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The Outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

Perceval-Maxwell's book on the outbreak of the Irish rebellion in October 1641 is a monumental achievement and a welcome addition to the growing body of research on a crucial event m early modem Irish history. The Byzantine complexity of the politics of the period, with its numerous plots, sub-plots, secret negotiations, and subsequent denials, has perplexed many commentators. Until recently, polemic rather than serious historical inquiry was the hallmark of writings on the 1640s, particularly concerning the vexed issue of whether there was a systematic massacre of the Protestant settlers in Ulster at this time. This controversy raged over three centuries with estimates for those killed ranging from a few thousand, up to six hundred thousand (a remarkable figure when you consider that the Protestant population in Ireland at this tune probably numbered no more than one hundred thousand!).

Recent examinations of the main historical source (the thirty-two volumes of depositions of Protestant refugees kept in Trinity College, Dublin) have produced a more credible version of events. Perceval-Maxwell in this book provides a valuable addition to our understanding of the issues involved by outlining, in some detail, the brutal response of the Dublin administration to the initial uprising in Ulster. The murderous activities of Charles Coote in Leinster and William St. Leger in Munster were crucial in alienating leading Irish catholics from the authorities and creating a broad-based revolt. He also shows that the administration's reluctance to trust the Pale nobility with arms was not a major contributory factor in their decision to rebel. More important was the adjournment of the Irish parliament, after a two-day session in November 1641, an act which denied Catholic politicians a legitimate forum to air their grievances.

Such insights, however, are to some extent peripheral to the main purpose of the book which is to analyse events leading up to the uprising itself. The author believes that the outbreak of the rebellion was primarily the consequence of the decisions of a handful of men, taken in the years immediately preceding it. For this reason he concentrates largely on constitutional politics and in particular the Irish parliament in 1640-41. There is an abundance of information here on the composition of political groupings, membership of committees, and debates in both the Commons and Lords. The Irish perspective to this study is balanced by what Perceval-Maxwell terms a more "British" approach. By this he means "placing more emphasis upon Scotland and England than is usually found among historians of Ireland" (p. xiii). Such an emphasis is particularly appropriate for this period as developments in Irish politics become increasingly linked with events in the other two Stuart kingdoms, most notably the trial of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford.

The focus on the immediate reasons for the uprising, to the exclusion of long term causes, is an interesting though limited approach. The broad consensus among historians that prior to the uprising Ireland was largely peaceful and prosperous, with integration more in evidence than confrontation, is in my opinion seriously flawed. The widespread nature of the uprising, and in particular the violent response of the lower social orders, challenges such assumptions and needs greater explanation than is provided here. There was clearly serious discontent with the course of events in Ireland in the preceding decades, without which the northern rising would have been no more than a limited, localized occurrence. To analyse the outbreak of the revolt, therefore, merely in the context of immediate events, inevitably produces an incomplete, and to some extent misleading, picture.

The most controversial element of the book, however, concerns the various plots being hatched during the course of 1641 by the northern Irish, the army colonels, the Old English of the Pale, and the Earl of Antrim. Secret plots and negotiations are notoriously difficult to reconstruct but Pereeval-Maxwell does an excellent job guiding the reader through the confusing and incomplete evidence. He claims that, contrary to the Earl of Antrim's later assertions, Charles never intended to use Strafford's Irish army against the Scots, but rather hoped that its very existence would be enough to intimidate his opponents. This was a crucial issue at the time as the king's parliamentary enemies at Wesminster were able to exploit fears of invading Irish Catholics to rally support for their cause.

Perceval-Maxwell's claim is keenly disputed by Dr. Jane Ohlmeyer in a number of articles in The Historical Journal. Ohhneyer has ably demonstrated that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that, for once, Antrim may have been telling the truth. Perceval-Maxwell in reply, however, concludes that one must assume a plot did not exist until stronger, more direct, evidence is available to show that it did. The jury is still out on this issue and may never be able to return a definite verdict.

The reasons for the events of 1641 are both varied and complex. Unfortunately they are not all adequately dealt with in this volume. Perceval-Maxwell has, however, produced a masterful account of parliamentary politics in Ireland and England during 1640-41, and the immediate causes of, and responses to, the uprising in Ulster. His research for this period is of such excellent quality, and so extensively detailed, that a similar book will surely never have to be written again.
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Author:O Siochru, Michael
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:873
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