The final English victory over the ‘Native Irish’ in Ulster during the “Nine Years War” (1594 – 1603) gave the English crown control of the entire island for the first time in over five centuries. Sadly, for Ireland and its people the victory also signalled the final collapse of the old “Gaelic Order”. Worse still was that, between 1603 and 1641, King James and his son, Charles I, consolidated their colonial power in Ireland. They achieved this task mainly through a policy of “Plantation”, which simply meant the confiscation of land and subsequently giving it to loyal Protestant co-religionists from England and Scotland.
The Kingdom of Ireland was divided into four provinces. The best land was to be found in the Province of ‘Leinster’ to the east, and the Province of ‘Munster’ to the South. Meanwhile, the western Province of “Connacht”, which was separated from the rest of Ireland by the River Shannon, and the Northern Province of ‘Ulster” were considerably less fertile and remained. Virtually inaccessible. The people in all Provinces were usually to be found clustered together in small rural settlements, which were usually sited around the nearest manorial residence of the local landlord. However, during the summer months, many of the peasant population would gather their cattle and drive them to greener pastures in the highland areas. On these rough grazing pastures, they would build temporary shelters of rocks and sods to shelter their families from the elements.
In the early decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated the population of Ireland numbered in the region of one million people. In demographic terms the population was divided into four distinct grouping –
1. The Native Irish
2. The Old English
3. The New English
4. The Scots in Ulster
The ‘Native Irish,’ were by far the largest of these groups and they lived almost exclusively in rural communities that were traditionally dominated by the leading clan or family, such as the O’Neills, the McCarthys and the O’Briens. Moreover, the ‘Native Irish’ obstinately refused to embrace the new reformed faith, which created deep religious divisions to add to the existing ethnic tensions that already existed between the Irish and the newcomers. But, following the defeat of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in 1603 the old Gaelic political order collapsed. Hugh O’Neill fled into exile on the Continent, where he was joined by thousands of unemployed swordsmen who found work in the Spanish and French armies. Those of the Native Irish elite who had remained in Ireland had to adapt as best as they could.to the New Order. They, however, detested the colonial system that had been imposed upon them, and they deeply resented the power and influence of the minority Protestant settlers.
There were, nonetheless, a few of the old Gaelic aristocracy, such as Donough McCarthy, who appeared to overcome much of the disadvantages of religious and ethnic discrimination allowing them to integrate into the new colonial society successfully. The heir to estates in east County Cork, McCarthy was able to marry into the leading ‘Old English’ family in the country, the Butlers. With this advantage McCarthy could carefully build up a strong network of friends that spanned the entire religious divide. He succeeded his father, ‘Viscount Muskerry’ in 1641, and took his seat in the “House of Lords” just before the outbreak of the Irish insurgency. The subsequent polarisation of Irish society, however, caused ‘Muskerry’ to choose a side and, in early 1642, he openly declared his commitment to the Catholic insurgents. His principal opponent in the Province of Munster throughout much of the 1640s was Murrough O’Brien, “Lord Inchiquin”, one of the few prominent native Irish leaders to forsake the Catholic religion.
The ‘Old English’ were the second largest demographic group in Ireland and were also the principal landowners in the ‘Kingdom’. They had also suffered mistrust and discrimination because of their refusal to abandon their Catholic faith. This group were descendants of the original ‘Anglo-Norman’ colonists and had, for the most part, supported the Tudor conquest and fought against their traditional enemies, the ‘Native Irish’. The King, however, retained his predecessor’s policy of excluding them from government posts, appointing instead the more reliable though unashamed rapacious English Protestant officials who soon began to intrigue among themselves to gain control of the big, landed estates. The ‘recusancy fines’ which were imposed upon those who failed to attend the Protestant services were only a sporadic irritant. The process of ‘Plantation’ in Ulster and elsewhere, although it was mainly directed against the native Irish, succeeded in causing many of the ‘Old English’ families feeling vulnerable about their own land holdings. The ‘Old English’ also dominated the big urban centres of Ireland and, with the exception of the colonial capital, the newly created ‘Plantation Boroughs’ in the Province of Ulster. Only a handful of merchant families monopolised civic power in the land, growing wealthy on trade with the surrounding countryside and the Continent. At the same time, each town jealously guarded its local autonomy from any outside interference, and traditionally excluded the native Irish from residing within the defensive walls of the settlement. But, many of the big cities, however, such as Waterford, Limerick and Galway joined the Catholic insurgency during the 1640s and would subsequently organised the most effective opposition to Oliver Cromwell and his ‘New Model Army’.
At the pinnacle of Catholic ‘Old English’ society Ulick Bourke, Earl (and later) Marquis of Clanricarde, who owned vast estates in Connacht. He enjoyed close relations with the town of Galway, one of the busiest trading ports in the country. His step-brother, Robert Devereux, was the Earl of Essex and the future commander of Parliamentary forces. In fact, it was through the intercession by Essex that ‘Clanricarde’ was appointed to the English ‘Privy Council’ in 1641, and Lieutenant of the town and County of Galway in Connacht. He was, therefore, one of the very few Catholics to hold public office at this time. Bourke returned to Ireland in September 1641, on the eve of the Catholic uprising. Although the vast majority of the ‘Old English’ aristocracy subsequently sided with the Catholic insurgents, Bourke remained loyal to the Stuart Monarchy throughout the 1640s. There was, however, another leading Catholic nobleman, James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, whose father, an English Lord, owned estates in Leinster and travelled to Ireland at the same time as ‘Clanricarde’. He pursued a military career on the Continent, before he joined the Catholic insurgents in Ireland. Although many of his co-religionists were to suspect him of holding royalist sympathies because of his English connections, Tuchet proved himself to be an energetic cavalry commander, and would be one of Cromwell’s most implacable opponents.
The Protestant people living in Ireland made up the third and fourth demographic groups that have been listed. The ‘New English’ group consisted mostly of soldiers and administrators who had settled in Ireland on confiscated lands taken during the ‘Tudor Conquest’ from Catholic Irish rebels in Leinster and Munster. From 1610 the English government sponsored a ‘Plantation’ scheme that redistributed the lands that had been seized from Hugh O’Neill and his northern allies and shared among thousands of Protestant migrants from England, alongside even greater numbers of settlers from Scotland. Although there were tensions that existed between the ‘New English’ and the Scots, their common fear of the Catholic Irish kept such tensions very much as secondary causes for concern. Except for a few centres such as Derry, Enniskillen, and Carrickfergus, the vast majority of the settler population lived in relatively small fortified settlements, constantly afraid of the threat to their security from the various bands of native Irish outlaws sheltering in the woods, bogs and mountains of the Province. Cork, Kinsale, Bandon and Youghal formed the back-bone of the ‘Munster Plantation’. Many of the original Protestant ‘Planters’ from the 1580s had either been killed or driven out of the country during the “Nine Years War” but the settler population soon rose in the aftermath of the rebel defeat, and by 1640 they numbered in excess of 20,000, mainly from the southern and western counties of England.
Two of the leading ‘Planter’ families were the Cootes and the Boyles. Sir Charles Coote fought in the “Nine Years War”, acquiring estates for himself in Connacht as a reward, and he officiated in a member of important administrative position for over forty years. He was violently anti-Catholic and an aggressive advocate for further English plantations. Sir Charles earned for himself a deserved reputation for brutality and was eventually killed during a skirmish with the enemy in May 1642. His eldest son, also called Charles, proved to be an equally uncompromising opponent of the Catholic insurgents and commanded forces that were loyal to the English Parliament in efforts to pacify the West and North of the country.
Meanwhile, Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork rose from humble origins in England to become one of the largest landowners in Ireland. Already and old man by the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641, he died in 1643. One of his younger sons, Roger, Lord Broghill, played a key role during the wars and fought alongside Cromwell during the later stages of his conquest of Ireland. Roger Boyle, like Coote, needed little encouragement to take up arms against his Catholic neighbours. Also, like Charles Coote, Roger showed no mercy to those who opposed him.
The leading Protestant family in Ireland at this time was not a new arrival, but the head of the most important ‘Old English’ family in Ireland known as Butler. He was raised in England as a ward of the Royal Court in a strict Protestant household. The young James Butler, the future Earl of Ormond, enthusiastically embraced the new faith and resisted all the pleas from his extended family asking him to revert to Catholicism. He remained a deeply controversial figure across the religious divide in Ireland, but he retained the unswerving confidence of King Charles I. It was due to this fact that James Butler kept his command of the royalist armies in Ireland for much of the 1640s, and he co-ordinated the military resistance within Ireland against Oliver Cromwell at the end of that decade.
While many of the ‘Native Irish’ looked abroad for a leader, the ‘Old English’ elite, for the most part, placed their hopes in the Irish Parliament, whereas major landowners and representatives of the big towns they retained a powerful, if no longer dominant, influence. Through Parliament they sought to safeguard their landholdings, mitigate the worst excesses of religious discrimination and regain some influence in government circles. But, the crown’s failure to implement the ‘Graces’, which were areas of concessions to Irish Catholics, caused great resentment and intense bitterness among the Irish Catholic population. Over the next ten years there followed a traumatic time for the Catholic elite, both ‘Native Irish’ and ‘Old English’. The situation worsened after Thomas Wentworth was appointed to the commanding position of Lord deputy in Ireland. This man’s increasing use of arbitrary powers, apparently with the King’s full support, negated any remaining influence that the Catholic elite held over the ‘Native Irish’, or in Parliament. Moreover, Wentworth’s continuing policies of ‘Plantation’ now began to threaten the retention of their estates. The time for the Catholic Irish to rise up against what they perceived to be tyranny was not far off.