- The Shadow of a Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory by John Gibney, and: The Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms by Eamon Darcy
Initially conceived as a measured protest against the policies of Charles I along the lines of the recent Scottish resistance to that monarch, the native Irish rebellion of October 1641 swiftly became a popular uprising that plunged Ireland into a bloody civil war that lasted almost twenty years and helped drive the king and his parliament toward armed conflict in England. A key feature of the Irish rebellion, at least in its initial stages, was the alleged and widely reported indiscriminate massacre of tens of thousands of Protestant settlers, men, women, and children, with very many perishing in circumstances of the utmost cruelty. The details of these alleged atrocities were subsequently collected by parliamentary commissioners in some 8000 depositions—individual witness statements—totaling around 19,000 pages of manuscript testimony. Residing in the library of Trinity College Dublin for several hundred years, these documents were rarely utilized in scholarly works, with Michael Perceval-Maxwell’s The Outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 (Montreal, 1994) and Nicholas Canny’s Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 (New York, 2001) as notable exceptions in this regard. These depositions have now been fully digitized (available at http://1641.tcd.ie/). The two books under review, both by [End Page 157] young scholars, make excellent use of this newly available resource and both address many of the questions raised concerning the depositions since the 1640s.
John Gibney’s book deals almost entirely with the history of the history of the 1641 rebellion, the memory of that event in Protestant consciousness, the uses to which that memory was put, the bitter disputes as to the reliability of the depositions, and the continuing resonance of 1641 over the next centuries. In particular, he explores in an illuminating way the continuing controversy between Catholic and Protestant writers over the meaning of the 1641 rebellion. Was it a pitiless onslaught on a defenseless Protestant community carried out with unprecedented atrocities that left hundreds of thousands dead? Or was the rebellion a justified response to dispossession and repression in which a handful of casualties was magnified into a wholesale massacre? The stakes in this acrimonious war of words were high, for Catholic atrocities would be deployed to justify Protestant revenge; Protestant ascendancy; and, of course, eternal Protestant vigilance. In times of crisis for Protestant Ireland—1688, 1798, 1912—the “black legend” of 1641 would be pressed into service to show that Protestants could never enjoy security or liberty where Catholics held power. Central to all of this were the depositions themselves. Revered by Protestants as a foundational martyrology that revealed for all time the true nature of Irish Catholics, these same documents were reviled by Catholics as an enormous heap of hearsay, gossip, rumor, fantasy, and fable. Amidst all of this clamor, few took the opportunity actually to consult the depositions, preferring instead to rely on the selection printed in such works as Sir John Temple’s The Irish Rebellion (London, 1646) or Samuel Clarke’s A Generall Martyrologie (London, 1651).
Gibney has steeped himself in the polemical literature surrounding the ensuing history of the 1641 rebellion, and his analysis of these issues is meticulous and scrupulous. He duly acknowledges his debt to the American historian Walter D. Love, who had embarked on a similar project only for it to be terminated by his untimely death in 1966. Perhaps Gibney could have made more of the sermon literature devoted to the memory of the rebellion. From the...