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The Big Lie

The Shadow of a Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory

By John Gibney

Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press

Pages: 244 pages

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

If to rob a man of his good name for a lifetime is to rob him of his most precious possession, what is it then to rob an entire people of their good name for centuries? The Big Lie about the 1641 rebellion was just such a robbery of the Irish people. It stands at the root of Irish suffering for centuries, even casting a shadow across the Irish Famine of the 1840s. John Gibney’s scholarly book The Shadow of a Year offers an illuminating account of this grave injustice.

Gibney begins by giving the Protestant version of the rebellion. In Ulster, the Irish had recently been dispossessed of their land by English and Scottish settlers, and on October 23, 1641, a mob broke out against these settlers. In the official Protestant account, religion was the reason for the uprising, and it was immediately depicted as a sectarian genocide organized by Irish Catholics. Henry Jones, Anglican dean of Kilmore, said the rebellion had been caused by the “innate bigotry and brutality” of the Irish and ordered by the Pope and Jesuits. Jones headed a commission that collected thousands of depositions about what happened — but these depositions were only from Protestants. In March 1642 he presented lurid extracts from these depositions to the English Parliament, published as A Remonstrance. Thus, says Gibney, the “atrocity propaganda” was first printed in England “for an English audience.”

The Protestant account was used to justify the Cromwellian confiscations of Irish lands from 1649 to 1653, which amounted, Gibney says, to “perhaps half of the available land in Ireland.” In 1649 Cromwell justified the atrocities his New Model Army committed against Catholics in Drogheda and Wexford as a “righteous judgment” for the rebellion of 1641. When the Catholic bishops of Ireland protested that the army seemed bent on “exterminating” the Irish, Cromwell replied that “the massacres of 1641 had yet to be avenged.”

Thus, much depended on the truth of what had taken place. Despite Catholic denials, the Protestant version of 1641 would henceforth be used to deprive Catholics of their lands and also — for the next 150 years — of religious liberty. The 1652 Act for the Settling of Ireland exempted from pardon all Catholic priests on the ground that they had abetted the “murders or massacres” of Protestants in 1641.

Only a tiny fraction of the depositions taken by Henry Jones were about atrocities, yet Sir John Temple, in his book The Irish Rebellion (1646), presented these tales as representative of the whole. Temple’s account was still being described in 1887 as “an almost infallible witness against Catholicism,” even though it was composed, Gibney says, chiefly “to bolster the case for a prospective reconquest of Ireland under the auspices of the English parliament.”

From the first, Protestant historians gave a wildly implausible death toll of those murdered by Catholics in 1641. In March 1643 the Irish Lord Justices put it at 154,000, a figure taken from the “unsubstantiated assertion of Robert Maxwell, an Armagh clergyman of Scottish extraction.” They used this number to block Parliament from coming to terms with Irish Catholics, since that might have saved their lands. Many gave a death toll of 300,000 based on Temple’s Irish Rebellion, but what Temple wrote was that 300,000 English Protestants had been murdered, died of other causes, or been “expelled out of their habitations.” There is a big difference between being forced out of your home and being murdered. Catholics denied that there had even been 100,000 Protestants in Ireland at the time. Meanwhile, in 1649 the Puritan poet John Milton — a rabid enemy of Catholics — put the number of those massacred in 1641 at 600,000.

This Big Lie became the foundational myth of colonial Ireland: It was on the basis of the 1641 rebellion that the 1662 Act of Settlement upheld the Cromwellian confiscations. Also in 1662 the Irish Parliament passed an act ordering the Anglican Church of Ireland to commemorate 1641 with an annual sermon on October 23. The state church added new prayers about 1641, incorporating them into the Irish Book of Common Prayer in 1666, where they remained until 1859, giving religious sanction to an egregious slander against the Irish people.

What can be said of a Christian worship turned into a self-righteous justification for oppression? Where was the Christian charity? In addition to a church service, the annual commemoration included public drinking, bell ringing, a gun salute, a bonfire, and a parade. By the end of the 17th century, a new colonial order prevailed in Ireland, with 800,000 Irish Catholics dispossessed and disenfranchised by 200,000 English and 100,000 Scottish Protestants — and government troops to enforce it.

Rationalists embraced the Big Lie: David Hume harped on the atrocities of 1641, and Voltaire wouldn’t listen to any arguments against the “reality” of the 1641 massacres, linking them to the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. For Hume and Voltaire, Gibney says, 1641 was a “genocidal sadism prompted by little more than hatred based on superstition.” When religious liberty for Catholics was debated in Ireland’s House of Lords in 1793, the Anglican bishop of Cashel rose up to defend the persecution of Catholics by reading aloud a “lurid extract about 1641 from David Hume.”

On the other side, the Catholic version of 1641 remained virtually the same from the 17th to the 19th century. Catholics said that the atrocities attributed to them were “inventions” used to justify their dispossession, that the death toll for Protestants was wildly exaggerated, and that in 1641 Protestants had been the first to inflict terrible brutalities on Irish Catholics across the land.

In 1662 a certain “R.S.” published a Collection of Some of the Murthers and Massacres Committed on the Irish in Ireland Since the 23rd of October 1641. Since Catholics had no freedom of the press, this tract was quickly suppressed and publicly burned in Ireland. Yet it gives, Gibney says, “a reasonably sober account of various brutalities visited on Catholics by Protestants and, later, by parliamentary forces.” R.S. ridicules the inflated death toll given for Protestants “on the reasonable grounds that the figures commonly given far exceeded the Protestant population in Ireland.” Moreover, he recounts how in one night English and Scottish soldiers massacred all the residents of Islandmagee — 3,000 men, women, and children — though no one in County Antrim was in rebellion. R.S. follows this with reports of similar massacres conducted by government troops, county by county.

In 1668 Catholic Bishop Nicholas French said that in 1641 “four hundred English could not be found murdered in Ireland.” In 1684 the Earl of Castlehaven wrote that the rebellion of 1641 arose from legitimate grievances and that the Lord Justices were the ones intent on “exterminating” all the Irish “who would not conform to the established church.” In Ireland’s Case Briefly Stated (1695), Hugh Reily argues that the Lord Justices needed a pretext to confiscate Irish land, so they authorized the massacres at Santry, Contarf, Bullock, Islandmagee, and Carrickfergus to provoke a rebellion. While the death toll given for Protestants was “absolutely impossible,” Catholics died in “much greater numbers.”

The major spokesman for the Irish in the 18th century was John Curry, who asked in his Brief Account (1746) why 1641 was “trumped up” with so many “unjust” exaggerations against his people. He declares that they had not committed a murder in 1641 that had not been “returned upon them at least four fold,” and that the official version was a slander “deliberately and cynically adopted to blacken the name of the Catholic Irish amid the formulation of the land settlement of the 1660s, and thereby used to dispossess them.” Edmund Burke sympathized with Curry, but to save his career in England he left his most important work on the topic unpublished: His “Tracts Relating to the Popery Law” (1765) declares that the Catholic rebellions in Ireland were not “produced by toleration but by persecution” and “arose not from just and mild government but from the most unparalleled oppression.”

In 1819 Matthew Carey published Vindiciae Hibernicae in America, with later editions carrying the commendations of Presidents John Adams and James Madison. By then the Big Lie about 1641 had been spread in this country by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. Carey laments that the slander is, in his day, “almost as thoroughly believed as the best established fact in the annals of the world.” He asserts that there was no massacre in 1641 except for what the Dublin administration “perpetrated against the Irish” to confiscate their land, and he rightly calls the “penal laws” that deprived the Irish of religious freedom for 150 years “tyranny…covered by as base a cloak of hypocrisy as the annals of the world can produce.” He also neatly dissects the various death tolls given for Protestants and shows them to be based, Gibney says, on “forgery and perjury.”

A Catholic account of 1641 was produced by Daniel O’Connell in Memoir on Ireland Native and Saxon (1843), in which he argues that all the suffering of the Irish after 1641 stemmed “largely from calculated and gross Protestant misrepresentations of Catholic conduct during the rebellion.” He sees the lies surrounding 1641 as “the demoniacal means by which Protestantism and English power achieved their ascendancy in Ireland.”

Toward the end of The Shadow of a Year, Gibney discusses the late-19th-century debate between historians James Anthony Froude and W.E.H. Lecky. In The English in Ireland (1872-1874) Froude characterizes the Irish as “a savage, turbulent, and violent people” who needed civilizing by the English. Predictably, he takes the depositions compiled by Jones at face value, gives “uncritical acceptance” to the official version of 1641, and points to the “solemn annual commemoration” in the state church. Lecky responds in his History of Ireland (1892) by saying that the fantastic stories about Catholic atrocities were due to “Protestant designs on Catholic estates” and to the fear that the Irish might otherwise save their lands by “coming to terms” with the English government. He concedes that a rebellious mob in Ulster had committed awful crimes, but these had been “grossly, absurdly, and mendaciously exaggerated…almost beyond any other tragedy on record.” He discredits Sir John Temple as the one who “bore more responsibility than any other for propagating the notion of a massacre” and calls the depositions collected by Jones “untrustworthy.”

The Big Lie continued to propagate in the 20th century. Ernest Hamilton, in Soul of Ulster (1917), a work Gibney describes as “racist and sectarian,” suggests that the death toll for Protestants in 1641 could have been over a million and that “the soul of the native Irish has not at the present day changed by the width of a hair” from that time. Maude Glasgow, in The Scotch-Irish in North America (1936), repeats Milton’s assertion “without qualification” that 600,000 Protestants had been massacred.

At a 1998 conference at the University of Notre Dame commemorating the Tyrone Rebellion of 1798, I happened to see a new book by Ian McBride among the many on display. I skimmed it and discovered that he too reasserted the Big Lie about 1641. When I pointed this out to several people who were attending the conference, I was met with weary shrugs and the response, “What else is to be expected from McBride?”

Recently, the one-sided and mendacious depositions compiled by Henry Jones have been digitized. Gibney (and Ian Paisley) thinks this is a great idea, but I’m not convinced. In Alice Curtayne’s The Trial of Oliver Plunkett (1953), we read that the same Jones, who joined Cromwell’s army in 1649 and was promoted to Anglican bishop of Meath in 1661, was busy collecting new perjurers in 1680 to testify against St. Oliver Plunkett (who was found guilty of high treason for a fictitious plot to bring in the French army and restore the Catholic Church by force of arms). The Protestant duke of Ormonde, viceroy of Ireland, referred to Jones in a letter to his son as “not only a spiteful but a false informer.” Yes, Ormonde called him a liar. It seems that Jones’s Big Lie about 1641 is like a vampire that keeps resuscitating itself every century. We can hope and pray that Gibney’s book has thrust a stake through its beastly heart.

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