The Irish Uprising of 1641 was a long-term result of the “plantation” policy of Tudor and Stuart monarchs under which Ireland was aggressively colonised by Protestant settlers from England and Scotland.
From the mid-16th century, Irish landowners were dispossessed to make way for the settlers and a vicious cycle developed whereby rebellion against the English government was followed by further dispossession of rebels’ lands as punishment. The province of Munster was heavily colonised by English settlers during the 1580s after the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions. Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, resisted the English advance into Ulster, resulting in the Nine Years War (1594-1603). In 1607, O’Neill and other leading Ulster noblemen left Ireland intending to return with military help from Spain, but this never materialised and the Flight of the Earls was followed by the mass colonisation of Ulster. King James I ruled both England and Scotland so the Ulster plantation became a joint British venture, with at least half the settlers coming from Scotland.
The displacement of the native Irish was compounded by the threat to the Roman Catholic church in Ireland. English Protestants dominated the government of Ireland and Catholics were barred from holding state office. The Irish Parliament was subservient to the English Parliament under a late-15th century statute known as Poynings’ Law, and during the early 17th century, Irish constituencies were changed to allow the election of English and Scottish Protestant representatives, which resulted in a Protestant majority in the Irish Parliament. However, the native Irish population remained devoted to Roman Catholicism, as did the Anglo-Norman “Old English” aristocracy that had existed in Ireland since medieval times.
The severity of the administration of Sir Thomas Wentworth, lord-lieutenant of Ireland from 1632 to 1640, antagonised all parties in Ireland. Wentworth worked to raise revenue for the Crown and to break the power of the Catholic Irish nobility. He planned large-scale extensions of the plantations into Connacht and Leinster and adopted a policy of disputing Irish land titles and confiscating estates wherever possible to make way for settlers. Although Wentworth was recalled to England in 1640, his policies were continued by his deputy Sir Christopher Wandesford and, on Wandesford’s death, by the two lord-justices Sir John Borlase and Sir William Parsons.
During 1641, Irish resentment against the Protestant settlers was exacerbated by an economic recession and a poor harvest. Encouraged by the example of Scotland’s defiance of the English government in the Bishops’ Wars, Rory O’More, Lord Conor Maguire and Hugh MacMahon plotted with other disaffected Irish Catholics to start a rebellion in defence of their interests and to recover the lands they had lost. Sir Phelim O’Neill was drawn into the plot in September 1641.
The conspirators planned to seize a number of key towns and strongholds and to then negotiate for redress of their grievances from a position of strength. Lord Maguire and Hugh MacMahon with a force of 200 insurgents from Ulster and Leinster were to infiltrate the key city of Dublin and take the castle by surprise on 22 October 1641. On the same day, Sir Phelim O’Neill and small groups of accomplices were to seize a number of poorly-defended government forts in Ulster.
On the appointed day, O’Neill and the Ulster insurgents moved in on their targets. The typical method was for a small group to gain entrance on a pretext and to then overpower the guards and take key officials hostage. In this way, the insurgents successfully seized Charlemont, Mountjoy, Dungannon and other strongholds.
The plot against Dublin faltered, however, when only eighty of the expected two hundred insurgents appeared. Lord Maguire postponed the attack until the following day. That evening, Hugh MacMahon tried to recruit his foster brother, Owen O’Connolly, who promptly reported the conspiracy to the Dublin authorities. Sir William Parsons ordered the immediate arrest of Maguire and MacMahon. Amid wild rumours of an imminent uprising, the Lord Justices ordered all non-residents to leave Dublin even though 23 October was a market day. Rory O’More and other conspirators took the opportunity to escape. MacMahon and Maguire were transferred to London. They were eventually executed as traitors at Tyburn in 1645.
The failure to capture Dublin turned what was intended to be a swift, bloodless coup into full-scale war. Sir Phelim O’Neill issued a proclamation declaring that the insurgents had taken up arms only for the defence and liberty of themselves and the native Irish; the insurgency was not intended to harm the King or any of his subjects. However, the resentment felt by the Ulster Irish against the settlers soon erupted into violence. Protestants were robbed and evicted from their lands, farms and houses were burnt, cattle stolen. As the violence escalated into widespread killing of settlers, a notorious massacre took place at Portadown in Co Armagh in November 1641 where around 100 men, women and children were thrown off the bridge to drown in the River Bann.
Within a few days, large parts of Tyrone, Armagh and Down were in rebel hands. By November, Leinster had risen and Drogheda was besieged. King Charles appointed James Butler, Earl of Ormond, commander of government forces in Ireland, but troops sent to relieve Drogheda were defeated by Rory O’More at Julianstown in Co Meath on 29 November. The rebellion had spread through the whole of Ireland by the spring of 1642.
Thousands of Protestant settlers were killed in the uprising and many fled as refugees to England. Reports of wholesale massacres and atrocities spread rapidly through England and Scotland, provoking fears of an international Popish conspiracy. At Westminster, John Pym used the situation to political advantage, implicating the King’s ministers in the conspiracy and suggesting that the King himself was not to be trusted with control of the army that would be required to quell the rebellion. Sir Phelim O’Neill played into Pym’s hands by publishing a forged commission purporting to come from the King which authorised the Irish to rise against Parliament in defence of their liberties. In defiance of the King, Parliament voted to raise forces of its own under the Militia Bill and passed the Adventurers Act in March 1642, which promised land in Ireland to speculators who financed the raising of troops. Meanwhile, units of the Covenanter army were sent from Scotland to protect Protestant settlers and to extend Scottish territorial holdings.
Initially the Irish Uprising was spontaneous and anarchic but it became more organised with the inauguration of the Confederate Assembly of Kilkenny, where the Gaelic Irish and the Old English aristocracy formed an unlikely alliance. The uprising escalated into the eleven-year Confederate War that was finally brought to an end with Oliver Cromwell’s subjugation of Ireland in 1649-53.
Photo: Roughen Castle, a mile outside Newmills, Co Tyrone, on the Dungannon to Stewartstown road. The castle was once the refuge of Phelim O’Neill, leader of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 in Ulster. He was captured there in 1653 and taken to Dublin, where he was hanged for treason.