Ulster Insurrection

Native Irish Gaelic Catholics in the northern province of Ulster rebelled against the English crown and against the Scottish, Welsh, and English Protestant settlers who had taken their lands. Thousands of settlers were massacred by the rebels, and many Catholics died as well in subsequent retaliatory massacres that began an entrenched pattern of religious and nationalist violence in northern Ireland.

Summary of Event

Before the Protestant Reformation, the population of Ireland was made up primarily of two distinct groups, Gaelic Irish and Old English. The tensions between these two groups predate the arrival of Protestantism in the British Isles, but with the advent of the English Reformation in the 1530’, Catholic Irish nobles intensified their efforts to destroy English power in Ireland. These redoubled efforts included seeking aid from Catholic monarchs on the Continent. To the English crown, Ireland had suddenly transformed itself from a backwater to a back door, a threat to the security of the kingdom. Over the next seventy-five years, in a series of wars against various Irish chieftains, the Protestant English monarchs overwhelmed the Catholic Gaelic Irish. The native Irish nobility was displaced, and its lands were confiscated. The last bastion of native Irish resistance, Ulster, submitted to England in 1602. Ulster was left bereft of Irish leadership when the earls of Tyrone and of Tyrconnel, as well as more than one hundred other chiefs, fled to the Continent in 1607. [kw]Ulster Insurrection (Oct. 23, 1641-1642)
[kw]Insurrection, Ulster (Oct. 23, 1641-1642)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 23, 1641-1642: Ulster Insurrection[1400]
Religion and theology;Oct. 23, 1641-1642: Ulster Insurrection[1400]
Government and politics;Oct. 23, 1641-1642: Ulster Insurrection[1400]
Ireland;Oct. 23, 1641-1642: Ulster Insurrection[1400]
Ulster insurrection (1641-1642)

Feuds, local wars, intrusions by various Scottish clans, and forays by an occasional English monarch had long kept Ulster in a perpetual state of political upheaval. In a region heavily wooded and cut by bogs, rivers, and lakes, the majority of the Irish inhabitants survived through subsistence farming. Population centers were few and far apart, and familial bonds divided the region even further, as clan boundaries were established by Ulster’s geographic features. In the early decades of the seventeenth century, James I James I (king of England);Ireland and of England and Scotland sought a solution to the instability of the region. He encouraged a “non-Celtic” settlement (mostly of Lowland Scots), via the Ulster Plantation, which, he trusted, would assist in transforming the Irish Irish into British Irish.

Although land grants, long-term leases, and other incentives encouraged some emigration of Lowland Scots to northern Ireland, the hoped-for large-scale influx of Scots simply did not occur. Modern estimates vary widely, ranging from ten thousand to about forty thousand Scots being established in Ulster by 1639. In addition, there were perhaps another forty thousand immigrants from Wales and northern England. It is impossible, however, to verify any number absolutely.

The presence of these settlers was widely resented by the original inhabitants, for, while the total size of the land grants (80,555 acres, or 32,600 hectares) was only 1.67 percent of the land area of Ulster, the grants were often drawn from the very best lands, which had been confiscated by the Crown from the Irish nobility. Additionally, between 1607 and 1641, large tracts of land were mortgaged, leaving many Catholic landowners near destitution. Crown policy also encouraged Protestantism and tended to disenfranchise Catholics, thereby coupling economic loss with religious and political disqualification. This resulted in a hatred that was never far below the surface. Catholicism;Ireland

In 1641, while Charles I Charles I (king of England) was occupied with Scottish Covenanters and a recalcitrant English parliament, opponents of the new order in Ireland saw an opportunity to regain their rights. Sir Rory O’More, O’More, Rory chief instigator of the conspiracy, met with Conor Maguire Maguire, Conor in Dublin in February. O’More’s family was originally from the Irish midlands, and he still had widespread support in that area. He suggested that it was time to reverse the pro-English, anti-Irish trends of the preceding three decades. The conspirators hoped that Catholic help from the Continent would quickly manifest itself once a rebellion was under way, but it was clear that the initial action would have to come from the Irish themselves. The plot was developed over the next few months, additional conspirators were recruited, and October 23 was set as the date for the rising in Ulster. A simultaneous attack on Dublin Castle was also planned, for its capture would strengthen the position of the rebels.

The insurrection began on the appointed day, but it quickly went awry. In Dublin, the plot had been betrayed; the leaders, Hugh Og MacMahon MacMahon, Hugh Og and Conor Maguire, were captured, and Dublin Castle remained in royal hands. In Ulster, Sir Phelim Roe O’Neill O’Neill, Sir Phelim Roe issued a proclamation stating that the rebellion wanted only the restoration of traditional rights and that no subjects of the king were to be harmed. The situation was already out of hand, however. Although there probably was no planned massacre, insurgents methodically murdered Protestant Protestantism;Ireland settlers wherever possible. While there were certainly religious issues involved, this massacre was as much an effort by original Irish owners to take back their land as anything else. An estimated four thousand Protestants were murdered, and another eight thousand died from exposure after being expelled from their homesteads. Moreover, as they recovered from their initial shock, Protestants carried out retaliatory attacks on Catholics. It is impossible to say who was ultimately the more brutal in their atrocities.

When the English Civil Wars erupted in 1642, the insurrection in Ulster was reduced to a mere sideshow, albeit an important one. Both Parliament and the king viewed Ireland as an important source of soldiers and war materiel, and both were determined to control it. Because the Scots were allied with Parliament, a Scottish army was sent to protect the Protestants of Ulster. A Catholic confederacy was established at Kilkenny in May of 1642, “to defend religion and the king.” Owen Roe O’Neill O’Neill, Owen Roe returned from abroad to lead the king’s army in Ulster, and Richard Preston, Preston, Robert earl of Desmond, led the Old English in the south. Support by James Butler Butler, James , twelfth earl of Ormond, was also vital to Charles, for he kept most of Ireland until 1647. (Butler was rewarded for his service by being raised to marquis of Ormond in 1642, duke in the Irish peerage in 1661, and duke in the English peerage in 1682.) By 1647, however, royal military disasters in England had cost Charles his crown; they would ultimately cost him his head. In 1650, Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver;Irish invasion and invaded Ireland, and, during the following two years, the Irish rebellion was finally crushed.


Although Irish massacres of Scottish settlers during the English Civil Wars resulted in a siege mentality, the real foundations of the cultural differences that exist in Ulster to this day lie in the events of the rest of the seventeenth century. After the crushing of the Irish rebellion, the Cromwellian settlement confiscated and redistributed more than one-half of the land in Ireland. Following the Glorious Revolution (1688) Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690) Boyne, Battle of the (1690) , further confiscations almost completely dispossessed Gaelic and Catholic Irish leaders, and the Gaelic population at large lost most of their hope for land ownership. Tens of thousands of Scots migrated to Ireland after 1690, entrenching themselves as a distinct and separate minority in Ulster. Migration;Scots into Ireland When the group memories of earlier experiences were grafted onto this population, there ultimately resulted an Ulster Protestant nationalism, which continued to compete with Irish Catholic nationalism through the early twenty-first century.

Further Reading

  • Barnard, Toby. Irish Protestant Ascents and Descents, 1641-1770. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 2004. Chapter 4 examines “The Uses of the 23rd of October 1641 and Irish Protestant Celebrations.”
  • Barnard, Toby. The Kingdom of Ireland, 1641-1760. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Describes Catholic attempts to gain control of Ireland in the 1640’s and in subsequent years.
  • Beckett, J. C. The Making of Modern Ireland, 1603-1923. London: Faber & Faber, 1966. Provides an overview of the issues that have divided Ireland.
  • Canny, Nicholas. Kingdom and Colony: Ireland in the Atlantic World, 1560-1800. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Canny’s work discusses Ireland’s role in the international conflicts of the early modern era.
  • Corish, P. J. “The Rising of 1641 and the Confederacy, 1641-1645.” In Early Modern Ireland, 1534-1691. Vol. 3 in A New History of Ireland, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1976-2003. Corish’s chapter gives a concise summary of the events and personages involved in the insurrection.
  • Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. 5 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1892. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1969. Volume 1 provides detailed and dispassionate analysis of the massacre of 1641.
  • O’Dowd, Mary. “Land and Lordship in Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century Ireland.” In Economy and Society in Scotland and Ireland, 1500-1939, edited by Rosalind Mitchison and Peter Roebuck. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988. Analyzes the issue of land ownership as a factor in Irish-Scottish antipathy.
  • Ohlmeyer, Jane H., ed. Ireland from Independence to Occupation, 1641-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Collection of essays describing how Ireland was transformed by the events of the 1640’s and 1650’. Includes an essay by historian Nicholas Canny, “What Really Happened in Ireland in 1641?”
  • Robinson, P. S. The Plantation of Ulster: British Settlement in an Irish Landscape, 1600-1670. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Provides significant information regarding the English, Irish, and Scottish competition for land in Ulster.
  • Stevenson, David. Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1981. Stevenson analyzes the insurrection in Ulster as part of the English Civil Wars.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; James I; James II; Mary II; Rory O’More; William III. Ulster insurrection (1641-1642)