The Eleven Years War 1641-52 – A Brief Overview

burning houseJohn Dorney lays out the essential facts on the war of 1641-52 -a war that pitted Catholic against Protestant, Royalist against Parliamentarian, English against Irish and Irish against Irish at different times. It also completed the early modern colonisation of Ireland  

No one name has ever been agreed for the war that was fought in Ireland from 1641 until 1652. Commonly it has been referred to as the 1641 rebellion, the Confederate War or the Cromwellian War. But in fact these describe only parts of the conflict. The one term that unifies them is the contemporary Irish language term Cogadh na haon deag mbliana or the Eleven Years War.

The war of 1641-52 changed Ireland forever.

The lack of an agreed-upon name signifies how poorly remembered and little understood this episode in Irish history is today. It was a confusing, multi-sided war, where allegiances shifted bewilderingly. But this war was almost certainly the most destructive in Irish history, with the greatest loss of life and material destruction. It also irrevocably changed the course of Irish history.


The Scots riot against the unpopular religious policies of Charles I.
The Scots riot against the unpopular religious policies of Charles I.

Since 1603 and the end of the Nine Years War, English and Protestant domination of Ireland had been solidified. For the first time, after the defeat in that war of an alliance of Gaelic chieftains led by Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell, the administration in Dublin Castle controlled the whole territory of the Kingdom of Ireland.

In the wake of the Nine Years War, or more directly after O’Neill and O’Donnell fled Ireland in the ‘Flight of the Earls’ in 1607, there had been wholesale confiscation of Irish-owned land in Ulster and from 1609 the introduction of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. Other smaller ‘plantations’ also occurred throughout Ireland in the first half of the 17th century as the English administration confiscated a third of the estate of indigenous landowners in return for recognising their land titles.  The desire of Catholic landowners to recover lost estates therefore contributed heavily to the outbreak of war in 1641.

The long term causes of the war were colonisation and religious conflict in Ireland but the short term cause was the destabilisation of English politics.

The Kingdom of Ireland was Protestant but the majority of the native population was Catholic. From 1613, the constituencies of the Irish Parliament were changed so that Protestants (mostly settlers from England and Scotland) would be a majority in it and it could pass anti-Catholic legislation. The Catholic elite lobbied for redress in a programme they termed, ‘the Graces’ – concessions to Catholics in return for increased taxes, but were disappointed by the responses of both Kings James I and Charles I, who promised reform but did not deliver it.

Tensions came to a head in the early 1640s for a number of reasons. Politics in England and Scotland had become destabilised, as Charles I’s subjects in both Kingdoms protested at the raising of taxes without parliamentary approval and, most explosive of all, his imposition on the Established (Protestant) Churches of England and Scotland of Catholic-style prayer books and Bishops.

The Scottish Parliament went into open rebellion in 1639, forcing Charles to recall the English Parliament to pay for war in Scotland. Charles also for a time acquiesced in plan by the Earl of Antrim to raise an army of Irish Catholics to put down the Scots. The army was raised in Ulster but the plan was dropped amid furious opposition in England and some in Parliament advocated invading Ireland instead to head off what they saw as the Catholic threat.

Meanwhile in Ireland, the King’s weakness emboldened Catholics who wanted reform of the Kingdom of Ireland. And on top of that, the exceptionally cold and wet weather of what is now known as ‘the little ice age’ made for bad harvests, hunger and a ratcheting up of the long standing tensions between natives and the often wealthier colonists.

 The Rebellion of 1641


Phelim O'Neill initial leader of the 1641 rebellion. Later passed over in the Confederate Catholic command and eventually executed by the Parliamentarians in 1652.
Phelim O’Neill initial leader of the 1641 rebellion. Later passed over in the Confederate Catholic command and eventually executed by the Parliamentarians in 1652.

The war began with an attempted coup d’etat by a small group of Irish Catholic landowners led by Rory O’Moore and Phelim O’Neill. They planned to seize Dublin Castle and other strongpoints around the country and then to issue demands for free practice of the Catholic religion, equal rights for Catholics to hold public office and an end to land confiscations. The plot failed and several conspirators were arrested in Dublin.

In the north however O’Neill successfully seized Charlemont Fort and a number of other fortifications and issued his demands in the name of the King, claiming he was acting not against Royal authority but against the seditious English Parliament.

Very quickly though, the rebellion of 1641 grew out of the control of its initial leaders. Phelim O’Neill’s followers began to attack the Protestant English and Scottish settlers in Ulster, at first robbing and expelling them and later also killing them in significant numbers.

The 1641 rebellion saw massacres of both Protestant and Catholic civlians

This pattern was followed around Ireland. In Leinster and Munster many Catholics joined the rebellion, (some especially the Old English, reluctantly) after the English authorities appeared to blame all Catholics for it. Expulsions and killings of Protestant civilians became widespread in late months of 1641. Perhaps 4,000 were killed directly and as many as 12,000 may have died in total of cold and disease after being driven from their homes.

The Portadown massacre in late 1641 in which several hundred Protestants were killed.
The Portadown massacre in late 1641 in which several hundred Protestants were killed.

At least as many Catholic civilians were also killed in the early months of the rebellion as the English and Scottish forces, based in Dublin, Cork and in Ulster (where a Scottish army landed in early 1642) fought back, carrying out massacres of their own.

The rebellion and war in Ireland also inadvertently triggered civil war in England where the King and Parliament could not agree on who would command the army being raised to put down the rebellion in Ireland.

In March 1642 the Royalists and Parliamentarians formally declared war on each other –with the Scots siding with the English Parliament. This distraction enabled the hitherto disunited Catholic forces in Ireland to coalesce into something resembling a united movement.

Confederate Ireland

The Confederate Catholic crest, it reads; Irishmen united for God King and Country.
The Confederate Catholic crest, it reads; Irishmen united for God King and Country.

In May 1642, on the initiative of the Catholic clergy, Irish Catholics formed what was in essence an Irish government at Kilkenny – the Confederate Catholic Association of Ireland – with an Executive – the Supreme Council – elected by a General Assembly, made up of of landowners and Catholic clergy.

They took an oath to uphold the King’s rights, the Catholic religion and the ‘fundamental laws of Ireland’. Regular armies were formed under Irish Catholic officers who had served in continental Europe, principally in the Spanish army – such as Eoghan Rua O’Neill and Thomas Preston.

The Confederates’ strategy was to negotiate a peace with Charles I whereby they would help him in his war against the Parliament  in return for; pardon for the rebellion, toleration of Catholic religion and equal rights for Catholics and self-government for Ireland. In 1643 a ceasefire was concluded between the Royalists and the Confederates to facilitate negotiations. In 1644 an expedition of mostly Gaelic Irish troops under Alasdair MacColla was sent to Scotland to aid a royalist uprising there.

The Confederate Catholics ran an independent Irish administration from 1642 to 49 and attempted to conclude a Treaty with Charles I, but also ended up fighting among themselves over the terms of that Treaty.

However while the main English force in Dublin under the Earl of Ormonde remained loyal to the King and respected the ceasefire with the Confederates, the Protestant forces in Cork under Irish Protestant Murrough O’Brien, Earl Inchiquinn, mutinied and declared allegiance to the English Parliament, as did the Scottish forces in east Ulster and another settler army based around Derry. Against these forces the Confederates, who by now were in control of most of central Ireland, continued to wage war.

In 1646, the Supreme Council of the Confederates concluded a Treaty – The Ormonde Peace – with the English Royalists – whereby in return for a general amnesty and tacit toleration for Catholicism, Irish troops would be shipped to England to fight for the King. The Treaty however exposed deep divisions within the Confederates.

The Supreme Council was dominated by, mostly Old English Catholic, large  landowners who wanted no fundamental postwar change. Many other Confederates though – especially the Catholic clergy, urged on the Papal Nuncio Gianbattista Rinuccini, those of Gaelic Irish origin and those who had lost most land in the plantations, felt that the Treaty did not give enough concessions to the Catholic cause. Rinuccini in particular pointed out that Charles I had effectively lost the war in England already by that point and that sending Irish Catholic troops there would be a vain sacrifice.

The Supreme Council members were threatened with excommunication and the Confederate Ulster and Leinster armies, led respectively by Eoghan Rua O’Neill (fresh from a battlefield victory over the Scots at Benburb) and Thomas Preston also repudiated the Treaty. The General Assembly in Kilkenny voted to reject the Peace and to depose the Supreme Council. They then hoped to launch an offensive and to dislodge the remaining Protestant strongholds in Ireland.

This military offensive was however an abysmal failure.  Preston and O’Neill ineffectively laid siege to Dublin, which resulted only in Ormonde, the Royalist commander handing over the city to a fleet dispatched by the English Parliament. This English Parliamentarian army smashed the Confederate Leinster army at the battle of Dungan’s Hill in Meath in the summer of 1647 and the Munster army was similarly routed the Parliamentarian force under Inchiquinn at Knocknanass in Cork.

The Royalist realignment

Royalist leader James Butler, Earl of Ormonde.
Royalist leader James Butler, Earl of Ormonde.

Chastened, the Confederates sought a new peace deal with the Royalists, who were by this time planning to launch uprisings in England and Scotland to restore Charles I to his throne. In 1648, the Confederate signed the Second Ormonde Peace, which put their troops in Ireland under Royalist command – concretely under the Earl of Ormonde.

It was thought that as wide an anti-Parliamentarian alliance as possible was necessary if the Catholics were to stave off total defeat. The English Parliament, unlike the King, had always disavowed negotiations with Irish Catholics and had in 1642 passed the Adventurers’ Act, promising to pay back the Parliaments’ creditors with land confiscated from those in rebellion in Ireland.

The Royalist alliance of 1648 caused a reshuffling of allegiances in Ireland. Inchiquinn, based in Cork, who had fought for the Parliament since 1643, reverted to allegiance to the King as did the Scottish army in Ulster. The Scots laid siege to the pro-Parliament English garrison in Derry.

Royalists, Catholic and Protestant allied themselves in 1648-49 against the English Parliament.

In Catholic Confederate ranks the deal provoked an internecine civil war. The Ulster army under O’Neill rejected the Treaty on the grounds that it resolved none of the Catholics’ pre-war grievances and they fought against the other pro-Treaty Catholic and Royalist forces, even entering into a brief alliance with the English Parliament in the hope of securing a separate peace with them. The Papal Nuncio Rinuccini left Ireland in early 1649 and O’Neill died of disease leaving the militant Catholic faction leaderless.

The Cromwellian Invasion

A depiction of the assault on Drogheda 1649.
A depiction of the assault on Drogheda 1649.

In the event though, all the manoeuvring for position between different factions in Ireland became irrelevant when, in August 1649, the English Parliament, having recently executed Charles I, landed its New Model Army in Ireland under the command of Oliver Cromwell, with orders to being Ireland, ‘to the obedience of the Parliament of England’.

The Royalist-Catholic coalition under Ormonde attempted to take Dublin just before Cromwell’s force landed but was routed by the existing Parliamentarian garrison under Michael Jones at the Battle of Rathmines. Cromwell himself landed days later at Ringsend with some 6,000 veteran troops and, crucially, siege artillery. The Parliamentarian force was well funded and well supplied and was therefore by far the most formidable army in Ireland.

The Parliamentarians also brought an unparalleled zeal to their campaign, being determined to avenge the Protestant victims of the 1641 rebellion and as they saw it smash the alliance between ‘tyranny’ and ‘Popery’. Cromwell proceeded to break the back of Royalist resistance on the east coast by taking the walled towns of Drogheda, Wexford, both of whose garrisons were massacred after the towns were stormed. Kilkenny, the Confederate capital fell in 1650 as did Clonmel, despite a spirited resistance by Irish troops there from the Confederate Ulster army. After a protracted siege, Waterford also capitulated.

Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649 on behalf of the English Parliament and by 1652 both Catholic and Royalist resistance had been crushed.

Royalist hopes in Ireland were dealt a final death blow when the Protestant garrison in Cork changed sides for the third time and went back to the Parliament. The Royalist commander Ormonde fled for France and at this point most Protestant Royalists surrendered. Cromwell left Ireland to face a third Royalist resurgence in England and Scotland where he was eventually to seize power himself. He left his son in law Henry Ireton to mop up the remaining, almost exclusively Catholic, resistance. Confederate Catholics fought on as they were not offered terms of surrender that would guarantee their lives and property.

As much as a third of Ireland’s population had died by 1652, the Catholic church was driven underground and the Catholic landowning class and had been smashed.

The war dragged on into 1651 and 1652 as the former Confederate armies (nicknamed ‘tories’ from the Irish word for ‘pursued man’) resorted to guerrilla warfare and the Parliamentarians besieged the last two Catholic-held cities of Limerick and Galway. The guerrilla war saw widespread killing of civilians and destruction foodstuffs by the Parliamentarians, causing massive loss of life among the general population.  On top of this the New Model Army inadvertently brought to Ireland an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Ireton died of plague at the siege of Limerick leaving the final stages of the campaign to be undertaken by Charles Fleetwod. Galway capitulated in May 1652. Also in that month the largest guerrilla forces surrendered at Kilkenny on condition that they were allowed to leave the country.  This was generally considered to be the end of the war although the final organised Confederate troops did not surrender until April of the following year, at Cloughoughter in Cavan.

The war had been extremely costly with a death toll of somewhere between 200,000 an 600,000.


Oliver Cromwell, a hate figure in Irish popular memory.
Oliver Cromwell, a hate figure in Irish popular memory.

In the wake of the Parliamentarian conquest virtually all Catholic owned land was confiscated and distributed to the Parliament’s creditors to military veterans and to Protestant supporters of the Parliament. Those Catholic landowners who had not supported the 1641 rebellion or the subsequent Confederate regime were compensated with some land west of the river Shannon. While the Parliamentarians had some grandiose plans to remove all the Irish and Scots from parts of the country and to replace them with loyal settlers, these ultimately came to nothing.

Ireland was effectively under military rule during the period of the Commonwealth and Protectorate (1650-1660). The Catholic religion was harshly repressed. Its public practice was banned and its clergy executed when captured. The established Anglican Church was also forbidden to hold services and many of its churches were commandeered. However the Cromwellian authorities did show tolerance to other faiths and introduced, for example the Quaker religion into Ireland.

The Cromwellian regime fell apart when Cromwell himself died in 1660. Elements of the Parliamentarian army in England and Scotland invited back Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, and restored the monarchy. When the monarchy was restored in England in 1660 some Catholic Royalists in Ireland were restored to their lands. Nevertheless the abiding legacy of the Eleven Years war was the wholesale transfer of land ownership and political power from the old Catholic elite to a Protestant one, in part newly installed and in part that which had existed before the war.

The popular memory of the period in Ireland was of defeat, mass dispossession and massacre. The rebellion of 1641 and the extent of the massacres of Protestants is still debated in partisan terms. Cromwell in particular is a popular hate-figure in Irish nationalist memory. However the achievements of the Confederate Catholics in operating an all but independent Irish state for 7 years have been all but forgotten.

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