Irish History Overview

 16th Century Ireland – Reformation, Plantation & War

The Protestant Reformation introduced under King Henry VIII made little initial headway in Ireland, even in the Pale. The Church in Ireland, as in England, was thoroughly pragmatic on theological issues, and the only real difference was that it was now officially headed by the monarch rather than the Pope, and the clergy were no longer answerable to Rome but to the Crown (represented by the Archbishop of Canterbury). Many clergymen, including more than one bishop, managed to maintain dual allegiance.

As Europe’s religious confrontations grew more bitter, Catholic resistance in Ireland was initially led mainly by Augustinian and Franciscan friars, with the first Jesuits, warrior priests of the Counter Reformation, arriving c.1550.

Henry’s only son Edward VI (1547-53) was a sickly boy, but during his short reign leading intellectual dogmatists in his government were able to ensure that England became an increasingly Protestant kingdom.

Henry’s eldest daughter Mary I (1553-58) was a Catholic, and tried vainly to reverse the trend towards Protestantism, earning the nickname “Bloody Mary” in the process.

During her short reign she adopted an aggressive policy towards the Gaelic Irish and began, amidst much bloodshed, a ‘Plantation’ of loyal subjects on the confiscated lands of the rebellious O’Moores and O’Connors in the midlands. The counties now known as Laois and Offaly were called Queen’s County and King’s County respectively in honour of herself and her husband, Felipe II, king of Spain. The O’Moores and O’Connors retreated to the hills and bogs and fought a local war against the settlement for much of the following 40 years. In 1578, the English finally subdued the displaced O’Moore clan by massacring most of their fine (or ruling families) at Mullaghmast, having invited them there for peace talks. Rory Óg Ó Moore, the leader of rebellion in the area, was also hunted down and killed later that year. The ongoing violence meant that the authorities had difficulty in attracting people to settle in their new plantation and settlement ended up clustered around a series of military fortifications.

When Henry’s second daughter Elizabeth I  (1558 -1603) ascended the throne, continental Europe was riven by religious differences, verging on outright war. The Queen’s main concerns were the prospect of invasion by her brother in-law, King Felipe II of Spain, and the reinforcement of Anglican Protestantism, while Catholics came to be seen as potential traitors.

In Ireland, she extended her sister’s policy of ‘Plantation’ into an organised and ambitious expropriation of land and introduction of Protestant English settlers. The newcomers did not mingle with the impoverished and very angry population of native Irish and “Old English” Catholics. Surnames such as Spenser, Hyde and Browne became established in Ireland at this time.

In Ulster, Shane O’Neill drove his aged father, Conn Bacach O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, into exile; where he died. Shane then murdered his half-brother Feardorchadh. By English primogenitur law, the latter’s eldest son, Brian, inherited the title, but under Brehon Law Shane was unchallenged as ‘The O’Neill’. Failing to get English recognition as Earl, Shane raided the Pale in 1561. After a failed attempt by the Earl of Sussex to have him poisoned, Shane agreed to visit Elizabeth in London, chaining himself to two Irish earls to ensure his safety. The Queen granted him the title “Captain of Ulster” and paid him £2,000 to keep the peace. At the same time Brian O’Neill was murdered. Shane returned to Ulster and immediately began to attack his neighbours. He was defeated by the O’Donnells of Tir Connell, and then murdered by the MacDonnells in 1567. His pickled head was stuck on a spike outside Dublin Castle. Feardorchadh’s second son, Hugh, later succeeded to the titles.

In Connaught, Grainne Mhaoil (anglicised as Grace O’Malley), of mixed Norman and Gaelic aristocratic stock, was the thrice-widowed leader of a pirate crew based on Clare Island. She preyed on fishing and merchant vessels and launched raids on Gaelic and English settlements alike, once even attacking Howth Castle outside Dublin. She sailed to Greenwich to see Queen Elizabeth personally, securing the release from prison of her brother and her son (who became the first Viscount Mayo), and promises of maintenance for herself for the remainder of her life.

Other pirates also preyed on Irish coastal towns, and Algerian corsairs raided Baltimore as late as 1596.

In 1570 Pope Paul V issued Regnans in Excelsis,  a papal bull declaring “Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime” to be a heretic and releasing all her subjects from any allegiance to her, excommunicating anyone that recognised her sovereignty or obeyed her orders, and effectively encouraging her assassination. It was most likely instigated by pressure from King Philip II of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk or Mary, Queen of Scots, all of whom had a vested interest in overthrowing Elizabeth. The bull was issued in support of, but following, the 1569 “Northern Rebellion” in England, and the first Desmond Rebellion in Ireland, with foreign Catholic support, and hardened the English government’s opinion against landowning Catholics.

In Munster, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, of the House of Desmond, revolted in 1570. He was pardoned, but fled to the Continent in 1575, returning with Papal approval for a Catholic crusade against Queen Elizabeth. Fitzmaurice was surprised and killed in August 1579, and Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th earl of Desmond, then assumed incompetent direction of the rebellion, supported by 800 Spanish soldiers. Lord Grey was sent to suppress the uprising, and succeeded after years of bitter fighting. In November 1580 a force of Italians and Spaniards was massacred at Smerwick Harbour. The revolt ended in 1583 with the confiscation of the vast Desmond estates, which were redistributed among participants such as Sirs Francis Drake, Philip Sidney, and Walter Raleigh (who planted Europe’s first potato near Youghal), and the poet Edmund Spenser, who commented on the beauty of the landscape.

Gaelic Irish leaders now looked to Catholic Spain for help, but the failure of Felipe II’s disastrous Armada Invencible” in 1588 littered the northern and western coasts of Ireland with shipwrecks. Another Spanish fleet in 1597 was unable to land due to adverse weather conditions.

Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to the University of Dublin in 1593. In the same year, another rebellion that was to develop into the Nine Years War was initiated by northern chieftains Brian Og O’Rourke, Sorely Boy McDonnell, Donal O’Cahan and “Red” Hugh O’Donnell (Aodh Rua O’Domhnall, “the fighting prince of Donegal”), who defeated an English army at the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits in 1594. From 1595 they were led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who won several confrontations with the English, notably at the Battle of Yellow Ford, in 1598.

A Gaelic Confederation was ready for the arrival in 1599 of the new royal favourite, Robert, Earl of Essex, as Viceroy, with over 17,000 troops. Intending to prevent O’Neill from establishing a base of operations in Munster, Essex set out to capture such castles as could be used to good advantage by his adversaries. His army was harried, its supply lines cut and its numbers thinned daily, without ever meeting the enemy in the open. Obeying orders from London, Essex  redirected his campaign against Ulster, burning down Sorely Boy’s castle on Rathlin Island and massacring his wife and children together with some 600 people. But with each advance he captured only ruins that were increasingly more difficult to victual and hold. Essex finally made contact with O’Neill in early September and pursued him through thick woods for a time, before O’Neill sent a messenger asking for a parley. It was a curious meeting, for Tyrone was on horseback, in a river (the Larne), with the water to his horse’s belly, and Essex stood on the bank. Nobody knows what was said, but they agreed to a truce. Tyrone withdrew into the heart of his country, and Essex dispersed his army. Queen Elizabeth was furious. She replaced him with his rival, Lord Mountjoy.

The Battle of Kinsale began on the 17th October 1601. Mountjoy laid siege to 3,800 Spanish troops under Don Juan del Aguila, sent to aid Catholic Irish leaders by Felipe III (who claimed the Irish throne in return), and took advantage of appalling weather to prevent their rendezvous with a joint force of native Irish and Old English Catholics, whose undisciplined soldiers were easily touted by the English troops. Aguila surrendered on 12th January 1602 and handed over the four Spanish defended castles along the South West Coast. He was treated honourably by the English, but on his return to Spain was thrown into a dungeon, where he died.

Hugh O’Neill signed the Treaty of Mellifont in 1603, and he and the other northern chiefs withdrew to Ulster. Others were more severely treated. After having his lands confiscated, Donal Cam, chieftain of the O’ Sullivan Bere Clan, left the Beara peninsula for an epic march with 1,000 men, women and children to take shelter with the O’Rourkes. Harassed by mainly Gaelic gangs, he finally reached Leitrim in January 1603 with only 35 people left.

The mysterious departure of Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell to the Spanish Netherlands in 1603, and the other leading Gaelic chiefs to various countries on the Continent in 1607, known as “the Flight of the Earls“, is generally agreed by historians to mark the effective end of Gaelic civilization. Red Hugh O’Donnell was received with full honours in Spain; he died and was buried in Valledolid.


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