The Ulster Troubles.


The Ulster Rebellions.

The Ulster Rebellions.


The roots of the Ulster Rebellion (1641) can be traced from St. Patrick (400 CE) to 1641. The rebellion resulted in “59% of Ireland owned by Catholics (1641) falling to 14% (1703)”. (Stovall, 1964) This revolution became the foundation of Irish struggles for independence. (Krieg, 2000) The persecution is embedded in the psyche of Irish natives remaining hostile to English influence; “The conflict in Northern Ireland lies in direct line of descent of 17th Century Ulster. This colonisation is inseparable from religious differences.” (Todd, 2008) However, this essay argues that the primary cause of the rebellion was the Ulster Plantations.

The rebellion erupted in Ulster when Catholics attacked Protestants. Historians remain divided on causes with a movement away from interpreting events as a consequence of Ulster Plantations; “This simplistic interpretation ignores the existence of community divisions” (Irelands Eye, 1999). The theory is complicated by inter-religious commercial and social relationships; “This combination made the insurrection formidable and expanded it from a local to a general movement.” (Hull, 1931). Religious factors remain important; “The pre-Tudor landed families stuck to Catholicism, in spite of Protestantism. James I called them “half-subjects” prepared to give loyalty in civil but not religious matters.” (Dorney , 2010)

Some Irish ‘beneficiaries’ of the Plantations had economic problems and resorted to violence; “The leader of the rebellion, Phelim O’Neill, had actually been a beneficiary of the Plantations” (Markethill, 2008) Also, the rise of puritan English gentry foreshadowed religious resentment; “Puritans and Presbyterians were partners in the struggle of a newly enlightened people against religious and administrative tyranny.” (Hamilton, 1920) The rebellion can be regarded as an incursion by Catholics to overthrow Protestants. (McCaffrey, 2005). While there are significant short term factors, long-standing grievances including Plantations should not be ignored. Such bitterness contributed to the savagery of attacks on Protestants.

The Death toll associated with 1641 is unknown because fatality figures are embellished; “As repossessions progressed over 3,000 Protestants were killed. Stories were exaggerated by English press.” (Yadav, 2010). Attacks on Protestants were not as described by English propagandists. Pamphleteers inflated death tolls to 150,000. The English public had suspected the Irish were barbaric and this just confirmed their suspicions. (Blackwell & Hackney, 2008). Modern scrutiny calculates figures at 12,000 from a Protestant population of 40,000, genocide by any scale, even if so many thousands fell as a result of military combat rather than killing of the unarmed. (McCavitt, 2004)

The 1641 rebellion continued for ten years, increasing to other areas of Ireland when the native Irish of Ulster were joined in insurgency by Old English co-religionists. (Hayton, 1990) Such was the short term victory of the revolt that Protestant supremacy was in danger not least when Owen Roe O’Neill led Catholic rebels in Ulster to victory at the battle of Benburb (1646) the Protestant army in Ireland having been annihilated. (Hayes-McCoy, 1990) Political and cultural inconsistencies between native Irish and Old English were a cause of the failure of the rebels to force their military advantage. (History Reconsidered, 2010)

The massacre of Irish Protestants ended with equally notable butcheries wrought by Cromwell’s armies in Ireland (1649). Cromwell’s hostility was religious and political. His campaign began in Drogheda slaughtering 3,000 men, then to Wexford which met a similar fate and finally to Clonmel where he closed his crusade. (JSTOR, 1854) He opposed Catholicism blaming it for European persecution of Protestants. Cromwell’s association of Catholicism and oppression was deepened by the Ulster Rebellion. These issues contributed to Cromwell’s ruthlessness. (Fraser, 1973) Cromwell’s slaughtering of Irish Catholics is as embedded on Catholic consciousness as the massacre of Protestants in Ulster. (MaCatjlay, 1872)

In the early 400s CE St. Patrick had been taken to Ireland as a slave. He fled to France and became a priest. He returned to Ireland to convert pagans to Catholicism. (Barrett., 2009) Seven centuries later the first English involvement in Ireland transpired when Turlogh O’Connor, King of Connacht (1106–1156), overthrew Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, he pleaded with King Henry II for help. (Dunn, 2003) Henry’s troops were rewarded with land. When MacMurrough died (1171) a Cambro-Norman named Strongbow, notable for his role in the Norman invasion, proclaimed himself King of Leinster. (History On The Net, 2010).

After 1171 English Barons seized Ireland and by the 1300s secured control. Royal allegiance deteriorated as some English Barons considered themselves Irish not English. In the 1400’s English supremacy was confined to Dublin, ‘the Pale’, (BBC, 2012) outsiders considered uncouth. Ireland was unprofitable as administration outweighed taxation gains. In 1534 Henry VIII took power from the Earls of Kildare (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012) and by 1541 Ireland’s government pledged allegiance. Henry introduced laws that strengthened English control and attempted to bring Protestantism; “Now the conquerors’ religion differed from the conquered, and sectarianism added another ruinous dimension to the relationship.” (Henriksen., 2008)

Historians consider Ulster plantations as influences on 1641. In the 1500s, after Henry VIII’s demise, his progenies intensified English control; “Ulster plantation meant social cohesion” (Gillespie, 2007). Mary I used plantation to unite communities; “Ulster’s personality is older than partition and older than plantations”. (Estyn, 1970) Elizabeth I attempted Protestantism by outlawing Catholicism, executing clergy; thus generating Catholic unification against England. Charles I knew of antagonisms plantation caused but proceeded; “the property realignment meant efficient collections of tithes.” (Cope, 2003) Charles represented a class who deemed it; “a sin to tolerate Catholics or consent that they exercise religion.” (Meehan, 1873)

Irish Chieftain Shane O’Neill (1500s) led violent revolts opposing; “laws producing the effects of keeping those governed barbarous and preventing amalgamation between English and Gaelic”. (Ulster Archaeological Society, 1854). In 1610 the Ulster Plantations began and by 1641 James I endeavoured ending Irish insurrections by using plantation; “Plantations begun by Elizabeth have prospered to the Crown’s advantage by preserving great peace and happiness”. (Maxwell, 1923). In 1641 the Ulster Irish rebelled while Protestants alleged Catholics were annihilating them and revenge sought; “its clear reports are unreliable but ghoulish stories remain important in explaining such terror that settlers fled.” (Canny, 1993).

Revolution in the British-Irish Isles (Oakland, 2003) was occurring at rapid pace prior to The Irish Rebellion of 1641. King Charles 1st was compelled to summon Parliament due to revolting Scots and further forced into acceptance of the Triennial Act (1641) (Constitution Society, 2008) intended to prevent kings from ruling without Parliament, thereby grudgingly compelling himself to parliamentary sessions of fifty days every three years. The ‘Long Parliament’ (1640) had just abolished the Star Chamber (1641), Torture was outlawed (1641) (QED LAW, 2007), the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ dawned with the publication of René Descartes; Meditations on First Philosophy. (History, 2011).

Ireland’s land holding Colonisers remained Catholic and unpopular with the Stuart court. Disqualified from public office by penal laws; “depriving Catholics of civil life; reducing them to ignorance and disassociating them from land” (Lecky, 1898) now faced losing estates, and political sway. ‘Old English’ had unity with Catholics, an alliance created by marriage, distorting ethnic divisions. (Ó Siochrú, 2011) The anxiety of Catholic landlords and the threat to religion helped disregard boundaries and produce a national identity; “The nationalist theme of English repression and dispossession is certainly attested to by the period of wars of conquest and plantation.” (Preston, 1992)

The Ulster rebellion is described as a pre-emptive strike by Phelim O’Neill, who remained in Ulster after Flight of Earls, leading Catholic landowners. O’Neill read an alleged commission from Charles I demanding commandeering; “places of strength and defence, except places of Scottish subjects” (Hickson, 1884) the ensuing Rebellion ignited nationwide revolution. Catholics protested a society segregating them and these frustrations were heightened when; “Foreign administration retaliated with violence”. (Donnelly, et al., 2004) Rebels were unsuccessful in Dublin, but when morning dawned on October 23rd, 1641, it saw most Ulster strongholds in Irish hands, with Sir Phelim in command. (Marshall, 1904).

In 1642, landowners and clergy created a power base; “Alienated from the crown, confederates constructed power structures in Kilkenny” (Siochrú, 1994). Their purpose: to re-establish order and negotiate with the king. In terms of occupation, the Confederates consisted of landowners, clergy, lawyers, soldiers and wealthy merchants; “The Confederation derived strength from landowners who were the backbone of power” (Cope, 2003). For six years they worked as the de facto government, controlling tracts of the island; “the negotiations between Charles I and the Confederation endured from the signing of a truce in 1643 until the king’s death in 1649 (Lowe, 1964)

The confederation established governmental structures at regional levels; “it was a grand spectacle. The transition from heart-breaking thraldom to armed independence was convincingly manifest. (Meehan, 1873) Authority lay with the general assembly, but the supreme council, whose membership included lords and bishops, assumed dominance. The Catholics wanted agreement with Charles I to protect property, admit them to public office and end religious discrimination. (BBC, 2012) The peasantry, the backbone of the confederacy, were to be exploited, not liberated. Despite conservative aims, the war forced the confederates to adopt radical measures, with the association functioning as an independent state. (Siochrú, 1994)

Changes in the Stuart kingdoms obstructed events in Ireland. From 1637, the armed opposition of Scottish Presbyterians; “The Covenanters, allies of the English parliament were sent to Ulster to protect settler interests.” (Siochrú, 1994); dedicated to Charles I they weakened England and Ireland. (Cambridge, 2010) Their success in 1639 inspired rebels to prevent destruction of Catholic rights. The Covenanters’ anti-Catholic pomposity increased feelings of uncertainty among Irish Catholics in Ulster where Scots settled. After the 1641 eruption, and the reports of Protestant massacres, the Covenanters intervened militarily. Commanded by Robert Monroe they emerged as a threat to confederacy. (Perceval-Maxwell, 1973)

From 1640 Charles faced opposition from Westminster to his relentless authoritarianism. Two sides clashed on who should control the army subduing Irish rebellion. The outbreak of England’s civil war forced Charles, hostile towards Catholics, to moderate his position. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012) He hoped compromise with Confederates would give him access to Irish military resources in England. Parliamentarians advocated anti-Catholic positions and victory in Ireland, using confiscated Irish Catholic land to pay costs. (Irish History Timeline, 2012) Throughout the 1640s, royalists and parliamentarians maintained armed forces in Ireland, primarily in Dublin and Cork, while Scots controlled north-east Ulster. (Ó Siochrú, 2011)

From the confederate perspective, war from 1641 until the Cromwellian invasion (1649) can be separated into three stages. The first stage consists of a chaotic uprising, which spread nationally. (Hull, 1931) After some preliminary success, the rebels found themselves on the defensive as a result of a savage counter-offensive by colonial government in Dublin. (Plant, 2011) Many English troops were conscripted, while in Ulster Monroe’s Scottish Covenanters gained the upper hand. Confederate prospects improved during the English civil war (1642) which, accounts for; “the sluggish tempo of royalist recruiting operations along with the personal unpopularity of the king”. (Young, 1981)

The colonial government’s offensive ground to a halt, enabling Confederates to organise armies, assisted by veterans Owen Roe O’Neill, a seventeenth century soldier and one of the most famous of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster (Morgan, 1996), and Thomas Preston, an Irish soldier of the 17th century who had returned from Flanders to lead the Irish Rising. (McGinn, 2009) In 1643 confederate and royalist representatives initiated a series of talks, resulting in a complete cessation agreement in September. Thereafter, the bulk of royalist troops were shipped to England, and those who remained did not engage in further fighting. (History, 2011)

The fruit of the 1641 rebellion came in 1643 with the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, an agreement between Covenanters and Parliamentarians. (Open University, 2010) Covenanters committed to the English civil war rejected the cessation because; “Ireland would remain under Confederates opposed to Ulster’s Scottish forces”. (Hamilton, 1975) Confederates mobilised against Ulster Scots and Cork parliamentarians while negotiating with royalist nobleman James Butler. The 1641 Uprising was impulsive but became structured under the Assembly of Kilkenny, where the Gaelic Irish and Old English formed alliances. (Plant, 2011). Its exact causes remain debateable but plantations were a significant factor.

Lecture Notes.

With Thanks To:

Dr. Clodagh Tate


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About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on March 29, 2012, in Ireland History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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