The Rebellion of 1641, which began in Ireland’s northernmost province of Ulster on October 23, was a bad time in the history of Ireland. Catholics surprised the Protestant settlers, killing a very large number of them. This sudden revolt by rebel Catholics divides historians about short term and long term causes with some attributing it solely to the fact of the Ulster plantation system, which began in 1610, while others contend that the rebellion was a result of more recent economic dealings between Protestant settlers and the native Catholic population.

There were unfavorable economic conditions that could have contributed to the rebellion. The ice age event of the mid 17th century hurt the Irish economy. The harvest of 1641 was not good and interest rates went up 30 percent. The leaders of the rebellion were in debt and were worried about creditors. The Irish peasantry was hurting from the bad harvest and rents were getting higher. This aggravated their wish to remove the settlers and this caused attacks on them at the start of the rebellion in 1641.


A map of the plantations of Ireland on the eve of the Rebellion of 1641.

A map of the plantations of Ireland on the eve of the Rebellion of 1641. (Wikimedia Commons)


At the same time, some of the beneficiaries from the Ulster plantation were having economic difficulties and went to drastic tactics to deal with this, including persecution of the native Catholic population. In response, the Catholic gentry sought to regain confiscated lands and in the process overthrow what they saw as a Protestant regime in the country.

While this explanation for the rebellion accounts for some of the build-up to violence, most scholars think now that this is an oversimplification of events that unfolded. The immediate reason the rebellion started was due to policies in the three Stuart kingdoms. There were bad conditions for the Catholics under the Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth and his rule. The success of the Scottish revolt made it so Catholics in Ireland who retained their property and social position to be afraid that they were in danger of persecution if the king’s power was limited. They thought that the king, the Catholic Charles I, was seeking allies, and they ended up entering a conspiracy to seize control of the Irish government on his behalf.

The enterprise lost their support and the plan was carried out by the small group of Ulster Irishmen, and the Irish who felt they deserved the plantation. They did not end up getting Dublin Castle and the revolt was contained in Ulster, where the support of dispossessed Irish was obtained. The leaders claimed they were acting under the rule of King Charles to take on arms on his behalf. Soon though it was clear that most of those who were in the rebellion believed they were the king’s soldiers and were determined to overthrow the plantation.


Charles I (1600-1649), by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 1635.

Charles I (1600-1649), by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 1635. (Royal Collection Trust)


It was the rebels that made it possible for the Old English and the Pale counties, with some of them being involved in the early stages of this conspiracy to join the northern army when the hostility of the Dublin government left them totally defenseless. There was soon civil war in England, followed by the alliance between the English and the Scottish Parliaments against the crown, which vindicated the original claim to have acted in the King’s interests.

Though not an outright success, the rebellion led to the creation of the self-governed Irish Catholic Confederation, also known as the Confederation of Kilkenny, in 1642, marking the beginning of the Irish Confederate War (also called the Eleven Years War), which would last until 1653 following Cromwell’s 1649 invasion of Ireland on behalf of the English Parliament.

The Confederate War lasted for about a decade and spread to other parts of Ireland. The Ulster native Irish fought together with their English religious allies. A dominance of Protestants was almost eradicated due to the revolt. A victory in the battle of Benburb was led by Owen Roe O’Neill in County Tyrone in 1646. The Protestants were annihilated. The differences politically and culturally between the Old English and the native Irish and considered to be the main reason the rebels did not get their advantage.

The leadership never sought out the dispossession of the planters and forbade the repossession of property. However, there is no doubt that there was a mismatch between the aims of the leaders and what the followers thought was happening. The rebellion was suffused with the resentments of past injustices and the need for retribution.


Phelim O'Neill, one of the leaders of the Rebellion of 1641, in a portrait by an unknown English artist labeling him "Chiefe Traytor of all Ireland."

Phelim O’Neill, one of the leaders of the Rebellion of 1641, in a portrait by an unknown English artist labeling him “Chiefe Traytor of all Ireland.” (National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain)


The event was associated with the massacre of Irish Protestants and ended with equally notable massacres by Oliver Cromwell’s armies of who came to Ireland in the year 1649. The deaths in Wexford and Drogheda and are in the memory of Irish Catholics as the Ulster massacre is on the Protestants minds.

The Sovereignty of Charles I over Ireland was not ideologically opposed by most of the Irish Catholic wealthy class. They did want to have the rights as regular subjects of the monarchy which consisted of Ireland, Scotland, and England. They wanted to keep their position in the Irish upper class. This was not doable for two reasons, one being their religion, and the other being the threat they posed by the Plantations. There were the Gunpowder Plots of the year 1605 that failed. But they changed the what the rights were of Irish Catholics of the upper class who had nothing to do with it.

In the Three Kingdoms, being Anglican was the only religion allowed. You would get recusant fines possibly arrested if you did not attend the Protestant church services. Protestants have the majority in the House of Commons. However, in the Irish House of Lords, there was a Catholic majority. This stopped most legislation that they didn’t like.

The wealthy Irish Catholics of their upper class appealed to the Kings of the time. They wanted their religion to be tolerated and to have rights. On occasion, the Monarchs seemed to have gotten an agreement in place, and giving them what they wanted because taxes were raised. Irish Catholics were not happy with the taxes after 1630, King Charles I, postponed their requests.


The Tearers of Ireland. Rebellion of 1641. James Cranford. National Library of Ireland

“English Protestantes stripped naked & turned into the mountaines in the frost & snowe, whereof many hundreds are perished to death, & many liynge dead in diches & savages upbraided them saynge, now are ye wilde Irisch as well as wee,” from Cranford’s “The Tearers of Ireland.” (National Library of Ireland)


Land titles were checked to raise money. Wentworth took and was going to grow on lands in Sligo and Roscommon. He was planning on taking other plantations in Kilkenny and Galway mainly of the families of the Old English. In London in May 1641, Wentworth was executed.

The Archbishop of Armagh, Hugh O’Reilly held a meeting of Irish bishops in March 1642. It was declared by them that the war was just and holy. On 10 May 1642, Archbishop O’Reilly had another meeting. He and other dignitaries called on all Catholics in Ireland to accept the Confederate Oath of Association. By doing this they swore allegiance to Charles I. They all decided to obey all orders made by the “Supreme Council of the Confederate Catholics.” The Catholic Irish rebels from then on became known as Confederates. In the Summer months of 1642, the Irish Catholics controlled more than two-thirds of Ireland. The rebellion was now regular warfare.

The Confederate General Assembly was held the early Fall of 1642, where it set up a government. The Confederation eventually sided with the Royalists. The promise was that the Catholics could get their land and govern themselves after the war. They were finally defeated by the English Parliament’s Army from 1649 -1653 and land ownership was mostly given to the Protestants.

The Confederates to align with the Royalists and create peace. The Royalists were planning uprisings in Scotland and England to restore the throne. The Second Ormonde Peace was signed in 1648.


The Tearers of Ireland. Rebellion of 1641. James Cranford. National Library of Ireland

“The Preestes & Jesuites anoite the Rebells with there Sacrament of unction before they go to murther & robe ashuringe them that for there meritorious Service if they be killed he shall escape Purgatory & go to heaven immediatly” from Cranford’s “The Tearers of Ireland.” (National Library of Ireland)


The English Parliament passed the Adventurers’ Act, promising Parliament’s creditors they would be paid. They would do this with land taken from those rebelling in Ireland. There were different groups of allegiances in Ireland such as the Royalist alliance in 1648. Protestant, Catholic, and Royalists, were all allies against the English Parliament in the year 1648.

For the Confederates, this provoked war. Prewar issues of the Catholic’s had not been resolved by the treaty. In 1649 Nuncio Rinuccini left the country and O’Neill died of an illness leaving the Catholics with no leader. The different groups in Ireland ceased to matter In 1649 when the English Parliament landed its troops in Ireland with Oliver Cromwell leading them. His orders were to make Ireland comply with Parliament.

Cromwell had 6,000 troops and artillery. The Parliament force was funded well and had supplies. They were by far the most formidable army. Parliament had power to their fight because they wanted revenge for the victims of the rebellion years before that were Protestant. They viewed it as ending any relationship between tyranny and Popery. Cromwell fought the Royalist resistance and there were massacres in Drogheda and Wexford. Royalists were hurt in Ireland because the Protestants in Cork left again and went to align with Parliament.

Much of the population of Ireland was dead by 1652. Driven into secrecy and the Confederate landowners were devastated. It continued into 1652 as the once Confederates armies which were referred to as tories (Irish for Pursued Man) were left to try guerrilla warfare. Many civilians died and the destruction of foodstuffs was rampant. The army also brought the bubonic plague to Ireland.


The Tearers of Ireland. Rebellion of 1641. James Cranford. National Library of Ireland

“Companyes of the Rebells meeting with the English flyinge for their lives falling downe before them cryinge for mercy thrust theire into their childrens bellyes & threw them into the water” from Cranford’s “The Tearers of Ireland.” (National Library of Ireland)


The practitioners of guerrilla warfare tactics gave up in May 1652 having been granted the condition that they could leave Ireland. These actions are considered the end of the conflict, however, the Confederate army did not truly give up until April of 1653. Between 200,000 and 600,000 died in the war, which had been costly.

In the end, Parliamentarians got almost all of the Catholic land and distributed it to creditors. Those Catholics who didn’t support the incident in 1641 or the Confederates were given some land that was on the West side of the Shannon.

During the Commonwealth and Protectorate (1650-1660) Ireland was effectively ruled of the military. The Catholic practice was pushed aside, the practice banned and clergy killed.

In 1660 some Catholic Royalists got their land back when England’s monarchy was restored. In the end, the Eleven Years war was a violent switch of the land from Catholics to Protestants, as well as political power.

With King James II, Catholics came ahead a bit, as he was Catholic. However, the Cromwellian violence was felt by the defeat of the Catholics from 1689 to the year 1691 in the Jacobite-Williamite war.

Ireland memories of this time were of massacre, defeat, and mass dispossession. The actual rebellion of 1641 and the mass death of Protestants is still discussed and debated to this day. Cromwell is a hated figure to the Irish memory.


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