The Confederation of Kilkenny

An organized colonization of Ulster by settlers from England and Scotland began in 1609 under King James I.  Half a million acres in Ulster were confiscated and given to colonists who had to be English-speaking Protestants and agree to dispossess the native Irish.  Later, in 1638, a group of Scottish Presbyterians signed a covenant to maintain the Protestant Reformation and the anti-Catholic rhetoric of these ‘Covenanters’ led James’ successor, Charles I, to threaten them with an army of Irish Catholics.  The Scottish Parliament, in turn, threatened to invade Ireland to achieve the extirpation of Popery out of Ireland according to 17th century Irish ascendancy political leader, Richard Bellings.  After 32 years of land theft by anti-Catholic settlers, the threat of a Covenanter invasion, the fear of the growing Puritan administration in Ireland and the increasingly anti-Catholic English parliament, the Irish rose on 22 October 1641 to seek restoration of  property rights and safeguards for their religious freedom.

The rising took England by surprise and to incite support against the rebels, a story of a great massacre of 600,000 innocent Protestant settlers was propagated even though there were no more than 100,000 in all of Ireland to begin with.  Recent research suggests that the number is more like 4,000 killed, though thousands were expelled from their homes as the Irish reclaimed their land.  Some estimate that the total number may be as high as 12,000 since many of those expelled died of cold or disease in the harsh northern winter just as the Irish did who were previously expelled by them.  Early targets of hostility were English administrators but violence escalated after a failed rebel assault on Lisnagarvey in November.  Several hundred rebels were captured, after which they were simply executed by the settlers without even a hearing.  It was after that, that the settlers themselves became targets.

In truth, the planners of the rebellion were a group of Gaelic Irish from the heavily planted areas of Ulster.  Hugh Og MacMahon and Conor Maguire were to seize Dublin Castle, while Phelim O’Neill and Rory O’More were to take Derry and other northern towns.  Their plan was to use surprise rather than military force to take their objectives and then present their demands.  However, the plan for a bloodless seizure of power was foiled when the authorities in Dublin heard of the plot from an informer (a Protestant convert named Owen O’Connolly) and arrested Maguire and MacMahon.  Meanwhile, O’More and O’Neill successfully took several forts in the north of the country, claiming to be acting in the King’s name.  Fairly quickly, events spiraled out of control; English authorities in Dublin over-reacted to the rising, which they characterized as a most disloyal and detestable conspiracy intended by some evil affected Irish Papists and which they claimed was aimed at a general massacre of all English and Protestant inhabitants.  Their response was to send troops to Catholic areas in Wicklow and Cork.  The expeditions were characterized by historian Padraig Lenihan as, excessive and indiscriminate brutality and helped to provoke the general Catholic population into joining the rebellion.  However, at this stage, the attacks usually involved the beating and robbing rather than the killing of Protestants.  O’More, O’Neill and other leaders were finally able to control the rage of the Irish who had been dispossessed from their lands by those very same English settlers.

By the summer of 1642, Rory O’More led the Irish Catholic gentry and clergy to form the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny which became a de facto government for most of Ireland.  Free from the control of the English State, they aligned with the King against the Puritan Parliament in the hope of achieving their goals of property and religious rights.  Rory O’More was the nephew and namesake of Rory Og O’More who along with Conor MacCormac O’Conor had led the initial resistance against the Crown in 1565 and who are credited as the first in a long line of patriotic societies that led to today’s Ancient Order of Hibernians.  Patriot and author Charles Gavan Duffy wrote of Rory O’More. A private gentleman, with no resources beyond his intellect and his courage, this Rory, when Ireland was weakened by defeat and confiscation, and guarded with a jealous care constantly increasing in strictness and severity, conceived the vast design of rescuing the country from England, and even accomplished it; for, in three years, England did not retain a city in Ireland but Dublin and Drogheda, and for eight years the land was possessed and the supreme authority exercised by the Confederation created by O’More. History contains no stricter instance of the influence of an individual mind.  The Irish air The March of the King of Laois, commemorates O’More’s exploits in the 1641 rising.

The Covenanters sent an army to Ulster to re-conquer Ireland, but it was defeated by the Irish at the Battle of Benburb in 1646.  Then in 1649, an English Civil War ended with the execution of King Charles I and the institution of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Parliament.  On 15 August 1649, Cromwell landed at Dublin, with an army of anti-Catholic extremists and marched through Ireland, giving no quarter to ‘Papist Rebels’ and using confiscated land to pay off debts to his troops and to the so-called ‘Adventurers’ who had financed his cause.  In May, 1650 he returned to England having brutally re-conquered the country and the patriotic Irish began a series of secret societies that plagued the Crown down all the years trying to regain the freedom that the Confederation of Kilkenny had once won.

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