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Alexander, 10th Lord Forbes, and the Irish Rebellion of 1641

The Northern Ireland conflict was generally acknowledged to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. However, the “Troubles,” as it was also known, started centuries before and was exacerbated by many Scotsmen, including Alexander, 10th Lord Forbes.

Protestant Elizabeth I of England attempted to conquer largely Catholic Ireland from 1593 to 1603. In 1607, the leader of the resistance Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and many other powerful Irish chiefs departed for Spain, in the ultimately vain hope of gaining financial support from Catholic King Phillip III.

This “Flight of the Earls” left a power vacuum that Elizabeth I and her successor James I & VI attempted to fill by “planting” Protestant English and Scottish nobles in Ireland with large grants of land confiscated from the Irish Chiefs.

From 1638 to 1640, James’s successor King Charles I attempted to control the Church of Scotland. This caused his Scottish subjects who supported Presbyterianisn, called “Covenanters,” to rebel against his rule. However, the anti-Catholic members of the English Parliament refused to raise military funds since they were largely supportive of the Scottish Presbyterians. Instead, Charles raised an army of Irish Catholics from Ulster to put down the rebellion in Scotland. In reaction, members of both the Scottish and English Parliaments proposed to invade Ireland to thwart the royalist Irish Catholic army from attacking England or Scotland.

As a preventive measure, a small group of powerful Irish Catholics mobilized to capture the poorly defended but strategic Dublin Castle on October 23, 1641. However, their plans were betrayed to the British by a native Irish convert to Protestantism, Owen O’ Connolly. The was rebuffed and the battle turned bloody.

The next day, Sir Phelim O'Neill, one of the leaders of what the English called the “Irish Rebellion,” issued the Proclamation of Dungannon on October 24, 1641. He claimed to have been commissioned by King Charles I to lead Irish Catholics against Protestants who sympathized with Charles' opponents in the Parliament of England. However, Charles condemned the rebellion after it broke out. The uprising spread and turned into a religious and ethnic conflict with Irish Catholics on one side, and English and Scottish Protestant “plantation” colonists on the other.

Since the English Parliament did not trust King Charles to command an army, the English Parliament gave itself the power to raise armed forces and passed the Adventurers' Act in March 1642. This Act allowed wealthy Englishmen to fund armies and to be repaid with land confiscated from the rebels. In April 1642, with the approval of the English Parliaments, the Scottish Parliament sent its first Covenanter army to Ireland.

Confederate Irelan Battle Flag

In May 1642, Ireland's Catholic bishops declared the rebellion to be a “just war” and agreed with the Catholic nobility to establish an alternative government known as the Irish Catholic Confederacy. Ironically, their declaration of the “Confederate Oath of Association” recognized King Charles I as its monarch, even as the King was actively working against the Confederacy. The Confederacy established a parliament called the General Assembly, an executive branch called the Supreme Council, and an army.

As noted by Richard Bagwell, “To gain possession of the land in English hands was at least one main object of the Irish rebellion.” (Ireland Under the Stuarts and During the Interregnum, 1642-1660, 1909.) The actual combatants were as varied as their motives. Charles Smith reported that no fewer than five different combatants were engaged in the Irish Rebellion: the Irish Royalists headed by James Butler, the Earl of Ormond and later the Marquess of Ormond; the “Parliamentarians,” headed by “different persons in diverse parts of the kingdom;” Scots or “Covenanters” in the north; the army of the Irish Confederate Supreme Council, with such commanders as Thomas Preston, 1st Viscount Tara; and the military forces of Papal Nuncio Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, archbishop of Fermo, sent by Pope Urban VIII in 1645. (Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork, 1774.) Smith observed that “All these parties often changed sides, and fought against those, under whose ensigns they had first joined.”

As a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the Swedish Army in the Thirty Years’ War, Alexander, 10th Lord Forbes, requested funds and command of his own army from the Scottish Parliament. Parliament denied his request. As a result, Forbes secured the backing by English “Adventurers” for “additional forces” for the “relief of Ireland.”

Richard Bagwell provides much detail about the military campaigns of Lord Forbes. (Ireland Under the Stuarts and During the Interregnum, 1642-1660, 1909.) He reports that Lord Forbes sailed from Dover on July 1, 1642, with one thousand soldiers. On July 11, he arrived at Kinsale, which was “found to be full of justly suspected Irish and of Protestant refugees.” Forbes marched to Bandon in Kinalmeaky with 600 men and two small brass guns. Bagwell notes that “Seven thousand English, including many clergymen, had gathered round Kinalmeaky, many of them being in great distress.”

On the march, his troops had captured “about 1800 sheep, 200 cows, and 50 horses” and Forbes left three companies to guard the livestock. He took the rest of the forces to the relief of Englishman Captain Arthur Freke at Rathbarry Castle, whom had been besieged since the middle of February. The Irish attacked the detachment and killed most of two companies. The third company fought its way to an ancient circular earthwork on the Rosscarbery road. Forbes left Freke to rescue his men and then returned to Bandon. Forbes was unsuccessful in taking Timoleague Castle and his men burned the town and Timoleague Abbey, a Franciscan Friary.

Forbes returned to Kinsale, and on July 25, sailed farther down the southwestern coast to Castlehaven. There he burned Dunasead Castle, also known as Baltimore Castle, which was the ancestral home of the O'Driscoll family. Bagwell relates that “About 100 camp-followers of the worst kind followed Forbes’s wake. They entered and plundered houses without provocation, and even killed children within sight of the soldiers.”

Forbes then sailed north. Richard Cox notes that “on the Ninth of August, the Castle of Glin was taken by the Lord Forbes, who came with his Fleet from before Gallway.” (Hibernia Anglicana: Or, The History of Ireland from the Conquest thereof by the English, To this Present Time, 1689.) Forbes then anchored off Galway. As the self-styled “lieutenant-general of his majesty’s forces by sea and land,” he demanded that the citizens of Galway lay down their arms, admit a garrison, and place themselves under his protection. The mayor refused his terms and did not admit the soldiers. In the meantime, Forbes’s men burned many houses the north side of Galway Bay.

Forbes offered to subdue the rebellion by joining forces with Roger Jones, 1st Viscount Ranelagh, who was Lord President of the western province of Connaught and Chief Leader of the Army and Forces of Connaught. Bagwell includes the response from Ranelagh: “I see little hope of a speedy reducing this kingdom to obedience, seeing most men are possessed of an opinion that an utter extirpation is intended, and that conceit being fomented by the priests and friars, all are falling into such a course of desperation, that being once engaged and their counsels and force united, will certainly be an occasion to lengthen the war, and draw a vast charge upon the Crown to make a complete conquest.”

Forbes made the same offer to Ulick Ruadh Burke (or Burgh), 5th Lord of Clanricarde and Governor of Galway, one of the few Irish Roman Catholic lords to support the Royalist cause in Ireland against the Parliamentarians. Clanricarde was not inclined to accede to his wishes since Forbes had burned his cousin’s town of Timoleague. However, he agreed to meet with Forbes and Ranelagh at the fort at Tirellan. Bagwell reports that “Forbes propounded large schemes of conquest with the aid of the Scots army in Ulster, over the impracticability of which Ranelagh and Clanricarde had a good laugh together.”

James Hardiman relates that the two Irish lords “exerted all their power and influence to put a stop to these proceedings, and to persuade lord Forbes to withdraw his forces, and leave the town and country in quiet; but even these entreaties would have proved ineffectual, had he not perceived what little effect his battery had upon the walls, and that his men were becoming troublesome for want of payment.” (The History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway, 1820) Clanricarde returned to Loughrea and Ranelagh to Athlone.

Hardiman went on to report that Forbes “quit the bay on the 4th of September, and sailed for Limerick; after having, with brutal rage, defaced St. Mary's church, dug up the graves in that ancient burial-place of the town, and burnt the coffins and bones of those that lay there interred: which barbarous conduct served but make his memory detested, and exasperated the minds of a people already rendered almost desperate from the treatment which they received.”

Bagwell notes that “Sir Edward Denny continued to press for the relief of his castle at Tralee, but Forbes wasted two or three days in harrying the poor islands of Arran, and when at last he arrived off Ballingarry in Kerry it was only to hear that Tralee had fallen…”

On September 26, Forbes established a garrison and mounted guns on the walls of Glin Castle. This was the end of his expedition – since his ships had only been hired only until Michaelmas, September 29.

All told, Forbes captured five ships worth £20,000, burned many Irish towns, and “relieved” many English colonists. Forbes himself says in his correspondence that “through God's blessing he was instrumentall to the releeff of many thousands of his Majestie's Good subjects.” (Alistair and Henrietta Tayler, House of Forbes, 1937.) However, Bagwell summed up this expedition thus: “It is more certain that Forbes did everything in his power to aggravate the bitterness of a war which was already sufficiently horrible.”



  • Bagwell, Richard; Ireland Under the Stuarts and During the Interregnum, 1642-1660, 1909

  • Cox, Richard; Hibernia Anglicana: Or, The History of Ireland from the Conquest thereof by the English, to this Present Time, 1689.

  • Hardiman, James; The History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway, 1820

  • Smith, Charles; Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork, 1774.

  • Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta; House of Forbes, 1937.

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