In Ireland the reaction against the Great Rebellion united transiently the Protestants of the Pale and the Catholics in it and beyond. Even before the execution of Charles I James Butler, Earl of Ormonde, as lord lieutenant in Ireland, signed a treaty with the Confederate Catholics at Kilkenny (January 17, 1649), by which, in return for religious freedom and an independent Irish Parliament, they agreed to furnish him with fifteen thousand infantry and five hundred horse. Ormonde sent a message to the Prince of Wales, whom he immediately recognized as Charles II, inviting him to come to Ireland and lead a combined army of Protestants and Catholics. Charles chose to go to Scotland, but Cromwell decided to meet the Irish threat first.
When he landed at Dublin in August, Ormonde had already been defeated at Rathmines by troops adhering to the Commonwealth, and had retreated with his remaining 2,300 men into the fortified town of Drogheda on the Boyne. Cromwell besieged it with ten thousand soldiers, took it by storm (September 10, 1649), and ordered all the surviving garrison killed. 11 Some civilians were included in the massacre; every priest in the town was slain; 12 altogether some 2,300 died in this triumphant slaughter. Cromwell shared the credit with God: “I wish that all honest hearts may give the glory of this to God, to whom indeed the praise of this mercy belongs.” 13 He hoped that “this bitterness will save much effusion of blood, through the goodness of God”; 14 and we may allow his sincere belief that one such act of terror would quickly end the rebellion and save many lives on both sides.
But the war continued for three years. From Drogheda Cromwell passed to the siege of Wexford; it was soon taken; fifteen hundred of its defenders and inhabitants were slain; “God, by an unexpected providence in His righteous justice,” reported Cromwell, “brought a just judgment upon them . . . with their bloods to answer the cruelties which they had exercised upon the lives of divers poor Protestants.” 15 The policy of massacre failed. The towns of Duncannon and Waterford defied Cromwell’s siege; Kilkenny surrendered only after receiving terms that elsewhere had been refused; Clonmel was taken, but after a loss of two thousand men. Hearing that Charles II had reached Scotland, Cromwell left the further prosecution of the Irish war to his son-in-law Henry Ireton, and sailed to England (May 24, 1650).
Ireton was an able leader, but he died of plague on November 26, 1651. The policy of massacre was abandoned, pardon was offered to the rebels, and by the Articles of Kilkenny (May 12, 1652) nearly all of them surrendered on condition of being allowed to emigrate unhindered. An “Act for the Settling of Ireland” (August 12) confiscated part or all of the property of Irishmen—of whatever faith—who could not prove that they had been loyal to the Commonwealth; in this way 2,500,000 acres of Irish soil were transferred to English or Irish soldiers or civilians who had supported Cromwell in Ireland; two thirds of the soil of Ireland passed into the hands of Englishmen. 16 The counties of Kildare, Dublin, Carlow, Wicklow, and Wexford were formed into a new English Pale, and an attempt was made to exclude from them all Irish proprietors, then all Irishmen. Thousands of Irish families were dispossessed, and were given until March 1, 1655, to find other homes. Hundreds were shipped to Barbados or elsewhere on a charge of vagrancy.
Sir William Petty calculated that out of a total population of 1,466,000 in Ireland in 1641, 616,000 had perished by 1652, by war, starvation or plague. In some counties, said an English officer, “a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature, either man or beast or bird.” “The sun,” said another, “never shined upon a nation so completely miserable.” 17 The Catholic religion was outlawed; all Catholic clergymen were ordered to leave Ireland within twenty days; to harbor a priest was made punishable by death; severe penalties were decreed for absence from Protestant services on Sunday; magistrates were authorized to take away the children of Catholics and send them to England for education in the Protestant faith. 18 All the inhumanity that was to be visited by Catholics upon the Protestants of France in 1680–90 was visited by Protestants upon the Catholics of Ireland in 1650–60. Catholicism became an inseparable part of Irish patriotism because the Church and the people were fused in a community of suffering. Those bitter years remained in Irish memory as an undying heritage of hate.