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Confederate Ireland refers to the period of Irish self-government between the Rebellion of 1641 and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. During this time, two-thirds of Irelandmarker was governed by the Irish Catholic Confederation, also known as the "Confederation of Kilkenny" (based in the city of Kilkennymarker). The remaining Protestant enclaves in Ulster, Munster and Leinster were held by armies loyal to the royalist, parliamentarians or Scottishmarker Covenanters during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Confederates failed to defeat the British armies in Ireland in 1642–49 in a conflict known as the Irish Confederate Wars and joined a royalist alliance in 1648 against the Rump Parliament.

Rebellion and the formation of the Confederation

This is a political history, for a military history of the period, see Irish Confederate Wars
The Catholic Confederation was formed in the aftermath of the 1641 rebellion, both to control the popular uprising and to organise an Irish Catholic war effort against the remaining British armies in Ireland. It was hoped that by doing this, the Irish Catholics could hold off an English or Scottish re-conquest of the country. The initiative for the Confederation came from a Catholic bishop, Nicholas French and a lawyer named Nicholas Plunkett. They put forth their proposals for a government to Irish Catholic nobles such as Viscount Gormanston, Viscount Mountgarret and Donagh MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry. These men committed their own armed forces to the Confederation and persuaded other rebels to join it. Members of the Confederation took an oath on joining to uphold the Roman Catholic religion, the King's Rights and the liberty of Ireland.


The Confederate's constitution was written by another lawyer, a Galwaymarker man named Patrick D'Arcy. The parliamentary electorate was largely similar to the Irish parliament, representing only the larger landowners and merchants. The Confederate government was composed of a General Assembly, a parliament in all but name, elected from and by Irish landowners and Catholic clergy, which in turn elected an executive known as the Supreme Council. Initially, the Supreme Council had twenty-five members, six from each of the four Irish provinces (the twenty-fifth member was the Earl of Castlehaven, an English Catholic aristocrat who was supposed to represent the interests of the Crown). The General Assembly and the Supreme Council both met in the city of Kilkennymarker, with the Assembly being called annually to review the work of the Supreme Council. The Confederates immediately set up an extensive system of taxation to finance the war, and sent envoys to the Catholic powers in continental Europe.

Members of the Supreme Council of the Confederation of Kilkenny, November 1642

Leinster Ulster Connaught Munster
Thomas Fleming Hugh O'Reilly Malachias O'Queely Viscount Roche
Viscount Gormanstown Arthur Magennis Viscount Mayo Daniel O'Brien
Nicholas Plunkett Philip O'Reilly Bishop of Clonfert Edmund Fitzmorris
Richard Bellings Col. MacMahon Lucas Dillon Dr Fennel
James Cusack Heber Magennis Geoffrey Brown Robert Lambert
Viscount Mountgarret Tirlogh O'Neill Patrick D'Arcy George Comyn

James Tuchet, 3rd Earl of Castlehaven, representing the Crown, was the final member of the Supreme Council.


However, the Confederate Catholic Association of Ireland never actually claimed to be an independent government, because (in the context of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms) they professed to be Royalists, loyal to Charles I. Since only the King could legally call a Parliament, the Confederate General Assembly never claimed to be a Parliament either, although it acted like one. In negotiations with the Royalists, the Confederates demanded that all concessions made to them would be ratified in post war Irish Parliament, which would have resembled the Confederate General Assembly including some Protestant Royalists.

The Confederate's stated objective was to reach an agreement with the King. The ambitions were: full rights for Catholics in Ireland, toleration of the Catholic religion, and self-government for Ireland. Their campaign for religious equality in 1628-34 had been promised but then shelved by Charles. The motto of the Confederation was Pro Deo, Rege et Patria, Hibernia Unanimis ( ).

The members of the Supreme Council were predominantly of Old English descent and were distrusted by many of the Gaelic Irish, who felt they were too moderate in their demands. The more radical Confederates pressed for a reversal of the plantations and the establishment of Catholicism as state religion in Ireland.

The Confederates believed that their aspirations were best served by alliance with the royalist cause and therefore made supporting the King a central part of their strategy. This was because the English Parliament and Scottish Covenanters had threatened before the war to invade Ireland and destroy the Catholic religion and Irish land-owning class. The King, by contrast, had repeatedly promised them some concessions. The difficulty for Charles was that he was horrified at the 1641 rebellion and had signed the Adventurers Act into law in 1642, which proposed confiscating all rebel held lands in Ireland. A new policy of refusing pardon to any Irish rebels had also been agreed in London and Dublin (issuing pardons had been a common method to end Irish conflicts in the previous century). Therefore his forces remained hostile to the Confederates until 1643, when his military position in England started to weaken. Many of the Confederate gentry stood to lose their land under the Adventurers Act; it galvanized their efforts and they realized that it could only be repealed by taking a loyal stance.

However, while the moderate Confederates were anxious to come to an agreement with Charles I and did not press for radical political and religious reforms, others wished to force the King to accept a self-governing Catholic Ireland before they came to terms with him. Failing that, they advocated an independent alliance with Francemarker or Spainmarker.

Cessation with the royalists

In 1643, the Confederates negotiated a "cessation of arms" (or ceasefire), with the royalists in Ireland and opened negotiations with James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, the King's representative in Ireland. This meant that hostilities ceased between the Confederates and Ormonde's royalist army in Dublinmarker. However, the English garrison in Corkmarker (which was commanded by Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin, a rare Gaelic Irish Protestant) objecting to the ceasefire, mutinied and declared allegiance to the English Parliament. The Scottish Covenanters had also landed an army in Ulster in 1642, which remained hostile to the Confederates and to the king — as did the forces of the British settlers living in Ulster.

In 1644, the Confederates sent around 1,500 men under Alasdair MacColla to Scotlandmarker to support the royalists there under James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose against the Covenanters, sparking a Civil War — their only intervention on the Royalist side in the civil wars in Britain.

The Papal Nuncio's arrival

The Confederates received modest subsidies from the monarchies of France and Spain, who wanted to recruit troops in Ireland but their main continental support came from the Papacy. Pope Innocent X strongly supported Confederate Ireland, over the objections of Mazarin and the Queen, Henrietta Maria, who had moved to Paris in 1644. Innocent received the Confederation's envoy in February 1645 and resolved to send a nuncio extraordinary to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, archbishop of Fermo, who embarked from La Rochellemarker with the Confederacy's secretary, Richard Bellings. He took with him a large quantity of arms and military supplies and a very large sum of money. These supplies meant that Rinuccini had a big influence on the Confederate's internal politics and he was backed by the more militant Confederates such as Owen Roe O'Neill. At Kilkenny Rinuccini was received with great honours, asserting that the object of his mission was to sustain the King, but above all to help the Catholic people of Ireland in securing the free and public exercise of the Catholic religion, and the restoration of the churches and church property, but not any former monastic property.

The first "Ormonde Peace"

The nuncio considered himself the virtual head of the Confederate Catholic party in Ireland. By March 1646, however, the Supreme Council of the Confederates had come to an agreement with Ormonde, signed March 28 1646. Under its terms Catholics would be allowed to serve in public office and found schools; there were also verbal promises of future concessions on religious toleration. There was an amnesty for acts committed in the Rebellion of 1641 and a guarantee against further seizure of Irish Catholic land. The Supreme Council also put great hope in a secret treaty they had concluded with the Earl of Glamorgan on the King's behalf, which promised further concessions to Irish Catholics in the future.

However, there was no reversal of Poynings Law which subordinated the Irish Parliament to the English one, no reversal of the Protestant domination of Parliament and no reversal of the main plantations, or colonisation, in Ulster and Munster. Moreover, regarding the religious articles of the treaty, all churches taken over by Catholics in the war would have to be returned to Protestant hands and public practice of Catholicism was not guaranteed.

In return for the concessions that were made Irish troops would be sent to England to fight for the royalists in the English Civil War. However, the terms agreed were not acceptable to either the Catholic clergy, the Irish military commanders — notably Owen Roe O'Neill and Thomas Preston — or the majority of the General Assembly. Nor was Rinuccini the papal nuncio party to the treaty, which left untouched the objects of his mission; he had induced nine of the Irish bishops to sign a protest against any arrangement with Ormonde or the king that would not guarantee the maintenance of the Catholic religion.

Many believed the Supreme Council were unreliable, since many of them were related to Ormonde or otherwise bound to him. Besides, it was pointed out that the English Civil War had already been decided in the English Parliament’s favour and that sending Irish troops to the royalists would be a futile sacrifice. On the other hand, many felt after O’Neill’s Ulster army defeated the Scots at the battle of Benburb in June 1646 that the Confederates were in a position to re-conquer all of Ireland. Furthermore, those who opposed the peace were backed, both spiritually and financially, by Rinuccini, who threatened to excommunicate the "peace party". The Supreme Council were arrested and the General Assembly voted to reject the deal.

Military defeat and a new Ormonde peace

After the Confederates rejected the peace deal, Ormonde handed Dublin over to a parliamentarian army under Michael Jones. The Confederates now tried to eliminate the remaining parliamentarian outposts in Dublinmarker and Corkmarker, but in 1647 suffered a series of military disasters. First, Thomas Preston’s Leinster army was destroyed by Jones’s parliamentarians at the Battle of Dungan's Hill in County Meathmarker. Then the Confederates Munster army met a similar fate at the hands of Inchiquin’s parliamentarian forces at the battle of Knocknanauss.

These setbacks made most Confederates much more eager to come to reach an agreement with the royalists and negotiations were re-opened. The Supreme Council got generous terms from Charles I and Ormonde, including toleration of the Catholic religion, a commitment to repealing Poynings Law (and therefore to Irish self-government), recognition of lands taken by Irish Catholics during the war and a commitment to a partial reversal of the Plantation of Ulster. In addition, there was to be an Act of Oblivion, or amnesty for all acts committed during the 1641 rebellion and Confederate wars — in particular the killings of British Protestant settlers in 1641 — and the Confederate armies would remain in existence.

However Charles granted these terms only out of desperation and later repudiated them. Under the terms of the agreement, the Confederation was to dissolve itself, place its troops under royalist commanders and accept English royalist troops. Inchiquin also defected from the Parliament and rejoined the royalists in Ireland.

Civil War within the Confederation

However, many of the Irish Catholics continued to reject a deal with the royalists. Owen Roe O'Neill refused to join the new royalist alliance and fought a brief internal civil war with the royalists and Confederates in the summer of 1648. So alienated was O'Neill by what he considered to be a betrayal of Catholic war aims that he tried to make a separate peace with the English Parliament and was for a short time effectively an ally of the English parliamentary armies in Ireland. This was disastrous for the wider aims of the Confederacy, as it coincided with the outbreak of the second civil war in England. The Papal Nuncio, Rinuccini, endeavored to uphold Owen Roe O'Neill by excommunicating all who in May 1648 took part in the Inchiquin Truce with the Royalists; but he could not get the Irish Catholic Bishops to agree on the matter. On February 23, 1649, he embarked at Galway, in his own frigate, to return to Rome.

It is often argued that this split within the Confederate ranks represented a split between Gaelic Irish and Old English. It is suggested that a particular reason for this was that Gaelic Irish had lost much land and power since the English conquest of Ireland and hence had become radical in their demands. However, there were members of both ethnicities on either side. For example, Phelim O’Neill, the Gaelic Irish instigator of the Rebellion of 1641, sided with the moderates, whereas the predominantly Old English south Wexford area rejected the peace. The Catholic clergy were also split over the issue.

The real significance of the split was between those landed gentry who were prepared to compromise with the royalists as long as their lands and civil rights were guaranteed, and those, such as Owen Roe O'Neill, who wanted to completely overturn the British presence in Ireland. They wanted an independent, Catholic Ireland, with the British settlers expelled permanently. Many of the militants were most concerned with recovering ancestral lands their families had lost in the plantations. After inconclusive skirmishing with the Confederates, Owen Roe O'Neill retreated to Ulster and did not rejoin his former comrades until Cromwell’s invasion of 1649. This infighting fatally hampered the preparations of the Confederate-royalist alliance to repel the invasion of parliamentarian New Model Army.

Cromwell's invasion

Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649 to crush the new alliance of Irish Confederates and royalists. The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland was the bloodiest warfare that had ever occurred in the country and was accompanied by plague and famine. It ended in total defeat for the Irish Catholics and royalists. Most of the senior members of the Confederation spent the Cromwellian period in exile in France, with the English Royalist Court. After the Restoration, those Confederates who had promoted alliance with the Royalists found themselves in favour and recovered their lands. However, those who remained in Ireland throughout the Interregnum invariably had all their land confiscated and in many cases were executed or transported to penal colonies. The pre-war Irish Catholic land-owning class was all but totally destroyed in this period, as were the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church.


Confederate Ireland was arguably the only sustained attempt at Catholic Irish self-government between 1558 and the foundation of Irish Free State in 1922. Its style of parliament was similar to the landed oligarchy Irish parliament established by the Normans in 1297, but it was not based on a democratic vote. Given their large notional power base, the Confederates ultimately failed to manage and reorganize Ireland so as to defend the interests of Irish Catholics. The Irish Confederate Wars and the ensuing Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-53) caused massive loss of life and ended with the confiscation of almost all Irish Catholic owned land in the 1650s, though much was re-granted in the 1660s. The end of the period cemented the British colonisation of Ireland in the so-called Cromwellian Settlement.

See also


  • O'Siochru, Micheal, Confederate Ireland 1642-49, Four Courts Press Dublin 1999.
  • Lenihan, Padraig, Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49, Cork University Press, Cork 2001.
  • Ohlmeyer, Jane and Kenyon, John (ed.s), The Civil Wars, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1998.
  • Canny, Nicholas, Making Ireland British 1580-1650, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001.
  • Meehan, C.P, Confederation of Kilkenny

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