A bit like Charles Dickens and his writing for a regular publication, I have come to the habit of ending each of your History of Scotland instalments with a bit of a bombshell. I hope I am not being presumptuous in making some sort of comparison with one of, apparently and according to those that know, one of the greatest of English writers. Well possibly, but anyway, my point is that we left last time with the news that a second of Charles’ kingdoms had rebelled against his rule.
Let us talk briefly then of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. By the way, there’s a map on the web post for the episode of Ireland, gibing an idea of where everything is and the plantations and so on. The Rebellion was of course an event of enormous significance, and so controversial that I’m not going to lie to you, I feel nervous even mentioning it. We talked a little last time about some of the reasons for resistance to Wentworth and his heavy handed governance in Ireland, which had achieved the seemingly impossible of uniting all the constituent communities in Ireland against his rule – Gaelic Irish, Old English Catholics, even new English, Scottish and English involved in plantations. It’s worth also giving some coverage of the Graces. These were attempts by Irish Catholic leaders to reach some accommodation with the crown over their rights; an alleviation of their disadvantages; they produced a list of changes that grew to about 51. And they came very close, within a rizla paper width of getting these threw in discussions with James and Charles. At one stage 49 of the 51 were basically agreed, but the Irish held out for the final two. Meanwhile James had packed the Irish parliament with protestant MPs which made it harder for agreement to be reached; and despite paying an agreed tax in return for the Graces, Charles postpone implementation. The long and short of this is the background that by 1641 Catholics had unsurprisingly reached the end of their tether in terms of political routes to solutions; the crown and Irish parliament had consistently reneged on the Graces, the Irish parliament was packed with protestants and no longer representative, the Irish Privy Council was packed with New English. Though there was still faith in the Irish parliament – in 1640 for example, as an example of the fruits of Wentworth’s unifying work, the Irish parliament had issued a complaint against poor government – which required both protestant and catholic support. One of the pains of studying Irish history is that there seem to have been multiple opportunities where maybe things could have taken a better path, but the opportunities were missed; but maybe that’s just fundamentally misunderstanding the realities of early modern Europe. But it hurts, nonetheless, it hurts ladies and gentlemen.
Anyway, the thing is several leaders in Irish society, had a good look around them, and their eyes could not fail to fall upon the Scots, and notice that, huh, they appear to have done quite well by taking direct action, maybe we should take that particular horse out of the stables and give it a run around the paddock of politics? They were to find out that the trouble with rebellions is that once out of the stables, the lovely little horsey turns out to be a wolf in lambs clothing. Just to comprehensively mix my animal metaphors.
There’s been a deal of mulling about the 1641 rebellion; what was it? Was it a nationalist uprising against the imposition of English culture? An ethnic conflicted fuelled by hatred of the English? Or was it economic in origin, the result of plantations that removed irish from their livelihood? Or was it a religious revolt, Catholic against Protestant?
Time would tell that it was none of those thigs alone, and all of them. What becomes clear in Confederate Ireland, as it would become, is that the old simple divisions no longer applied – Catholic and Protestant, Old Irish, Old English New English, or at least not in terms of nice clean straight lines. Catholics varied in their desires and approaches – did they want a re-establishment of the Papacy and a Catholic Ireland free from English control? Or did they prioritise loyalty to the King, and merely religious toleration? Did English see an Irish nationalist future, or were they simply English transplanted to Ireland, their loyalties still firmly to the old country? And how did they view the more Radical protestant, the Calvinist, who many suspected were as disloyal to the Crown as any Catholic? One of the problems for the Irish rebels, is that just as Charles’s challenge to balance the competing interests of his subjects resembled a particularly fiendish executive toy, so did the rebels in Ireland. The English would have the same problem of course. In which context, the unity the Covenanters achieved in Scotland looks increasingly extraordinary. Top Marks, Scotland.
As it happens, then, the leaders of the 1641 revolt were not a bunch of outraged Catholics determined to restore the Pope to his most loyal subjects; nor was it a group of desperate, dispossessed irish peasants, nationalists or ethnic warriors determined to cleanse their country of the English and Scottish settlers, despite what was claimed later. It was instead a group of Ulster Gentry, who had been very much part of the plantation scheme; some very anglicised – Connor Maguire for example was a substantial landowner who had chosen the English side in the Nine Year’s War; Phelim O’Neill had 4,500 acres to his name for crying aloud. He’d taken part in the plantations of Ulster that had followed the flight of the Earls, and done a bit of a line in evicting Irish tenants and replacing them with English settlers because they’d pay more. History is so complicated.
However, what united them was that they were struggling to compete with the new rules of the English regime; they were heavily indebted, they were politically and religiously disenfranchised. ‘Religion and Liberty’ was their cry – an independent Irish parliament, plantation lands to be restored to their owners, church ministers to be restored as part of a policy of religious toleration, and ‘victory over the English heretics’. They professed their loyalty to the king, and actually they had high hopes that Charles would like the music of their song – and even claimed they had his commission. They appealed to ‘all the catholics of the Romish party both English and irish’.
Their plan, then, was that Phelim O’Neill would seize various strongholds in Ulster on 22nd October, then the next day Maguire would seize Dublin Castle. Interestingly at this stage the Scottish planters were not to be badly treated; the re bels didn’t want to be fighting two kingdoms, links with Scotland were deeper, longer and potentially happier, so they were to be spared. Anyway, the first bit went well – within a few days they were in control of the traditional heartland of Tyrone and Armagh, so, you know, tick. But in Dublin, their plans were betrayed; and they failed to take over Dublin castle and the Pale. However, the rebellion quickly spread elsewhere to Connacht and Leinster; so before long only a strip stretching from North Eastern Ulster down the coast to Dublin remained in the king’s control, and an enclave around Cork in Munster. However, that was critical. The dynamic of the entire rebellion had changed; what had been planned was a new Irish government able to negotiate with their king; what they had was a divided Ireland, and the existing government had not been paralysed.
The dynamic changed in other ways to boot. Because the revolt spread to other parts of the population, the rank and file got involved and violence erupted. Now the dispossessed did get involved; those Irish farmers who had been unable to compete in the Irish plantations because English and Scottish settlers were willing to pay more for tenancies. And to add to the fury, although the 1630s had been a good decade economically, things had started to go wrong from 1638 and times were hard, to add to the religious outrage and hatred of English customs.
All those strands were evident in the actions now taken by the rebels. English and Scottish settlers were often threatened at knife point to leave their lands and goods; one historian n notes that ‘they were only killed where they resisted’. Language is an interesting thing, that sounds so different if you say ’Those that resisted were killed’. And yes – English and Scottish I did indeed say; the wolf had lost its cape of lambswool when the rank and file became involved.
In other incidents, the specific Englishness of governance was at the centre – for example in County Mayo they derided the English laws to which they were no subject by conducting mock jury trials on cows. And then there’s religion – bibles and service books were routinely and widely burned triumphantly in the face of their protestant tormenters; in many cases rebels weren’t fussy about the religion of the English; Ralph Warmsley, and English Catholic reported of being relieved of their worldly goods and forced off their land with their 3 children.
And there were without doubt widespread killings and atrocities. All of Phelim O’Neill’s English settlers, for example, would die, despite his attempt to protect them. Famously, about 100 settlers were forced onto the bridge at Portadown; the bridge had been cut in the middle so that all the people, men and women, fell into the river and were drowned – being clubbed to death if they managed to make the shore. In County Mayo, somewhere between 30 and 65 English refugees who had surrendered to their Irish captures were being escorted to a fort were murdered instead. In all about 4,000 settlers were probably killed – estimates have been a moving feast for many years; many more would have died from cold and hunger, forced from their homes and livelihoods, maybe 12,000 but the real number is even harder to know. People were tortured to reveal the location of their valuables for example, so the grief inflicted as ever was greater than the bare numbers reveal. The numbers killed may equate to about 10% of all settlers, but maybe as many as 30% in Ulster specifically. And of course rebels died as well in reprisals; at the battle of Lisnagarvey the settlers gained the upper hand and took vicious advantage in revenge.
And things were made worse by the reaction of the English authorities. The rebellion gave the more extreme in the government their head; Charles Coote is reputed to have hanged Catholics without recurse to any kind of process; William St Leger is reputed to have done the same in Munster, although his involvement’s disputed I understand; however, killings certainly took place there, and as an example of how violence begats violence, Catholics duly took revenge on the relatively small number of English settlers actually in Munster. What’s clea,r is that level heads were as hard to find as hen’s teeth.
May I share an anecdote with you? Possibly inappropriate at this dark time of history, but we once went on a family holiday to glorious Canada, in a camper van, all 5 of us. I thought it was the best holiday of our lives and had a great time, my Dad said I whined for two weeks, as strong evidence as you like for the post modernist view of history. Anyway, whilst in Banff national Park, we read a leaflet of what to do if confronted by a charging bear. The leaflet advised that we should ‘stand still and assess the situation’. I have never seen my father laugh so hard. Well, the point of this anecdote, which I fear have told you previously and please tell me if I have, it’s hard to remember after 2 1/2 million podcasting words, the point is that there was no one in Ireland standing still and assessing the situation. Everyone was focussing on the charging bear.
And said bear became bigger and badder with every telling. The news that reached back home to Scotland and England had 100,000 no 200,000, so 250,000 men women and babies had been tortured, maimed and killed. Everything they feared about the character of the Irish seemed to be confirmed – that they were barbarians, and that the plot was, in the words of one Thomas Smith
To cut the throats of all protestants in Ireland
Simmond D’ewes wrote that
Many English and Protestants had been slain by the rebels in Ireland with so much cruelty as was ever heard of amongst Christians
The press was way worse and had a field day. There’s a strongly sensationalist streak in pamphlet writing that would make the Daily Mail blush; pamphlets on gallows last speeches, and about the doings of robbers and vagabonds were essential reading – maybe people snuck them into church to get through the sermons, who knows, like tucking a Mills & Boon inside your Book of Common Prayer. So the Irish rebellion was your perfect pamphlet fodder. As a quick couple of samples; in one, the Irish in Armagh were
Putting men to the sword, deflowering women…and thrusting their spears through their little infants before their eyes
In another, John Spalding of Aberdeen wrote in his diary that the Irish used
Fire, sword and all manner of cruelty against man, wife and bairns of English, Scottish and Irish Covenanters in their kingdom with put compassion or pity
He adds that they had a whip round, and his parish, though poor by his reckoning, raised £4 for the Ulster settlers, a tidy sum.
The rhetoric was often crazily extreme, and for a lot of it simply impossible to substantiate – some of it was demonstrably made up; two enterprising Cambridge university undergrads saw their chance to earn a few quid on the side to fund their extra curricular studies, and were discovered and arrested making up pamphlets they sold to publishers with titles like ‘Bloody New from Ireland’. The 17th century version of a pot boiler.
The thing is of course, that this sort of thing is not unusual and still with us, in war the truth dies. People lapped it up and people believed it; afteral the very justification behind plantations was that the Irish needed civilising. The general expectation was that the Irish were planning to completely erase protestants and Protestantism. It was reported to be part of a wider Catholic and papist plot – since we already know embedded in the Covenant, just how much fear and hatred there was of Papism. The reaction in England and Scotland in a way is almost as important in what follows as the fact of it; because of course crazily exaggerated it might be, yet it di happen, there were real atrocities carried out, and so fuel was added to the fire.
The rebellion of the Irish was a worry for Argyll and the Covenanters every bit as much as it was for the king. Obviously, a considerable part of the western provinces of Ulster had been settled by Scots, transplanted from the lowlands, and very much of the Presbyterian and Covenanting mould, and the Scots felt a desperate need to defend their people.
But there was more; they recognised also that there was a kinship between the McDonnell clan in Ireland and the MacDonalds of the western highlands, and there were very real dangers in that relationship. The Highlanders had never got involved in the Covenanter movement, and in fact in so far as they were interested were probably opposed to it. It’s unlikely that This was for religious reasons – though Protestantism’s grips on the highlands and Western Isles was much weaker than lowland Scotland; but more because the face of Covenanter Scotland was that of the hated Campbells, the Marquis of Argyll and his lordship. And as I have mentioned before, the MacDonalds resented the Campbells creeping intrusion on their lands and the pain of their replacement as the ancient lords of the Isles and leadership of gaeldom. The Campbells had used all sorts of sneaky ways to deprive MacDonald allies and clans; acquiring their debt for example and then taking their lands when they failed to pay. Particularly painful had been the loss Islay to the Campbells. No, the Macdonalds wanted nothing to do whatsoever with anything that smacked of the Campbells, thank you very much.
The McDonnels on the other hand traced their lineage back to the MacDonald clan in the 15th century, part of that ancient connection between the Ireland and the western Isles. In the 16th Century a branch had carved out a lordship in Antrim; Gaeldon or no Gaeldom, Shane O’Neill had tried furiously to dislodge them, but to no avail. The McDonnells, unusually, had then managed to profit from the plantations in Ulster; since they were based on the confiscation of the lands of the O’Neills. So the McDonnells were in a strange situation; Randal McDonnel, the Earl of Antrim was on unusually good relations with the protestant settlers in Ulster, but he was none the less a very firm Catholic. Meanwhile he was a staunch supporter of the king, and had already raised an army in Ireland to support Charles in 1638, and suggested schemes to help him against the Covenanters. And meanwhile, he had his eyes on his ancestral lands in the highlands – and was busy painting a big colourful target on the backside of the protestant Campbells.
All frighteningly complicated, and it put him in a very ambivalent position with the Irish rebellion; initially he joined with the rebels but tended thereafter to essentially duck and weave like the very best of traders on the Peckham market. He retired to his estates, tried not to say or do much, and broadly supported the King’s Lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Ormond. I am sorry; there is little simple in Irish history. However, Argyll in particular was very aware indeed that Antrim, the McDonnels and their cousins the MacDonalds, both presented a threat to the Covenanter regime – and more specifically, to the Campbell lands and authority in the western highlands.
One more thing. An important practical consideration for the Scots was that they were conscious that the existence of their army was a key reason why, at this moment in time, they had so much leverage and influence, with their King, and with the English parliament. They wanted to keep it; and despite the effectiveness of the Covenanter regime at raising finance, it was a delight to have said army paid for by someone else, namely the king. And Charles looked at the Scottish army, and dribbled slightly when he did – what a superb tool it was that had brought him so low. But now he’d tried to mend his Scottish fences, wouldn’t it be lovely if he could have the Covenanters send an army to Ireland, to repress this new rebellion. And he would be prepared to pay for that army too – if he could persuade the English parliament to pony up of course. So, we’ve got Covenanters worried about the Irish rebellion, worried about what the McDonnels might do against them on the king’s behalf; but at the same time, sharing the king’s interest in suppressing the Catholic rebellion because of their plantation brethren. Golly, Miss Molly. Confused, you soon will be, because then there’s the English parliament – what about them I hear you ask?
Well, the English parliamentarians were also keen to see a largely Catholic revolt supressed, but very unkeen to see the king with whom they had, of course, a massive barney to be in control of a sharp knife in the form of a well trained, paid and equipped. So – more difficult decisions.
But to boil it down – with qualifications everyone was keen to have the Scots put an army into the field in Ireland. One of those parties it has to be said, without wanting to indulge in plot spoilers, would live to deeply regret his enthusiasm for the idea. Just to maintain the secrecy, I’ll only give you a clue as to his identity. His name begins in C and ends in S, and there’s an h, a r l and e in between. Nudge nudge and, if you will, wink wink, so no more, say no more. This is because one day said secret person would find himself trying to persuade the Catholic Irish to send him an army to help with a little local difficulty in England – and one of the reasons that would be a problem for his future Irish allies would be a fear of the Scottish army in Ireland.
How are we all coping then? It’s mind bending is it not? It’s not difficult to feel a little sympathy for Charles in his decision making – it was not a simple tab A into slot B thing.
Still, it took quite a while for the details of the arrangements about the sending of said Scottish army to Ireland to be worked out; not until July 1642 was a treaty finally signed; the Scots agreed to pay for recruiting and transporting the army, while the English were to pay the rest.
The army from Scotland was to be commanded in principle by Leven; but in practice it was the Major General, Robert Munro who ran things, Leven went for just a few months. Munro arrived with an advance army of 2,500 in April 1642, and the balance arrived later in August, to bring his army to a total of 11,000. There was much anger at the time it took for the English to produce the cash – but the Scottish Privy Council agreed that the need was so urgent that they would shoulder the cost in the meantime.
Munro was well known to Leven – they had fought together on the continent in the 30 years war, both were experienced veterans. And it would be easy to say that they brought the brutality of that war to Ireland, where the conflict throughout this sorry history would prove much more like the experience of the Thirty Years war than the Civil wars would be in Scotland or England, with the added ethnic element, but in fact that’s not really the truth of it, as I’ll explain. Munro’s army found that their opponent in Phelim O’Neill avoided direct conflict. So Munro initially fought a scorched earth policy, destroying villages and farms, marching largely unopposed across Ulster and North Leinster. On his watch, other atrocities took place; on the horribly unlucky Rathlin Island, scene of an English atrocity decades earlier a Campbell commander Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck terrorised the local population, who were of course McDonnells. As with so many of these the numbers are heavily disputed, and the numbers who died vary on a very wide range between 100 and 3,000. So the impression was indeed in England and Scotland that the war on the continent they’d heard reports of had come to Ireland. But in fact after these initial atrocities, Munro began to establish more control over their armies, the engagements became more dominated by military discipline. Wand when a new Irish rebel commander took over the same happened on the other side. That meant violence and outrage still happened; but it was no longer the unbridled savagery of the first few months.
Now, from a royalist point of view, although Munro’s intervention in 1642 made a reconquest look possible, even probable for a while, things were not always happy. Nominally, Munro was under the command of Charles’ lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Ormond. But – was he? Was he really? From whom was he actually taking orders, on the end of who’s string was the puppet dancing? Could it really be Argyll and the Covenanters? Now while Munro’s was the strongest army in Ireland it maybe didn’t matter, but two things came about to change that. Firstly, in England the civil war had kicked off and on 23rd October the king and parliament met in battle at Edgehill; and although in purely fighty terms this is a battle presented to me at school as a score draw, strategically it was really a royalist victory, and Charles got to march on London. This led to a deal of panic in the Covenanter ranks; and Munro refused to leave his heartlands in Eastern Ulster for fear of a double disaster, much to the fury of Ormond. Munro’s priority essentially was not the king’s future, but the future of the Scottish planters who had not already fled back to Scotland or Dublin, as many had.
The other reason for the changing situation was the return to Ireland of the O’Neill, in the form of one Owen Roe O’Neill. He’d probably left in 1609 in the flight of the Earls, and had fought in the Spanish Netherlands for the Spanish cause. When he arrived in Ireland with 300 troops and a bag of cash from the Holy Father, he was recognised as the senior O’Neil, and given command of the Irish rebel army in Ulster over Phelim O’Neill. O’Neill was an experienced commander, once again forged in the fires of the Thirty Years war who managed also to stop some of the atrocities against settlers – though after a year of warfare he was to reflect that Ulster appeared
not only like a desert, but like hell, if hell could exist on earth
War in Ulster began to settle down to give and take, push and shove. But O’Neill’s arrival complicated the politics of the Irish. O’Neill’s attitude was different to the existing rebels, who had wanted to remain under the king’s lordship, but under better terms, and religious toleration. O’Neill represented a very different militant tradition, that looked to overturn the land settlement, restore church lands. It would proved a deadly complication for Irish rebel unity. However, in 1642 the rebels held a series of meetings considering how to respond to Munro’s early successes; and by October they established a new government – the Confederate Association, with its own oath of association, in conscious imitation of Scotland’s Covenant. It committed the Confederacy to obedience to the king – but based on his defence of the true religion. This was delightfully optimistic – Charles of course had no more desire to defend the true religion when it was Catholicism than when it was Presbyterianism. Anyway, the first General Assembly was held at Kilkenny, and a Supreme Council elected, and we can now talk of Confederate Ireland. They established a series of regional armies – O’Neill in Ulster, another experienced soldier of the Thirty Years war in Leinster called Thomas Preston. And in 1643 they would press Ormond’s government forces and Munro’s new Scots hard.