Irish Confederate Wars

"This article is concerned with the military history of Ireland from 1641-53. For the political context of this conflict, see Confederate Ireland."Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Irish Confederate Wars|
partof=the Wars of the Three Kingdoms
date=October 1641 - April 1653
result=English Parliamentarian conquest of Ireland, defeat of Royalist alliance and crushing of Irish Catholic power
combatant1=Irish Catholic Confederates
combatant2=English Parliamentarian troops and allied Protestants in Ireland
Scottish Covenanters allied to Parliament 1642-48
combatant3=English Royalists
Scottish Covenanters allied to Royalists 1648-50

commander1=Confederate Supreme Council,
Generals Owen Roe O'Neill (in Ulster), Thomas Preston (in Leinster),Garret Barry (in Munster), John Burke (in Connaught),
commander2=Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin 1644-47, Michael Jones 1647-49
Oliver Cromwell 1649-50
Henry Ireton (May 1650-Nov. 1651)
Charles Fleetwood (Nov. 1651 - Apr. 1653)
commander3=James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde (1641 - Dec. 1650)
Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanricarde (December 1650-April 1653)
commander4=Robert Munro
strength1=Up to 60,000 incl. guerrilla fighters, but only around 20,000 at any one time
strength2=c.30,000 New Model Army troops over 1649-53, approx. 10,000 troops raised in Ireland or based there before campaign.
casualties1=Unknown, over 25,000 battlefield casualties, and over 200,000 civilians, from war-related famine or diseases
c.12,000 exported as slaves (by 1660) [Mícheál Ó Siochrú/RTÉ ONE, Cromwell in Ireland Part 2. Broadcast 16/9/2008.] .
casualties2=8,000 New Model Army soldiers killed, more from locally raised units.
The Irish Confederate Wars, also sometimes called the Eleven Years War (derived from the Irish language name "Cogadh na haon deag mbliana"), were fought in Ireland between 1641 and 1653. The Wars were the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms - a series of civil wars in Kingdoms of Ireland, England and Scotland (all ruled by Charles I) that also included the English Civil War and civil war in Scotland. The conflict in Ireland essentially pitted the native Irish Roman Catholics against the Protestant British settlers and their supporters in England and Scotland. It was both a religious and ethnic conflict, fought over who would govern Ireland, whether it would be governed from England, which ethnic and religious group would own the land and which religion would predominate in the country.


The war in Ireland began with the rebellion of the Irish of Ulster in October 1641, during which thousands of Scots and English Protestant settlers were killed. The rebellion spread throughout the country and at Kilkenny in 1642 the association of The Confederate Catholics of Ireland was formed to organise the Irish Catholic war effort. The Confederation was essentially an independent state and was a coalition of all shades of Irish Catholic society, both Gaelic and Old English. The Irish Confederates professed to side with the English Royalists during the ensuing civil wars, but mostly fought their own war in defence of the Irish Catholic landed class's interests.

The Confederates ruled much of Ireland as a "de facto" sovereign state until 1649, and proclaimed their loyalty to Charles I. From 1641 to 1649, the Confederates fought against Scottish Covenanter and English Parliamentarian armies in Ireland. The Confederates, in the context of civil war in England, were loosely allied with the English Royalists, but were divided over whether to send military help to them in the English Civil War. Ultimately, they never sent troops to England, but did send an expedition to help the Scottish Royalists, sparking the Scottish Civil War.

The wars produced an extremely fractured array of forces in Ireland. The Protestant forces were split into three main factions (English Royalist, English Parliamentarian and Scottish Covenanter) as a result of the civil wars in England and Scotland. The Catholic Confederates themselves split on more than one occasion over the issue of whether their first loyalty was to the Catholic religion or to King Charles I (See ).

The wars ended in the defeat of the Confederates. They and their English Royalist allies were defeated during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland by the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell in 1649-53. [ Philip McKeiver; A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign,Advance Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-9554663-0-4] The wars following the 1641 revolt caused massive loss of life in Ireland, comparable in the country's history only with the Great Famine of the 1840s. The ultimate winner, the English parliament, arranged for the mass confiscation of land owned by Irish Catholics as punishment for the rebellion and to pay for the war. Although some of this land was returned after 1660 on the Restoration of the monarchy in England, the period marked the effective end of the old Catholic landed class.

The Plot - October 1641

The Irish Rebellion of 1641 was intended to be a swift and mainly bloodless seizure of power in Ireland by a small group of conspirators led by Phelim O’Neill. Small bands of the plotter’s kin and dependants were mobilised in Dublin, Wicklow and Ulster, to take strategic buildings like Dublin Castle. Since there were only a small number of English soldiers stationed in Ireland, this had a reasonable chance of succeeding. Had it done so, the remaining English garrisons could well have surrendered, leaving Irish Catholics in a position of strength to negotiate their demands for civil reform, religious toleration and Irish self-government. However, the plot was betrayed at the last minute and as a result, the rebellion degenerated into anarchic violence. Following the outbreak of hostilities, the festering hatred of the native Irish Catholic population for the Protestant settlers exploded into violence.

The Rebellion - 1641-42

From 1641 to early 1642, the fighting in Ireland was characterised by small bands, raised by local lords or among local people, attacking civilians of opposing ethnic and religious groups. At first, Irish Catholic bands, particularly from Ulster, took the opportunity given them by the collapse of law and order to settle scores with Protestant settlers who had occupied Irish land in the plantations of Ireland. Initially, the Irish Catholic gentry raised militia forces to try and contain the violence, but afterwards, when it was clear that the government in Dublin intended to punish all Catholics for the rebellion, participated in the attacks on Protestants and fought English troops sent to put down the rebellion. In areas where British settlers were concentrated, around Cork, Dublin, Carrickfergus and Derry, they raised their own militia in self-defence and managed to hold off the rebel forces. All sides displayed extreme cruelty in this phase of the war. Around 4000 Protestants were massacred and a further 12,000 may have died of privation after being driven from their homes. [Kenyon & Ohlmeyer, p. 278, 'William Petty's figure of 37,000 Protestants massacred... is far too high, perhaps by a factor of ten, certainly more recent research suggests that a much more realistic figure is roughly 4,000 deaths.'] Staff, [ Secrets of Lough Kernan] BBC, Legacies UK history local to you,website of the BBC. Accessed 17 December 2007] In one notorious incident, the Protestant inhabitants of Portadown were taken captive and then massacred on the bridge in the town. [Hull, Eleanor (1931). " [ A History of Ireland] ", Chapter " [ The Rebellion of 1641-42] " website of [ Library Ireland] ] The settlers responded in kind, as did the Government in Dublin, with attacks on the Irish civilian population. Massacres of Catholic civilians occurred at Rathlin Island and elsewhere.Harvard reference| Surname1 = Royle | Given1 = Trevor| authorlink = | Year = 2004 | Title = Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 | Publisher = London: Abacus | ISBN = 0-349-11564-8 p.143] The rebels from Ulster defeated a government force at Julianstown, but failed to take nearby Drogheda and were scattered when they advanced on Dublin.

By early 1642, there were four main concentrations of rebel forces; in Ulster under Phelim O'Neill, in the Pale around Dublin led by Viscount Gormanstown, in the south east, led by the Butler family - in particular Lord Mountgarret and in the south west, led by Donagh MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry.

The Confederates' war - 1642-48

King Charles I sent a large army to Ireland in 1642 to put down the rebellion, as did the Scottish Covenanters. The Scottish army quickly drove the Irish rebels out of Ulster and the English force drove them back from around Dublin. In self-defence, Irish Catholics formed their own government, the Catholic Confederation, with its capital at Kilkenny and raised their own armies. The Confederates also held important port towns at Waterford and Wexford through which they could receive aid from Catholic powers in Europe. Almost all Irish Catholics joined the Confederation, with the odd exception like the Earl of Clanricarde, who stayed neutral. They had available to them only the militias and lords' private levies, commanded by aristocratic amateurs like Lord Mountgarret. These were defeated in a series of encounters with English and Scottish troops at Liscarroll, Kilrush, New Ross and Glenmaquinn.

However, they were saved from defeat by the outbreak of the English Civil War. Most of the English troops in Ireland were recalled to fight on the Royalist side in the civil war.

In mid-1642 Charles signed the Adventurers Acts into law, whereby loans raised in London would eventually be paid off by the sale of Irish rebels' lands. This gave an extra impetus for the Confederate armies to succeed, but the Confederates also took advantage of Charles' weakening position in England after 1643 to try to negotiate with him.

The Irish Confederates mopped up the remaining garrisons within their territory, leaving only Ulster, Dublin and Cork in Scottish and English hands. Garret Barry, a returned Irish mercenary soldier, took Limerick in 1642, while the townspeople of Galway forced the surrender of the English garrison there in 1643. The remaining British forces were disunited by the events in England. The garrison of Cork, commanded by Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin, sided with the English Parliament, as did the Protestant settler army around Derry, whereas the troops on Ireland’s east coast, commanded by Earl of Ormonde, sided with the King. The Scottish Covenanter army, based around Carrickfergus, pursued the agenda of the Edinburgh based Scottish government, allied with the English Parliament up to 1647.


This gave the Confederates breathing space they needed to create regular, full time armies. They supplied these by creating an extensive system of taxation throughout the country, centred on their capital at Kilkenny. They also received modest subsidies of arms and money from France, Spain and the Papacy. The Confederate armies were commanded mainly by professional Irish soldiers such as Thomas Preston and Owen Roe O'Neill, who had served in the Spanish army in the Eighty Years' War and Thirty Years' War. In total, the Confederates managed to put around 60,000 men into the field in different armies in the course of the war. Arguably, the Confederates squandered the military opportunity presented to them by the English Civil War to re-conquer and reorganise all of Ireland. They signed a truce with the Royalists in 1643 and spent the next three years in abortive negotiations with them. It was not until 1646 that they launched a determined offensive on the Protestant enclaves in Ireland. Between 1642 and 1646, the war in Ireland was dominated by raids and skirmishes. All sides tried to starve their enemies by burning the crops and supplies in their territory. This fighting caused great loss of life, particularly among the civilian population, but saw no significant battles between 1643 and 1646. The Confederates mounted an expedition against the Scots in Ulster in 1644, but failed to capture any significant territory. Their one success of this period was Thomas Preston’s successful siege of Duncannon [Philip McKeiver, A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign", (Advance Press), Manchester, ISBN 978-0-9554663-0-4,] 1645.


The opening years of the war saw widespread displacement of civilians - both sides practising what would now be called ethnic cleansing. In the initial phase of the rebellion in 1641, the vulnerable Protestant settler population fled to walled towns such as Dublin, Cork and Derry for protection. Others fled to England. When Ulster was occupied by Scottish Covenanter troops in 1642, they retaliated for the attacks on settlers by attacks on the Irish Catholic civilian population. As a result, it has been estimated that up to 30,000 people fled Ulster in 1642, to live in Confederate held territory. Many of them became camp followers of Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulster Army, living in clan-based groupings called "creaghts" and driving their herds of cattle around with the army. Outside of Ulster, the treatment of civilians was less harsh, although the "no-mans-land" in between Confederate and British held territory in Leinster and Munster was repeatedly raided and burned, with the result that it too became de-populated.

Victory and Defeat for the Confederates

However, this stalemate was broken in 1646, with the end of the first English Civil War. The Confederates abandoned negotiations with the defeated Royalists and tried to re-take all of Ireland before the English Parliament could launch an invasion of the country. They were bolstered by the arrival in Ireland of the Papal Nuncio, Rinuccini, who brought with him large amounts of money and arms. They managed to capture a Parliamentarian stronghold at Bunratty castle in Clare and to smash the Scottish Covenanter army at the battle of Benburb and also take Sligo town. Late in the year, the Ulster and Leinster Confederate armies under Owen Roe O'Neill and Thomas Preston (a total of 18,000 men) laid siege to Dublin, trying to take the city off Ormonde’s Royalist garrison. However Ormonde had devastated the land around the capital and the Confederates, unable to supply their troops, had to lift the siege. In hindsight, this was the high tide for the Irish Confederates. Ormonde, who said that he, "preferred English rebels to Irish ones", left Dublin and handed it over to a Parliamentarian army sent from England under Michael Jones. Further Parliamentarian reinforcements were sent to Cork in southern Ireland.

In 1647, these Parliamentarian forces inflicted a shattering series of defeats on the Confederates, ultimately forcing them to join a Royalist coalition to try and hold off a Parliamentarian invasion. Firstly, in August 1647, Thomas Preston’s Leinster army was annihilated at the battle of Dungans Hill by Jones’ Parliamentarian army when it tried to march on Dublin. This was the best trained and best equipped Confederate army and the loss of its manpower and equipment was a body blow to the Confederation. Secondly, the Parliamentarians in Cork devastated the Confederate’s territory in Munster, provoking famine among the civilian population. When the Irish Munster army brought them to battle at Knocknanauss, they too were crushed. Sligo also changed hands again - captured by the Ulster British settlers' army. The battles in this phase of the war were exceptionally bloody:in the battles of 1646-47, the losers had up to half of those engaged killed - most commonly in the the rout after the battle was decided. In the three largest engagements of 1647, no less than 1% of the Irish male population (around 7-8,000 men) were killed in battle. This string of defeats forced the Confederates to come to a deal with the Royalists, and to put their troops under their command. Amid factional fighting within their ranks over this deal, the Confederates dissolved their association in 1648 and accepted Ormonde as the commander in chief of the Royalist coalition in Ireland. Inchiquinn, the Parliamentarian commander in Cork also defected to the Royalists after the arrest of King Charles I.

The Confederates were fatally divided over this compromise. Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio threatened to excommunicate anyone who accepted the deal. Particularly galling for him was the alliance with Inchiquinn, who had massacred Catholic civilians and clergy in Munster in 1647. There was even a brief period of civil war in 1648 between Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulster Army, as he refused to accept the Royalist alliance, and the new Royalist-Confederate coalition. O'Neill neglected to secure adequate supplies and was unable to force a change in policy on his former comrades. During this divisive period the Confederates missed a second strategic chance to reorganise while their opponents were engaged in the Second English Civil War (1648-49).

The Cromwellian War 1649-1653

The Confederate/Royalist coalition wasted valuable months fighting with Owen Roe O'Neill and other former Confederates when they should have been preparing to resist the impending Parliamentarian invasion of Ireland. O'Neill later re-joined the Confederate side. Belatedly, in August 1649, Ormonde tried to take Dublin from the Parliamentarians, but was routed by Michael Jones at the battle of Rathmines. Oliver Cromwell landed shortly afterwards with the New Model Army. Whereas the Confederates had failed to defeat their enemies in eight years of fighting, Cromwell was able to succeed in three years in conquering the entire island of Ireland, because his troops were supplied, well equipped (especially with artillery) and well trained. Moreover, he had a huge supply of men, money and logistics to fund the campaign.

The Cromwellian Conquest

His first action was to secure the east coast of Ireland for supplies of men and logistics from England. To this end, he took Drogheda and Wexford, perpetrating massacres of the defenders of both towns. He also sent a force to the north to link up with the British settler army there. Those settlers who supported the Scots and Royalists were defeated by the Parliamentarians at the battle of Lisnagarvey.

Ormonde signally failed to mount a military defence of southern Ireland. He based his defences on walled towns, which Cromwell systematically took one after the other with his ample supply of siege artillery. However, the Irish and Royalist field armies did not hold any strategic line of defence and instead were demoralised by a constant stream of defeats and withdrawals. Only at the siege of Clonmel did Cromwell suffer significant casualties (although disease also took a very heavy toll on his men). However, his losses were made good by the defection of the Royalist garrison of Cork, who had been Parliamentarians up to 1648, back to the Parliament side. Cromwell returned to England in 1650, passing his command to Henry Ireton.

In the north, the Parliamentarian/settler army met the Irish Ulster army at the battle of Scarrifholis and destroyed it. Ormonde was discredited and fled for France, to be replaced by Ulick Burke, Earl Clanricarde. By 1651, the remaining Royalist/Irish forces were hemmed into an area west of the River Shannon, holding only the fortified cities of Limerick and Galway and an enclave in County Kerry, under Donagh MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry. Ireton besieged Limerick while the northern Parliamentarian army under Charles Coote besieged Galway. Muskerry made an attempt to relieve Limerick, marching north from Kerry, but was routed by Roger Boyle at the battle of Knocknaclashy. Limerick and Galway were too well defended to be taken by storm, but were blockaded until hunger and disease forced them to surrender, Limerick in 1651, Galway in 1652. Waterford and Duncannon also surrendered in 1651.

Guerrilla War

This was the end of organised Irish resistance, but because the Cromwellian surrender terms were so harsh, many small units of Irish troops fought on as guerrillas, or "tories" as they were called at the time. The tories, who were usually former Confederate soldiers, operated from rugged areas such as the Wicklow Mountains, attacking vulnerable groups of Parliamentarian soldiers and looting their supplies. In response, the Parliamentarians forcibly evicted the civilian populations from areas which had been helping the tories and burned their crops. The result of this fighting was famine throughout the country, which was aggravated by an outbreak of bubonic plague. The last organised Irish troops surrendered in Cavan in April 1653, when the Cromwellians agreed to let them be transported to serve in the French army - the English Royalist Court was in exile in France. However, any troops captured in this phase of the war were either executed or transported to penal colonies in the West Indies . Even after the formal surrender, Ireland was plagued with small scale violence for the remainder of the 1650s.

The Cost

The death toll of the conflict was huge. William Petty, a Cromwellian who conducted the first scientific land and demographic survey of Ireland in the 1650s (the Down Survey), concluded that at least 400,000 people and maybe as many as 620,000 had died in Ireland between 1641 and 1653. The true figure may be lower, but the lowest suggested is about 200,000. And this in a country of only around 1.5 million inhabitants. It is estimated that about two thirds of the deaths were civilian. The Irish defeat led to the mass confiscation of Catholic owned land and the English Protestant domination of Ireland for over two centuries [Kenyon & Ohlmeyer, p.278] .

The wars, especially the Cromwellian conquest, were long remembered in Irish culture. Gaelic Poetry of the post-war era laments lack of unity among Irish Catholics in the Confederation and their constant infighting, which was blamed for their failure to resist Cromwell. Other common themes include the mourning of the old Irish Catholic landed classes, which were destroyed in the wars, and the cruelty of the Parliamentarian forces. "See Also Irish Poetry"

Appendix: Shifting Allegiances

The Irish Confederate wars were a complex conflict in which no less than four major armies fought in Ireland. These were: the Royalists loyal to King Charles, the Scottish Covenanters (sent into Ulster in 1642 to protect Protestant planters after the massacres that marked the Irish rebellion of 1641 in that region), the Parliamentarian army and the Irish Confederate army, to whom most of the inhabitants of Ireland gave their allegiance. During the wars, all of these forces came into conflict at one stage or another. To add to the turmoil, a brief civil war was fought between Irish Confederate factions in 1648.

The Irish Confederates: Formed in October 1642, the Confederation of Kilkenny was initially a rebel Irish Catholic movement, fighting against the English troops sent to put down the rebellion, though they insisted they were at war with the king's advisers and not with Charles himself. They also had to fight the Scottish army in Ulster. From 1642 to 1649, the Confederates controlled most of Ireland except for east and west Ulster, Cork and Dublin. A cessation was arranged with the Royalists in 1643 after the outbreak of civil war in England and negotiations began to bring the confederates into the English conflict on the Royalist side. After a strongly Catholic faction emerged in 1646, which opposed signing a peace treaty that did not recognise the position of the Catholic church or return confiscated catholic land, the Confederates once again clashed with the Royalists, who abandoned most of their positions in Ireland to the Parliamentarians during 1646. However, after fresh negotiations, an alliance was arranged between the Royalists and Confederates in 1648. Some Confederates (notably the Ulster army) were however opposed to this treaty initiating a brief Irish Catholic civil war in which the Ulster army was supported by the English Parliament.

The Scottish Covenanters arrived in Ireland in early 1642 to put down the uprising and thereby protect the lives and property of the Protestant settlers in Ulster. They held most of eastern Ulster for the duration of the war, but were badly weakened by their defeat by the Confederates at the battle of Benburb in 1646. They fought the Confederates (with the support of the English Parliament) from their arrival in Ulster in 1642 until 1648. After the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters' alliance broke down, the Scottish forces in Ulster joined the Confederates and Royalists in an alliance against their former allies in 1649.

The Parliamentarian Army gained a major foothold in Ireland for the first time in 1644, when Inchiquin's Cork-based Protestant-led force fell out with the Royalists over the ceasefire with the Confederates. The Protestant settler forces in the north west of Ireland, known as the Lagan Army, also came over to the Parliamentarians after 1644, deeming them to be the most reliably anti-catholic of the English forces. Dublin also fell into Parliamentarian hands in 1646, when the Royalists surrendered it to an English Parliamentarian expeditionary force after the city was threatened by Confederate armies. In 1648 the Parliamentarians briefly gave support to Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulstermen after his fall out with the Confederates: Thus the extreme Catholic and Puritan forces were allied for mutual expediency. The Ulster Catholic army however joined the Confederate-Royalist alliance after the shock of Cromwell's invasion in August 1649. The most potent Parliamentarian force was the New Model Army, which proceeded to conquer Ireland over the next four years and to enforce the Adventurers Act by conquering and selling Irish land to pay off its financial backers.

The Royalists under Ormonde were in conflict with Irish Catholic forces from late 1641 to 1643. Their main enclave was in Dublin. A ceasefire lasted from 1643 until 1646, when the Confederates again came into conflict with them. After 1648 most of the Confederates and the Scots joined an alliance with the Royalists, this force was to face Cromwell's army in 1649. Ormonde's handling of the defence of Ireland was however rather inept so that by mid 1650 the defence of Ireland was conducted by Irish Confederate leaders.

ee also

PEOPLE associated with the period include:

Soldiers: Alasdair MacColla, Hugh Dubh O'Neill, Henry Ireton, George Monck, Oliver Cromwell, Garret Barry, Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin, Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnel, Michael Jones, Theobald Taaffe 1st Earl of Carlingford,
Robert Monro, Charles Coote

Political figures: Phelim O'Neill, James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, Patrick D'Arcy, Richard Martin fitz Oliver, James Tuchet, 3rd Earl of Castlehaven, Ulick de Burgh, 5th Earl of Clanricarde, Richard Bellings, Nicholas French, Patrick O'Neill, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, Nicholas Plunkett, Charles I, Charles II.

others: Dáibhí Ó Bruadair and William Petty

Places associated with the period include:
Drogheda, Wexford, Limerick, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Clonmel, Derry, Rathfarnham Castle, Trim Castle, Cahir Castle, Narrow Water, Bunratty Castle, Derry, Portadown, Ross Castle,
Rock of Cashel

* Irish Rebellion of 1641
* Confederate Ireland
* Cromwellian conquest of Ireland
* Wars of the Three Kingdoms
* British Military History
* Early Modern Ireland 1536-1691
* Gunpowder warfare
* Irish battles
* Wars of the Three Kingdoms



*McKeiver Philip. "A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign", (Advance Press), Manchester, ISBN 978-0-9554663-0-4Hull, Eleanor (1931). " [ A History of Ireland] ".
*Kenyon, John & Ohlmeyer, Jane (editors). "The Civil Wars", Oxford 1998.
*Royle, Trevor (2004), Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660, London: Abacus, ISBN 0-349-11564-8

Further reading

*Lenihan, Padraig, "Confederate Catholics at War", Cork 2001, ISBN 1859182445
*McCoy, G. A. Hayes. "Irish Battles", Belfast 1990, ISBN 086281250X.
*Plant, David. [ "The Confederate War 1641-1652"] , [ British] Retrieved 23-09-2008
*Scott-Wheeler, James. "Cromwell in Ireland", Dublin 1999, ISBN 9780717128846

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