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Confederate Ireland refers to a brief period of Irish self-government between the Rebellion of 1641 and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. During this time, two-thirds of Ireland was governed by the Irish Catholic Confederation, also known as the 'Confederation of Kilkenny' (based in the city of Kilkenny). The remaining Protestant enclaves in Ulster, Munster and Leinster were held by armies loyal to the royalists, parliamentarians or Scottish Covenanters during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Confederates failed to defeat the British armies in Ireland in 1642–1649 in a conflict known as the Irish Confederate Wars and joined a royalist alliance in 1648 against the Rump Parliament.
Rebellion and the formation of the Confederation
this is a political history, for a military history of this time, see Irish Confederate Wars
The Catholic Confederation was formed in the aftermath of the 1641 rebellion, both to control the popular uprising and to organise an Irish Catholic war effort against the remaining British armies in Ireland. It was hoped that by doing this, the Irish Catholics could hold off an English or Scottish re-conquest of the country. The initiative for the Confederation came from a Catholic bishop, Nicholas French and a lawyer named Nicholas Plunkett . They put forth their proposals for a government to Irish Catholic nobles such as Viscount Gormanstown , Lord Mountgarret and Viscount Muskerry . These men committed their own armed forces to the Confederation and persuaded other rebels to join it. Members of the Confederation took an oath on joining to uphold the Roman Catholic religion, the King's Rights and the liberty of Ireland.
The Confederate's constitution was written by another lawyer, a Galway man named Patrick Darcy . In some respects, the Confederation was quite democratic for its time. The Confederate government was composed of a General Assembly, a parliament in all but name, elected from and by Irish landowners and Catholic clergy, which in turn elected an executive known as the Supreme Council. The General Assembly and the Supreme Council both met in the city of Kilkenny, with the Assembly being called annually to review the work of the Supreme Council. The Confederates immediately set up an extensive system of taxation to finance the war, and sent envoys to the Catholic powers in continental Europe.
The Confederate's stated objective was to reach an agreement with the King, Charles I. The ambitions were: full rights for Catholics in Ireland, toleration of the Catholic religion, and self-government for Ireland. The motto of the Confederation was Pro Deo, Rege et Patria, Hibernia Unanimis – "for God, King and Fatherland, Ireland is United".
The members of the Supreme Council were predominantly of Old English descent and were distrusted by many of the Gaelic Irish, who felt they were too moderate in their demands. The more radical Confederates pressed for a reversal of the plantations and the establishment of Catholicism as state religion in Ireland. The Confederates as a whole believed that their aspirations were best served by alliance with the royalist cause and therefore made supporting the King a central part of their strategy. This was because the English Parliament and Scottish Covenanters had threatened before the war to invade Ireland and destroy the Catholic religion and Irish land-owning class. The King, by contrast, had repeatedly promised them some concessions. However, while the moderate Confederates were anxious to come to an agreement with Charles I, the more radical members wished to force the King to accept a self-governing Catholic Ireland before they came to terms with him. Failing that, they advocated an independent alliance with France or Spain.
Cessation with the royalists and the first Ormonde peace
In 1643, the Confederates negotiated a ceasefire or cessation, with the royalists in Ireland and opened negotiations with James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde – Charles I’s representative in Ireland. This meant that hostilities ceased between the Confederates and Ormonde’s royalist army in Dublin. However, the English garrison in Cork (which was commanded by Murrough O’Brien, Earl Inchiquinn , a rare Gaelic Irish Protestant) objecting to the ceasefire, mutinied and declared allegiance to the English Parliament. The Scottish Covenanters had also landed an army in Ulster in 1642, which remained hostile to the Confederates. In 1644, the Confederates sent around 1,500 men under Alasdair MacColla to Scotland to support the royalists there under Montrose against the Covenanters, sparking the Scottish Civil War.
By 1646, the Supreme Council of the Confederates had come to an agreement with Ormonde. Under its terms Catholics would be allowed to serve in public office and found schools; there were also verbal promises of future concessions on religious toleration. There was an amnesty for acts committed in the Rebellion of 1641 and a guarantee against further seizure of Irish Catholic land. However, there was no reversal of Poynings Law which subordinated the Irish Parliament to the English one, no reversal of the Protestant domination of Parliament and no reversal of the main plantations, or colonisation, in Ulster and Munster. In return for these concessions Irish troops would be sent to England to fight for the royalists in the English Civil War. However, the terms agreed were not acceptable to either the Catholic clergy, the Irish military commanders – notably Owen Roe O'Neill and Thomas Preston – or the majority of the General Assembly.
Many believed the Supreme Council were unreliable since many of them were related or otherwise bound to Ormonde. Besides, it was pointed out that the English Civil War had already been decided in the English Parliament’s favour and that sending Irish troops to the royalists would be a futile sacrifice. On the other hand, many felt after O’Neill’s Ulster army defeated the Scots at the battle of Benburb, that the Confederates were in a position to re-conquer all of Ireland. Furthermore, those who opposed the peace were backed, both spiritually and financially, by the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini. The Supreme Council were arrested and the General Assembly voted to reject the deal.
Military defeat and a new Ormonde peace
After the Confederates rejected the peace deal, Ormonde, handed Dublin over to a parliamentarian army under Michael Jones. The Confederates now tried to eliminate the remaining Protestant outposts in Dublin and Cork, but in 1647 suffered a series of military disasters. First, Thomas Preston’s Leinster army was destroyed by Jone’s parliamentarians at the battle of Dungans Hill in Meath. Then the Confederates Munster army met a similar fate at the hands of Inchiquinn’s British forces at the battle of Knocknanauss.
These setbacks made most Confederates much more eager to come to reach an agreement with the royalists and negotiations were re-opened. The Supreme Council got generous terms from Charles I and Ormonde, including toleration of the Catholic religion, a commitment to repealing Poynings Law (and therefore to Irish self-government), recognition of lands taken by Irish Catholics during the war and a commitment to a partial reversal of the Plantation of Ulster. In addition, there was to be an Act of Oblivion, or amnesty for all acts committed during the 1641 rebellion and Confederate wars – in particular the killings of British Protestant settlers in 1641 - and the Confederate armies would remain in existence. However Charles granted these terms only out of desperation and in fact he later repudiated them. Under the terms of the agreement, the Confederation was to dissolve itself, place its troops under royalist commanders and accept English royalist troops. Inchiquinn also defected from the Parliament and rejoined the royalists in Ireland.
Civil War within the Confederation
However, many of the Irish Catholics continued to reject a deal with the royalists. Owen Roe O'Neill refused to join the new royalist alliance and fought with the royalists and Confederates in the summer of 1648. It is often argued that this split within the Confederate ranks represented a split between Gaelic Irish and Old English. It is suggested that a particular reason for this was that Gaelic Irish had lost much land and power since the English conquest of Ireland and hence had become radical in their demands. However, there were members of both ethnicities on either side. For example, Phelim O’Neill, the Gaelic Irish instigator of the Rebellion of 1641, sided with the moderates. The Catholic clergy were also split over the issue.
The real significance of the split was between those landed gentry who were prepared to compromise with the royalists as long as their lands and civil rights were guaranteed, and those who wanted to completely overturn the British presence in Ireland such as Owen Roe O’Neill. They wanted an independent Catholic Ireland, with the British settlers expelled permanently. Many of the militants were most concerned with recovering ancestral lands their families had lost in the plantations. After inconclusive skirmishing with the Confederates, Owen Roe O'Neill retreated to Ulster and did not rejoin his former comrades until Cromwell’s invasion of 1649. This infighting fatally hampered the efforts of the Confederate-royalist alliance to repel the invasion of parliamentarian New Model Army.
Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649 to crush the new alliance of Irish Confederates and royalists. The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland was the bloodiest warfare that had ever occurred in the country and was accompanied by plague and famine. It ended in total defeat for the Irish Catholics and royalists. Most of the senior members of the Confederation spent the Cromwellian period in exile in France, with the English Royalist Court. After the Restoration, those Confederates who had promoted alliance with the Royalists found themselves in favour and recovered their lands. However, those who remained in Ireland throughout the interregnum invariably had all their land confiscated and in many cases were executed or transported to penal colonies. The pre-war Irish Catholic land-owning class was all but totally destroyed in this period. As were the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church.
Confederate Ireland was the only sustained period of Irish self government before the foundation of Irish Free State in 1922. Arguably it was also an early example of parliamentary-style government. However the Confederates ultimately failed in their objective to defend the interests of Irish Catholics. The Irish Confederate Wars and Cromwellian conquest of Ireland caused massive loss of life and ended with the confiscation of almost all Irish Catholic owned land. The end of the period cemented the British colonisation of Ireland.
- O'Siochru, Micheal, Confederate Ireland 1642-49, Four Courts Press Dublin 1999.
- Lenihan, Padraig, Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49, Cork University Press, Cork 2001.
- Ohlmeyer, Jane and Kenyon, John (ed.s), The Civil Wars, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1998.
- Canny, Nicholas, Making Ireland British 1580-1650, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001.
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