Irish History Overview

 17th Century Ireland

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. She was succeeded by the oldest great grandson of Henry VII, the son of her arch enemy, Mary Queen of Scots, who had herself been forced to abdicate in his favour. James VI of Scotland became James I of England (1603-1625), the first king of all parts of both Britain and Ireland. He resumed the plantation of English settlers in Ireland, and encouraged Scottish Protestants to participate.

The Ulster Plantation was carefully planned. Large scale migration began, drawn from every class of society: noblemen; younger sons of gentlemen eager for lands to call their own; relatives, neighbours, artisans and dependants of servitors; rack-rented and evicted farmers and fugitives from justice. The English had more capital but the Scots were the most determined planters. King James approved a scheme to assign a large area around Derry to the London Companies, and in 1613 the new county of Londonderry was created (with additions from Tyrone and Tir Connell, renamed Donegal). By 1640 there were over 100,000 Protestant settlers in Ulster. Common settler surnames included Graham, Patterson, Ferguson, Kerr and Stewart. The social structure of the province had been re-engineered in a fashion that would have far-reaching consequences for both the newly installed Protestant majority and the impoverished Catholic minority.

In Munster, the peaceful first half of the 17th century saw thousands more English and Welsh settlers arrive in the province. There were many small plantations in Munster in this period, as Irish lords were required to forfeit up to one third of their estates in order to get their deeds to the remainder recognised by the English authorities. The settlers became concentrated in towns along the south coast – especially Youghal Bandon, Kinsale and Cork. Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, made a huge fortune by amassing land through his Hollow Blade Company and developing it for agriculture and light industry.

Many of the planters were not Anglicans, but followers of more fundamentalist “Low Church” Protestant teachings, often similar to the Puritan beliefs of the Mayflower pilgrims who colonised New England, fleeing religious persecution at home. This was particularly marked in Ulster. They had little in common with the State-controlled Church of Ireland, apart from a strong detestation of Catholicism. They tended to regard the native Irish as savages, and the Old English Catholic families as degenerates.

In addition to the plantations, thousands of independent settlers arrived in Ireland in the early 1600s, from the Netherlands and France as well as Britain. Many of them became chief tenants of Irish land-owners, others established themselves in the towns (especially Dublin) – notably as bankers and financiers. By 1641, there were calculated to be around 125,000 Protestant settlers in Ireland, though they were still outnumbered by Catholics by around 15 to 1.

Meanwhile, Jesuits and friars from Spain and Flanders were strengthening Counter-Reformation zeal amongst the Catholic Irish, who were angry and resentful at their losses and reduction in status, and the mixture of fear and disdain with which they were often treated by the newcomers. Although privileged, Protestant planters all over Ireland often felt isolated and threatened by the surrounding Catholic population.

The reign of Charles I (1625-1649) culminated in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms arising from intertwined religious and civil disputes in England, Scotland and Ireland. Insisting on the Divine Right of Kings, Charles I established Personal Rule in the three countries and attempted to impose Anglican High Church conformity throughout his realms.

Violent opposition first flared in Scotland with the outbreak in 1639 of the Bishops’ Wars, also called the Wars of the Covenant,  between Royalists and Covenanters, Presbyterians who had taken an oath to defend their faith.

Sir Thomas Wentworth, the King’s Lord Deputy in Ireland from 1635 to 1640, alienated every interest group in the country. He imposed new taxes, denied Catholics rights as subjects, threatened to confiscate Catholic landowners’ properties for further plantations, and forced Presbyterian Scots settlers to take the ‘Black Oath’ of ‘abjuration of their abominable covenant’, and to pay ‘recusancy’ fines for non-attendance at Established Church services. Sir John Clotworthy, the leading puritan in Ulster, helped to galvanise resistance to Charles in Westminster. What made this situation explosive was Wentworth’s idea, in 1639, of making concessions to Irish Catholics in return for them raising and paying for an Irish army to put down the Scottish rebellion. The idea of a Catholic army being used to put down Protestant dissent horrified both the Scots and the English Parliament.

The Irish Rebellion of 1641 was initially a minority plot led by Phelim O’Neill to overthrow the government in Dublin. The conspiracy was betrayed and degenerated rapidly into an uprising of native Irish and Old English Catholics, mainly in Ulster. Many local sectarian grievances were settled and in some places defenceless Protestant settlers were dragged from their homes and murdered. It is thought that 4000 Protestants were killed directly and up to 12,000 perished from disease or privation after being expelled from their homes.

Rumours spread in England and Scotland that the killings had the King’s sanction and that this was a foretaste of what was in store for them if Irish troops landed in Britain. As a result, the English Parliament refused to pay for a royal army and instead raised their own armed forces. The King did likewise.

In Cork, Dublin, Carrickfergus and Derry, settlers raised their own militia in self-defence and, erratically aided by government troops, managed to hold off the rebel forces. Scottish Covenanters sent troops to aid their co-religionists in Ulster. All sides displayed extreme cruelty in this phase of the war. To avenge earlier massacred of Protestants, most notoriously at Portadown, Catholic civilians were wiped out at Kilwarlin woods, Rathlin island and elsewhere. The sectarian slaughter left a deep legacy of bitterness and mistrust, ably exploited by propagandists over the next four centuries.

The rebels defeated a government force at Julianstown, but failed to take nearby Drogheda. The King sent a large army to put down the rebellion.

In 1642 the rebels established the Irish Catholic Confederation, with an independent Assembly or parliament in Kilkenny, dominated by powerful landowners, including various members of the Butler family. Although they controlled two thirds of the island, their soldiers were defeated by English and Scottish troops at Liscarroll, Kilrush, New Ross and Glenmaquinn. Thus began the Irish Confederate Wars (1642-1649) or the 11 Years War (1642-1653).

The first of three successive English Civil Wars broke out in 1642. English troops were withdrawn from Ireland to fight for the King. The Irish Confederates mopped up the remaining garrisons within their territory, leaving only Ulster, Dublin and Cork in Scottish and English hands. Garret Barry, a returned Irish mercenary soldier, took Limerick in 1642, while the townspeople of Galway forced the surrender of the English garrison there in 1643.

Government troops and militia were divided between Royalists (under James Ormonde, 1st Marquess of Ormonde, in Dublin) and Parliamentarians (under Murrough O’Brien, 6th Baron Inchiquin, in Cork). The Confederates espoused the Royalist cause, but did not provide soldiers to help the King in England; the troops they sent to Scotland in 1644 sparked the Scottish Civil War, and were crushed by the main Covenanter armies returning from helping the Parliamentarians to win the first English Civil War in 1645.

For three years hostilities in Ireland were characterised by raids and skirmishes. All sides tried to starve their enemies by burning crops and supplies in their territory. This fighting caused great loss of life, particularly among the civilian population, but saw no significant battles until,. in 1646, a Scottish Covenanter army in Ulster was defeated at the Battle of Benburb by an Irish Confederate army under Owen Roe O’Neill (who had served in the Spanish army in the Eighty Years’ War and Thirty Years’ War). In 1647, Parliamentarian forces smashed the Irish Confederate armies of Leinster at the Battle of Dungans Hill and Munster at the Battle of Knocknanauss. Amidst much acrimony and dissent, the Irish Confederates formally merged in 1648 with Royalist forces under Ormonde.

Having been arrested in 1648, King Charles I was tried, convicted of treason and beheaded on 30th January 1649 in London.

On 2nd August 1649, an English Parliamentarian army under General Michael Jones routed the Irish-Royalists at the Battle of Rathmines, outside Dublin.

On 15th August 1649, Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ringsend, Dublin, with thousands of New Model Army troops to deal with the English Parliaments opponents, who were perceived as a threat to the newly declared Commonwealth.

Cromwell set about a systematic reconquest of the country, initiating a bloody trail of death and destruction that has never been forgotten. The entire populace of Drogheda was put to the sword, and Wexford town suffered a similar fate. These atrocities were counterproductive: although Kilkenny soon surrendered, Clonmel put up fierce resistance, and was treated relatively leniently when it finally fell. Waterford and Duncannon also resisted long sieges before surrendering. In Ulster, the Battle of Scarrifholis saw major losses on both sides.

Cromwell returned to England for the 3rd English Civil War in 1650, leaving the Irish campaign in the hands of his son Richard and son-in-law General Henry Ireton.

King Charles II (1649 – 1685), the beheaded monarch’s son, repudiated his father’s alliance with the Irish Confederates, leaving the Royalist cause in disarray. Ormonde fled to France. The Earl of Clanrickarde, Ulick Bourke, took overall command of the Irish Confederate and remaining diehard Royalist troops.

Limerick and Galway put up determined resistance to sieges. Significant battles took place at Macroom and Knocknaclashy.in Munster. As many as 30,000 fighters, known as “tories” (from the Irish word toraidhe, meaning “pursued man”), operating from difficult terrain such as the Bog of Allen, the Wicklow Mountains and the drumlin of the north midlands, made the countryside extremely dangerous for all except large parties of Parliamentarian troops. Parliamentarians destroyed food supplies and forcibly evicted civilians who were thought to helping the tories. John Hewson systematically destroyed the foodstuff in Wicklow, Hardress Waller did likewise in the Burren in Clare, as did Colonel Cook in county Wexford. The result was famine throughout much of Ireland, aggravated by an outbreak of Bubonic plague. The last Irish Confederate and Royalist troops surrendered in 1653.

It has been estimated that up to 30% of Ireland’s population died as a result of massacres, pestilence, and starvation, or were shipped off as prisoners or into slavery in the colonies in America and the West Indies, or were otherwise exiled by the end of the wars. Irish Catholic-owned land was confiscated in the wake of the conquest and distributed to the English Parliament’s creditors, to the Parliamentary soldiers who served in Ireland (with surnames such as Pim, Roberts, Bradshaw, Langham, Piggot, Delaney), and to English families who had settled there before the war. Catholic landholders were given the choice of going “to Hell or to Connacht” and prohibited from owning land east of the river Shannon. By the year 1660, only 20 percent of Irish land remained in Catholic hands.

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1659 and the belated accession of Charles II in 1660 did not settle the fundamental questions of power between king and Parliament. It temporarily raised Irish Catholic hopes, but these were soon dashed by the appointment of the Earl of Essex and then the 2nd Duke of Ormonde as Viceroy. The latter was responsible for the extension of Dublin beyond its medieval walls.

The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 is remembered as an almost bloodless coup in England. Parliament deposed Charles II’s Catholic brother James II (1685-1689), because he had converted to Rome, attempted to introduce religious tolerance by Royal Decree annulling Acts of Parliament and ordained that his newborn son should be brought up in the Catholic faith. Parliament offered the Crown to a Protestant Dutch prince, Charles I’s grandson William of Orange, who agreed to rule as William III (1689-1707) together with his wife, James’ eldest daughter Mary II (1689-1694). James II sought the aid of the King of France, Louis XIV to raise an army in Ireland.

The Irish Williamite or Jacobite War is often seen as a conflict between Catholic patriots and Protestant defenders of “Civil and Religious Liberty”. In reality, it was part of a power struggle between two factions for mastery over Europe, in which the Irish people were mere pawns. William of Orange (King Billy as he is popularly known) was chiefly concerned with the looming conflict between Holland and France (the Nine Years War, 1688-97), and counted the Pope, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain among his allies in the League of Augsburg. If victorious, there was a danger that James II would bring England into the war on the side of France.

The Jacobite army won several victories over government forces before the Siege of Londonderry, where terrified Protestants had taken refuge from a feared repeat of the massacres of 1641, increasing the population of the walled city from 2,000 to 39,000.This event is celebrated in folk legend, honouring the “Apprentice Boys” who are said to have raised the bridge, grabbed the keys and closed the city gates in the face of the approaching Catholics. King James’ terms were met with a shout of “No Surrender!”, a rallying cry for Ulster Protestants ever since. There is no doubt that the city’s inhabitants endured great hardship for105 days as cannonballs and mortar-bombs rained down, and famine and disease took their terrible toll; they were famously reduced to eating cats and rats before their final relief by sea by the Duke of Schonburg.

King William III landed with mixed Dutch, English, Scottish, Danish, German and French Huguenot troops, and won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1691 against undisciplined Irish Jacobites led by the French Marquis Charles Saint Ruth and Thomas Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan. James II escaped ignominiously to France. King William III left his army in the hands of General Godart Van Ginkel, who laid siege to Athlone (of which he subsequently became Earl). The Battle of Aughrim, fought on 12th July 1691, at which St. Ruth lost his head to a cannonball, was the bloodiest battle ever fought on Irish soil, with as many as 7000 corpses left unburied on the field, and another serious defeat for the Irish.

These battles were widely regarded as triumphs of Protestants over Papists, and have been commemorated by Protestants in Ulster on July 12th every year since. It is said that the battle of the Boyne is nowadays celebrated on “the Twelfth” due to the switch to the Gregorian calendar. It has also been suggested that the Boyne was preferred because the Irish troops there were more easily presented as cowardly, whereas at Aughrim they generally fought bravely.

The war ended with the short Siege of Limerick. The Treaty of Limerick 1691 was generous in its terms but was subsequently dishonoured. This was the time of the “Flight of the Wild Geese” when many of the old Gaelic and Old English gentry left to seek their fortune in other European countries, notably France, Spain and Austria.