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…Right up to the 20th century, they were deployed as proof of Catholic barbarism and malice, justifying everything from the campaigns of Oliver Cromwell to resistance to Home Rule…
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Some objects resonate with their own times, but a few intrude themselves again and again into contemporary affairs. They remain available for use, not just as evidence of the past, but as warnings of a potential future. The 1641 Depositions—eight volumes of written testimonies of witnesses to the violent ethnic revolt that began in Ulster in that year and spread through much of the island, are objects of this sort. They contain evidence—mostly, but not exclusively, from Protestants—of murder,
assault and theft. Right up to the twentieth century, they were deployed as proof of Catholic barbarism and malice, justifying everything from the campaigns of Oliver Cromwell to resistance to Home Rule.
Pamphlets and books such as James Cranford’s The Teares of Ireland (1642), illustrated with luridly violent woodcuts, were circulated widely in England, along with hugely exaggerated claims for the numbers of dead. The depositions
were taken, as the lords justices in London explained,
because they might be of ‘great use… hereafter in due time, both for His Majesty’s advantage and perhaps the relief of some of the persons injured’. Many of the more sensational incidents were reported in hearsay. Phrases such as ‘believeth’, ‘thinketh’ and ‘hath credibly heard’ appear far more frequently in the deposition texts than ‘saw’ or ‘witnessed’. Yet, there is no doubt that the depositions do contain real evidence of great cruelty and traumatic suffering.
Many Protestants were killed and many others died as a result of exposure to a bitter winter, or of famine, as they were driven from their homes. The burning of bibles and the stripping naked of victims had overtones of ritual humiliation and sectarian hatred. Catholics also died as a result of the chaos and upheaval: roughly 5,000
Catholics and the same number of Protestants perished in the winter of 1641–2. The rising was not merely a response to the plantation of Ulster: many of its Catholic leaders had, in fact, retained their own lands. The immediate context, rather, was British. Scottish Presbyterians had revolted against Charles I, who was also in deep dispute with his own parliament. The rising was thus initially aimed at exploiting the weakness of the monarchy to gain concessions for Catholics. Instead, it helped push both islands into civil war.
Rebel plans to seize Dublin Castle failed, but Sir Phelim O’Neill, nephew of Hugh O’Neill, occupied strongholds across south Ulster, beginning with Dungannon on 22 October 1641. He issued a proclamation ordering that no harm be done to English or Scots settlers and claiming that the rebels were looking merely for their own freedom. The government blamed ‘ill-affected papists’ for the rising, and indiscriminate sectarian retaliation against Catholics prompted the Old English Catholics to join forces with the rebels. A meeting near Trim, Co. Meath, in November sealed the alliance that became known as the Confederate Association.
The rising had enormous consequences, not just for Irish but also for British history. It fatally undermined Charles in his struggle with parliament, and it led, ultimately, to the very thing it was intended to forestall: a much greater expropriation
of Catholic land and a triumph of Protestant power.