- “Facts newly stated”: John Curry, the 1641 Rebellion, and Catholic Revisionism in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 1747–80
John Curry was a Catholic physician in Dublin who had arguably entered his profession by default. His grandfather had fought for James II, and the Curry family, who had lost most of their Cavan lands in the 1650s, had been stripped of their remaining holdings in the aftermath of the Williamite war of 1689–91. Consequently, Curry’s father became a merchant, and Curry himself studied medicine in Paris, eventually returning to Dublin, where he acquired a good reputation in his chosen profession. It was in Dublin on 23 October 1746 that he was confronted with a scene that spurred him into another field of endeavor:
As he passed through the Castle-yard on the memorial day of the Irish rebellion in 1641, he met two ladies, and a girl of about eight years of age, who, stepping on a little before them, turned about suddenly and, with uplifted hands and horror in her countenance, exclaimed, Are there any of those bloody papists in Dublin? This incident, which to a different hearer would be laughable, filled the doctor with anxious reflections. He immediately inferred that the child’s terror proceeded from the impression made on her mind by the sermon preached that day in Christ-Church, whence those ladies proceeded; and having procured a copy of the sermon, he found that [End Page 248] his surmise was well founded. In a spirit very different from that of the preacher, he immediately, on returning to his house, sat down to give some check to the hatred and asperity revived in these anniversary invectives, from seats set apart for the propagation of truth and benevolence among men.1
The sermon that the little girl heard was presumably one of those preached annually by ministers of the Church of Ireland on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Irish rebellion of 1641.2 The eventual result of what Curry overheard was a sequence of works that collectively made up the most formidable attempt to articulate a Catholic perspective on Irish history in general—and on 1641 in particular—to be undertaken since the seventeenth century. And given the deeply polarized sectarianism that characterized virtually all perspectives on the events of 1641, the significance of what Curry sought to do should not be underestimated.
In October 1641 a combination of fears for the position of the Catholic elite in Ireland, along with the simmering resentments prompted by the colonization of Ulster in the early decades of the seventeenth century, prompted the outbreak of a rebellion in Ulster. It was spearheaded by the Catholic gentry of Ulster, who sought a position of strength from which to negotiate with Charles I on issues of critical concern to them: the security of their lands and the exercise of their religion. But this limited purpose soon gave way to a popular uprising that targeted the British Protestant colonists who had settled in the northern province.3 The massacres and sectarian [End Page 249] attacks that took place were rapidly assimilated into a specifically Protestant tradition of remembrance that interpreted the rebellion as a wholesale attempt to exterminate Protestants in Ireland—an interpretation bolstered by a litany of appallingly brutal (and often exaggerated) atrocity stories that purported to reveal the precise nature of the sufferings inflicted upon them by the Catholic insurgents. But having been fortuitously delivered from extermination by the intervention of the English parliament in the midst of the Civil Wars of the 1640s, for much of the remainder of the seventeenth century and beyond, Protestants in Ireland retained a degree of concern that at some point in the future they might fall victim to another onslaught along the lines of what they perceived to have happened in 1641. This prospect was further complicated by the fact that after the wars of the 1640s and the Cromwellian confiscations of the 1650s from which so many of them benefitted, the Irish Protestant elite had collectively become the wealthiest and most powerful grouping in Ireland. Consequently, after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the newly entrenched Protestant...