The Rebellion of 1641–42

Eleanor Hull
The Rebellion of 1641-42

On May 12, 1641, the head of Strafford fell on the scaffold. Among the twenty-eight articles of accusation against him seventeen related to his administration of affairs in Ireland. Among the particular charges were included his high-handed treatment of Cork, Kildare, Mountnorris, and other nobles; among the general charges was his statement that Ireland was a conquered nation with which the King might do as he pleased, charters not being binding on the sovereign; a doctrine repudiated as roundly by the Puritan Long Parliament as it had ever been in Ireland itself.

Some of the accusations, however, redounded greatly to Strafford’s credit. Largely at his own expense he had introduced improvements in the growing of flax. He had enforced discipline in the army and the regular payment of the troops. Landlords had been restrained from living in England while drawing money out of Ireland; he had, moreover, persisted in his determination not to levy fines against recusants. But the main contention—that the ex-Deputy had laboured to override the liberties of the subject in the exercise of a despotic rule—could not be gainsaid, and held true alike in England and Ireland; and when Strafford, “putting off his doublet as cheerfully as ever he did when he went to bed,” walked through vast crowds of rejoicing people to Tower Hill, the city bells clashed forth and bonfires blazed, as at a victory gained.

In Ireland there were no outward signs of joy; indeed, an aspect of unwonted prosperity was seen in many parts of the country. Strafford had crushed the manufactured woollen trade, because it interfered with the trade of England, and because he found a new means of profit by the double customs arising from the export of raw wool into England and its return as manufactured goods into the country that supplied the wool. But he had helped to extend and improve the growth of linen, which had been an old article of trade in Ireland.

Already in 1336 we find Irish linen cloth and ‘sindon’ or lawn mentioned in a charter of Edward III to Dublin, and the export grew large enough to excite the jealousy of English merchants and to move Tudor princes to pass legislation to restrain its increase. New looms had been set up in Dublin in Elizabeth’s reign, and settlers in Ulster like Lady Hugh Montgomery of Grey Abbey encouraged both linen and woollen manufactures, “which soon brought down the prices of the breakens (tartans) and narrow cloths of both sorts.”

When Strafford came over he found “the women all naturally bred to spinning,” and there is no greater mistake than to attribute to him the foundation of the linen trade in Ireland. The spinning of linen yarn both for home consumption and export was one of the oldest industries of the country, but Strafford did much to encourage both the growth and spinning of flax and to bring in skilled artizans. It was not until the great influx of skilled operatives from France and the Low Countries under William III that the industry became one of the staples of Irish commerce and a main source of the prosperity and wealth of Ulster.

Even before Wentworth came to Ireland the Earl of Cork, who had himself done much to encourage industry, remarks on the marvellous improvement in the country, both in Ulster and Munster. There were great advances in both building and farming, “each man striving to excel the other in fair buildings and good furniture, and in husbanding, enclosing, and improving their lands.”[1] The towns were loyal, desiring only peace and quiet to carry on their trade.

Wentworth’s tenure of office increased the customs and secured regular supplies by lawful means, over and above the special subsidies raised by promises or pressure for the King. Pirates were suppressed, and foreign trade revived. This was carried almost entirely in Dutch bottoms, “there being no home-built ships and no merchants among the natives,” though both native and foreign fishing-boats fished the waters round the coasts.[2] But the loss of the foreign wool trade was a great blow to the prosperity of the country, both to the country people who grew and sold the wool, and to the ports, Waterford and Limerick especially, where it was shipped.

Among the list of exports at this time for Spain and Portugal are mentioned butter, pipe-staves, tallow, pilchards, salmon, skins and meat, cod and hake, beans, iron, linen-cloth, friezes, and stockings. Nevertheless, the lack of suitable employment “to keep the well-born Irish youths busy” and of trades for the youths of the lower class is deplored by Lord Cork. Industrial employment was, in fact, confined to the towns and was in the hands of the old English families who had created it.

The youths turned loose from the plantation lands, though not so numerous as of old, still haunted the mountains when they did not betake themselves abroad; and though no kerne and horsemen were now to be seen, they formed a nucleus of discontent on which turbulent spirits like Phelim O’Neill or Rory O’More could easily work when their plans for a rising were ripe. They were only too glad to return to their old way of life, and take the risks with the excitement of an insurrection. They were watching their opportunity of ousting the planters and recovering the clan lands, and even before Strafford’s advent rumours of intended risings had been going through the North and had been gradually taking shape in the minds of the leaders.

It is probable that, had the discontent touched one class only, the rebellion might have been confined to Ulster, and have been more easily checked. But the methods of Wentworth and those of Lord Justice Parsons resulted in an almost universal sense of irritation and insecurity.

The “discovery” of false titles to land touched the new planters far more than the Irish. The researches of these busybodies were made in the Tower records or among the Patent Rolls, where no Irish titles could have been found belonging to holders under the clan system; it was the pioneer English who had built up often vast estates on very insecure legal foundations who suffered most.

Lord Cork, with his 42,000 acres of land and his manors in Cork and Waterford (the latter bought for a comparatively small sum from Sir Walter Raleigh) found his possessions claimed by the King.

The Earl of Clanricarde was another victim, as we have seen; the King hoped to be the gainer of £50,000 by his forfeitures. Smaller owners were threatened in proportion. Though they remained persistently attached to the King’s interest the sense of unsettlement affected large numbers of the gentry, especially those Catholic lords who were also harassed from time to time in their religious observances, and who had found their complaints treated with levity or indifference by two Stuart kings.

So long as jurors were intimidated, Parliaments overawed, and all promises of redress of grievances broken or ignored, they felt little hope of relief by ordinary means, and the general dissatisfaction led them to sympathize with and finally to take part in a rising with which, as loyalist landlords of the Pale and Munster, they would naturally have had little in common, their outlook on life being essentially different from that of the native Irish, even when they professed the same religious faith. It was this unusual combination of two distinct interests, usually found on opposite sides, that made the insurrection of 1641 formidable, and that expanded a local rising into a general movement.

By almost imperceptible steps the Ulster rebellion merged itself into the Wars of the Confederation, which kept Ireland in a state of turbulence from one end to the other during the eight years that preceded the coming of Cromwell to Ireland in 1649.

The rebellion which broke out in the North in October 1641 came near to uprooting the Ulster plantation, then beginning to take effect in the improved conditions of the country, in the increase of trade and industry, the more extensive and regular cultivation of crops, and in the erection of houses, schools, and churches. It was but the first of a series of moves which made Ireland the chessboard of different parties during the crowded and confused events of the Confederate Wars; the activities of the Ormonde party, the O’Neill party, the Confederate party, the Puritan party, the Presbyterian party, sometimes overlap, sometimes separate.

The armies of Ormonde, of Owen Roe O’Neill, of Preston, of the Nuncio, march and countermarch over the land, sometimes acting in concert, more often apart, all profoundly jealous of each other.

The conflicting parties of the English wars of Royalist against Parliamentarian are found transferred to Irish soil with internal conflicts and questions added still further to confuse them; the King’s side and Parliament’s side alike made bids to one Irish party after another for money and support.

From the outside, these years are, as Carlyle says, “a huge blot, an indiscriminate blackness,” but their main lines are not so vague as Carlyle would have us believe. The chief difficulty arises from the plain fact that many of the leaders were playing a double game. The King’s transactions throughout the conflict were a web of duplicity, so that Puritans, Catholic gentry, Ormonde’s party, and rebels alternately claimed him as approving their policy and showed documents said to be executed with his own hand for their support.

The question put to Sir Patrick Barnewell on his examination, “Whether the King was privy to or had encouraged the rebellion,” has never been satisfactorily answered, and the commission from the King declared to have been sent to Phelim O’Neill, though denied on the scaffold by Sir Phelim himself, remains a mystery.[3]

The secret commission to Glamorgan, which was contrary to his open instructions and was intended to undermine the authority of Ormonde, can scarcely now be doubted; indeed, the whole conduct of the King, as we read it closely, is so involved in deceit and inspired by momentary expedients that his service must have been a difficult path to tread.

The fidelity with which he was served is only surpassed by the faithlessness of his conduct toward his supporters. “I wonder,” said Queen Henrietta Maria to him shortly before the General Assembly at Kilkenny, “that the Irish do not give themselves to some foreign king; you will force them to it in the end, when they see themselves offered as a sacrifice.”

No less perverted was the management of affairs by the two Lords Justices into whose hands the conduct of the Irish government fell in this disturbed time. Though officially representing the sovereign, both of them were Puritans, who played secretly into the hands of the English Parliament. Borlase was a nonentity; but Parsons, a coward who was perpetually sending cringing appeals to the English Government for help against the rebels, was at the same time universally believed to be fomenting the rebellion in the hope of profiting by fresh forfeitures.

The instructions of these officials to Clanricarde at the height of the rebellion were that no submission was to be accepted, but that the rebels were to be persecuted with fire and sword. They were reported to have been heard to say “that the more were in rebellion, the more lands would be forfeit.”[4]

When a general pardon came from the King to all who would come in within a convenient time, it was withheld by the Lords Justices until only ten days remained for the appellants to take advantage of it, and, even so, it was limited to four counties only. Castlehaven and Clanricarde, two of the principal nobles in the kingdom, complain that the proceedings of Parsons seemed designed to force them into rebellion; and it was only by a hazardous escape from the prison into which he had been entrapped that the former gentleman saved his neck, having, as he said, no wish “to tamely die butchered.”

With such persons at the head of affairs the rising assumed a character of seriousness which it would not otherwise have had. No one could be trusted, the men who were in power least of all. The firm hand to check the rising at the outset was wanting.

It was on November 1, 1641, the day set apart in the English House of Commons for the consideration of a Remonstrance brought over by Irish gentlemen appointed by their peers, that the news reached London that the outbreak had begun. Rumours of stealthy movements of Sir Phelim O’Neill and Lord Maguire in the North had reached the Lords Justices, but the first serious intimation was given late in the evening of October 22, when a terrified and half-drunken Irishman named Owen Connally, who had been servant to Sir John Clotworthy, was found loitering about the Lower Castle yard in a suspicious manner, and on urging the necessity of imparting private information, he was admitted into the presence of the Lord Justice, and informed him of a plot to seize the Castle and other strong forts throughout the country on the following night, October 23.

Dublin at this time consisted of twenty thousand inhabitants still mostly clustered about the castle rise with the two cathedrals close beside it. Chichester House, where Borlase lived, Kildare House, now the headquarters of the Dáil, and Trinity College were still described in official records as “near Dublin.”

A hasty visit to Borlase and a night meeting of the Council decided Parsons to take the information given by Connally seriously, and steps were set on foot to forestall the conspirators. Hugh Oge MacMahon was apprehended, as a chief centre of the Dublin plot, and later Lord Maguire, next to Sir Phelim O’Neill one of the prime leaders, was taken, though he had been forced into the project against his will. The latter was a young man overburdened with debt, the son of the ‘Queen’s Maguire’ of Elizabeth’s reign, who had been officially recognized as head of his sept.

Lord Maguire had been educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a king’s ward, and had entered the Irish House of Lords in 1634. When asked what he thought of the rising he replied that he could not tell what to think of it, “such matters being altogether out of his element”; but the large promises of Sir Phelim, who offered to make him leader of the Ulster troops, persuaded him against his better judgment and led him on to his ruin. Later, in 1644–45, both these men were tried in London for high treason and executed at Tyburn.

In the North the outbreak had taken place on the appointed day. Within a fortnight Sir Phelim had made himself master of Tyrone and Armagh, had captured Dungannon and the fort of Charlemont, and had made his headquarters at Newry. He captured Dundalk and sat down before Drogheda. But here his successes came to a halt.

Though troops hastily sent from Dublin were cut off on their way to relieve Drogheda by Roger Moore, Hugh Byrne, and Philip O’Reilly, the last two of whom had been trained in the Spanish wars, no decisive result followed; months passed with O’Neill still hovering in the neighbourhood, his large irregular hosts having devoured the district and committed excesses which were soon to shock Owen Roe, who had been accustomed to the rigorous discipline of the Spanish wars. They then either dispersed to their homes or formed themselves into guerilla bands who terrorized the country.

Sir Phelim O’Neill of Kinnaird, eldest son of Turlogh, was brought to the front rather by his name and the traditions of his house than by any personal fitness for leadership. He was no general, nor had he even a good reputation among his own people, for he had ruthlessly evicted his Irish tenants, leaving many of them to starve on the mountains, while he took in Englishmen who were able to pay more certain rents. He had inherited his property from Sir Henry O’Neill, who had been killed in action against Sir Cahir O’Doherty in June 1608.

Sir Arthur Chichester had suggested that a division of the property should be made among all the heirs, legitimate and illegitimate, but in 1629 Sir Phelim succeeded in securing a patent vesting it all in himself. Even this, however, did not suffice to meet his spendthrift habits, possibly acquired while he was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, and his estate became greatly encumbered. Rumours of his intention to rise had got about long before, his house at Kinnaird having become the meeting-place of the conspirators. But the actual plans were kept with great secrecy, and the first reports were rather of isolated attacks on gentlemen’s houses in different parts of the North than of any organized revolt.

The first sufferers were the clergy of the Established Church, many of whom with their families were turned out of their homes during the first days of the rebellion and cruelly treated or murdered. Reid gives the names of twenty-seven clergymen killed, many of whom were hanged at their own hall or church doors, with their relations; others are mentioned by name in the depositions of Temple and Borlase; many others died of starvation and pestilential fever.[5]