The Rebellion of 1641-42 (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Rebellion of 1641-42 | Start of Chapter

It is necessary in speaking of the rebellion of 1641–42 to exercise great caution in accepting extreme reports on either side. An immense mass of material exists dealing with this subject, partly histories and memoirs written by contemporaries, partly depositions taken at a later period. It is undoubted that the numbers said to have been massacred were intentionally exaggerated by those who hoped to gain lands for themselves through the future forfeitures of rebel properties. The large figures given by Sir William Petty, who made what is known as the “Down Survey” of escheated lands for the Cromwellian settlement, lie under the same suspicion. He thinks that out of a total population, which he puts down at 1,466,000 before the rising, about a third was wiped out.

The facts, as known, do not support these sweeping calculations. On the other hand, the present reaction, which leads writers to minimise the results of the rebellion, almost to the point of believing that there were no murders at all, is equally to be distrusted.

We may probably admit that no general massacre was planned or occurred, but with Phelim’s undisciplined army of thirty thousand men, armed with pitchforks, scythes, and knives, moving in bodies about the North, out for anything they could get, and with the isolated houses of the English settlers as their objective, it was impossible that terrible instances of cruelty should not occur. As the insurrection spread to the centre and south of Ireland the area of disorder grew wider and fresh excesses occurred.

At the most moderate computation many thousands were murdered or destroyed during the first two years of the war, and multitudes were stripped of all they possessed, even of their clothes, and driven out to die of misery, cold, and hunger on the roadside. They came pouring down to Dublin for refuge, and Sir John Temple, Master of the Rolls, who was in Dublin at the time, describes the condition in which they arrived.

“They came up in troops, stripped and miserably despoiled, out of the North. Many persons of good quality and rank, covered over with old rags, and some without any other covering than a little twisted straw to hide their nakedness. Some reverend ministers and others that had escaped with their lives, sorely wounded. Wives came, bitterly lamenting the murder of their husbands, mothers of their children barbarously destroyed before their faces … some over-wearied with long travel, and so “subated,” as they came creeping on their knees, others frozen up with cold, ready to give up the ghost in the streets; others overwhelmed with grief and distracted with their losses, lost also their senses.”[6]

The churches, barns, and houses were filled with refugees, yet many lay in the open streets, too exhausted even to take food or clothe themselves, and miserably died. The poorer sort stood in throngs, begging; the better sort “wasted silently away and so perished.”

The women and children died fast, and two new burial-grounds had to be taken in, one on each side of the R. Liffey, for the old ones were speedily filled. The pestilence, which soon after spread through the land, was already feared in Dublin. The city was, indeed, in a miserable condition, encircled by rebels on both sides from Wicklow and the North, the terrified inhabitants of the suburbs rushing in to complete the congestion.

The Council even took the extreme step of commanding all such persons to depart on pain of death. Thousands were shipped off to England as soon as they arrived.

In the North the conditions were terrible. The wretched fugitives dropped all along the roadsides, multitudes of them dying from exposure and cold, for the season was more than ordinarily wet and stormy, and many had been stripped of their last garments by the men who drove them on.

At times horrible incidents occurred, such as the Portadown Bridge murders, when over a hundred persons, who had passes from Sir Phelim to be conveyed in safety to their friends in England, were driven by Captain Manus O’Kane to the bridge at Portadown, “like sheep to the market,” and forced into the water. Those who could swim and got to the bank were knocked on the head; others were shot in the river.[7]

Cruel tortures were used to extort promises of money, and in one place where prisoners were confined in a small room without food it is related that their pangs of hunger forced them to burst open the window of the chamber, and to scrape weeds and moss from the walls to eat. Every threat that might torture helpless men and women was used to cow them, and as is often the case in times of turmoil, the women are said to have been worse than the men.

To add to the misery of the Protestants the rebels killed few outright, but left them in ditches and other places, mortally wounded and stripped of their clothes, where they languished and pined to death, “the rebels affirming that their priests commanded them so to do.”[8]

The High Court of Justice in March 1653 acquitted Sir Phelim of the murder of Lord Caulfeild, but it is difficult to believe that he did not connive at a deed done by his foster-brother at his own gate, and for which no punishment was inflicted on the murderer. Charlemont fort was surprised and captured by his troops, who made it their principal stronghold during the rebellion. He was chosen commander-in-chief at Monaghan. The old English settlers—the Russells, FitzSimons and Savages of Ardes and Lecale—took part in the dreadful work, considering themselves rather part of the native than of the new population; and the Scottish MacDonnells had nothing to learn from others in deceit and cruelty.

The massacre of an English company under colour of a flag of truce at Portnaw and the massacre in January, 1642, of the peaceful Irish inhabitants of Island Magee were the work of Scottish soldiers. They sallied out and ruthlessly, without provocation or warning, fell upon this group of farmers and killed them all. Carte says that near three thousand harmless Irish men, women, and children, were said to have been killed, but this is a large exaggeration; the depositions give about fifty persons murdered.[9]

Nor did it tend to ameliorate conditions in the country when partly in order to relieve the congestion in Dublin and to find employment for the refugees, Sir Charles Coote, then governor of the city, was authorised by the Lords Justices to raise an army of defence from the most able-bodied of the men who had arrived from the North. Burning with indignation at the loss of all that they had built up with years of labour and by the outlay of large sums of money, with the memory of having seen their wives and children in many cases murdered or starved before their eyes, and knowing that it was often their own dependants who had turned against them, it is little wonder that among merciless troops then terrorizing the country, the bands under Coote were reckoned the most ruthless.

In Wicklow, where they were sent against the O’Tooles and O’Byrnes, the old foes of Parsons, who seems to have been watching for an opportunity of revenge, they took a cruel vengeance, falling upon them furiously, stripping and murdering, and driving them out of their territories. Yet these people had been in no way concerned in the rebellion. It was largely through Coote’s cruelties and those of St Leger, Governor of Munster, that the south, quiet up to this time, rose in arms, and joined the insurgents. But the rising in the south was never so formidable as that in the north.

The Irish gentlemen of Munster went into it unwillingly, having little to gain and much to lose by fresh disturbances; they had only recently been confirmed in possession of their lands.

The Lord of Muskerry, Donogh MacCarthy, who became leader of the Munster rebels, was son of Cormac Oge, who had been created Baron of Blarney and Viscount Muskerry in 1628. In 1642 the rental of his estate was £7,000, and his parsimonious father had saved for him £30,000 in ready money. It required all the efforts of the family bards, reciting the glories of past MacCarthys, to induce him to risk these solid benefits for the perils of insurrection.

Other lords, deep in debt, such as the O’Keeffes, O’Callaghans, MacDonoghs, and Lord Roche, were more easily stirred. Muskerry thus found himself the reluctant head of a rabble army wandering about the country, intent only on plunder, and not unkindly disposed toward the English planters among whom they lived, and from whom they had at all times got much money for work, timber, corn, and cloth, out of which their rents were paid.

These settlers were as a whole a “disindustrious” lot of people, as was said by one of themselves. Many of them had been soldiers and cared for no other occupation; they were “impatient of labour and much addicted to jollity and good fellowship; the epidemical disease of all the English plantations in this kingdom.”

But those who applied themselves to labour throve well and the country had begun to wear a smiling aspect of prosperity, with homesteads and farms scattered among the ancient castles of the great lords. The settlers were, as a whole, treated kindly by the rebel leaders, though many of them lost all they had and were plunged from prosperity into misery.

The rebel host, on their part, fared well and recklessly. During the single week they spent at Buttevant, Lord Roche’s house, and in the town of Moyalloe near it, they are said to have slaughtered forty thousand English sheep and probably three to four thousand cows and oxen “only for their skins,” which they sold for 1¼d. apiece to skinners of Kilmallock. On a report that St Leger was coming they melted away, leaving the place “stinking noisomely” behind them, “their bedding and meat so nasty and sordid that a right-bred English dog would have scouted either.”

Under a good leader they could put up a stout fight, as they showed when MacFineen, whom they called Captain Suggane, was at their head; but disputes between the authorized heads were so frequent that it was decided to give the command to an almost unknown man who had served in Spain, one Garrott Barry, who proved by his incapacity that he had profited little by his foreign training. Lord Mountgarret, whom he displaced, would probably have succeeded better.[10]

Among the host of inferior leaders who took part in the war some two or three names stand out of men who became local or popular heroes, being distinguished both for skill in generalship and for the humanity of their acts and the purity of their aims. Chief of these during the early months was Roger Moore, or Rory O’More, one of the unfortunate family which had lost lands in Leix when the plantation of Queen’s County was in progress. He saw in the rising a chance for the recovery of his tribal lands. His feats of bravery and brilliant leadership made his name a talisman among his countrymen, and they went into battle with the cry on their lips, “God and our Lady and Rory O’More.” But the scenes of horror which he witnessed, partly caused, as he felt, by his own words of instigation, revolted him. He risked his life to put a stop to these acts and finally stood aside rather than take part in deeds of blood. Carte calls Rory “one of the most handsome, comely, and proper persons of his time, of excellent parts, good judgment, and great cunning, affable and courteous.”[11]

In his own county of Kerry, Pierce Ferriter of Tralee held a scarcely less prominent place. He was a gentleman of old Norman stock, sincerely devoted to the Throne, who believed that the rising would bring about the full establishment of the Catholic religion. An accomplished man and brave soldier, he has left a number of love-songs, elegies, and verses on current events to prove his poetical talent and the warmth of his heart. For over ten years he held out in the mountains of Kerry, defending his people from the Cromwellian spoilers, the last Irish chief to go down before Cromwell, whom he looked upon as a fanatic and a rebel warring against Charles, the rightful King of Ireland. In 1642 he besieged and took Tralee Castle; and he was only caught at last, after the fall of Ross, by treachery, having been induced to come to Killarney to arrange terms of peace. The terms were not agreed upon, and on his way back he was seized and hanged in Killarney, in company with a priest and a bishop, about the year 1653.[12]

If the insurgents, like all parties in the conflict, committed acts of barbarity, there are also cases of humanity and kindness recorded to their credit. In many instances the priests preached vehemently against murder, and several protected the English about them from the rage of their pursuers. Mr. Higgins at the Naas acted in this Christian way, and the Catholic clergy of Cashel exposed themselves in the streets in order to rescue the English inhabitants.

Later Cromwell exempted from death two Franciscan friars who hid some flying Englishmen under the altar in their chapel. Some Protestant clergy, like the Rev. Denis Sheridan and Bishop Bedell, were so much respected by their neighbours that during a great part of the rebellion they were left unharmed, and gave shelter to their Protestant neighbours in Kilmore and Cavan; but Bedell, who for a time was shut up for protection in Cloghoughter Castle, suffered hardships from which he died. He spent his time in prayer and in continuing his translation of the Bible into Irish, with his family around him, and at his death Catholics, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians alike attended his funeral.

In some parts of the country the English planters threw in their lot with the rebels or remained neutral. Near Tralee the colonists were on the best terms with the Irish (especially on the Crosbie, Denny, and FitzGerald estates) and sided with them in the rising. Robert Blennerhassett of Ballyseedy went even further. He said “the Irish had helped him to plough and till his lands, and that those lands were the worse for every English foot that trod on them.” He declined to assist some besieged English shut up in Sir Edward Denny’s castle at Tralee.

There were accusations of breaches of trust and of quarter betrayed on both sides; but in some cases, as in that of Alexander Hovenden, half-brother to Sir Phelim, or of Colonel Richard Plunket, the captured were treated with great kindness; the former personally conducted thirty-five English out of Armagh to Drogheda and twenty to Newry in safety.

Sir Phelim, whom Owen Roe’s secretary calls “a light desperate young gentleman,” seems to have been one of the worst offenders, and his example must have been often infectious. When Owen Roe came over to take the command he was horrified at the wild acts and the arsons which gained for his cousin the title of “Phelim of the Burnings.” He rescued the few prisoners left in the leader’s hands, and burned down the houses of the murderers at Kinnaird, “saying with a warmth unusual with him that he would join with the English rather than not burn the rest.”

Nevertheless, even the misdeeds of Phelim pale before those of the Scottish officers, both in the North of Ireland and in Scotland. The “Covenant shambles” were depopulating the West of Scotland, and in Ireland the dour troops of Alexander Leslie and later the “burn-corn rogues” of Monroe emulated their cruelties. Leslie was engaged “in hunting out the Irish like deers or savage beasts,” and if the Irish retaliated on them as well as on Coote and St Leger, it is little to be wondered at.

Captain Chichester and Sir Arthur Tyringham in Antrim, Sir James Montgomery in Co. Down, Sirs William and Robert Stewart with their Lagan forces in Derry and Donegal, and Sir William Cole at Enniskillen, all held commissions from the King, and raised troops to hold the country. Monroe soon had under him twenty thousand men who ravaged in the north without check.