The Confederate War: Campaigns of 1641-2

On 22 October 1641, small bands of insurgents surprised and captured six government forts in Ulster: Charlemont, Mountjoy, Dungannon, Castlecaulfield, Salterstown and Lissan. After it became clear that Lord Maguire had failed to capture Dublin, Sir Phelim O'Neill attempted to organise the insurgents and to impose military discipline in Ulster but law and order broke down as the insurrection spread to the general Irish population. Spontaneous attacks on Protestant settlers escalated from robbery and beatings to murder. Among other reported atrocities, a notorious massacre took place at Portadown in County Armagh in November 1641 when hundreds of Protestant civilians were thrown from the bridge to drown in the River Bann.

Ulster and Leinster, 1641-2

The Irish Uprising 1641The Irish Uprising 1641

Sir Phelim O'Neill's forces captured Armagh and Lurgan but their advance towards Belfast was driven back by fierce Protestant resistance at Lisburn. Meanwhile, in the counties of western Ulster, the brothers Sir Robert and Sir William Stewart organised the settlers into a militia later known as the Lagan Army to defend themselves against marauders. As Protestant resistance in Ulster strengthened, the focus of the rebellion moved southwards towards Dublin. With Newry and Dundalk in rebel hands, the strategic town of Drogheda on the River Boyne was besieged towards the end of November 1641. A column of government troops sent from Dublin to reinforce Drogheda was routed at Julianstown on 29 November. The rebel victory encouraged members of the Catholic nobility of Leinster to join the uprising. However, O'Neill had no artillery at his disposal nor gunpowder to spare for mining operations, so he blockaded Drogheda in the hope of starving it into submission. Three assaults were attempted between December 1641 and February 1642 but the garrison under Sir Henry Tichborne held firm.

At the outset of the rebellion, the King appointed the Earl of Ormond commander of government forces in Ireland. After the initial rebel onslaught, Ormond and his officers rallied their troops. Sir Charles Coote, governor of Dublin, led raids on insurgent positions and relieved beleaguered English outposts in Leinster. He marched south to secure Wicklow in November 1641 then marched north early in 1642, defeating the rebels at Swords to secure the northern approaches to Dublin. Coote ordered the burning of farms and villages to deny supplies to the insurgents. His ruthlessness intensified the hatred of the Irish population towards the Protestant government and influenced several Anglo-Irish noblemen of the Pale to join the insurrection on the side of the rebels. Ormond himself raised the siege of Drogheda in March 1642 and defeated his kinsman Viscount Mountgarret at the battle of Kilrush the following month.

The first wave of troops sent from England against the rebels arrived in Dublin at the end of December 1641; a second force arrived in mid-February 1642. During April, the first contingent of Scottish troops landed in Ulster. The Scots were nominally led by the Earl of Leven, but the most active commander was Major-General Robert Monro, a tough veteran of the European wars. From his headquarters at Carrickfergus, Monro directed a series of ruthless search-and-destroy missions against the rebels. The recapture of Newry in May 1642 was accompanied by the massacre of Catholic soldiers and civilians in reprisal for the killing of Protestants.

Munster, 1642

In the south-western province of Munster, Viscount Muskerry joined the insurgency in March 1642, claiming that the rebellion was the only means of preserving Roman Catholicism, the King's prerogative and the rights of the Irish nobility. The Earl of Cork and Lord Inchiquin vied for control of the Munster Protestants, with Inchiquin quickly emerging as the leading military commander.

The Confederate War in Munster 1643
The Confederate War in Munster 1643

Muskerry appointed Garret Barry, a veteran of the Spanish army of Flanders, general of the Munster insurgents. Although Barry's attempt to besiege Cork failed, he captured King John's Castle at Limerick In June 1642 from where he dismounted a 32-pounder cannon that became the only mobile artillery then in use in Ireland. Using a team of oxen, Barry dragged the gun around the Protestant outposts in County Limerick, which surrendered to him one after another upon sight of it.

By July 1642, Muskerry and Barry had mustered an impressive force of six regiments of foot and 500 horse. After Liscarrol Castle surrendered to the insurgents in August, Lord Inchiquin marched from Cork to challenge them. Inchiquin's force was half the strength of Barry's but he was prepared to risk the outcome of the war in Munster on one decisive battle. The Irish cavalry opened the battle with a charge that drove back the Protestant horse. Lord Inchiquin himself was captured by the insurgent cavalry commander Oliver Stephenson. However, Inchiquin was rescued when his brother rode up and shot Stephenson dead. This was the turning point of the battle: Inchiquin rallied his troops, drove back the disheartened Irish cavalry then overran the infantry.

The defeat at Liscarrol was a major setback for the Munster insurgents. 700 men were killed in the battle and the next day, Inchiquin ordered a further 50 prisoners to be hanged, many of whom were officers.

The Confederacy

During the spring and early summer of 1642, as British forces steadily recaptured territory in Ulster, Leinster and Munster, the Irish Uprising seemed to be faltering. However, the rebellion had greatly exacerbated the quarrel between King Charles and the Long Parliament over the issue of who should control the armed forces. In August 1642, the tension flared into civil war in England, with the result that no more troops, supplies or finances could be spared for the war in Ireland. Furthermore, the British troops stationed in Ireland were divided, with only the Earl of Ormond's army around Dublin unequivocally loyal to the King.

Rebel forces were organised into a Confederacy at the Assembly of Kilkenny, held at the instigation of the Roman Catholic clergy in October 1642. The native Irish and the Catholic "Old English" aristocracy joined together in an unlikely alliance, swearing an Oath of Association in which they proclaimed their loyalty to the King and undertook to reunite Ireland under the Catholic Church. The Confederacy established a new civil, legal and military administration for Ireland but insisted that it was a provisional government to direct affairs in Ireland until the King regained control over his rebellious subjects. Veteran Irish soldiers returned from Europe to fight for the Confederacy and four regional military commands were established: Owen Roe O'Neill took command in Ulster; his rival Thomas Preston assumed leadership of the Leinster army; Garret Barry was named commander in Munster and John Burke was appointed lieutenant-general in Connacht in the expectation that the neutral Earl of Clanricarde would declare for the Confederates and assume command.


Pádraig Lenihan, Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49, (Cork 2001)

C.P. Meehan, The Confederation of Kilkenny (Dublin 1846)

Jane Ohlmeyer, The Civil Wars in Ireland (in The Civil Wars, a military history of England, Scotland and Ireland 1638-60), Oxford 1998

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1955)