Renewal of War, 1641-1650

From The Historic Case for Irish Independence by Darrell Figgis


21. That war continued for eight years, and once again the land was trodden under foot by soldiery and its harvests burned. It was marked, however, by a certain fatal confusion of purpose that was the heir of earlier confiscations. The national forces were once again led by an O'Neill. He came with a distinguished European record behind him, and intended, as those who rallied to him intended, the final restoration of National Sovereignty. In the later stages of the struggle he collaborated with the Papal Legate, Cardinal Rinnucinni, for the achievement of this national purpose. But the rising partly sprang from immediate and grievous forms of oppression, chief of which was the prohibition of Catholic Faith. This prohibition mainly affected those who had benefited by the earlier spoliation of land, and these men, therefore, joined the heirs of the national tradition. They made the stipulation that their possession of land should not be opened to question, and thus the first confusion was created, for the ranks under O'Neill desired the restoration of the National Polity together with the establishment of National Sovereignty. The real confusion, however, lay deeper.

For these lords, in accordance with their separate tradition, owed and gave allegiance to the English King, and that King was held in civil war by an insurrection in England. They therefore negotiated with him, and he negotiated with them, giving them liberal promises that, as his letters testify, he never intended to fulfil, for his sole desire was to procure forces to help him in his war by the speediest means. While such negotiations continued, by the conditions of the Confederation that had been made, the war was interrupted, if not wholly laid aside. Had their assistance been refused, or only accepted under the conditions of a distinct national allegiance, the nation's purpose would have shone clearly from the outset and the war could have continued vigorously while England was torn by insurrection. As it befell, though O'Neill won several brilliant victories in the field and proved as just and wise a Statesman as he was feared as a General, his strength was continually baffled. It was baffled by the conditions of an unnatural and impossible Confederation, and it was also baffled by deliberate intention, for the lords of the Pale feared their religious disabilities less than the meaning of the war waged under his direction.

When finally the Confederation broke, and the national war under O'Neill stood clear of all confusions, the fortunate hour had passed. The civil war in England had ended with the triumph of the insurrectionaries and the execution of the King, and England was free to give undivided attention to Ireland. Then Ireland proved that if English kings had wielded whips an English democracy was to lash with scorpions. For Cromwell came with a holy psalm upon his lips, and a sword of slaughter and ruin in his hand. He and O'Neill never met, for at this critical hour O'Neill died and left his people as "sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky"; and Cromwell met with no organised resistance. He besieged Drogheda, and put its inhabitants to the sword in an infuriated massacre. He did the same at Wexford. He dispensed with the mere formalities of war, and shot his opponents in the field when he had overcome them in battle. Some years earlier the Lords Justices representing the forces he commanded had declared: "No peace could be safe or lasting till the sword have abated these rebels in number and power"; and Cromwell now proceeded to put this gentle maxim into practice. Women and children were slain deliberately and indiscriminately as in the ordinary course of war. "Nits will be lice," he said, with his usual delicacy of phrase; and so his warriors snatched babes from their mothers' breasts, and flung them into the air, impaling them on their pikes before their mothers' eyes. And having decimated the nation by the sword, he prepared to make a speedy end of it by more elaborate organisation.


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