A bloody episode in Irish history, the 1641 rebellion erupted in the first instance in Ulster, when rebel Catholic elements surprised Protestant settlers, massacring large numbers. In accounting for this sudden outbreak of revolt, historians are divided about the importance of its long and short term causes. In recent years, there has been a marked movement away from viewing the 1641 rebellion as a reaction to the Ulster Plantation of 1610. Quite apart from the significant time lapse involved, it has been pointed out that there is evidence of considerable economic and social interaction between the Protestant settlers and the Catholic native population in the intervening period.
Instead, short term factors are stressed. Some of the primary native Irish ‘beneficiaries’ of the Ulster Plantation, it is suggested, having got into economic difficulties, resorted to desperate measures to combat this situation. Added to this, the rise of a puritan dominated English portended the onset of religious persecution in Ireland. Thus, 1641 is regarded to some extent as a pre-emptive strike by ‘Catholic’ Ireland in an endeavour to overthrow the Protestant regime in Ireland. However, while there is considerable justification in affording importance to such short term factors, long-standing grievances associated with the Ulster Plantation remain a primary factor too. It is this smouldering resentment which contributed to the viciousness of the attacks on the Protestant settlers and the large numbers of fatalities involved.
The sheer volume of deaths associated with the 1641 rebellion is a contentious issue, not least because the number of Protestant fatalities was soon inflated to several hundreds of thousands by contemporary and subsequent Protestant writers. Modern research calculates the actual number of deaths to be 12,000 out of a total Protestant population in Ulster at the time of 40,000, a massacre by any scale even if some thousands of these occurred as a result of military combat rather than the slaughter of the defenceless.
The so-called 1641 rebellion actually lasted for almost ten years, spreading to other areas of Ireland when the native Irish of Ulster were joined in revolt by their Old English co-religionists. For a time, such was the success of the revolt that Protestant dominance in Ireland was in danger of being eradicated, not least when Owen Roe O’Neill led the Catholic rebels in Ulster to a famous victory at the battle of Benburb (County Tyrone) in 1646, the main Protestant army in Ireland having been annihilated. Political and cultural differences between the native Irish and the Old English are widely considered to have been a primary cause of the failure of the rebels to press home their military advantage.
What began as an event associated with the massacre of Irish Protestants was to end with the equally notable massacres wrought by the armies of Oliver Cromwell who landed in Ireland in 1649. The slaughter of the inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford are as indelibly imprinted on the psyche of Irish Catholics as the previous massacres in Ulster are on Protestants.