the New English had been recruited for the Ulster Plantation after 1610. The New English were Protestant, primarily Church of England/Church of Ireland (Anglican) and Presbyterian.
There are a number of things that led up to the Rebellion of 1641. Outside of Ireland, there was the Scottish rebellion in 1640 started by Protestant (largely Presbyterian) Scots who felt that King Charles I was far too liberal with Catholics. When Charles asked Parliament for money to put down the rebellion, Parliament said “no.” Charles then turned to Ireland for support and an army was created based in part on the rumor that the Scots were planning to invade Ireland in an attempt to totally suppress Catholicism.
In addition, 1641 was an economic disaster for Ireland: there was a recession and the harvest was poor. Many of the Anglo-Irish leaders were deeply in debt and the people were poor and hungry. The Old English and the Native Irish feared that Scots wanted to destroy their way of life. On the other hand, the New English generally supported the Scots’ religious anti-Catholic fervor and feared that the Old English and the Native Irish wanted to destroy them.
On October 5, 1641 some of the Old English leaders and some locally powerful Native Irish leaders met to plot a rebellion which was to begin with an attack on Dublin Castle (the headquarters and symbol of English rule in Ireland). It is well-known that God invented whiskey so that the Irish could not rule the world and thus Owen O’Connolly got drunk, and informed the authorities about the plans. The English were thus prepared for the attack.
The plan was that Hugh Oge MacMahon and Connor Maguire would seize Dublin Castle while Phelim O’Neil and Rory O’Morre would take Derry in the north. The plan called for surprise rather than force and it was intended to be a bloodless coup. However, when the British authorities learned of the plan, they arrested Maguire and MacMahon.
In the North, O’Neil, who claimed that he was acting on behalf of the King, had some success in capturing some forts. However, the planned coup quickly deteriorated into sectarian violence. In Ulster, the Native Irish began attacking the Protestant English and Scottish settlers who had taken their land and were attempting to convert them to a new religion. While the leaders tried to stop the brutal attacks, the Native Irish would not be restrained.
In response to the attacks, the New Settlers began attacking Catholics in retaliation. The cycle of violence escalated. The authorities, believing that the attacks represented a total rebellion by the Native Irish, over-reacted and sent in Sir Charles Coote and William St. Leger to pacify the region.
Later propaganda would claim that 100,000 Protestants or perhaps even 200,000 had been ruthlessly slaughtered by the Irish Catholics. This figure has been often repeated in attempts to instill hatred of the Irish Catholics and to portray them as Godless savages. In reality, only about 4,000 Protestants were killed during the 1641 rebellion.
The army under the leadership of Sir Charles Coote engaged in a policy of hanging “disloyal” Irish (often they viewed “Irish” and “disloyal” as synonymous). In March, 1642 the English parliament confiscated about 1 million hectares of land from the Native Irish and the Old English, citing their “treachery” as the reason. The confiscated land was then opened to settlement by Protestant settlers.
By 1642, the situation in Ireland was becoming complex. First, there was the army under the control of the English parliament which was fighting against what they called “the rebels.” These parliamentarians were fervently Protestant and hated Catholicism. The intention of the English parliament was to punish Catholics regardless of whether or not they had been active in the rebellion.
There were also forces which were loyal to King Charles who were supposed to be fighting the rebels but often worked with them in opposition to the parliamentarian forces.
And finally, there were the “rebels”—the Native Irish and the Old English—who were in open rebellion against the English parliament. At Julianstown in early 1642, the “rebels” defeated the English forces. While they were doing well on the battlefield, the “rebels,” however, had no central leadership. In May 1642, the Earl of Clonricarde called together a meeting of the lords and gentry at Kilkenny and formed the Irish Catholic Confederation. The newly formed confederation wanted three things: (1) a parliament for Ireland that would have the same rights as the one in England; (2) secure tenure and recognition of all land rights; and (3) no reprisals against the Irish for their supposed disloyalty.
Kilkenny castle is shown above.
The Catholics were loyal to the King, but King Charles was somewhat ambivalent. As King, he felt that he ruled by divine right and this meant that he didn’t feel that he had to take orders from the English parliament or from the Irish Catholic Confederation.
In 1645, the situation in Ireland gained a new player: the papal envoy Rinuccini arrived. Rinuccini quickly found that the Irish Catholic Confederation was more interested in securing ownership of the land than they were in securing the position of the Catholic Church. He had members of the Confederation put in prison as he thought they were being weak on religion and he threatened excommunication for those who failed to take a hard line with the King. With Rinuccini in Ireland, the struggle in Ireland became a more overtly religious struggle.
In 1647, King Charles was captured by the Scots and he was executed in 1649. In 1649, Rinuccini left Ireland. The Irish Catholic Confederation was in control. However, Ireland would soon face another foe: Oliver Cromwell.