The 1641 Depositions: A Source for Social and Cultural History

Published in 1641 Rebellion, Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1993), Volume 1

by Nicholas Canny

It is a commonplace that the merit of any piece of historical investigation can be judged by the sources employed and by the questions asked by the historians of those sources. One of my silent criticisms of the work of the earlier generation of historians who had studied early modern Ireland was that few of them had made a consistent use of primary sources but had relied instead on calendars or printed compilations of documents where these were available. The shortcomings of this approach was especially evident for the sixteenth century where the printed calendars of state papers were desperately inadequate, but I was to discover in the course of my first piece of research, on the career of Hugh O’Neill 1603-7, that a close reading of primary sources was necessary even where the documents appeared to be well calendared. Moreover, as I sought to come to grips with Hugh O’Neill, I came to recognise that he could never be understood until we knew more of the involvement of the Elizabethan government with Ireland. This recognition led to my second foray into primary sources, this time on the state papers for the years 1550-1580. The principal published result of this study was my first book The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: a Pattern Established 1565-76: while some of the conclusions advanced in that book have since been challenged, one of its enduring influences has been to assert the authority of primary documents over calendared editions.
These efforts to ascertain English government policy in Ireland and the responses of Irish lords to this policy exposed me to the charge that I was ignoring Gaelic and Continental sources that would shed a different light on those events and would portray Irish actors more sympathetically. Even as this criticism was being made, the continental deposits were being mined by Micheline Walsh, and they have since been further exploited by such historians as Jerrold Casway, Gráinne Henry, Hiram Morgan and Tadhg O hAnnracháin. Their investigations have rounded out our understanding of the political and religious history of Ireland during the early modern centuries while the close study by several historians of official and private papers relating to landed property, as well as the investigation by Kenneth Nicholls of the surviving shreds of court records, have together told us much about the ownership and management of land.

The wealthy and the powerful

The criticism that can be levelled against all of this scholarship is that it is focused upon the concerns of the wealthy and the powerful; most sources in the Irish language whether in the formal tradition of Gaelic poetry or whether inspired by the zeal of the Catholic Counter-Reformation are also preoccupied with the concerns of the elite. As a consequence, historical writing on early modern Ireland, although more sophisticated and profound than that composed twenty or thirty years ago, is still organised around the triangular competition between Gaelic, Old-English-Catholic, and Protestant-settler groups for the ownership of land and for political control in Ireland. It was with a view to overcoming this bias towards the concern of elite groups that I dedicated myself, more than ten years ago, to work systematically through the body of documents known to historians as the 1641 Depositions.

Individuals of relatively modest circumstances

The attraction for me in this compilation of documents, which have been bound into thirty-two volumes housed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, is that most depositions were collected from individuals of relatively modest circumstances within the Protestant community in Ireland. In the course of making their sworn statements, many deponents offered narrations of varying length of their experiences during the winter months of 1641-2 when Protestants in all parts of the country were subjected to systematic assault after the authority of the government had been undermined by the Ulster Rising of October 1641. As part of their narratives, deponents identified those within their localities who had attacked them, they summarised whatever verbal exchanges had occurred between themselves and their assailants, and they detailed atrocities they had experienced, witnessed or heard reported. Deponents also frequently reflected upon their previous interactions with their Catholic neighbours — who had now become their persecutors — with a view to discerning hints or signs, which had not then seemed significant, that treachery was already being plotted. Such narrations, given at the moment when the victims of insurrection were calling for vengeance upon their enemies, obviously make biased evidence. This should not, however, put them outside the court of historical investigation because all documentary evidence — especially that relating to riot and insurrection — is biased, but historians are still obliged to use it as an aid to disentangling fact from fantasy.

Eye-witness reports

It has become clear from my own analysis of the narrative evidence that the hearsay reports of atrocity are unreliable when it comes to establishing what happened, but even the most ghoulish of such stories are important, if only to explain the terror of the settlers and why so many of them fled their homes even when they were not obliged to do so. On the other hand, I have found eye-witness reports of atrocity to be both plausible and reliable, and I have been able to check them for accuracy by relating individual narratives against the testimony of others who witnessed the same incidents. The assailants are invariably depicted in the worst possible light in all such reports, while the sufferings of the victims are dramatised or even exaggerated, but a close study of the depositions for particular regions is still warranted because one can establish precisely who suffered during the course of the disturbances and who their local assailants were. Moreover it is possible to establish that several different kinds of assault took place; some were made by soldiers of invading Catholic armies, some by captains of marauding bands that came into being at the moment that public order had broken down, and some by the erstwhile Catholic neighbours of Protestant settlers who took advantage of the opportunity to settle old scores or to seize goods and property that they had long coveted.
These narrations are valuable for the evidence they offer of how ordinary Protestants and Catholics from the same neighbourhood had related to each other both during the years of peace and at the moment of conflict. The evidence on such cultural encounters extends even to the level of language because we learn not only what words were exchanged between natives and newcomers but sometimes the language in which these words were spoken. These accounts of verbal exchanges also reveal something of the relative importance of religious difference, economic jealousy and political rivalry in bringing previous neighbours into conflict with each other within local communities in all parts of the country.


I have concentrated so far on the discursive element within the depositions because students who know but a little of them think of the depositions as an essentially literary source. This preconception is possibly explained by the fact that several of the longer narratives given under oath as depositions were soon printed in pamphlet form, while narrations were liberally pillaged by Protestant pamphleteers in search of lurid accounts that would support their own contention that a general massacre of Protestants in Ireland had been planned and attempted in 1641. This trend in Protestant writing on 1641, established in the seventeenth century, was persisted with down even into the present century, thus confirming for many the belief that the source is entirely made up of such narratives. The truth however is that only some depositions contain a narrative element, and only a tiny fraction (and these usually by clergymen) develop into extended narrative. The more typical deposition is a simple half-page statement in crabbed hand where the deponent (usually a man) gave his name, his precise place of residence in Ireland, his occupation or social position, and an inventory and valuation of the goods and chattels (including due debts) that he had lost as a consequence of the rebellion. Deponents usually mentioned the date when they were disturbed, and they frequently identified the perpetrator, but the only other detail on hostilities that was generally included was a listing of those whom they knew to have been killed within their locality. It will be clear from this that the depositions were collected at a time (the spring and summer of 1642) when the government assumed that its loss of authority would be but short lived. The principal concern of the deponents was therefore to place a value on what they had lost so that due compensation could be extracted from those who had robbed and dispossessed them.

Protestant tenants and artisans

Once account is taken of the format and content of a typical deposition, it becomes clear that the real value of the depositions as a source relates to the information they provide on social and economic conditions in Ireland. The depositions are especially useful because they broaden our understanding of the settler community in Ireland. For the parts of the country that were formally planted, the depositions enable us to put names and occupations to some of the settlers, who emerge only as statistics from the plantation surveys and musters which, up to now, have been our principal source of information on the organic development of plantations in Ireland. Perhaps even more important is the information the depositions provide on those parts of the country that were not formally planted. For these areas, including even the Pale, there is clear evidence that sizeable communities of Protestant tenants and artisans were established long before 1641, and the evidence in the depositions provides some hints as to how they first arrived in these localities. The inventories listed by the deponents reveal the use to which the settlers had put their skills subsequent to their arrival in Ireland, and there seems no reason to doubt this information, even if we presume that the value placed upon the goods lost and destroyed was exaggerated. The inventories also frequently detail the location of all land or urban property owned or leased by the deponents, and the deponents sometimes identified the landlords from whom these various parcels were held and upon what conditions. Most of the landlords thus identified were Protestant, but a significant number, and in all four provinces, were Catholic, including Sir Phelim O’Neill who led the initial revolt in UIster.

Essential genealogical data-bank

The debts listed by the deponents are also of value to historians because of what they reveal of the methods of exchange that had prevailed previous to 1641 . Sometimes also the lists of debts provide nuggets of information on economic activity within the Catholic community because deponents frequently identified by trade or occupation those Irish who were indebted to them. These are but some of the kinds of historical information that can be mined from this source, and the masses of names that appear make it an essential data-bank for the genealogist. We must also take account of the shortcomings of the depositions as a historical source, the most obvious of which is that they provide detailed information on the lives of only the Protestants who made the sworn testimony, and what we learn of their Catholic neighbours is incidental. There is also a social bias in the collection in favour of those Protestants who had significant losses to report, and a gender bias in favour of Protestant male heads of households. Yet another shortcoming is that the number of depositions collected in different regions was not proportionate to the number of Protestant settlers in those same regions. In this respect Munster and Leinster are the best represented provinces, and the small number of depositions from Connacht is a fair reflection of the limited settlement that had occurred there previous to 1641. The return is most disappointing for the province of Ulster where we know Protestant settlement to have been dense, at least in particular areas. The low return from Ulster is probably explained by the heavy mortality and severe disruption suffered by the settlement in that province.

Cromwellian courts

While admitting all of these shortcomings, I still find the depositions the essential source for the study of British settlement in Ireland during the first half of the seventeenth century. They tell us much on the lives of thousands of British people who made Ireland their home during the first half of the seventeenth century and on how they interacted with and eventually came into conflict with the Irish people with whom they shared its limited resources.
Finally, it should be noted that a second distinct but related compilation of documents is contained within the bound volumes of depositions. This second compilation was made during the Cromwellian years when many of those who had been identified as rebels by the earlier deponents were brought before the Cromwellian courts and forced to testify under oath on their activities in 1641-2. Also many of their original accusers who were still alive were brought forward to testify against them. These documents lack the spontaneity of the depositions collected in 1641-2 because they refer to events that had taken place eleven or more years previously. Furthermore they contain none of the economic detail of the previous documents, because official concern during the Cromwellian years was with conviction rather than compensation. The value of these later documents to the historian is that they assist with the identification of people who were involved on both sides of the conflict during the 1640s, and they reveal something of the age of those who took up arms in 1641 because all who were brought before the Cromwellian courts were required to state their ages. An account such as this will hopefully reveal something of the riches of the 1641 depositions as a source, and encourage scholars to dip into them. Those who do so should be aware that the handwriting is difficult, that there are no finding aids, and that the typescript calendar that accompanies the manuscripts is unreliable. Having said that I must say that an immersion in the manuscripts is worth the time and effort: in my experience it builds character while it sharpens understanding.

Nicholas Canny is Professor of Modern History at University College Galway.

Further reading:

A. Clarke, ‘The 1641 depositions’, in P. Fox (ed.), Treasures of the Library, Trinity College Dublin (Dublin 1986).

W.D. Love, ‘Civil war in Ireland: appearnaces in three centuries of historical writing’, in The Emory University Quarterly 22 (1966).

N.P. Canny, ‘The marginal kingdom; Ireland as a problem in the first British Empire’, in Strangers within the realm; cultural margins of the first British Empire (Chapel Hill 1991).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568