1641- genocide or insurance scam? We’re about to find out at last

The Guardian has an inside splash on an historical project that will keep the more obsessive among us in ammunition for years. Ever since 1641 Protestants’ Great Fear that Catholics will suddenly rise up and slaughter them has been part of the psyche. As Jonathan Bardon puts it, the sworn statements were written partly to justify the massive confiscation of land held by Catholics. But the fear has never left Protestants, sometimes with good cause, just as Catholic resentment at the land grab persists to this day, perhaps most vividly in Fermanagh. 1641 had a later significance. As Home Rule was emerging as a policy in the 1880s, 1641 controversy featured strongly in the politically polarised battle between the historians Froude and Lecky. Froude believed that history showed that the Irish, although they could be charming, were basically bloody minded and unfit for self government. JA Froude

there had been, was and ever will be but one way of governing Ireland, by putting authority exclusively in the hands of men of personal probity.. and loyal to the English connection.”

WEH Lecky an Anglo-Irish liberal unionist, declared his greater objectivity…

No one else in Ireland can supply the antidote ( to Froude).. for I have the ear of the English… and am one of the very few persons in Ireland who are not under the influence of an overpowering craze..”

Extracts from Owen Boycott in the Guardian

The 350-year-old writing is barely legible, the spelling across 19,000 pages of text erratic. The events they chronicle, however, poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries, focusing attention on atrocities inflicted predominantly by dispossessed Irish Catholic rebels on Anglo-Scottish, Protestant settlers. The barbarities are still emblazoned on Orange Order banners and loyalist murals in Northern Ireland.
Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, one of the principal investigators at Trinity, believes that new language analysis methods will allow the documents to be explored “in a way we couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago during the Troubles”.
The rebellion, which broke out in October 1641, was a significant moment in the formation of identity in Ireland, she told the Guardian. Estimates of the numbers killed vary from 4,000 to up to 200,000. It began in Ulster but spread across the country. The depositions were ordered by government commissioners, many of the Church of Ireland clergymen, who recorded the victims’ testimonies.”They did it in the hope of obtaining evidence against the rebels and also as a crude form of insurance claim against lost property,” Ohlmeyer said


Contemporary historians’ verdict on 1641
Modern Ireland 1600-1972 Roy Foster pps 85 –86

What people thought of that bloody autumn conditions events and attitudes .. for generations to come.. But the reliability of those accounts must remain suspect.. These resemble a pornography of violence and the may indicate more about contemporary mentality than actual massacres… But there is more than enough evidence to indicate the horrific suffering of non-combatants.”

A History of Ulster Jonathan Bardon pps 137-138

Irish historians have been reluctant to accept these depositions as having any value.. Certainly much of the evidence is fantastic, exaggerated and even salacious.. but some of the statement are supported by other evidence.”

  • FitzjamesHorse

    We really need a self styled expert on the Stuarts and Jacobitism……but where would we find one at this time of night?
    Sorry lads but Ive left all this behind me years ago.
    Youll all be delighted to know this is one thread on which I wont be commenting. But dammit its gonna be hard to resist.

  • TellMeMa

    I have been lurking around waiting for this topic to appear on Slugger and I even had a bet with myself that Pete Baker would start the topic. Thanks Brian for the extra quotes.

    I won’t comment further until if/when I have read as much of the depositions as possible, except that, at the time, the news reports in England had 200,000 protestants murdered by those Irish. I understand that the entire population of the island was nowhere near that figure.

    If you grab a people’s land, expect anger and hatred from those who had lost their lands. In the early 1600s, the land raiders flourished while the land losers starved. To re-quote Roy Foster “… the horrific suffering of non-combatants”.

    Some historians, including Bardon, say the land was empty – and if it was, then who uprose in 1641 in Ulster? It is known that the remnants of the Irish were pushed into less fertile boglands, so the land wasn’t empty then.

  • abc123


    Some Irish Nationalists consider any doubts about events during the famine as equivalent to holocaust denial.

    Yet, your justification of the murder of thousands of Protestants is not surprising. Perhaps you could study your history a bit more and remind yourself that the Celts were also invaders.

  • TellMeMa


    I was not justifying the 1641 events. I was stating the likely causes of it.

    Also, people who steal land usually (out of subsumed guilt) are very loud in their justifications of the theft and exaggerate the evils of those whose land they stole.

    As if their loudness and exaggerations somehow exonerates them.

  • “I was stating the likely causes of it”

    Can we blame the Scotch Presbyterians? I understand they thought it would be a good idea to have a Presbyterian ethos writ large across Great Britain and Ireland.

    As for land (and cow) theft every ‘tribal’ leader stole from everyone else given the opportunity. A piece of paper didn’t count for much when the going got hot and heavy.

  • TellMeMa

    “[I] burnt & destroyed his houses & corne, whereupon Winter approaching insued the death of most of his People.” (Bardon p109)

    “we have killed, burnt, and spoiled all along the lough within four miles of Dungannon, from whence we returned hither yesterday…we have killed above one hundred people of all sorts, besides such as were burnt, how many I know not. We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it hath bred much terror in the people…” (Bardon pp109-110)

    “‘for all Events we have spoiled and mean to spoil their Corn’. The inevitable consequence was a famine of great severity… Carcasses scattered in many Places, all dead of Famine’; common people surviving on ‘Hawks, Kites, and unsavory Birds of Prey’…no Spectacle was more frequent in the Ditches of Towns, and especially in wasted Countries, than to see Multitudes of these poor People dead with the Mouths all coloured green by eating Nettles, Docks, and all things they could rend up above Ground’ (Bardon p113).

    Horrible, isn’t it? The above quotes describe Ulster events in the early 1600s in reports and despatches to London by Mountjoy, Docwra, Moryson et al.

    I amend my statement about Bardon. I could not find in my quick re-read of sections of his book “A History of Ulster” a statement from him that parts of Ulster were empty lands (must be from another source which had described the famine, children eaten by wolves, etc.) He did say (pp 115-16): “Unlike native Americans, who were all but wiped out by disease and slaughter, the Ulster Irish survived; when the settlement faltered they wreaked vengeance on the planters in 1641.”

  • Garza

    [quote]If you grab a people’s land, expect anger and hatred from those who had lost their lands. In the early 1600s, the land raiders flourished while the land losers starved.[/quote]

    I’m afraid not a good enough reason for attempted genecide.

  • TellMeMa

    What is the “good enough” reason for the Brits’ attempted genocide of the Irish in the 1600s (some examples described above by protestant historians, settlers and commentators)…..

    Just say you have a nice, profitable little farm which your kin has had for a couple of thousand years and I decide to have it as my own and throw you out, and I succeed in doing so, having killed a few of your dear relatives in the meantime. Will you say: “Thanks a million. You can have this farm. I’ll go off and skulk in the bogs and the wild places. That’s what I and my descendants deserve, while yours shall inherit the Earth. Blessings upon you.” And you bow and go away and are no longer a bother to me and my descendants who flourish on the fertile farm’s produce. Sometimes, to earn a little bread, you come and work as a lowly farmhand on the lands you used to own.

  • Garza

    So TellMeMa in response you kill women and children and try and ethnic cleanse the place?

    The Brits and the Irish have done terrible things on these islands, however why do the Irish tend to ignore their part in the bloodshed?

  • TellMeMa

    Garza: peace be with you.

  • Skintown Lad

    Are we really arguing over the moralities of something that happened 400 years ago? Come on! It has feck-all to do with today.

  • Prionsa Eoghann


    TellMeMa is simply offering up scenarios where these atrocities may happen. In doing so he/she is hardly ignoring it. In east Anglia the people who became the English after suggering under Danelaw rose up when the Danish kingdom faltered and slaughtered tens of thousands of Danish settlers who had probably been there longer that the Scots/English had been in Ireland.

    You really need to look up a credible definition of genocide, then in relation to the famine look up commission by ommission.

  • Greenflag


    Between the years 1550-through 1700 an estimated 680,000 people died in conflicts , war induced famines and disease etc etc as Ireland (the entire island’ underwent the Second Conquest . The first conquest had never succeeded in bringing the entire island under England’s reign and from the early 14th century up to the mid 16th century the Irish had regained control over the most of the country bar a small area around the pale . Many or most of the so called ‘degenerate’ englishry had adopted Irish mores and customs and spoke the Irish language as their ‘mother’ tongue .

    The ‘usurpation’ of the English throne by the Tudors set the stage for the Second Conquest which became also a ‘religious ‘ war with Irish and Anglo Irish catholics allying against the ‘reformed ‘ English and their allies in Scotland .

    Of the 680,000 dead those massacred in the 1641 uprising are estimated to have been circa 12,000 to 14,000 . which seems about right given the island’s population of the time . It is no doubt true that large areas particularly in Ulster had been depopulated not just as a result of the planters but as a result of clan wars going back centuries between the Ulster main clans the O’Neill’s , O’Donnells, Maguires, and McDonnells etc etc .

    As for the ‘profitable little farm ‘ theory ? It did’nt exist . Land was not in the ownership of the people . Nor was it in the ownership of the Clan Chief . The Chief acted as guardian for the clan’s traditional territory and by Brehon law could not even pass his chieftainship to his eldest son without qualification . A member of the deirbh fine (extended family) could claim the chieftainship and frequently did so if the ‘natural ‘ successor proved weak or unsuitable for the position . A physical impairment of the Chief’s eldest son set of a would have been enough to trigger a conflict for the succession . The Gaelic class system generally left the ‘peasants -tillers of the soil in place and undisturbed . Of course these were the people who suffered most when the Ulster Chiefs left for the Continent rather than submit to ‘English ‘ ways . They had no ‘chief’ to protect them -their clergy were on the run and their whole way of life and custom had to make way for the ‘modern ‘ways of the emerging English (later British Empire).

    In considering the 1641 massacres one has to distinguish between the ‘newer ‘ arrivistes who came post the 1603 defeat of the O’Neill at Kinsale and those who had crossed the water for hundreds of years previously and who had settled along the east coast of Ulster .The former I believe were more likely to have been the victims of local populist ‘uprisings ‘.

    As Nevin states correctly above .

    ‘As for land (and cow) theft every ‘tribal’ leader stole from everyone else given the opportunity.’ A piece of paper didn’t count for much when the going got hot and heavy.

    Any ‘papers’ held by the Irish chiefs would have been in Irish whereas those of the newcomers would have been in English . When and if there were courts or assizes no prizes for guessing which claimants would lose out.

    Land at that time was considered by most to be the main source of wealth or more properly ‘survival’
    The feudal order had broken down and the monasteries abolished . The latter were a form of social safety net all across Britain and Ireland before the Reformation .

    Looking at the big picture historically the Irish ‘people’ or more properly the people on this island have always re-emerged following conquest whether by Dane or Norman or English etc . Ironically it was at the time when the Second Conquest seemed most complete approx 1800 that the first signs of it’s eventual undoing emerged with the 1798 Rising and the subsequent Act of Union (should be renamed the Act of Disunion )

    The rest as we all know is history .

  • TellMeMa

    Greenflag: thank you for your expanded explanation. I know that the “profitable little farm” did not exist – I was just using it as an example. Note I said “your *kin* has owned…”. I just did not want to get into the derbhfine stuff – too complicated for me to explain – but you have done it very well.

    As for the first conquest (most of whom became “more Irish than the Irish”), it probably included one of Fitzjames’s ancestors – if that is his real name.

    Your statement about the earlier settlers from Scotland “… I believe were more likely to have been the victims of local populist ‘uprisings ‘” that’s a moot point, perhaps if we read those papers just released online we may have a clearer picture, maybe not.

    The Irish knew that their society had been broken, that’s why the Four Masters tried to write down as much as they could.

    I sometimes wonder how Irish society would have developed over the centuries had this isle had been left alone. It would not have been altogether peaceful because of the clan rivalries, but it may also have been diverted by new things. The O’Donnells were setting up an import/export trade with Spain swapping fine wines for fish. Unfortunately by then most local resources were being used up in defence against the British.

  • Brian MacAodh

    Most 1641 estimates I have seen range from 4000-8000 (with others fleeing). Of course, in the next 15 years all of Ireland lost about 2/5 of their population.

    War, cromwell, famine, slavery, etc

  • Greenflag

    Tellmema ,

    ‘I sometimes wonder how Irish society would have developed over the centuries had this isle had been left alone.’

    An unlikely scenario given the geography and history of nearby Britain and the european mainland . For a brief period in the early 11th century it looked as if the Irish might have come close to forming a centralised State after the defeat of the Danes at Clontarf . Had Ireland at that time become a centralised State it might have been in a stronger position to resist the later Norman invasion but then we see from history that even King Harold of England despite his ‘control’ of all England lost out to the new ‘technology’ of the Normans . It was however a closer run thing than some might think -harold having been forced to march 200 miles North to defeat an invading force of Norwegians at Stamford Bridge and then hurrying back South with an exhausted army to face William ‘s invasion force .

    The Anglo Saxon chieftainship class were wiped out almost to a man as the Normans grabbed the country and divvied it up among William the Conquerors supporters .

    It would be stretching it a bit to think that a centralised Ireland of the time would have been so intimidated by the Norman conquest of England that they would have immediately set about a Japanese style (post 1865) like ‘modernisation ‘ i.e acquisition of Norman technology and castle building techniques fast enough to evade /avoid a later Norman conquest ?

    The old gaelic order like the earlier anglo saxon (pre norman conquest) order was not equipped to combat the forces of ‘modernisation emerging in the Italian city States and the Hanseatic States and the growth of banking etc etc .

    It’s conceivable that an Ireland which had been internally centralised prior to a Norman invasion would have had a better chance of resisting later attempts by the larger island to impose it’s rule in which case our history might have matched the equivalent English history of the time with the Norman rulers eventually becoming hibernised enough to resist English rule ? Many of them did resist anyway despite the lack of a centralised state structure .

    Longer term the exigencies of ‘real politik’ would have brought about an ‘english ‘ based invasion of sorts simply because of the English dilemma as it emerged as a commercial empire and competitor to the Dutch , Spanish and French in the 16th century.

    We forget that in Queen Elizabeth 1’s time that both Spain and France had populations of more than 20 million whereas England was estimated at less than 5 million and both Ireland and Scotland probably about a little over a million each . In those circumstances it’s a no brainer to assume that whoever was in power in England would try to neutralise by conquest or by alliance both Ireland and Scotland _Wales had been reduced to submission finally by the mid 15th century following a 250 year ‘struggle’. The reformation exacerbated the enmities between France and Spain as against England and thus gave a religious edge to the second conquest which the first conquest did not have . Thus the easier assimilation or hibernicisation of the earlier Normans and English etc.

    Ironically enough it was in the expansion of the English Empire that the Irish ‘rebounded’ as a people . When Sir Walter Raleigh brought back the humble potato from the Americas little did he realise that this ‘food source’ would propel the Irish population from approx 2 million in the mid 17th century to 8.5 million over 100 years later . It’s also probably true that that ‘population’ pressure with the ensuing consequence of famine helped to propel the Irish down the path of political separation .

    In consideration of the 1641 ‘massacre ‘ a far greater number of ‘settlers’ were ‘massacred’ in the early to mid part of the 18th century . It was not a ‘massacre ‘in the traditional meaning of the term but a major exodus of some 250,000 people from Ulster to the new world some but not all of it famine induced but a major portion also induced by religious discrimination and by economic competition and local conditions .

    I think you may have misread my comment above I was suggesting that the earlier ‘settlers’ i.e those who landed on the east coast of Ulster at earlier period prior to Kinsale (1603) probably avoided the worst of any massacres whereas those further inland and thus more isolated would have been ‘easier’ victims for a populist rising .

    As you say perhaps the newly researched ‘papers’ will shed more light on the period . Regardless of whether they do or not the ‘myths’ on both sides will continue to function as ‘history’ BUt then that’s par for the course everywhere 😉

  • “the Irish had regained control over the most of the country bar a small area around the pale”

    The Glens of Antrim were in Scottish control when the Scottish Isles Macdonnells acquired possession by marriage circa 1400 and the Macdonnells expanded that territory to include lands east of a line between Coleraine and Larne.

    The Stewarts came from Bute circa 1560 and found themselves protecting the interests of the Macdonnell landlord and those tenants who were under attack eighty years later. There will have been atrocities on both sides committed by the supporters of the uprising as well as retaliation by those under attack.

  • Greenflag

    Thanks Nevin for reminding me of Glens – The Kingdom of Moyle rules okay 😉

  • TellMeMa

    Greenflag: yes, British invasion was probably inevitable, but I was raising the possibilities of the development of Ireland if it had been left to itself, and not of the possibility of it successfully uniting and building castles to defend itself against the British.

    Your comment: “The old gaelic order like the earlier anglo saxon (pre norman conquest) order was not equipped to combat the forces of ‘modernisation emerging in the Italian city States and the Hanseatic States and the growth of banking etc etc .” has an implication that the British invasions were good for the Irish, that they would not have developed themselves into a modern economy on their own! There are a few Sluggerites who would agree with that!! But they are not Republicans.

    The wine for fish was a very early development of international trade, which could have led to the Irish learning about modern banking, etc. from the people they traded with on the Continent.

    The Irish did not prosper under the English, in fact they did not start to really flourish until the European Union gave it aid. I remember seeing huge signs on country roads throughout Eire saying something like “developed with grant from the EU”. Around the country roads near Skibbereen in the 19th century there were thousands of Irish tenants dispossessed by their (former) British landlord(s).

    Anyway I was thinking about possibilities, if perhapses rather than whatabouts. Back to the present I hear that policing has become localised (not yet a topic on Slugger).

    We should be thanking Iris Robinson for this. So thanks, Iris(h)!

  • Greenflag

    tellmema ,

    ‘has an implication that the British invasions were good for the Irish, that they would not have developed themselves into a modern economy on their own!’

    No such implication was meant . As early as the mid 17th century and later into the 18th people like Jonathan Swift and William Molyneux were to the fore in complaints against the English ‘protectionist’ trade laws which were inimical to the development of the Irish economy of the time . A small area around Belfast in the north east and the east coast of Ireland benefited to some extent but by the early 18th century far better returns on investment were to be made in the slave and sugar trades of the Caribbean than from ‘renting’ land in Ireland or highlands Scotland etc .

    Capital once made has a habit of concentration. Thus the growth of London , Dublin etc etc .

    While EU aid was initially helpful overall it contributed about a half a percent of the 9% average economic growth rate that Ireland experienced from 1997 through about 2005.

    No country is ever left to itself in the real world . No major economy and no minor economy has ever developed entirely from within .

    As for the dispossession of Irish tenants by their ‘former’ British landlords in many cases the landlords were Irish and only too glad to be removed of large numbers of people so that they could increase their holdings and make a better return from sheep and cattle .

    The same happened in the highlands of Scotland a century earlier . And in a rough kind of way the same is happening again all over the western world today as large sections of the working and lower middle and middle classes are being emisserated in their own countries (USA, UK, Ireland) etc etc as these countries became ‘slaves’ to the financialisation of their economies .