The Irish Rebellion 1641 – Sorting the facts from the fake news


Speaker: Events in Scotland and Ireland in the late 1630s and early 1640s directly contributed to and amplified the worsening political crisis, which in 1642 would explode into Civil War in England and Wales.


By 1641 there was instability across the three kingdoms. In Ireland, the deteriorating condition of the so-called ‘deserving Catholics’ who held property and retained social positions was being increasingly undermined by the arbitrary changes imposed by the King’s Lord Deputy – Thomas WentworthEarl of Strafford.


In Scotland, the Covenanters victory over the King had left him irreparably weakened, having failed to push through his religious reforms. In England, the breakdown in relations between the King and Parliament became irreconcilable.


Seeing the King’s weakness and feeling increasingly threatened, on 23 October 1641, a small but poorly organised group of Catholic gentry and military officers, tried to seize control of the English administration, with a failed attempt to occupy Dublin Castle. Despite this setback, in other parts of the island, the coup d’état went ahead, with dispossessed Irish Catholics in rural communities and towns, ferociously attacking their Protestant neighbours.


Reports of the Rebellion soon reached England, where lurid and often exaggerated stories of massacres of Protestant men, women and children became the focus of graphically illustrated news sheets, just as waves of refugees escaping Ireland reached England and Scotland with their own stories of terror. Exploited by Protestant propagandists in late 1641 and the early months of 1642, this often fake news, fuelled an increasingly febrile atmosphere, making the outbreak of Civil War in England increasingly likely.


Distinguished historian and author, Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History and Trinity College Dublin, tells publisher Mike Gibbs how the story unfolded.


Mike Gibbs: Jane, can I begin by asking you to give us a brief introduction. What was Ireland like in the 1640s?


Jane Ohlmeyer: Ireland was England’s first colony and Ireland experienced waves of colonisation from the 12th Century. By the 17th Century, really with the accession of James VI of Scotland and I of England, we have the renewal of another wave of intense colonisation, largely through the plantation of Ulster.


That plantation brings to Ireland, tens of thousands of English, Welsh and Scottish settlers who bring with them English ways – English language, English legal system, English agricultural practices, English commercial practices, so you are looking at a country that has been militarily conquered and intensively colonised. This is exacerbated of course by the desire of the English Crown to make Ireland Protestant.


The bulk of the population in Ireland, probably 90% would have been Catholic and of course the Crown would have wished them to be Protestant, so you are dealing with a very intense situation in 1640.


Mike Gibbs: What was the attitude of the English and Charles I when he first came to the throne?


Jane Ohlmeyer: So Charles I, like his father before him, needed Ireland strategically to be part of his Three Kingdoms, because it was a security threat. Ireland was the potential backdoor into England, so it was very important for Charles to ensure that Ireland was obedient to English rule. He would have had some very prominent Irish figures as part of his Court in London and he wanted to rule Ireland in a peaceful way, but he sent a Lord Deputy, a man called Thomas WentworthEarl of Strafford to Ireland and Wentworth managed to alienate everybody, Catholics and Protestants alike. Of course Wentworth was there as the King’s representative, as the Viceroy, so Charles because of Wentworth, generated a lot of animosities across Irish society on the eve of the 1641 Rebellion.


Mike Gibbs:  Preceding the Irish Rebellion there were problems for Charles in Scotland and it seems to me that when we look at the history of the 16th Century and beyond, it is very difficult to separate Scotland and Ireland. Could you explore that for us?


Jane Ohlmeyer: Mike, it is so important. The relationships between, if you want East Ulster and the western seaboard of Scotland, went back for centuries. It was part of the same cultural and political zone and obviously after 1603 and the arrival of James VI and I, that was something that the English Crown used to their advantage.


But then of course with the Bishops’ War that became a problem, because the King was very concerned that in fact the Protestant communities in East Ulster would in fact support the Covenanters in Scotland.


So the Earl of Stratford was commissioned to raise an army of 10,000 – the majority of them were Catholic Irish – that were going to be sent against the Scots. That would have gone down very badly in some circles and of course it worried, I was going to say the English Parliament enormously, because once that army had put down if you want, the Revolting Scots, it would move then against the English Parliament themselves, or that’s what they feared.


Mike Gibbs: So moving now to the Rebellion, what signs where there in 1641 before the Rebellion actually broke out, that this was a possibility? Did the authorities actually pick up that this was a problem?


Jane Ohlmeyer: So the Rebellion actually took the authorities by surprise, but there had been a number of rumours about possible plots. There were a lot of Irish Catholics that were based in continental Europe and there were concerns they would get behind a Rebellion in Ireland.


I think the other thing to bear in mind is this period experienced very poor climactic conditions. We had a whole series of very poor harvests, so people were starving and of course the combination of political and economic unrest could be explosive, as we found occurred on 22 October 1641. But the outbreak of the Rebellion did come as a surprise to the authorities, they weren’t expecting it.


Now, typically it didn’t go to plan and attempts to take Dublin castle were thwarted because basically the lead insurgents got drunk the night before and the Government discovered their intentions. So in other words Dublin did not fall, but major strategic strongholds, particularly in Ulster did fall into Catholic hands and within a matter of months Mike, the entire country was engulfed in a Rebellion and England lost control of Ireland for the better part of a decade.


So basically the uprising begins in Ulster and then it spreads from Ulster into Leinster over into Munster and to Connacht and what we see is the Protestants immediately retreat into the towns, castles, areas that they can defend easily and the Catholics very quickly, really gained control over the countryside.


We see tremendous numbers of refugees during this period. But what is so grisly about the war that erupts Mike, is that it’s neighbour now against neighbour. These people and we know this from the 1641 depositions, local communities literally turned in on themselves and so the Protestant community were attacked by their former tenants, their former domestic servants, people that they would have traded with.


Then of course we see the Government moving in and committing tremendous atrocities against the Catholics, who had risen in Rebellion and we see this happening in communities across the country. It’s not just in Ulster, it’s in and around Dublin, but it’s around all of the major towns, you see absolute chaos, disruption, but we see a blood-letting on both sides that Ireland had never really experienced before and never really would experience again. It was one of those really dark moments in Irish history when, we will come and talk about fatalities, but the truth is we will never really know how many people died, because you have this blood-letting that occurs in the wake of the Rebellion, but throughout the 1640s it remains a very, very bloody set of encounters between people who would have known each other and would have worked together, would have borrowed money from each other, it is a very, very grisly set of encounters across the entire country.


Mike Gibbs: Without wanting to sound prurient about it, can you provide some examples of what you mean by bloody and what were probably war crimes?


Jane Ohlmeyer: The 1641 depositions are an incredible resource for historians who are interested in better understanding the nature of the warfare that occurred during this period.


Mike, I am going to share with you a few of them which capture the horror of what allegedly occurred in the aftermath of the war. I say allegedly occurred, because it’s very clear that the depositions are capturing trauma. Trauma experienced in this case primarily by Protestants. We know that many of the events actually did occur, but sometimes the language that is used to describe their trauma is to our ears, not necessarily very credible, so I think we always want to treat these depositions with caution.


I will give you an example of a widow from County Armagh and she provides a deposition in February 1641, so a relatively short period after the Rebellion breaking out, where she describes and extremely brutal episode that she was eyewitness too. She said that the children in her party, ‘saw the warm blood fall on the ground and the children immediately stood in the warm blood because their feet were frozen and they are in their bare feet to keep them from freezing which was the extremity of the weather’.


That really to my mind vividly captures just how extreme the weather was and the children in order to literally de-thaw their feet, were putting it in the warm blood of those who were murdered.


Many of the accounts we have in the depositions, are by people who were refugees and there is another one by a woman who is called Madeline who was travelling with a group of refugees – there were about 20 widows altogether – and she notes how the insurgents attacked them and then stripped them.


Now remember clothing the value of the clothing, people often would have hidden money or jewellery in clothing, but by stripping someone you are also humiliating them, so stripping to my mind is a forum of violence – a form of sexual violence. She describes how they were also stripped, stark naked and then they are covering themselves in straw, ‘the rebels then and there burned and lighted the straw with fire’.


Again, imagine that, the misery of these women and the humiliation of being stripped. They are trying to cover their nakedness with straw and the insurgents then are firing the straw. Now, I don’t know if that happened or not – if it actually happened or not – but what we have here is a woman articulating her trauma, what she believed happened to her.


We have another emotive account from another woman, widow Manaphen and she describes herself as a British Protestant and she has just witnessed the murder of her husband and she describes how her neighbours – a ploughman – has murdered her husband. And then how he and her other assailants and I quote here, ‘then caused her to stand in her husband’s blood and also caused her to strip herself and after they took her by the hair of her head and dragged her through thorns and then bade her get her thence.’ So there’s no mention of rape there, but the fact that she was stripped and then taken by the hair – that’s often a euphemism for sexual violence – but also dragged her through thorns. Again, I think the language is very suggestive of the treatment that she endured at the hands of these assailants.


So I think these are the sorts of depositions that really vividly recount the experiences, especially suffered by women, also of course by children and men. Most of the depositions are by Protestants but we must remember that Catholics experienced the same level of abuse, harassment, extreme violence as Protestants did, they just didn’t leave depositions that record it, but we know from archaeological and other evidence that they also suffered brutal treatment at the hands of Protestants, especially government troops.


Mike Gibbs:  And at the time England was in a very precarious situation, as we now know it was moving towards civil war and the Catholics as I understand it – or some of the Catholic leaders in Ireland – actually suggested they were under license from Charles I to commit these atrocities, or to rebel. What is your reading of that situation?


Jane Ohlmeyer: Sir Phelim O’Neill, who was one of the leaders of the 1641 Rebellion, actually claimed that he was rebelling in the name of Charles I and was acting with his approbation and that of his Queen Henrietta Maria, who was of course a Catholic. There is absolute no substance to say that Charles was working with the Catholic insurgents, on the contrary he was very quick to condemn it, but of course this was grist to the propagandists’ mill who wanted to use anti-Catholicism, anti-popery as they would have put it, to stir up parliamentarian fervour. So it all becomes part of a polemic, a propaganda machine that the parliament is very effective at turning out these stories.


Mike Gibbs: And how quickly did the news of the massacres reach England and what was the reaction?

Jane Ohlmeyer: So the Rebellion breaks out in October 1641 within weeks news has reached Edinburgh where the King was and of course London. Immediately the pamphleteers, the propagandists pick up on the fact that there has been a Rebellion in Ireland, that the papists have slit the throats of the Protestant settlers and thousands of what are known as massacre pamphlets were published.


Today we might call these fake news. They certainly contained extremely graphic accounts of what was allegedly going on in Ireland. One of the most important of these pamphlets was called the Teares of Ireland. It was published in London in 1642, it was graphically illustrated with woodcuts, but it also had text that accompanied these woodcuts:


The Teares of Ireland wherein is lively presented as in a map a list of the unheard off cruelties and perfidious treacheries of blood-thirsty Jesuits and the popish faction, as a warning piece to her sister nations to prevent the like miseries, as are now acted on the stage of this fresh bleeding nation, reported by gentlemen of good credit living there, but forced to flee for their lives, illustrated by pictures, fit to be reserved by all true Protestants as a monument of their perpetual reproach and ignominy, and to animate the spirits of Protestants against such bloody villains.


And so the fake news as we would call it today that these pamphleteers and propagandists pump out is extraordinarily effective and is widely believed to be true and the depositions are actually quoted by some of these propagandists as evidence for the barbarism of Irish Catholics.


Mike Gibbs: And there were also large number of refugees who left Ireland and came to Scotland and England. What was the response to them?

Jane Ohlmeyer: The second the Rebellion breaks out we have large numbers of Protestant refugees. Some go to major urban centres, ideally though they want to be in Dublin. But of course, Dublin cannot deal with its refugee problem, it’s overwhelmed with the numbers of refugees that are pouring into the city over the winter of 1641 and Spring of 1642, so the Dublin authorities then send many of these people back to their parishes in England particularly and say, ‘go and get relief back in England.’ Of course, their stories have been picked by Bethany Marsh and by the Civil War Petitions Project, but these refugees go in their thousands from Ireland back to England, especially to London.


The ones that go to London then are feeding this polemic propaganda machine about what is going on in Ireland, because they are giving their own experiences. I don’t want to underestimate just now horrendous their experiences would have been, it’s just of course then that their stories are being manipulated for political purposes.


Thousands of people also go back to Scotland and we know from the records of the Kirk session that the Scottish church is supporting thousands of refugees – especially in the west of Scotland in Ayrshire, but then you see them across the lowlands of Scotland, these refugees from Ireland who are of Scottish provenance, basically coming home to seek refuge.


Mike Gibbs: How did this contribute to the atmosphere that in 1642, actually led to the Civil War in England?

Jane Ohlmeyer: Ireland and what happens in Ireland has very significant consequences for the outbreak of war in England. It is not just Strafford and his execution, it’s then the outbreak of the Rebellion and the crisis that it creates, about who is going to control that army.


On top of that then we have all of the propaganda that is churned out on the foot of Rebellion and fed by the refugees and by the stories that are coming from Ireland and what is that doing? It’s fuelling fear, it’s fuelling fervour for particularly the Parliamentary cause because the Parliamentarians are very effective in associating Charles I with the Irish Rebellion, so it’s wonderful news from their perspective – the very fact Charles – the insurgents will say, ‘well Charles is behind this’ and of course he’s not, but that’s just manna from heaven as far the parliamentarian propagandists are concerned. So I mean it plays a very significant role indeed.


Mike Gibbs: Do you think the Civil War would have happened in England in 1642 without what happened in Ireland?

Jane Ohlmeyer: No, I think it was absolutely critical in triggering the outbreak of war in England.

Mike Gibbs: When, if at all, did the uprising finish?


Jane Ohlmeyer: Well the uprising finishes when Oliver Cromwell lands in 1649 and it takes Cromwell and his armies nearly three years to reconquer Ireland. During the 1640s Ireland enjoys a decade of independence – effectively it’s ruled from Kilkenny, a body called the Confederation of Kilkenny, exercises completely independent government and it’s the first time before 1922 that Ireland has a decade of independence. Then in 1650s of course Cromwell comes in and we have his victories at Drogheda first in September 1649, where he takes out the Royalist Army. Then in Wexford the following month where he takes out the Confederate Fleet, but he still has to literally take town by town by town. So Ireland doesn’t fall easily, but once the Cromwellian conquest is completed, we have the period of political union with England in the 1650s.


Then the 1660s with the return of Charles II, questions were still being asked about ‘were you involved in the 1641 Rebellion?’ because of course people wanted their land back. It had a very long afterlife 1641 and of course it’s the way it entered the popular imagination and social memory in Ireland.


So for the Protestant loyalist community, what happened in 1641 is something that is still commemorated in some circles to the present day and it’s the 12 July today and there will be orange man marching across Northern Ireland and on their banners they will have visual representations of the drownings at Portadown, that occurred in 1642. They will also have images of Oliver Cromwell on those banners saying, ‘revenge for 1641’ was why he massacred the civilian population in Drogheda. So it’s still very much part of the social memory and the identity of a community living in Northern Ireland today.


It’s part of the DNA of some people living in Ireland, so it’s really the Protestant loyalist community. It’s very much part of – 1641 would be very much part of their DNA and 1641 and the myths and the propaganda around it have profoundly shaped Protestant identity over the centuries and as I say, in some quarters, continues to do so.


Mike Gibbs: Jane, thank you very much for a fascinating discussion. You have referred on a number of occasions to the Depositions Project and I am really delighted that we are going to be making an additional programme specifically about the project and what you have achieved and uncovered and discovered in those depositions. Thank you very much indeed for giving us this introduction.

Jane Ohlmeyer: My pleasure Mike, thank you for asking me.


Speaker: To learn more about the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and its consequences in the context of the subsequent civil wars, you will find additional resources and further reading in the programme notes.

You could also listen to an additional programme in which Professor Ohlmeyer explores the flagship 1641 Depositions Project at Trinity College Dublin, which has digitised and analysed the 8,000 witness accounts of the uprising. They can be explored on the project’s website,

Professor Ohlmeyer is also the author of Making Empire, Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World.Published by Oxford University Press in December 2023. She discusses this new look at Ireland’s role in the first English Empire, with broadcaster and distinguished historian David Olusoga in a short film now available at our website,