The Death of Detective Sergeant John Barton

“the very scum that kept us in British bondage.”

If he had died today, and in the line of duty, Detective Sergeant John Barton of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) would probably be declared a national hero. At the time, ‘The Irish Times’ editorial for 1 December 1919 did proclaim him to be “one of the bravest, most vigilant, and most intelligent defenders of the city’s peace”. ‘The Irish Independent’, likewise stated that “Sergeant Barton seemed possessed of an instinct for tracking down criminals and his name alone was sufficient to inspire terror in the hearts of evil doers”.

CollinsBarton’s name, however, was not enough to stop the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins, from having him killed, and he assigned three separate groups of Volunteers to carry out the task. On 29 November 1919, all three of these groups converged on the Detective Sergeant when he was only yards from reaching the safety of the new Central Police Station on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). He was shot at such close range, in fact, that there were scorch-marks on his clothes. The fatal shot, it appears, was fired from the gun of Seán Treacy, who had led the Soloheadbeg ambush upon a ‘Royal Irish Constabulary’ patrol, in which Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell were killed. This incident was the spark that set off Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’ the previous January. During the incident, however, Barton managed to draw his revolver and fire one round before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and having spoken these last words he collapsed on the ground. As a Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance crew took him to Mercer’s Hospital, Barton weakly said, “They have done for me. God forgive me. What did I do?”

In order to answer his question, we should look at his life and career up to that point. John Barton was born into a Kerry farming family. When he reached the required age limit, John joined the ‘Dublin Metropolitan Police’ in February 1903 and standing at six feet four and a quarter inches he exceeded the minimum criteria of the force. He was a man with an impressive physique, although his posture was somewhat spoiled by a slight stoop. Not unsurprisingly, Barton became one of the best-known members of ‘B Division’, which was based in the south-east quarter of Dublin’s inner city. He didn’t transfer to the detective department (G Division) of the DMP until 10 October 1919, which was less than seven weeks before he was killed. At the time of his death, he was the fourth DMP member, and third ‘G’ Division detective, to be killed in the War of Independence.

John Barton was a man to be feared by those in the ranks of the Irish movement, as well as those revolutionaries within Republican circles. One member of the Irish Citizen Army, who knew Barton well, accused him of being willing to do more than his duty. During the ‘1913 Lockout’ Barton personally arrested over forty people, and after the Christmas Day confrontation on the City Quay, which saw DMP Sergeant James Kiernan thrown into the River Liffey,  he assisted in the arrest of a dozen workers who were allegedly involved in the incident. Patrick Higgins, a member of the ‘Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’ (ITGWU) was personally tracked down by Barton and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his role in the ‘City Quay Affair’. Naturally, such actions did not make him popular among the ordinary people of Dublin, and his infamy spread after he had arrested a group of children for stealing chocolate. One twelve-year-old boy was sentenced to five years detention, while an eleven-year-old boy was sentenced to a month. A boy aged thirteen, and one aged eleven, were each given £5 bail and eighteen months’ probation.

Barton 2In 1916, during the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin and the subsequent actions against the rebels, Barton became notorious and his infamy spread throughout the city. When the  Rising began Barton ignored all orders to remain in barracks and, undeterred by the fatal shootings of three policemen and the wounding of several others, he took to the streets of the city arresting rebels and looters wherever he found them. After the rebels surrendered, Barton went to Richmond Barracks and helped ‘G Division’ detectives to identify the leaders of the Rising. It was almost a voluntary post that Barton appeared to carry out alongside his day to day police duties. Perhaps, the most infamous report that we have of him during this time comes from IRB member Seán Murphy. At a later date, he testified that it was Barton who picked out Seán MacDermott from among the prisoners. Murphy stated that when he picked out MacDermott he said, “Sorry, Seán, but you can’t get away that easy. There will be six for you in the morning, I think”. This was, of course, a reference to the six soldiers who would make up the firing squad that would execute him.

There were other detectives who took part in the identification process that day, but it was Daniel Hoey and John Barton who left the most lasting impression on witnesses. They were remembered specifically for their cynical way that they walked down the line of prisoners with a sneer on their faces’. When identifying an important figure Barton would use his walking stick to point them out to the military authorities, while Hoey used an umbrella. His cruelty toward the republican prisoners and their families appeared to have no bounds. Barton is remembered particularly for the way he spoke to Joseph Connolly and told him that his brother Sean had been killed in the ‘Rising’. When Joseph expressed his pride in his brother’s sacrifice by saying, “He died for his country”; Barton answered that Sean was a disgrace to his country. It is also reported that he would badger particularly vulnerable prisoners to such an extent that they would attempt or commit suicide.

His work with the detective division after the rising did not, however, distract Constable Barton, (Constable 37B in the DMP) from his everyday police duties. During the ‘Rising’ most of the looting occurred north of the River Liffey, while most of those arrested for the crime resided south of the river. It is amazing to note that of the 425 people convicted of looting during Easter week, 296 of these were arrested by Barton. It is important at this time to point out that Barton had arrested the majority of the women who were subsequently sentenced by the police magistrates’ courts for looting offences.

On 18 June, the first public demonstration in support of the rebels took place in Dublin. It began when a group of 400 ‘girls’ carrying a ‘republican flag’ gathered outside Christ Church Cathedral following requiem Masses for the executed Tom Clarke and Eamonn Ceannt. The demonstration by the girls rapidly gathered a crowd of 2,000 people as they marched down Dame Street towards O’Connell Street. On the way, they booed the British sentries outside Dublin Castle and the Bank of Ireland in College Green, and then they came up against the DMP lined up outside the Ballast Office. The police had been ordered to prevent the demonstration from crossing the river and conflict erupted when the police tried to seize the ‘republican flag’. To combat the police batons the crowd used anything that came to hand, including tram destination boards, and the two policemen who were most badly injured in the fighting were Constables Barton and Henry Kells.  Constable Kells would soon be acting as another voluntary detective in the hope that he would be promoted to ‘G Division’ but, unlike Barton, he did not achieve his ambition. Unfortunately for him, he was also shot dead by Republicans on 24 April 1920, while working in plain clothes. Unlike Barton, his last words were not recorded.

Seven young men and three women were arrested after the confrontation and charged with offences against ‘Defence of the Realm Act2”. The chief police magistrate, however, decided to deal with the cases under the ‘Public Order Acts’ rather than employ the more drastic penalties contained in the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’. Nevertheless, none of those charged was prepared to apologise for their behaviour,  and at least two of the defendants, sixteen-year-old Denis Fitzpatrick and 22-year-old Christina Caffrey, had taken part in the Rising but had evaded arrest. But, the fact that Fitzpatrick and Caffrey were apparently ‘unknown to the police’ demonstrates the totally inadequate state of the police intelligence department and suggests that the ‘G Division’ was not as knowledgeable as it was supposed to be. The truth is that there were only a few members of the division involved in the detection of political crime as opposed to the number assigned to ordinary crime.

Barton’s work and devotion to duty during 1916 were recognised on 2 February 1917 when he was awarded the King’s Police Medal (KPM). This was the highest award a police officer could be given, and the newspapers of the day recognised it by describing Barton as being- “… instrumental in the detection and apprehension of a very large number of criminals. During the first night of the rebellion he arrested at great personal risk twenty-seven persons who were looting in the vicinity of O’Connell Bridge, which was dominated by rebel fire, and on the same night, with the assistance of another officer, he arrested two armed men who were carrying a large quantity of ammunition.”

On the same day he was awarded the KPM Barton was also promoted to sergeant, and on 10 October 1919 he was transferred to ‘G Division’. He was consistently dedicated to carrying out his duty to the full at a time when many policemen in Dublin were doing everything they could to avoid working on the city’s increasingly hostile streets. It was a time when some ‘G Division’ detectives, such as Eamon Broy and David Neligan, became double agents for Michael Collins’ organisation, and they were joined by members of the uniform branch such as Joe Kavanagh and Maurice Aherne. It is true that much of the information that led to the assassination of ‘G Division members’ came from their fellow officers. Barton, however, was a loyal member of the force and received a bar to his KPM in 1918, in recognition of his continuing excellent work, including the dramatic arrest of an armed Boer officer for desertion in 1917.

Being the only member of the DMP to receive two KPMs, Barton’s enemies quickly grew in number. Even defence lawyers had no time for Barton, who was always parading around like a peacock. One person who knew him particularly well was Charlie Dalton, a recruit to Michael Collins’ intelligence operation, where he had a somewhat chequered career of his own. Of Barton, Dalton said, “…  he was held in the highest esteem by the publicans, pawnbrokers and other commercial men, due to the fact that he had established a unique method in the tracing of petty larceny and illegal pawning of stolen goods. In carrying out his routine police duties, he had many news vendors and minor thieves of the pick-pocket variety in his power, and he utilised this type of informer for checking on the movements of prominent wanted volunteers.”

Frank Henderson, who was a 1916 veteran and commandant of the 2nd Battalion in Dublin, described Barton as “an efficient criminal detective … who had only undertaken ‘political work’ after the Republican Government had begun to exact the death penalty on enemy intelligence personnel? Barton was warned when he commenced his spying but did not heed the notices sent to him.” Why would Barton choose to ignore Republican warnings when so many assassinations were being carried out, and blindly pursue a method of policing that would mean almost certain death? Perhaps, it was simply that he was a single man without obligations, and had no obvious interests outside the job. Whatever the reason, we know that he was single-minded in his pursuit of the enemy, and completely oblivious to the rapidly changing political climate in Ireland.

To some who remembered him in later years, Barton was simply, “the very scum that kept us in British bondage.” Although in some circles, he was seen as a hero, the decision to kill Barton was inevitable. The countdown began when he led a raid on the home of a young volunteer called Vinnie Byrne. Later, when asked by the head of Collins’ newly organised murder group, ‘The Squad’, if he would shoot a man, the young volunteer replied, “It’s according to who it is.” When he was told that the target would be John Barton, Byrne immediately replied that he would have no objection. Later that day, after finishing work, Byrne joined with others and cornered Barton on College Street at 6pm. During the ambush, however, Barton fired off one round from his own gun before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and collapsed to the ground, where he was left for dead by his attackers.

Acknowlegement for this article should be given to Padraig Yeates, the author of A city in civil war: Dublin 1921–4 (Gill & Macmillan, 2015). First published in History Ireland 5th September 2016.

Bodenstown

The Grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Bodenstown is located near Sallins in County Kildare and it is in the local cemetery there that Theobald Wolfe Tone was buried in 1798, after he had cut his own throat because he was told that he would not be granted the honourable execution normally given to soldiers. But, since that time, this site in Bodenstown has become the spiritual home of Irish Republicanism.

Wolfe Tone 2

The Grave itself was discovered in 1843 by the ‘Young Irelander’, Thomas Davis, who spread the name and deeds of this icon of republicanism far and wide throughout Ireland. In this small way began a tradition among nationalists and republicans to enhance the life and exploits of Wolfe Tone, thereby creating an Irish legend. Not surprisingly, Tone’s grave site became a shrine to Irish freedom, to which all shades of republicanism from various eras made a heartfelt annual pilgrimage. During those years many republican voices have given orations by this honoured grave, including among them James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Sean O’Casey, Eamon de Valera, etc.

Prior to the establishment of the ‘Irish Free State’ in 1922 most of these pilgrimages were organized by the ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’ (IRB), the National Graves Commission, or Sinn Fein under its many titles and guises. Since its creation in 1926 the ‘Fianna Fail’ Party have organized an annual pilgrimage to Bodenstown in memory of Wolfe Tone, as part of their effort to strengthen their claim to be as republican-minded as ‘Sinn Fein’ in the eyes of Ireland’s people. As expected the organisations attending, the numbers of people travelling, and their combined mood reflected the militancy of the ‘Irish Republican Army’ (IRA), and the factions within that movement. But, it has only been since the beginnings of the ‘Troubles’ in ‘Northern Ireland’ that the ‘Ulster Question’ has had an impact on the Bodenstown gatherings.

Unfortunately, in October 1969, the troubles came to the pilgrimage when the ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ (UVF) planted a bomb in the graveyard, which destroyed the memorials to Wolfe Tone. Then, in June 1975, the same loyalist terror group planted a bomb near Sallins with the sole intention of derailing a train filled with pilgrims on their way to Bodenstown for the annual gathering. Sadly, during this operation, an innocent and uninvolved passer-by was killed by the loyalist action.

Early in twentieth century the Catholic Church in Ireland associated Wolfe Tone with the physical-force faction of Irish Republicanism and the hierarchy of the church opposed priest attendance at these gatherings. Many priests, however, who were unafraid to demonstrate their support for Irish freedom and republicanism, and they continued to attend the gatherings. The Catholic population of the country had always supplied the support for republicanism in Ireland. Wolfe Tone, however, was from the Protestant tradition and some who gathered at Bodenstown saw the recitation of Catholic prayers over Tone’s grave as being inappropriate. Then, in 1971, the new memorial at Wolfe Tone’s grave-site was formally blessed with Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy participating jointly.

wolfe-toneSadly, it appears there has arisen a less desirable trend in the speeches of earlier years when compared to those speeches of recent decades. There is always a formal nod to the exploits of Wolfe Tone but, both ‘Fianna Fail’ and ‘Sinn Fein’ have begun to use the occasion to set out and promote their own political manifesto, and to lambast the programs of other parties. From such debates opposing factions have arisen within Irish Republicanism, all seeking a united Ireland but divided as to how to achieve this goal. It is the same old story of Irish politics that even Wolfe Tone faced, namely the weakness of our cause because our political divisions.

William Smith O’Brien PtII

William Smith O’Brien’s half-cocked rebellion of July 1848 ended in dismal failure, and the leaders were quickly rounded up. He was found guilty of sedition, convicted and sentenced to death despite the absolute fiasco into which that rising in Tipperary fell. Nevertheless, he had committed high treason and was rather fortunate that his death sentence was later commuted to one of transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, had decided that the best policy in regard to the “Young Irelanders” was not to make them martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom. It was much better, he felt, to send the prisoners into gentlemanly oblivion. While the Governor of Van-Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, preferred that the prisoners should be treated as normal convicts, he was obliged to offer O’Brien a ‘ticket-of-leave’. William, however, initially refused the offer because it had a condition attached to it, which would prevent him making any attempt to escape. Thus, while his fellow-revolutionaries, Patrick O’Donohoe, Thomas Meagher and Terence MacManus, set free immediately, William was moved to Maria Island, which represented the penal settlement’s remotest outpost. So, one year after the failure of his rebellion, William Smith O’Brien was sitting in a small cottage, isolated from the other convicts. He now found himself with enough leisure time to write a long-postponed autobiography. There were not many leaders of armed rebellions in Ireland, during the centuries of English domination, that had the opportunity to look back on their actions in the years that followed. But, an attempt by O’Brien to escape his confinement was badly bungled and, in August 1850, he was transferred to Port Arthur.

O'Brien Cottage

William now found himself housed in a cottage in Port Arthur, which has been preserved by the city authorities as a historic site. The cottage itself remains a pleasant enough building painted in a bright pumpkin-colour. The front rooms are set back from a pillared porch and the house has a garden at the rear. From its position on a ridge the cottage occupies a commanding site above the main penitentiary buildings and parade ground. Just off shore in Carnarvon Bay, O’Brien could see the ‘Isle of the Dead’, which was a burial ground for the convicts, as well as the penal colony’s officials, soldiers and their wives.

O’Brien was fortunate to be spared the worst horrors of convict life in Van Diemen’s Land, and the greatest hardship he had to endure at Port Arthur was his isolation. But he had books to occupy himself and he tended to the garden, as well as starting a journal for Lucy. William also took advantage of the time he had to correspond with his family and friends. These letters and O’Brien’s journal show the man to have had integrity, sensitivity and an unswerving patriotism for his country. His sense of patriotism combined a ‘gentleman’s’ sense of honour with an unshakeable conviction that his country’s cause was sacred. He wrote to his wife at this time, saying “No holier cause than that in which I was engaged ever led a patriot into the field or conducted him to the scaffold.” She, however, was less enthusiastic than her husband about the cause of Ireland’s freedom.

After spending three months in Port Arthur, William was urged by his sympathisers in Hobart to apply for a ‘ticket-of-leave’, which he did, successfully. ‘The Young Irelanders’ in general began, at this time, to benefit from the local distaste for England’s policy of transportation and they themselves had formed movements that sought representation for the people. In popular newspapers like the ‘Hobart Town Courier’ and the ‘Launceston Examiner’, the ‘Young Irelanders were described as patriotic heroes, who may have lacked good judgement in their actions. Nevertheless, this was a marked contrast to the vitriolic outpourings against ‘The Young Irelanders’ published in the ‘The Times of London’. Such was O’Brien’s standing in Hobart that he received a popular ovation when he arrived there, but nervous authorities would not allow him to settle in Hobart and moved him on to New Norfolk. William took lodgings in ‘Elwin’s Hotel’, (now the ‘Glen Derwent’) a pleasant rural inn on the river Derwent, and remained there for two and a half years, until he moved to Richmond. It was a matter of government policy that the ‘Young Ireland’ prisoners were required to live in separate districts, and Thomas Francis Meagher resided in Campbell Town and Ross, while John Mitchel lived at Nant Cottage, Bothwell.

On a regular basis, funds were sent to Smith O’Brien from his Cahirmoyle estate in Ireland. As it was with most of the other ‘Young Irelanders’ who had been transported, private means greatly alleviated the hardships brought on by their exile. Fortuitously, during the Crown’s proceedings against him, O’Brien had placed his estate in trust to forestall any possible confiscation of his assets. But, William’s correspondence from New Norfolk demonstrates that he punctiliously attended to his day-to-day business.

The ‘Young Irelanders’ had been heartened and inspired by the French Revolution in 1848, because the revolutionaries were able to rid the land of King Louis Philippe, and to keep existing property intact. The Irish leaders wanted the same result through their middle-class revolution, which would act as a strong barrier against a possible peasant uprising. But, this was a subtlety which the British government, unfortunately failed to grasp at the time. They did not quite accept that Smith O’Brien was not another leader simply speaking republican doctrine. On 20th August 1850, Smith wrote to an English supporter of Young Ireland, T. Chisholm Anstey, saying – “As for personal loyalty to the sovereign, I am not aware that I have ever during the course of my life uttered a word disrespectful to the queen and though in the event of a national war between Great Britain and Ireland I should have acquiesced in the establishment of a republic as the only form of government which circumstances have permitted. Yet my political principles have never been republican and I should have much preferred to any novel experiment a restoration of the ancient constitution of Ireland: the Queen, Lords and Commons of Ireland.”

Smith O’Brien had been badly disillusioned by the sheer inadequacy of the British Government’s policies towards Ireland during the Famine years, and that to prevent further disasters he wanted Ireland to be self-governed under the Crown. He had many harsh things to say about the government’s policies during the Famine and suggested that if the British Government had not caused it, they at least encouraged its effects on the Irish people. He claimed that Ireland’s people were now undergoing greater loss of life from British mismanagement of the famine than might result from the outbreak of revolution. But, Smith O’Brien’s had his critics, and they accused him of having a total disregard for the people by expecting them to take part in an uprising after suffering years of starvation. It appears that he had forgotten that history has taught us that successful revolutions take place, not when things are at their worst for the oppressed but, when they are getting better. It would, however, be a long time after 1848 that things really began to improve for the Irish people.

Naturally, on reaching ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, O’Brien’s first impressions of the Tasmanian countryside were not favourable, especially when suffering from serious homesickness. This new land may have had its beauty spots, mountains and flowing streams, but none as beautiful as the valleys, loughs, hills and forests of Ireland, many of which had been immortalised in song. Anyone who has read his correspondence from exile can see how much he was influenced by romance of his homeland, rather than attempt a totally objective observation of the magnificence of the semi-wilderness that was the Tasmanian bush. At the same time, he preferred to remain oblivious to the spiritual significance with which the aboriginal people of that land had invested their environment. But, because he was a landowner himself, William was extremely interested in farming conditions of his new home and local animal husbandry. At one point, he even considered following John Mitchel’s example by investing in a farm and bringing out his family to live there. Ultimately, he decided against taking his wife and several children out to this far-off land. He wrote bitterly, “Nothing has yet shaken my determination to abstain in whatever sacrifice to myself from placing my wife and children under the control of the brutes who govern the prisoner population of this colony.”

There is little doubt that O’Brien did suffer because of his separation from his family and friends in Ireland, but he was not short of good company and a lively social life in Tasmania. The journal that he kept and the many letters he wrote record the routine life that a country gentleman expects to live. He spent his time studying classical authors and wrote of his impressions. William also rode and walked about the countryside, and went to St Matthew’s Anglican church, where he struck up a good friendship with the Revd. Seaman. For a short time, he moved to the Avoca region in Tasmania and became tutor to the young sons of Dr. Brock, an Irish naval surgeon.

Although, at first, William felt cold-shouldered by the local gentry, by November 1852 he was able to write to his wife of “visits to the settlers in whose houses I feel that I am not only welcome but a cherished guest!” The home of the Fenton family, especially, became almost a second home for O’Brien. Captain Fenton had served in the Indian army but, like O’Brien himself, he was Irish and Protestant. His wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters found that they had much in common with William, including a shared taste for literature and music. ‘The Young Ireland’ movement had stimulated Irish balladeers to produce a prolific crop of patriotic verses and song, to which Smith O’Brien no doubt introduced his hostess and her daughters. In September 1852 wrote to his own wife, Lucy, and asked her to send “a copy of Bunting’s Irish melodies and the quarto edition of the Songs of the Nation which I have promised to Mrs. Fenton.”

Captain Fenton, however, had a more substantial reason for cultivating the company of William O’Brien. He was a member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council and he was a leading advocate for Tasmanian self-government. Knowing that O’Brien had represented his native Limerick in the House of Commons in London for seventeen years, Fenton realised he would have invaluable expertise to give him. In later years Fenton would become Speaker of the Tasmanian Legislature and was a member of the committee that drafted a constitution for Tasmania. O’Brien for his part drafted a model constitution and worked on his ‘Reflections in Exile’, published after his release as ‘Principles of Government’.

Supporters and well-wishers in Ireland, England and America, campaigned ceaselessly for O’Brien to be pardoned. He was a celebrated figure in many countries and, eventually, the British Government granted him a conditional pardon in the summer of 1854. He wrote to his wife at this time, rejoicing in the fact that he had been pardoned and that he had not been asked to retract or apologise for his past actions. “I had firmly resolved”, he wrote, “not to say or write or do anything which could be interpreted as a confession on my part that I consider myself a “criminal” in regard to the transactions of 1848.”

Before Smith O’Brien left Tasmania after spending five-years there, he was honorary guest at a series of functions and he was presented with congratulatory speeches in both Hobart and Launceston. In Melbourne ‘Long John’ O’Shaunessy, who would later be Sir John and Premier of the State of Victoria, organised a testimonial dinner for O’Brien and his friends. At the same time there were various local communities who honoured him, including those people who lived in the Bendigo goldfields.

In 1856, William’s final pardon came through, expedited because so many of those serving with distinction in the Crimean campaign were Irish. He was now free to return to Ireland, after having spent the intervening years in Brussels. When he came home at last, he found himself once again honoured and feted, receiving a hero’s welcome from Irish Americans when he went to the United States, where he met President James Buchanan. But, sadly, O’Brien’s final years were less happy. His health failed him and in 1861 his beloved wife died. Three years after this tragedy, in 1864, he himself died at the age of sixty. He was subsequently buried in Rathronan churchyard in County Limerick.

O'Brien StatueSix years after his death, a statue which stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, just north of the O’Connell monument, was unveiled. John Martin, MP for Meath, another veteran ‘Young Irelander’ and former Tasmanian exile, performed the ceremony. Neither O’Brien’s son and heir, Edward, nor Lord Inchiquin, who was head of the family, was present for the ceremony. While in exile, Smith O’Brien had insisted that his children should be educated in such a manner that they would take pride in their Irish heritage and serve their country, and yet, he had written to Lucy, “I have never endeavoured to force patriotic feeling upon the minds of our children”. Although his son, Edward, appears to have disagreed with his father’s politics, William’s spirit of service was nobly carried on by his daughter, Charlotte Grace. She devoted her life to improving conditions of travel and settlement for thousands of young Irish women emigrating to the United States, at a time when social services were either minimal or completely non-existent.

Further reading:

  1. R. Davis, The Young Ireland Movement (Dublin 1987).
  2. B. Touhill, William Smith O’Brien and his Irish Revolutionary Companions in Penal Exile (Missouri 1981).

William Smith O’Brien Part I

Before the Insurrection of 1848

Dromoland CastleAlthough William Smith O’Brien was very proud of his descent from the great Irish High-King, Brian Boru, he was critical of his ancestors who had traded independence for English titles. William was born in 1803, the son of Sir Edward O’Brien, (Baronet) of Dromoland Castle, in Co. Clare. William’s mother, Lady Charlotte, was the daughter of William Smith, and inherited his Cahirmoyle estate in County Limerick. Sir Edward’s eldest son, Lucius, was the natural heir to Dromoland Castle and his father’s title, but Cahirmoyle was given to William, the second son, who unofficially added ‘Smith’ to his name.  While Sir Edward strongly believed that William, as his second son, should earn his own living, the young man wanted an allowance paid to him until he came of age to take over Cahirmoyle.

Strangely, Sir Edward opposed the 1800 Act of Union and consistently supported Catholic claims in parliament, but his wife, Lady O’Brien, was a strong evangelical and proselytising Protestant. During William’s early years she taught her son that the Pope was Antichrist and that the Catholic population must be converted to Protestantism. As a result, William went through an intense evangelical phase of life before he discovered that many Catholics were often more devout and good-living than those extreme Protestants who constantly condemned them.

When William attained the age of eight years he was sent by his parents to school in England. From that time, until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, he returned home to Clare only for the Christmas holidays. From his ‘private school’ at Willing, in Sussex, William moved on to Harrow. Although he quickly proved that he was above average in ability, he became disgusted by the ‘fagging’ system employed at the school, which made young boys the virtual slaves of their elders. The demands of the older boys constantly interfered with a pupil’s schoolwork and could earn the unfortunate ‘fag’ a thrashing from his teacher for his bad school work. Not surprisingly, William failed to develop any personal interest in learning. Thankfully, William was saved from Harrow by his father moving to Orleans with his family as an economy measure. Although he found his French tutors more stimulating than those at Harrow, William soon found himself back at private schools in England.  Among these he attended the evangelical establishments of the Reverends Scott and Bradley, which caused William to reach a high pitch of religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm would, however, completely disappear by the time he reached the age of seventeen and entered Trinity College.

William had a flair for the classics, but he still had to work hard for his first examination at Trinity and achieved a first-class pass. In his second year of his course, however, he allowed himself to be seduced by social side of university life. He spent his evenings playing cards and drinking port wine, before he would stagger back to his rooms in the early morning hours. At this time, William also refused to attend chapel and incurred upon himself a series of punishments. But, he enjoyed the penalty of memorising Greek poetry and transcribing Euclid’s theorems, which only encouraged him to continue his boycott of the chapel. It was just good luck and the good offices of his tutor, a brilliant mathematician, that prevented him from being ‘sent down’ by the end of term.

Because he was unable to gain a first-class-honours in his next examination, William deliberately failed his second test in an effort to avoid appearing to be second-rate. He refused to answer easy questions, and this caused him to drop to seventh grade. Naturally, his parents were not amused at this failure and they kept him at Dromoland for the next year. At home, William read more generally in Sir Edward’s well-stocked library and diverted himself by visiting local landowners, whose regular habit of imbibing quantities of port wine reminded him of his time among the undergraduates of Trinity College. Despite his fervent claim that he was always an Irish nationalist, it was probably during this period of his life that he had more opportunity than he ever had, at school or university in England, to study Ireland and its culture. Nevertheless, although achieving high honours was now impossible, William returned to Cambridge and idly came to grips with the great questions of existence without giving up his social pleasures. It appears that he eventually reached the conclusion that because religion could not be proven by reason alone he should adhere to simple, traditional belief. Therefore, for the rest of his life, O’Brien maintained a middle-of-the-road tolerant Anglicanism.

Sir Edward had hoped that his youngest son would earn a handsome living as a barrister, in London or Dublin and, for a time, William obediently attended Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he tenaciously studied his legal texts. Then Sir Edward decided that it might be advantageous considered returning William for the ‘pocket borough’ of Ennis, which before the 1832 Reform Bill was shared by the local O’Brien and Fitzgerald families. Although Sir Edward was of the opinion that the law and politics were a good combination, William quickly lost any interest in the law and prepared for parliament by reading politics and political economy. In which he duly graduated in 1826.

After graduating, William took an active part in the wild celebrations that spread through the town of Cambridge. When the student revellers erupted into the town itself, O’Brien, too drunk to know what he was doing, assaulted a university proctor who was attempting to restrain him. He was very fortunate to avoid serious punishment from the academic authorities, but William was now ordered home for the second time by his outraged parents. Sir Edward was now completely convinced that his youngest son lacked both the temperament and the industry to succeed at the ‘bar’.

Left with nothing to do, William became frustrated and miserable. To pile further hurt upon his son, Sir Edward refused to pay a marriage settlement to the wealthy Earl of Kingston caused William’s engagement to the earl’s daughter to fall through. Furthermore, his father also refused to finance a grand European tour for a son who had strayed from the course and standards that had been laid down for him. William was, however, permitted to visit Dublin and, in that city, he was to find his life changed. It was there that he joined Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. Although his father, Sir Edward, and other leading Protestants had long supported the right of Catholics to sit in parliament, but it was rare for a Protestant to actually become a member of the Association. Although William did not attend any meetings, his membership of the Association did him immense good in Ireland, and especially in his home county of Clare.

When a general election was called in 1828, despite his misgivings Sir Edward placed William in the borough of Ennis, while his elder brother Lucius was elected for County Clare. Now, with a definite purpose in his life, William threw himself wholeheartedly into parliamentary work. His maiden speech on the complex subject of paper money was made soon after his arrival at Westminster and, although badly delivered, according to his own account, the speech earned William widespread respect. In his autobiography he insisted that, though confident in many ways, he found public speaking to be very painful. But, eventually, through sheer will-power he learned to address large audiences, while he always kept notes close to avoid any lapses of memory.

When ‘The East India Company’ charter came up for renewal, William carefully researched the issue and produced a pamphlet on the subject, which impressed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. As a result, William was appointed to the committee on the ‘East India Company’, which was a great honour for such an inexperienced politician. Finally, Sir Edward had something to make him proud of his son. William, however, spoiled this new relationship with his father by not always voting for the Tories, as Sir Edward wanted him to. It was made plain to William, therefore, that he must vote for the government or resign his seat.

Daniel O'ConnellThe political issue of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ had now reached its peak and Sir Edward’s friend, Vesey Fitzgerald, because he had taken up a post in the Tory government of Peel and Wellington, was forced to recontest his parliamentary seat for County Clare. Although Fitzgerald was a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he had now joined a government that was opposed to such a measure, and ‘The Catholic Association’ sought an opponent to run against him. William was, of course, invited to stand but he, naturally, refused. Finally, Daniel O’Connell himself took up the challenge and defeated the combined forces of the O’Briens and Fitzgeralds in this constituency. William, now in parliament, took no part in the campaign but quickly claimed to have been one of the first parliamentarians to recognise that O’Connell’s election must be followed by ‘Catholic Emancipation’. At the same time, however, William wrote scathing article concerning O’Connell’s intervention in County Clare. When a passionate supporter of O’Connell, Thomas Steele, replied venomously to the article, O’Brien challenged him to a duel. Neither man, however, was injured in the resulting fight.

When the Tory government led Peel and Wellington passes the ‘An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects’ in 1829, it allowed William in good conscience to support, as his father had demanded, the now-embattled Prime Minister. Now, with O’Connell finally in parliament, William kept his distance from the great man. In his opinion, after achieving Emancipation, O’Connell should have concentrated his efforts on ‘Irish Reform’ and not the repeal of the union. Therefore, in an effort to politically outflank O’Connell, William sought an Irish ‘Poor Law’, demanding outdoor relief for the weak and helpless. O’Brien’s bill on the subject, however, lapsed when he conceded his parliamentary seat in 1831.

The bitter quarrel between the Dromoland O’Briens and O’Connell’s supporters continued to fester. William’s brother Lucius was defeated in the 1830 general election by O’Connell’s supporter The O’Gorman Mahon. It was William, however, who organised the subsequent evidence that had Mahon removed from his seat for electoral corruption. In the resultant by-election, Sir Edward himself stood for Parliament but was no more successful than his son Lucius. The grave insults to Sir Edward made by O’Gorman Mahon’s brother provoked William to fight another duel. Although William escaped his opponent’s pistol, he could not avoid his mother’s fury at what she saw was his unchristian conduct. Henceforth, William made every effort to moderate his future rhetoric.

By the 1830s parliamentary reform had become the leading issue at Westminster and sitting for a ‘pocket borough’, William found himself to be in a weak position. While campaigning in Ireland, he missed one of the vital votes on the issue. While he favoured reform in general, William thought the Whig bill was inconsistent and too radical. He believed that some seats for good candidates who were unlikely to obtain sufficient votes should be retained. But, O’Brien deplored the Whig acceptance of the Tory refusal to allow an increase of Irish electorates according to existing population. With Vesey Fitzgerald assuming the Ennis seat at the 1831 election, William, after a promising parliamentary start, now found himself once again without an occupation. He was, however, saved from his frustration by the ‘Terry Alt’ outbreak of violence in County Clare, which was caused by increased rents and anti-Catholic proselytisers. The ‘Terry Alt Movement’ of 1828-31 has been one of the least studied of the pre-Famine rural revolts, partly because it was dwarfed by the great anti-tithe agitation with which it temporarily shared the limelight at the outset of the 1830s.

The name, “Terry Alt” itself is obscure. According to some the name arose from the marauders, perhaps more out of sport than malice, being in the habit of crying out- “Well done, Terry! Well done, Terry Alt!’” At its peak the outbreak was similar to a volcanic eruption, with a gradual accumulation of pressure before a great explosion in the late winter and spring of 1830-31, followed by a rapid subsidence into an orderly peace. But, during its explosive phase, in its heartland of County Clare, the movement was marked by a level of activity and a degree of popular mobilisation that were unprecedented.

What caused the rise of this movement appears to have been a rich and complex mixture of economic distress, sectarian hostilities, and political antagonisms. Formal parliamentary politics had a very unusual impact on the outbreak which, in its characteristic form of protest was both open and communal to an extraordinary extent. Although secret-nocturnal activity remained important throughout the outbreak, there were great daytime gatherings of diggers and sod-breakers, who were cheered on by large, enthusiastic crowds.

In his autobiography, O’Brien shows that he sympathised with ‘Terry’ objectives, but also saw the need for law and order. While other landlords fled to the cities and towns seeking refuge, William took the lead in fortifying Dromoland Castle and organising a defensive posse that consisted of his brothers and loyal tenants. He successfully persuaded his father to address the people in one of the ‘Terry’ strongholds, and on one occasion he personally led a party of dragoons in pursuit of a group of insurgents. Outpacing his allies, with only a small pistol he confronted the ‘Terries’ and caused them all to run away. Subsequently, when some of the ringleaders were captured and faced court, O’Brien did his duty as a fearless juryman, and ensured several transportation sentences were enforced. For a period of time he lived alone, unprotected and unmolested, in a cottage at Inchiquin, which lay at the centre of ‘Terry Alt’ power. He proved that although the ‘Terries’ were ruthless against traitors and informers of their own class, they accepted the gentry upholding the existing law of the land.

Eventually he moved to his grandfather’s estates in Limerick, and he was triumphantly elected to parliament for that county. It was a seat he was to retain until he was expelled from the Houses of Parliament after his insurrection in 1848.

Rebellion 1641 – The Fuse is Lit

In 1641 the Puritan Parliament in England went as far as to decree the absolute suppression of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. The main cause for Parliament taking such a step was the effort begun by dispossessed Gaelic-Irish Lords in Ulster to recover those lands that had been confiscated from them in past years. Very quickly this effort by the local Irish of the north to have their ‘stolen’ lands restored to them became an alliance of all Catholic people in Ireland, whatever their origin, to rise up against this persecution. As a people they were determined that their religion should be preserved, and, at the same time, they would defend their rights and property under the monarchy and within the constitution. In this insurrection both the ‘Gaelic-Irish’ and the ‘Old English’ joined together to form what became known to Ireland’s history as the “Confederation of Killarney”.

Although there are many who refer to the original uprising in the north as “The Great Rebellion of 1641”, I prefer to see the event as being more of an insurrection by a dissatisfied people. In most instances those who prefer to call it a ‘Rebellion’ support their claim with various stories of massacres and bloody atrocities on the part of the ‘Native Irish’ alone in a concerted effort to mark an entire people. Even now, in the twenty-first century there are certain groups who continue with these contentious charges to maintain division and animosity among the people for their own political sectarian motives. This, however, this not an attempt to portray the Insurrection of 1641 as being less of a struggle than it was and there was bloodshed on both sides, just as there has been in all the popular uprisings in Ireland’s history that attempted redress long-standing grievances. Without doubt, there were many crimes committed during this insurrection, which must be deplored and condemned by everyone.

1641 picturesMuch has been written about the brutal atrocities allegedly committed by Catholic Irish insurgents by men such as Walter Harris, Milton, Borlase, May, Rushworth, Cox, Carlyle, and Froude. In the years since the insurrection these so-called historians have concealed what is the true story of the struggle. Many of the alleged massacres appear to be nothing more than made-up stories without any basis in truth. For the most part these reporters relied upon the depositions taken from alleged eyewitnesses to the events, which were preserved for future generations and are visible on-line at present. Since the beginning of the twentieth century modern investigative historians have studied these depositions in depth and have recognised many of them for what they were meant to be i.e. An attempt by the English authorities of the day to blacken the name and reputation of those Irish Catholics for all time. Instead of furnishing proof of bloody massacres and atrocities the depositions highlight the fact that many of the charges are both baseless and malignant. But, for the moment let us look at how the fuse was finally lit.

On Friday 22nd October 1641 Sir Phelim O’Neill, the respected Catholic landowner, justice of the peace, and Member of Parliament for the borough of Dungannon in County Tyrone, decided he would pay a visit to his neighbour, Sir Toby Caulfield, Governor of Charlemont Fort in the County of Armagh. Without warning, the men accompanying O’Neill seized control of the fort, imprisoning the startled Sir Toby who was to die later in the custody of the insurgents. This unexpected action was the match that lit the fuse of a war that would last for more than a decade and result in the death of over one-fifth of the Irish population. Although Sir Phelim belonged to the powerful and influential O’Neill family, which had ruled over Ulster for centuries, but in many ways, he was not the typical example of a ‘rebel’. His father Turlough Og, had fought for the English crown during the “Nine Years War” and his son, Phelim, received estates in the ‘Ulster Plantation’ as one of those that the crown declared to be “deserving Irish.” Although he had been raised in the Protestant faith as a ward of the English Crown, Phelim returned to Ireland in the 1620s where he reverted to his native Catholicism.

For over a decade, he played a leading political and social role in the local Ulster community and, outwardly at least, he appeared to have assimilated well into colonial society, and was knighted in 1639. As it was with all Irish Catholics, however, O’Neill was still subject to sporadic religious persecution, and resentful of the power and influence carried by the Protestant newcomers. Moreover, he struggled to maintain his family’s estates and, by 1640, he owed the then enormous sum of £12,000 to creditors in Dublin and London. His rank and position in Ulster quickly attracted the attention of similarly disgruntled Catholic landowners, such as Philip McHugh O’Reilly and Lord Conor Maguire, who were anxious to gain his support for a pre-emptive strike against what they considered to be a hostile colonial administration. They had been impressed by the success of the Scottish Covenanters, they sought to gain control of the Kingdom and negotiate with the King from a position of strength. Sir Phelim now allowed himself to become gradually entangled in the complex series of plots that developed over the summer of 1641, involving not only the Ulster Irish but also the ‘Old English’ grandees from that area of Ireland known as ‘The Pale’.

The Ulster Irish envisaged an assault on two fronts with Sir Phelim targeting Charlemont and other key points in southern Ulster as a means of preventing Protestant settlers in the north of the Province from linking up with forces that would undoubtedly be sent from Dublin. At the same time, Lord Maguire’s men would storm Dublin Castle, paralyse the government and gain access to the state’s vast store of weaponry. Successfully rallying thousands of followers to his banners, Sir Phelim executed his part of the plan to perfection. In Dublin, however, a companion of Lord Maguire, Owen O’Connolly, managed to slip away from his companions the night before the planned attack and alerted the authorities in the capital. Acting quickly the authorities rounded up the conspirators, including Maguire, who was subsequently executed in London. Maguire’s failure in gaining control of Dublin left the Ulster insurgents facing the grim prospect of a massive retaliatory action by well-armed government troops.

Within a few days, however, the limited strike that had been envisaged by the leaders of the insurgency sparked widespread unrest in the land, with reports of attacks not only in Ulster, but in North Leinster as well. By the end of 1641, less than two months after O’Neill seized Charlemont fort, the violence had spread to south-west Munster, the furthest point geographically in Ireland from the source of the initial rising. the conspirators, for the most part, belonged to the landed gentry and who were motivated by a mixture of fear, resentment and financial worries. Disillusioned with the existing discriminatory political system they, nonetheless, professed their loyalty to the King, and claimed to have acted in self-defence against the unjust policies enforced by the colonial administration in Dublin.

In his book, “The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland,” the Rev. James Seaton informs us that – “Sir Phelim O’Neill of Kinard or Caledon, in the County Tyrone, engaged to commence the insurrection in Ulster, on the same Saturday by the seizure of its chief places of strength. He was especially charged with the capture of Derry: his relation Sir Henry O’Neill was to be urged to surprise Carrickfergus; and Sir Con Magennis, his brother-in-law, to seize Newry. The Protestants were to be taken and imprisoned with as little violence as possible; and agreeably to the King’s Commission, the Scots were to remain unmolested.”[1]

The administration in Dublin had reacted ferociously to the news that a revolt had broken out in the North of the country and by their action exacerbated an already explosive situation. The day after the rebellion had began in Ulster the Lords Justices, Sir William Parsons and Sir John Borlase (Father of the historian Edmund Borlase) issued a proclamation blaming the disorder on what they called “evil affected Irish papists,” without any distinction being made. The Catholic Lords of “The Pale” were deeply angered by the administrations action and, following complaints made by them, there was a grudging retraction of the proclamation six days later. Although they now identified the Ulster-Irish as the chief culprits in the uprising, their actions had done little to assuage the fears that these Catholic Lords held about the possible heavy-handed tactics that Dublin might just employ in their response to the insurrection. The subsequent refusal Lords Justices to provide these same Catholic Lords with sufficient arms to protect their estates from the Ulster insurgents merely reinforced the general sense of grievance that was felt by all those Catholics not yet involved in the uprising. The insurgents, however, restricted their actions in those first weeks to the theft and destruction of property from Protestant settlers. The evidence that survives does suggest that relatively few people died during these opening weeks, despite the so-called ‘evidence’ produced by some parties after the events.

In early November, Sir Phelim published a proclamation that was allegedly issued by the King, Charles I, authorising Irish Catholics to take up arms on his behalf. This sensational document, although later exposed as a forgery, appeared to give a veneer of legitimacy to the actions of O’Neill and his followers. This, combined with the early successes achieved by O’Neill and his forces, began to attract a growing number of people to his banner from every rank in society. To the ranks of the insurgent forces came small tenant farmers, landless labourers, and notorious outlaws among many others. Most of these men had been drawn to O’Neill’s cause simply to be on the side that appeared to be winning. The local Catholic landowners had become anxious in the wake of the uprising, fearing that there would be a complete breakdown of law and order, and they rapidly assumed command of the insurgents in their areas. But, despite their best efforts, the landowners began to find it increasingly difficult to maintain any control of the rank-and-file supporters. Most of these men had been embittered by long-standing grievances and more recent economic hardships which they blamed on the Protestant newcomers. It wasn’t long, therefore, until the insurgents began targeting the ‘Planters’, particularly in the Province of Ulster.

After suffering several set-backs against government forces in various places, some of the insurgent groups began to adopt a more violent attitude towards their targets. Their initial efforts to drive a wedge between the Scots and English settlers, by limiting their attacks to the latter group, had proved to be unsuccessful and impossible to sustain as the disorder spread throughout the Province. Terrified Protestant settlers felt themselves exposed and vulnerable to attack from their Catholic neighbours, and they fled their homes for the relative safety of the nearest garrisoned town. From there many of the refugees would continue south toward the capital, Dublin. The journey south, however, was filled with danger as the insurgents would frequently attack the defenceless convoys that moved slowly along the road. Men, women and children would be stripped of all their clothes and possessions. Exposed to the harsh winter weather without food, or shelter many of these civilian victims would die by the side of the road.

Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the opening weeks of the insurgency had witnessed brutal and indiscriminate reprisals by the commanders of the ‘colonial’ forces. Sir William St. Leger, the President of Munster, and Sir Charles Coote in the Province of Leinster horrified the ‘Old-English’ communities in those places. St. Leger launched a widespread and bloody offensive across the southern part of the country. Indiscriminately executing large numbers of Catholics, including some of the landed gentry, whether or not they supported the uprising. Whatever the initial intention of the Dublin administration, Coote and St. Leger, the escalating conflict effectively gave them the ideal excuse to confiscate the most lucrative Catholic estates that still survived in Ireland. It was the fulfilment of a policy long favoured by many of the administration’s officials in Dublin.

On the first day of the rising the insurgents successfully captured the town, port and castle of Newry by surprise, which meant that little blood had been shed by either side. It was, however, the beginning of a ‘propaganda war’ that still has ramifications today, almost three hundred and eighty years after the events. A certain Dr. Seaton Reid tells us that when the town of Newry was taken by surprise, by the rebels, fifteen of the local townspeople were hanged. However, Dr. Reid used the depositions of alleged eye-witnesses to make such claims, without recognising them to be little more than hearsay evidence. He states – “On the same eventful day, Sir Con Magennis, at the head of the Magennis’s and the McCartans, led by a Father Crilly, surprised the town and castle of Newry. The Governor, Sir Arthur Tirringham, very narrowly escaped but the entire garrison were captured and disarmed, and fifteen of the townspeople hanged.”[2]

Another rabid anti-Catholic reporter, Walter Harris, for some unknown reason made no propaganda from the alleged sufferings of the Protestant inhabitants of Newry. As a matter of fact, Harris makes no mention of any executions around or within the town of Newry at this time. Yet another self-proclaimed historian of the period and Protestant Churchman, Dr. Knox, seems to mix up events in Newry with what was alleged to have happened in Armagh the following May. He reported the charge of murder in the following manner – “Sir Con Magennis attacked and took the castle and town, destroyed the church, and put many of the inhabitants to the sword.”

 

[1] The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867

[2] The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867

The Rebellion of 1641 Intro

An Introduction

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.

irish-rebellion-of-1641 NEWRYThe 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’.

1641 Rebellion massacre 2At 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.

©Jim Woods May 2018

Rebellion 1641

Bloody Truth & Damned Lies

I am taking a short break to go on holiday, but will be back on 21st May 2018.

Now that I have completed my history of An Gorta Mor, I would like to do a series on The 1641 Rebellion in Ireland that remains so controversial today, almost 400 years after the event. An event filled with ‘Massacres’, ‘Atrocities’, ‘Lies’, ‘State Cover-up’. In fact it is as if nothing has changed in the intervening years.

It will begin when I return.

Jim Woods