Confederate Ireland, 1642-49: a constitutional and political analysis, Mícheál Ó Siochrú. (Four Courts Press, £35) ISBN 1851824006

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

This is a remarkable debut performance. First monographs by the likes of Aidan Clarke (The Old English in Ireland), Brendan Bradshaw (The Dissolution of the Monasteries), Nicholas Canny (The Elizabethan Conquest) immediately spring to mind but in fact Ó Siochrú’s achievement is all the greater because his subject is of central importance in Ireland’s constitutional and political development. In fact a better comparison might be with Michael Perceval-Maxwell’s Outbreak of the Irish rebellion of 1641, a mature, rounded study of the bloody upheaval which set the wheels in motion for the establishment of the Catholic Confederation the following year. What is important is that both books have attempted the difficult and unfashionable task of writing narrative history. It is painstaking work but by contextualising events in a logical sequence they elide as fabulous many of the theories which fellow historians have derived from work on mere fragments of the whole scene. There is no single big body of material to work on for the Confederacy—its records were destroyed in fires in 1711 and 1922. Ó Siochrú has managed to pull off this feat by finding new attendance rolls and lists for the meetings of Confederate institutions as well as by piecing together events from a myriad of other documents and accounts. He gives due credit to the late Donal Cregan who did seminal work on the period. Nevertheless Ó Siochrú exudes confidence and rightly so. He strutts around slapping down the work of other historians with shouts of ‘mistaken’ and makes short shrift of historical figures who do not come up to UN peacekeeping standards—for instance Sir Charles Coote in Connacht is dismissed as ‘a notorious anti-Catholic bigot’!
This is a narrative where political interest groups, constitutional manoeuvrings and negotiations take centre-stage. Indeed it is Ó Siochrú’s contention that the political developments at Kilkenny were of prime importance and that the military action was secondary. For those interested in military history reference should be made instead to Jerrold Casway’s Owen Roe O’Neill and David Stevenson’s Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates and a eye kept peeled for the forthcoming publications of Pádraig Lenihan. Many other angles to this multi-sided conflict as well as the Cromwellian aftermath can be found in Jane Ohlmeyer’s Ireland from Independence to Occupation.
The highlights of the narrative are the founding of the confederation, the rejection of the first Ormond peace and the concluding of the second one. The association was put together after 1641 to restore law and order, negotiate with the crown and organise militarily against the threat from the English parliament. Former Irish parliamentarians and the Catholic church were the prime movers. Here it would also have been interesting to speculate to what extent confederate structure was modelled on previous delegate bodies selected informally to negotiate with the Crown, for example, the Graces in the mid-1620s. Patrick Darcy, Richard Martin, and their backer the Earl of Clanricard had a good grounding in such lobbying. Kilkenny was the meeting place because it was safe, relatively central and had a large hall at Robert Shee’s house. The Earl of Glamorgan’s secret treaty with the Confederates on behalf of Charles I made over the head of Ormond, the king’s constitutional representative as lord lieutenant, might have been narrated in more detail. At this point rapid political changes were kaleidoscopic and one is continuously forced to refer to the footnotes for further information. The explanation for the rejection of the Ormond peace is better. The arrival of Rinuccini from Rome had a galvanic effect for sure but it is really the activism of a centre party rather than the extremism of the nuncio and his clique which sees the treaty rejected overwhelmingly by 288 votes to twelve. A well-narrated episode is that following the Inchiquin Peace of 1648. Ceasefire with the notorious Inchiquin was a political necessity and the split was bad but not disastrous. This time Ormond’s friends on the supreme council silenced the nuncio, the centre held onto most of its agenda and Plunkett and French had returned empty-handed from Rome. At the same time the king was facing trial in England and even Ormond was desperate for a settlement.
New trends emerge from this study. The old ethnic divisions of Gaelic Irish and Old English were not much on display in the deliberations and disputes of the Confederates. These were latent tensions which Ormond tried to play on at the time and which Bellings subsequently emphasised in his partisan account of the conflict. What was conspicuous was the Confederates’ unity of purpose as Irish Catholics attempting to hold on to and restore their political, religious and property rights. Here the confederate oath was of singular binding importance representing as it did their ethos and their final negotiating position. For them maintenance of the oath was a sine qua non in the same way as the upholding of church and king was for the royalists or the Act of Adventurers for the parliamentarians. The real division, Ó Siochrú argues, was a class division. For instance Ulster landowners were accepted as equals whereas Owen Roe’s Ulster soldiers were hated because they perpetrated continual depredations being forced to live off the land outside their home province. He dispenses with the old terms of ‘Ormondist’ and ‘Nuncioist’ and/or ‘Clericalist’. The Ormondists were related or connected to Ormond but were by no means at his beck and call and contained Gaelic Irish like Muskerry as well as Old English. He reckons they would be better termed the ‘peace party’. The opponents likewise would be better known as the ‘war party’—they were not all clergy or Gaelic Irish or followers of Rinuccini. Out of this careful study emerges a group of moderates led by lawyers like Darcy, gentry like Plunkett and clergy like French who, steering the fortunes of the confederacy between the Scylla and Charybdis of war and peace kept their eyes on the prize of a lasting and just settlement. These men were activists working mainly in the General Assembly, who though a small core like the peace and war groupings, usually managed to sway the non-committed majority.
At the prompting of this group the general assembly proved a innovative body. In a sense it continued the constitutional development already begun by the 1640 parliament. The main reason for the growth in the General Assembly’s authority was its desire to control the Supreme Council, the confederate executive, which managed the negotiations with Ormond. A peace deal which allowed only the most powerful Catholics security of tenure and de facto toleration was no use to the grass roots. As a result beginning with the ‘Propositions’ of 1644 the assembly gradually exerted control over the executive, regulating its membership, forcing it to establish a separate judiciary and eventually taking charge of the peace process to such an extent that in the final lap Ormond had to negotiate with it as a body. As a result important concessions were eventually won on the religious, parliamentary and plantation fronts to the extent there was even a possibility that the unbeneficed Catholic clergy and the dispossessed Ulster Irish might have been satisfied in the end. The assembly also attempted as best it could to keep  the clerical interest under the thumb and the armies of the confederacy under civil authority. This lack of a centralised command was questionable though understandable; moreover the willingness of the civil arm to reward itself and its burgeoning posse of officeholders out of the meagre confederate tax-base deprived the army of much-needed resources for pay and munitions. It is plain that against a very difficult background, indeed because of it, Irish Catholics developed a highly sophisticated system of governance, one moving towards accountable, responsible and representative government. They did not lag behind the Scottish Covenanters or English Parliamentarians but were making similar strides. Furthermore like their contemporaries across the water they gave a constitutional configuration to a burgeoning confessional nationalism which in Ireland meant sinking centuries of difference between Gall and Gaedheal in the common name of Éireannach.
The study also throws up a hitherto unknown hero—Nicholas Plunkett. I knew about Darcy and French but little about Plunkett who was chairman of the General Assembly. He emerges as a John Hume-like figure trying to reconcile all parties, to keep the show on the road and at the end attain peace with justice by getting something for everyone.
Ó Siochrú compares Plunkett to John Pym who led the middle party in the English House of Commons in the 1640s. The story also has a villain—Ormond. From time to time aspersions are cast upon the actions of O’Neill, Rinuccini, and Preston but the author sees the lord lieutenant as the epitome of bad faith. This man served his own interests rather than his master’s bringing up the question of clerical property to undermine the first peace initiative and handing Dublin over to the English Parliamentarians to hold up and ultimately scupper the second. Bishop Nicholas French was surely right to publish his famous castigation entitled The Unkind Deserter of True Men and Loyal Friends  when Ormond continued to act in the same way after the Restoration.
This is an important book which is also reasonably priced and well-produced. It is a piece of positive revisionism about Ireland in the 1640s. Some of its findings will of course be challenged in due course but the main edifice it has constructed should stand the test of time.

Hiram Morgan


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