Irish Uprisings, Wars and Battles

A tour bus driver in Ireland remarked to his passengers as he passed an old castle, ‘It was this on spot that the Irish defeated the British forces in 1315.’ Later, as they passed an open field, he announced, ‘This is the field where the Irish forces beat the brutal and bloody Saxon in 1170.’ After identifying a third spot as the scene of another Irish victory, one perturbed British passenger shouted, ‘Certainly, my good man, the British must have won a battle somewhere!’ To which the driver responded, ‘Not on my bus, they didn’t!’

The subject of battles in Ireland is a very broad topic, especially when considering the number of battles that took place between various clans prior to the coming of the English. Then there were battles fought against the Viking invaders up to the Battle of Clontarf where Brian Boru finally established Irish control of Ireland. A websitelists more than 350 since the fifth century alone. As for the site, that takes into consideration continental wars in which the Irish were involved.

When discussing Irish attempts to free themselves from the yoke of British oppression, many are the skirmishes and battles that took place since the arrival of the Normans under Strongbow in 1169. However, there were 14 major attempts in which the Irish clans and even Anglo-Irish united to oppose the Crown. These were:

1315 – The arrival of Edmund Bruce with a Scots army to assist the Irish in ousting the Brits

1534 – The rising led by Silken Thomas Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, against Henry VIII’s anti-Catholic policies

1569 – Rising by the Earl of Desmond and his Irish allies against Elizabeth’s English government of Munster

1579 – Second Desmond Rebellion with many more Irish allies against Catholic persecution and land grabs

1594 – Nine Years War of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire against the Crown

1641 – Rising of northern clans against the Crown which led to the Confederation of Kilkenny in 1642 and ended with the Cromwellian invasion of 1649

1689 – Williamite War of King Billy which ended with the Battle of the Boyne in 1691

1798 – The Rising of the United Irishmen

1803 – The Rising of the Bold Robert Emmet

1867 – The Fenian Rebellion

1916 – The Easter Rising

1919 – The War of Independence

1956 – The Border Campaign

1969 – The Troubles which ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement

Hopefully, future historians will have no more conflicts to document or write about as Ireland draws ever nearer to one island – one Ireland and our song writers and balladeers can concentrate on the beauty and promise of God’s Emerald Isle.

The Reasons Why

After recent Orange parade violence, the question came up, Why is there such hostility in Northern Ireland? An answer jumped to mind, but prompted another question – where to begin! The answer is as complicated as the word prejudice! There is no valid reason why one group should consider another to be less motivated, less intelligent, and less capable than they are, except for a bigoted upbringing. Children of all races will play together, until adults teach them otherwise. In this case it has to do with greed and grievances – the greed of a colonial power and the grievances of a mistreated native population. A brief history here is required.

In 1170 AD, a Norman knight named Strongbow had been invited by a minor Irish king to assist in a dispute with Ireland’s High King. After Strongbow won the dispute, he married the minor king’s daughter and inherited the king’s province. England’s King Henry II, worried that his knight might build a rival kingdom at his back, went to Ireland where Strongbow wisely acknowledged Henry as Lord of all. Meanwhile, Pope Adrian IV (the only English Pope) had given Ireland to Henry since Ireland’s missionaries all over Europe looked to Ireland for their ecclesiastic tradition rather than to Rome and Rome wanted control. Therefore, on the claim of Papal Bull Laudabiliter that all lands which have received the Christian faith belong to the Holy Roman Church, Henry agreed to subdue the people and make them obedient to Rome’s laws. A more likely reason was that he was willing to pay, from every house there, one pence to St. Peter. Peter’s Pence exists to this day. So, with the blessing of the Pope, the Isle of Saints and Scholars that had brought Christianity back to Europe after the Dark Ages and created such magnificent religious works as the Book of Kells, the Ardagh Chalice, and the Cross of Cong was placed under the spiritual guidance of the man behind the murder of St. Thomas Beckett!

The problem for the Normans was the autonomous nature of the Celts – they would not be ruled! So, the Norman expansion had to be by force of arms. Sadly, Celtic autonomy also excluded other Irishmen and the clans were largely independent with few allies among other clans and no real central authority. The result was that the Normans faced no unified resistance. However, as they spread across Ireland, they succumbed to the inviting Irish life-style and were absorbed, becoming as Irish as the Irish themselves. In 1366, in order make Ireland a true English colony, Parliament passed the Statutes of Kilkenny forbidding Normans from adopting Irish manners and customs even to dress, hair style and language. The Irish life style was branded as vulgar, uncouth and as uncivilized as the Irish themselves. (Hello! Weren’t these the ones who had saved civilization?)

In 1534, Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome because the Pope wouldn’t sanction his hopping from bed to bed. He declared himself head of the Church of England and began to execute Catholics who objected to his takeover. As head of his own church, he married 6 times (none of his wives knew where they’d be headed)! Still angry at the Pope, Henry moved to diminish Rome’s power by confiscating Catholic monasteries, stealing their riches and persecuting Catholic clergy and laymen – including the Irish and Anglo-Irish. With the Protestant Reformation raging on the continent, a new dimension was added to the discrimination against the Irish; not only were they vulgar, uncouth and uncivilized, they were Catholic! Religion was becoming an issue.

In 1547, Henry died and 9-year old Edward took the throne with a protector who insured Protestant control. In 1553, Mary Tudor, Henry’s first daughter and a devout Catholic, became Queen and power shifted. She replaced Protestant ministers and married Catholic King Philip of Spain. Her habit of sending her Protestant enemies to the block earned the nickname ‘Bloody Mary.’ In 1558, Elizabeth, Henry’s second daughter, took over as Queen and changed England back to Protestant. With the shoe now on the other foot now, she replaced and persecuted Catholics. Religion was now a weapon in politics. Elizabeth even executed her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 to prevent a Catholic succession. In 1588, Catholic Spain sent an Armada against England, but it failed, further escalating Protestant hatred of Catholics.

Elizabeth decided to complete the conquest of Ireland and several Irish Chieftains defied her, notably The O’Neill, The O’Donnell and The Maguire with allies from the clans who had enough of English colonialism. (Rome and Catholic Spain also helped.) From 1594 to 1603, war devastated Ireland and the Irish lost. The Clan System was broken, the native population was crushed and English law governed Ireland. According to The Economic History of Ireland, by George O’Brien, the Irish people were reduced to a condition “not far removed from slavery”. In 1609, the lands of the O’Neills, Maguires and O’Donnells and their supporters (half a million acres in Ulster) were confiscated and given free to any who claimed loyalty to the Crown as long as they were English-speaking, Protestant and promised to keep the Irish out. In 1603, James I took the throne and continued Protestant control. In 1625, Charles I succeeded James and religious conflicts continued. He married a Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, over the objections of Parliament.

In 1641, the displaced Irish rose in Ulster, and drove out the English who had stolen their lands. Stories of a great Papist Massacre were circulated claiming as many as 150,000 Protestants slaughtered by Catholics. Actually there were no more than 12,000 Protestants in all of Ireland at the time and it wasn’t over religion, but it inflamed the English even further against Irish Catholics. The Irish formed the Confederation of Kilkenny to deal with King Charles for Irish rights but England’s Puritan Parliament was hostile to Charles’ religious policies and Catholic sympathies. They led a civil war against him in 1642 after which they felt he would follow their dictates. When he didn’t, they rebelled again in 1648-9 after which he was tried, convicted, and executed for high treason. The monarchy was abolished and a Commonwealth was declared under Oliver Cromwell – a man whose hatred of Catholics knew no bounds. Cromwell then took his fanatically anti-Catholic, army of Puritan zealots to Ireland and devastated the country. He confiscated more than 11 million acres and gave them to his supporters. The dispossessed Irish were banished to hell or to Connaught – the most barren part of Ireland. Many took to the hills and lived as outlaws, raiding English settlements, while more than 34,000 went abroad to chance their fortunes in the Irish Brigades of foreign armies. Thousands of widows and orphans were shipped to English colonies in the Caribbean and America as slaves. The ordinary Irish, who had owned no land, were left to form a force of tenant farmers and laborers for their new English masters with the stipulation that they were not permitted to live in towns. Of all the plantations of Ireland, Cromwell’s was the most thorough, but the plantation of an unforgiving hatred in the hearts of the Irish was the most lasting.

In 1660, the restoration of the House of Stuart was accomplished as Charles II acceded to the throne of England. He confirmed English possession of Irish lands and Protestant supremacy. In 1685, Charles was succeeded by his brother James II, a Catholic, who replaced Protestant officials throughout England and Ireland with Catholics and relaxed the Statutes of Kilkenny and other oppressive laws against Irish Catholics. The Protestants planned for the day when James’ daughter, Mary, would succeed him for she was the wife of William of Orange, Protestant ruler of Holland. English Protestants felt that Mary would return power to them. Then, James had a son! The Protestants invited William of Orange to accept the English throne immediately and he agreed. James fled to Ireland to raise an army to defend his crown and on July 1, 1690 lost a key battle at the Boyne River. James fled to France and the Irish army withdrew to Limerick. The English couldn’t take Limerick so they offered a treaty by which all lands and rights would be returned to Catholics if those who had fought the Crown would quit Ireland. The Irish accepted and 14,000 Irish left to join the Irish Brigade in the French army. After they’d gone, the treaty was broken and the infamous Penal Laws were enacted by which all rights and privileges were denied to Irish Catholics.

For the next hundred years sporadic uprisings by disgruntled bands of Irish against their new landlords occurred until members of Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy, angered by England’s economic exploitation and taxation, formed The Patriot Party in the English-dominated Irish Parliament to legislate for better treatment. When their efforts were frustrated, a fusion of Protestants and Catholics against the Crown fostered The United Irishmen and the 1798 Rising resulted. The rising ultimately failed and brutal treatment followed to teach the Irish that they should never rise again. The Crown then mustered all its political power and intimidation to force the Irish Parliament to dissolve itself in favor of an Act of Union which made Ireland part of England in 1801. The Irish became a servile society in their own country, unable to vote, own property or even attend school while being subject to high taxes, rents on their former lands, and tithes to the Church of England to which they didn’t even belong.

Forty-five years later, the potato – the staple crop of the Irish tenant farmer – failed for several years and the English Parliament turned a blind eye to Ireland’s misery allowing millions to die of starvation and disease while another million fled. Those who lived through that tragedy passed on stories of their treatment at the hands of greedy landlords who exported tons of food throughout the entire period. Those who fled to other lands kept the memory of those times and their forced exile alive in their descendants who continued to support the cause of an independent Ireland. With the support of those exiles, Irish nationalists rose again in 1916 and were badly defeated. The irrational and cruel executions of the leaders and the internment of thousands of suspects finally turned the nation around so that when the internees were released in general amnesty, they were ready to take on the Crown. A War of Independence, which lasted from January 1919 to July 1921, finally brought the British to the treaty table.

Again, the duplicity of the British reigned as the treaty offered a 26-county Free State with the remaining 6 counties to be given at a later date. The British threatened to unleash their army, just back from WWI, on Ireland if the terms were not accepted. Michael Collins, leader of the Irish forces, knew that the Irish were low on supplies, manpower and ammunition and couldn’t withstand a British offensive. Rather than lose it all, the Irish accepted the treaty in 1921. As could have been foreseen, the six counties were never returned, Ireland was partitioned, and Irish nationalists in the north were left to suffer continued social, economic and physical persecution. The northern Loyalists, fearing to become a minority in a Catholic country dug in and accelerated anti-Catholic propaganda, gerrymandered voting districts and discrimination in jobs and housing to keep the Catholics an impotent and servile minority. These two communities still exist today.

Does this answer the question? Never in world history has one people struggled so hard for so long for one single goal – freedom! Nor have they been so maligned. They have made continuous attempts to resolve the issue and the pendulum has swung from parliamentary methods to military confrontation and back again, but the goal has never changed. Today, the parliamentary approach is again being tried, but Loyalist animosity created by centuries of propaganda and greed as well as nationalist mistrust from centuries of perfidious action is difficult to legislate away. The question should really be, How do you defeat prejudice?

Flight of the Earls

Four hundred years ago the last of Irish royalty left Ireland and the Gaelic system of government came to an end. It would be known in history as the Flight of the Earls and it happened on September 4, 1607. Most are familiar with the English incursions into Ireland over the years since the Norman invasion and the opposition of the Irish Chieftains. Some led rebellions, others sought cooperation, and a few tried both.

Up to the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), southern Ireland had been divided into properties ruled by ‘earls’ created by the Crown. They were mostly independent but Henry VIII introduced a new dimension to the status quo when he broke with the church in 1534 and declared himself the head of the Church of England. The Pope excommunicated him and many of Ire-land’s earls sided with the Catholic Church. The earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald, denounced his allegiance to Henry, arguing that excommunication had stripped him of legitimacy. Henry responded with force and in 1537 Fitzgerald and five of his uncles were executed in London. Henry made the Protestant faith a priority of his reign, a policy continued by his successors. Thus was the centuries-old struggle between the Irish and English transformed into one between Irish Catholic and English Protestant.

Henry’s plan for Ireland led to many conflicts. His successors, Mary (1553-58) and Elizabeth (1558-1603), fought many up-risings trying to impose British authority and the Church of England on the Irish earls. They fought Shane O’Neill (1560-67) and the Desmond Fitzgeralds (1569-73, and 1579-83), as well as daily violence against Crown loyalists. In 1587, Spain was preparing her Armada to invade England and Elizabeth realized she could not muster her full resources against the Spanish while the threat of rebellion existed in Ireland. Though Anglo Normans con-trolled the south, the major clans of the north remained un-conquered, and she was deter-mined to resolve that issue. The English decided to capture Enniskillen, Hugh Maguire’s fort at the Gap of the North the main access to Ulster. Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell, answered his call for aid, and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the Eng-lish before them; they broke through the Gap of the North, and recaptured Enniskillen, then routed the English at the Ford of the Biscuits. They next moved on Fort Monaghan, and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert, where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Clan O’Neill had taken the field, and at their head was Hugh O’Neill, England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone. He had announced at last, destroying an English company in the bargain. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains, the three Hughs of Ulster were now a national force with O’Neill commanding; he had 1,000 horse soldiers and 7,000 foot soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west. The Nine Year’s War had begun. O’Neill took the title, “The O’Neill,” essentially proclaiming himself high king – a position not held since Brian Boru’s death in 1014. His goal, he made clear, was to gain protection for the Catholic religion and to ensure that Ireland be ruled by the Irish.

The three Hughes scored victories against Crown forces, most notably at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598. But a huge British force under Lord Mountjoy eventually ended the Nine Years War at the Battle of Kinsale in late 1601 in which Hugh Maguire was killed. O’Neill kept up guerilla raids while O’Donnell went to Spain to negotiate aid hoping to outlive the aging Elizabeth who would be succeeded by the Catholic James Stuart. Offers of leniency were refused by O’Neill, but when he learned that O’Donnell had been poisoned in Spain, the greatest Irish Chieftain of his age came in, on March 30, 1603, to surrender to Lord Mountjoy. He pledged obedience before the Irish Parliament on April 3. Then, after the ceremony of submission he was told: Elizabeth of England had died on March 24! James Stuart of Scotland was now James I of England. O’Neill had won and never knew it. He and his nation had outlasted the Queen only to be tricked into submission by Lord Mountjoy before agreements with James could be ratified. O’Neill was allowed to keep his land, and his earldom, but lost his lordship over Ulster’s chieftains who were all made earls of the Crown, ending the Irish title of High King forever.

In the years that followed O’Neill’s rebellion, the restored earls of Ulster still possessed clan lands, but faced a growing number of English settlers and a hostile administration. Then, in 1607, London summoned O’Neill and O’Donnell’s successor to answer charges of planning another rebellion. Knowing that English planters were ready to seize their lands, O’Neill and O’Donnell surmised that their destruction was at hand. Their only course was escape. The hearts of the Irish were broken as the noblest princes of Erin Ruari O’Donnell and his brothers; Conor Maguire, brother of the slain Hugh; Hugh O’Neill and his three sons and 100 other earls sailed from Lough Swilly in what became known as The Flight of the Earls. The last Irish defense against English tyranny went with them.

They eventually landed in the Spanish Netherlands and from there proceeded to Rome. Their hopes of returning to liberate Ireland with a Catholic army soon dissipated and they lived out their years on meager papal pensions. O’Neill died there in 1616. The English government seized the opportunity and the fleeing earls were tried in absentia and convicted of treason, the penalty for which was forfeiture of their land. With 500,000 acres of land now in its possession, the Crown began a settlement program known as the Ulster Plantation. Its ultimate goal was to create a loyal population in Ulster through the settlement of thousands of non-Irish Protestants. Although it took a few decades to take hold, the Plantation of Ulster had a dramatic impact on the course of Irish history. Not only did it wipe out much of the province’s native Irish leadership by eliminating the holdings of the 101 Irish Earls who fled, but it threw open the province to settlement by tens of thousands of English and Scottish Protestants. By the 1630s, in six Ulster counties, Protestants owned 3 million out of the 3.5 million acres of land.