Irish Confederate Wars
The Irish Confederate Wars, also called the Eleven Years' War (derived from the Irish language name Cogadh na hAon Bhliana Déag), took place in Ireland between 1641 and 1653. It was the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms – a series of civil wars in the kingdoms of Ireland, England and Scotland (all ruled by Charles I). The war in Ireland began with a rebellion in 1641 by Irish Catholics, who tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland to force concessions for Catholics. This developed into an ethnic conflict between Gaelic Irish and old English Catholics on one side, and English and Scottish Protestant colonists on the other. Catholic leaders formed the Irish Catholic Confederation in 1642, which controlled most of Ireland and was loosely aligned with the Royalists. The Confederates and Royalists fought against the English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters. In 1649, a Parliamentarian army led by Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland and by 1653 had conquered the island.
|Irish Confederate Wars or|
Eleven Years' War
|Part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms|
Václav Hollar's engraving of supposed atrocities committed by Irish Catholics in the war of 1641
(allied with Royalists 1648–1650)
(allied with Irish Confederates 1648–1650)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
8,000 soldiers killed|
(more killed from locally raised units)
|thousands of Scottish Covenanters killed|
Total: 200,000–620,000 killed
The war was both a religious and an ethnic conflict – fought over who would govern Ireland, whether it would be governed from England, which ethnic and religious group would own most of the land, and which religion would predominate in the country. It was the most destructive conflict in Irish history.
The war in Ireland began with the Rebellion of 1641 in Ulster in October, during which many Scots and English Protestant settlers were killed. The rebellion spread throughout the country and at Kilkenny in 1642 the Association of The Confederate Catholics of Ireland was formed to organise the Catholic war effort. The Confederation was essentially an independent state and was a coalition of all shades of Irish Catholic society, both Gaelic and Old English. The Irish Confederates professed to side with the English Cavaliers during the ensuing civil wars, but mostly fought their own war in defence of the Catholic landed class's interests.
The Confederates ruled much of Ireland as a de facto sovereign state until 1649, and proclaimed their loyalty to Charles I. From 1642 to 1649, the Confederates fought against Scottish Covenanter and English Parliamentarian armies in Ireland. The Confederates, in the context of the English Civil War, were loosely allied with the English Royalists, but were divided over whether to send military help to them in the war there. Ultimately, they never sent troops to England, but did send an expedition to help the Scottish Royalists, sparking the Scottish Civil War.
The wars produced an extremely fractured array of forces in Ireland. The Protestant forces were split into three main factions (English Royalist, English Parliamentarian and Scottish Covenanter) as a result of the civil wars in England and Scotland. The Catholic Confederates themselves split on more than one occasion over the issue of whether their first loyalty was to the Catholic religion or to King Charles I (see the principal factions in the war).
The wars ended in the defeat of the Confederates. They and their English Royalist allies were defeated during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland by the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell in 1649–53. The wars following the 1641 revolt caused massive loss of life in Ireland, comparable in the country's history only with the Great Famine of the 1840s. The ultimate winner, the English parliament, arranged for the mass confiscation of land owned by Irish Catholics as punishment for the rebellion and to pay for the war. Although some of this land was returned after 1660 on the Restoration of the monarchy in England, the period marked the effective end of the old Catholic landed class.
The plot, October 1641
The rebellion was intended to be a swift and mainly bloodless seizure of power in Ireland by a small group of conspirators led by Phelim O’Neill. Small bands of the plotter’s kin and dependents were mobilised in Dublin, Wicklow and Ulster, to take strategic buildings like Dublin Castle. Since there were only a small number of English soldiers stationed in Ireland, this had a reasonable chance of succeeding. Had it done so, the remaining English garrisons could well have surrendered, leaving Irish Catholics in a position of strength to negotiate their demands for civil reform, religious toleration and Irish self-government. However, the plot was betrayed at the last minute and as a result, the rebellion degenerated into chaotic violence. Following the outbreak of hostilities, the resentment of the native Irish Catholic population against the British Protestant settlers exploded into violence. Shortly after the outbreak of the rebellion, O'Neill issued the Proclamation of Dungannon which offered justification for the rising. He claimed that he was acting on the orders of Charles I.
The Rebellion, 1641–42
From 1641 to early 1642, the fighting in Ireland was characterised by small bands, raised by local lords or among local people, attacking civilians of opposing ethnic and religious groups. At first, Irish Catholic bands, particularly from Ulster, took the opportunity given them by the collapse of law and order, to settle scores with Protestant settlers who had occupied Irish land in the plantations of Ireland. Initially, the Irish Catholic gentry raised militia forces to try and contain the violence but afterwards, when it was clear that the government in Dublin intended to punish all Catholics for the rebellion, participated in the attacks on Protestants and fought English troops sent to put down the rebellion. In areas where British settlers were concentrated, around Cork, Dublin, Carrickfergus and Derry, they raised their own militia in self-defence and managed to hold off the rebel forces. All sides displayed extreme cruelty in this phase of the war. Around 4,000 Protestants were massacred and a further 12,000 may have died of privation after being driven from their homes. In one notorious incident, the Protestant inhabitants of Portadown were taken captive and then massacred on the bridge in the town. The settlers responded in kind, as did the Government in Dublin, with attacks on the Irish civilian population. Massacres of Catholic civilians occurred at Rathlin Island and elsewhere. The rebels from Ulster defeated a government force at Julianstown, but failed to take nearby Drogheda and were scattered when they advanced on Dublin.
By early 1642, there were four main concentrations of rebel forces; in Ulster under Phelim O'Neill, in the Pale around Dublin led by Viscount Gormanstown, in the south-east, led by the Butler family – in particular Lord Mountgarret and in the south-west, led by Donagh MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry.
The Confederates' war, 1642–1648
Charles I wanted control of Ireland to mobilise its resources against his opponents in England and Scotland; the Scots and their English Parliamentary allies aimed to prevent this. Over the course of 1642, 10,000 Scots funded by Parliament landed in Coleraine and Carrickfergus, while English forces re-established control over Dublin.
One of the last pieces of legislation approved by both Charles and Parliament before the outbreak of the First English Civil War was the March 1642 Adventurers Act; this funded the war in Ireland by loans that would be repaid by the sale of lands held by the Irish rebels. As a result, neither side would tolerate the autonomous Catholic state demanded by Irish leaders and both were committed to further land confiscations; enforcing the Adventurers Act was the primary objective of the 1649 Cromwellian conquest.
This resulted in the formation of Irish Confederacy, based at Kilkenny; by the end of 1642, it controlled two thirds of Ireland, including the ports of Waterford and Wexford, through which they could receive aid from Catholic powers in Europe. While supported by most Irish Catholics, especially the clergy, many co-religionists among the upper classes were Royalists by inclination, who feared losing their own lands if the plantation settlements were overturned. Some fought against the Confederation, others like Clanricarde, stayed neutral.
Forces initially available to the Confederacy were primarily militia and private levies, commanded by aristocratic amateurs like Lord Mountgarret. These suffered a series of defeats, including Liscarroll, Kilrush, New Ross and Glenmaquinn, but the outbreak of the English Civil War in mid-1642 led to the recall of many English troops. This allowed Garret Barry, a returned Irish mercenary soldier, to capture Limerick in 1642, while the English garrison in Galway was forced to surrender by the townspeople in 1643.
By mid-1643, the Confederacy controlled large parts of Ireland, the exceptions being Ulster, Dublin and Cork. They were assisted by divisions among their opponents, with some areas held by forces loyal to Parliament, others by the Royalist Duke of Ormonde and the Covenanters pursuing their own agenda around Carrickfergus. The reality was an extremely complex mix of shifting loyalties; for various reasons, many Ulster Protestants regarded the Scots with hostility, as did some of their nominal allies in Parliament, including Cromwell.
The Civil War gave the Confederates time to create regular, full-time armies and they were eventually able to support some 60,000 men in different areas. These were funded by an extensive system of taxation, equipped with supplies from France, Spain and the Papacy and led by Irish professionals like Thomas Preston and Owen Roe O'Neill, who had served in the Spanish army.
However, they arguably squandered an opportunity to conquer all of Ireland by signing a truce or 'cessation' with the Royalists on 15 September 1643, then spending the next three years in abortive negotiations. The period 1642 to 1646 was dominated by raids, with all sides attempting to starve their enemies by the destruction of crops and supplies, causing great loss of life, particularly among civilians. The bitterness it engendered is illustrated by a Parliamentary Ordinance of October 1644, which forbade 'giving of quarter to any Irishman or Papist born in Ireland who shall be taken in Hostility against the Parliament either upon the Sea or in England and Wales.'
An offensive against Ulster in 1644 failed to make significant progress, while defeat at Marston Moor in July made it increasingly clear the English Royalists were losing the war; two weeks later, the Earl of Inchiquin defected to Parliament, giving them control of the ports of Cork, Kinsale and Youghal. In late 1644, the Confederates took Bandon but Inchiquin retained control of Cork; Preston captured Duncannon in January 1645, then besieged Youghal but lack of supplies forced him to abandon the siege in March 1645.
The opening years of the war saw widespread displacement of civilians – both sides practising what would now be called ethnic cleansing. In the initial phase of the rebellion in 1641, the vulnerable Protestant settler population fled to walled towns such as Dublin, Cork and Derry for protection. Others fled to England. When Ulster was occupied by Scottish Covenanter troops in 1642, they retaliated for the attacks on settlers by attacks on the Irish Catholic civilian population. As a result, it has been estimated that up to 30,000 people fled Ulster in 1642, to live in Confederate held territory. Many of them became camp followers of Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulster Army, living in clan-based groupings called "creaghts" and driving their herds of cattle around with the army. Outside of Ulster, the treatment of civilians was less harsh, although the "no-mans-land" in between Confederate and British held territory in Leinster and Munster was repeatedly raided and burned, with the result that it too became de-populated.
Victory and defeat for the Confederates
However, the stalemate in Ireland was broken in 1646, with the end of the first English Civil War.
The Confederates, after their military ousted the Confederate Supreme Council who had signed a peace Treaty with the Royalists, abandoned further negotiations with the defeated Royalists and tried to re-take all of Ireland before the English Parliament could launch an invasion of the country. They were bolstered by the arrival in Ireland of the Papal Nuncio, Rinuccini, who brought with him large amounts of money and arms. They managed to capture a Parliamentarian stronghold at Bunratty castle in Clare and to smash the Scottish Covenanter army at the battle of Benburb and also take Sligo town. Late in the year, the Ulster and Leinster Confederate armies under Owen Roe O'Neill and Thomas Preston (a total of 18,000 men) laid siege to Dublin, trying to take the city from Ormonde’s Royalist garrison. However Ormonde had devastated the land around the capital and the Confederates, unable to supply their troops, had to lift the siege. In hindsight, this was the high tide for the Irish Confederates. Ormonde, who said that he "preferred English rebels to Irish ones", left Dublin and handed it over to a Parliamentarian army sent from England under Michael Jones. Further Parliamentarian reinforcements were sent to Cork in southern Ireland.
In 1647, these Parliamentarian forces inflicted a shattering series of defeats on the Confederates, ultimately forcing them to join a Royalist coalition to try to hold off a Parliamentarian invasion. Firstly, in August 1647, when it tried to march on Dublin, Thomas Preston's Leinster army was annihilated at the battle of Dungans Hill by Jones’ Parliamentarian army. This was the best trained and best equipped Confederate army and the loss of its manpower and equipment was a body blow to the Confederation. Secondly, the Parliamentarians based in Cork devastated the Confederates' territory in Munster, provoking famine among the civilian population. In September, they stormed Cashel, not only taking the town but also massacring its garrison and inhabitants, including several Catholic clerics. When the Irish Munster army brought them to battle at Knocknanauss in November, they too were crushed. Sligo also changed hands again – captured by the Ulster British settlers' army. The battles in this phase of the war were exceptionally bloody: in the battles of 1646–47, the losers had up to half of those engaged killed – most commonly in the rout after the battle was decided. In the three largest engagements of 1647, no less than 1% of the Irish male population (around 7,000–8,000 men) were killed in battle.
This string of defeats forced the Confederates to come to a deal with the Royalists, and to put their troops under their command. Amid factional fighting within their ranks over this deal, the Confederates dissolved their association in 1648 and accepted Ormonde as the commander in chief of the Royalist coalition in Ireland. Inchiquin, the Parliamentarian commander in Cork, also defected to the Royalists after the arrest of King Charles I.
The Confederates were fatally divided over this compromise. Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio, threatened to excommunicate anyone who accepted the deal. Particularly galling for him was the alliance with Inchiquin, who had massacred Catholic civilians and clergy in Munster in 1647. There was even a brief period of civil war in 1648 between Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulster Army, as he refused to accept the Royalist alliance, and the new Royalist–Confederate coalition. O'Neill neglected to secure adequate supplies and was unable to force a change in policy on his former comrades. During this divisive period the Confederates missed a second strategic chance to reorganise while their opponents were engaged in the Second English Civil War (1648–49), which was lost by their royalist allies.
The Cromwellian War, 1649–1653
The Confederate/Royalist coalition wasted valuable months fighting with Owen Roe O'Neill and other former Confederates instead of preparing to resist the impending Parliamentarian invasion of Ireland. O'Neill later re-joined the Confederate side. Belatedly, in summer 1649, Ormonde tried to take Dublin from the Parliamentarians, and was routed by Michael Jones at the battle of Rathmines.
Oliver Cromwell landed shortly afterwards with the New Model Army. Whereas the Confederates had failed to defeat their enemies in eight years of fighting, Cromwell was able to succeed in three years in conquering the entire island of Ireland, because his troops were well supplied, well equipped (especially with artillery), and well trained. Moreover, he had a huge supply of men, money and logistics to fund the campaign.
The Cromwellian Conquest
His first action was to secure the east coast of Ireland for supplies of men and logistics from England. To this end, he took Drogheda and Wexford, perpetrating massacres of the defenders of both towns. He also sent a force to the north to link up with the British settler army there. Those settlers who supported the Scots and Royalists were defeated by the Parliamentarians at the battle of Lisnagarvey.
Ormonde signally failed to mount a military defence of southern Ireland. He based his defences upon walled towns, which Cromwell systematically took one after the other with his ample supply of siege artillery. The Irish and Royalist field armies did not hold any strategic line of defence and instead were demoralised by a constant stream of defeats and withdrawals. Only at the siege of Clonmel did Cromwell suffer significant casualties (although disease also took a very heavy toll on his men). His losses were made good by the defection of the Royalist garrison of Cork, who had been Parliamentarians up to 1648, back to the Parliament side. Cromwell returned to England in 1650, passing his command to Henry Ireton.
In the north, the Parliamentarian/settler army met the Irish Ulster army at the battle of Scarrifholis and destroyed it. Ormonde was discredited and fled for France, to be replaced by Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanricarde. By 1651, the remaining Royalist/Irish forces were hemmed into an area west of the River Shannon, holding only the fortified cities of Limerick and Galway and an enclave in County Kerry, under Donagh MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry.
Ireton besieged Limerick while the northern Parliamentarian army under Charles Coote besieged Galway. Muskerry made an attempt to relieve Limerick, marching north from Kerry, and was routed by Roger Boyle at the battle of Knocknaclashy. Limerick and Galway were too well defended to be taken by storm, and were blockaded until hunger and disease forced them to surrender, Limerick in 1651, Galway in 1652. Waterford and Duncannon also surrendered in 1651.
While formal resistance ended, the harsh surrender terms resulted in a period of guerrilla warfare by bands of former soldiers, known as Tóraidhe or 'Tories.' These operated from rugged areas such as the Wicklow Mountains, looting supplies and attacking Parliamentary patrols, who responded with forced evictions and the destruction of crops. The result was widespread famine, aggravated by an outbreak of bubonic plague.
The last organised Irish force surrendered in Cavan in April 1653 and given passage to France to either serve in the French army or with the English Royalist Court in exile. Those captured after this point were executed or transported to penal colonies in the West Indies.
Ireland was plagued with small scale violence for the remainder of the 1650s, partly due to the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland. This created a class of landless former farmers and dramatically altered patterns of Irish land holding, the percentage owned by Protestants increasing from 41% to 78% over the period 1641 to 1660.
The Irish Confederate wars were a complex conflict in which no fewer than four major armies fought in Ireland. These were the Royalists loyal to King Charles, the Scottish Covenanters (sent into Ulster in 1642 to protect Protestant planters after the massacres that marked the Irish rebellion of 1641 in that region), the Parliamentarian army, and the Irish Confederate army to whom most of the inhabitants of Ireland gave their allegiance. During the wars, all of these forces came into conflict at one stage or another. To add to the turmoil, a brief civil war was fought between Irish Confederate factions in 1648.
The Royalists under Ormonde were in conflict with Irish Catholic forces from late 1641 to 1643. Their main enclave was in Dublin. A ceasefire with the Confederate Catholics lasted from 1643 until 1646, when the Confederates again came into conflict with the Royalists. After 1648 most of the Confederates and the Scots joined an alliance with the Royalists. This was the array of forces that was to face Cromwell's army in 1649. Ormonde's handling of the defence of Ireland was however rather inept so that by mid-1650 the defence of Ireland was conducted mainly by Irish Confederate leaders.
The Irish Confederates: formed in October 1642, the Confederation of Kilkenny was initially a rebel Irish Catholic movement, fighting against the English troops sent to put down the rebellion, though they insisted they were at war with the king's advisers and not with Charles himself. They also had to fight the Scottish army that landed in Ulster. From 1642 to 1649, the Confederates controlled most of Ireland except for east and west Ulster, Cork city and Dublin. A cessation was arranged with the Royalists in 1643 after the outbreak of civil war in England and negotiations began to bring the Confederates into the English conflict on the Royalist side. A strongly Catholic faction under the influence of the Irish Bishops and Nuncio Rinuccini emerged in 1646, which opposed signing a peace treaty that did not recognise the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland or return confiscated Catholic land. When this faction ousted the Confederate 'peace party' or pro-Royalists, the Confederates once again clashed with the English Royalists, who abandoned most of their positions in Ireland to the Parliamentarians during 1646. However, after fresh negotiations, an alliance was arranged between the Royalists and Confederates in 1648. Some Confederates (most notably the Ulster army) were however opposed to this treaty initiating a brief Irish Catholic civil war in 1648 in which the Ulster Confederate army was supported by the English Parliament.
The Scottish Covenanters arrived in Ireland in early 1642 to put down the uprising and thereby protect the lives and property of the Scottish Protestant settlers in Ulster. They held most of eastern Ulster for the duration of the war, but were badly weakened by their defeat by the Confederates at the battle of Benburb in 1646. They fought the Confederates (with the support of the English Parliament) from their arrival in Ulster in 1642 until 1648. After the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters' alliance broke down, the Scottish forces in Ulster joined the Confederates and Royalists in an alliance against their former allies in 1649.
The Parliamentarian Army gained a major foothold in Ireland for the first time in 1644, when Inchiquin's Cork-based Protestant force fell out with the Royalists over their ceasefire with the Confederates. The Protestant settler forces in the north west of Ireland, known as the Lagan Army (or Lagan Force), also came over to the Parliamentarians after 1644, deeming them to be the most reliably anti-Catholic of the English forces. The city of Dublin fell into Parliamentarian hands in 1646, when the Royalists surrendered it to an English Parliamentarian expeditionary force after the city was threatened by Confederate armies. In 1648 the Parliamentarians briefly gave support to Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulstermen after his fall out with the Confederates: Thus the extreme Catholic and Puritan forces were briefly allied for mutual expediency. The Ulster Catholic army however joined the Confederate-Royalist alliance after the shock of Cromwell's invasion in August 1649. The most potent Parliamentarian force was the New Model Army, which proceeded to conquer Ireland over the next four years and to enforce the Adventurers Act by conquering and selling Irish land to pay off its financial backers.
The death toll of the conflict was huge. William Petty, a Cromwellian who conducted the first scientific land and demographic survey of Ireland in the 1650s (the Down Survey), concluded that at least 400,000 people and maybe as many as 620,000 had died in Ireland between 1641 and 1653. The true figure may well be lower given Petty's outmoded methodology, but the lowest suggested is about 200,000. At the time, according to William Petty, the population of Ireland was only around 1.5 million inhabitants. It is estimated that about two thirds of the deaths were civilian. The Irish defeat led to the mass confiscation of Catholic owned land and the English Protestant domination of Ireland for over two centuries.
The wars, especially the Cromwellian conquest, were long remembered in Irish culture. Gaelic Poetry of the post-war era laments lack of unity among Irish Catholics in the Confederation and their constant infighting, which was blamed for their failure to resist Cromwell. Other common themes include the mourning of the old Irish Catholic landed classes, which were destroyed in the wars, and the cruelty of the Parliamentarian forces. See Also Irish Poetry
- Alasdair MacColla
- Hugh Dubh O'Neill
- George Monck
- Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnel
- Michael Jones (soldier)
- Theobald Taaffe, 1st Earl of Carlingford
- Patrick D'Arcy
- Richard Martyn
- James Tuchet, 3rd Earl of Castlehaven
- Richard Bellings
- Nicholas French
- Patrick O'Neill (Irish soldier)
- Giovanni Battista Rinuccini
- Nicholas Plunkett
- Charles II
- Rathfarnham Castle
- Trim Castle
- Cahir Castle
- Narrow Water
- Ross Castle
- Rock of Cashel
- Charlemont Fort
- Mícheál Ó Siochrú/RTÉ ONE, Cromwell in Ireland Part 2. Broadcast 16/9/2008.
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- Lenihan, p23, "Bellings, the future secretary of the Confederate Catholics, claimed the Lords Justice, in response to the rebellion, showed they wanted to drive the Old English into following the example of the Ulster insurgents by their offensively wide description of the insurgents as some "evil affected Irish Papists"
- Kenyon & Ohlmeyer, p. 278, 'William Petty's figure of 37,000 Protestants massacred... is far too high, perhaps by a factor of ten, certainly more recent research suggests that a much more realistic figure is roughly 4,000 deaths.'
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- Kenyon & Ohlmeyer, p.98.
- Fraser, Antonia (1973). Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, and Cromwell: the Lord Protector (Phoenix Press), ISBN 0-7538-1331-9 pp.344–46.
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- Lenihan, Consolidating Conquest, p109-110
- Kenyon & Ohlmeyer, p.278
- Coffey, Diarmid (1914), O'Neill and Ormond - A Chapter of irish History, Dublin: Maunsel & Company
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- Gilbert, John Thomas (1885), History of the Irish Confederation and the War in Ireland, 3, Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son - Covers 1643–1644
- McKeiver Philip. A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign, (Advance Press), Manchester, ISBN 978-0-9554663-0-4
- Hull, Eleanor (1931). A History of Ireland.
- Kenyon, John & Ohlmeyer, Jane (editors). The Civil Wars, Oxford 1998.
- Royle, Trevor (2004), Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638–1660, London: Abacus, ISBN 0-349-11564-8
- Lenihan, Padraig, Confederate Catholics at War, Cork 2001, ISBN 1-85918-244-5
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