Analysis: it is estimated that between 4,000 and 12,000 people died on all sides during the bloody and violent events of 1641

In October 1746, Catholic historian and physician John Curry heard a young girl exclaim "are there any of these bloody papists in Dublin?" She had just heard a sermon at Christ Church, Dublin commemorating the Irish rebellion of 1641, which was full of stories about Catholic rebels engaging in a premeditated massacre of Protestant settlers. As this incident illustrates, memories of the 1641 rebellion had a profound impact on people and shaped Irish Protestant attitudes. 

So what happened in 1641? On the night of October 22nd, Sir Phelim O'Neill, a Catholic and MP for Dungannon, captured Charlemont fort in Co Armagh. Within days, O'Neill's forces controlled most of South Ulster. Meanwhile, other rebel troops led by Connor Maguire, baron of Enniskillen, hoped to seize Dublin Castle so that they could negotiate a settlement with the English king, Charles I, from a position of strength. The castle plot failed after it was betrayed to the authorities, but the rebellion gradually spread nationwide over the winter. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Eamon Darcy on how the mythology of massacre circulated in Ireland during the 1640s and gained currency in the decades that followed

During this time, sectarian atrocities were perpetrated and historians have debated whether this was due to a loss of control among the leaders. However, a whole range of grievances precipitated both the rebellion and the outbreak of popular violence. First, the redistribution of Irish lands to English-born Protestant officials since the 1550s had led to the political and social relegation of Irish Catholic elites. Secondly, many of the 'rebel' leaders were heavily in debt. Thirdly, Scottish covenanters had taken up arms in defence of their faith in 1638, which inspired Irish Catholics who could not practice openly. Furthermore, rumours circulated widely in Ireland that English 'puritans' wished to 'extirpate' Catholics. Recent successive harvest crises exacerbated matters and ordinary people were scared and hungry. 

From the evidence, it appears that the rebellion was used to settle old scores and attempts were made to drive ‘Protestants’, ‘English’, and ‘Scottish’ people out of some communities. Settlers were stripped naked, English cattle were killed, and Protestant bibles were destroyed. Such symbolic violence in war serves the purpose of subduing rival communities. Both ‘rebel’ and colonial forces resorted to butchery and blamed one another for ‘starting it’. At times, prominent people were deliberately targeted and many incidents were carried out in public spaces as a means of exerting coercive control. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 12,000 perished on all sides. 

From TCD, interview with Prof Micheál Ó Siochrú on the 1641 rebellion

The evidence for the massacres of 1641 consists of 8,000 testimonies, called the 1641 depositions, taken from Protestants who fled to Dublin. They describe their losses and any violence they had witnessed or heard about committed by Catholics. They are, therefore, a mix of witness testimonies, hearsay, and rumour. For example, only eye witness (apart from the perpetrators) saw the drowning of about 100 Protestants in the River Bann near the bridge at Portadown. Yet many others were encouraged to recount what they heard about the incident, including the ghosts that supposedly appeared nearby.

While the reliability of the depositions as evidence of what happened is questionable, they offer a visceral reminder of the impact of war on ordinary people. Some clearly struggled to process their experiences while testifying before the Church of Ireland clergymen that recorded their statements. This must have been difficult, perhaps especially for women. Historians are still unsure why there are so few allegations of sexual violence in the depositions, despite hostile news reports in London frequently claiming that it was a common occurrence. 

Eventually, the violence dissipated as rebel forces gradually morphed into the Confederate Catholics of Ireland. The confederates appointed Irish veterans of European conflicts, such as Owen Roe O'Neill, whose command brought greater discipline.

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From BBC History, how the 1641 rebellion in Ireland followed by Oliver Cromwell's campaign of retribution beginning with Drogheda

But the confederates failed ultimately in their objectives of securing greater religious and political freedoms for Catholics. Their legitimacy was tainted by the mythology that emerged about the massacres of 1641 which claimed that 154,000 Protestants were murdered. 1641 became a powerful political weapon. Oliver Cromwell cited these atrocities in his defence of his actions at Drogheda, calling some of those killed "barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood".

In the late-17th and 18th centuries, Protestant histories of the 1641 rebellion reappeared at moments of political tensions, providing justification for the persecution of Irish Catholics. A small number of depositions, strategically edited, were cited as evidence by the authors. Catholic commentators contested these accounts and questioned the reliability of the depositions.

Interestingly, Curry, horrified by the girl’s fear of ‘bloody papists’, portrayed the grievances of ‘rebel’ leaders more sympathetically in his accounts of 1641. His work, and that of others, inspired prominent Protestant politicians to agitate for the end of the penal laws. For the most part, though, histories of the 1641 rebellion served only to exacerbate religious tensions and contributed to what some have called a ‘siege mentality’ that emerged among Ulster Protestants.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ