Weekly Series on Centenary of Events of 1919 - 1921 in Laois, Offaly, North Tipperary
BEGINS JANUARY 2019
Around Camross, the decades that followed the march of the O’Neills and the O’Donnells were relatively quiet. The area was still heavily forested and was barely populated but as John Feehan points out ‘castles and fortified farms began to appear in a still wild and uncertain landscape’. However, this relatively peaceful period was not to last long, as was often the case in early modern Ireland. The situation in the three kingdoms was deteriorating rapidly. In England, the parliament was at loggerheads with King Charles I. They looked upon his marriage to a French Catholic with suspicion and they were opposed to his belief in the divine right of kings and the royal prerogative. There was a crisis in Scotland where a war was raging over the rights of the Crown to interfere with the Church of Scotland. And in Ireland the condition of the remaining landed Catholic gentry was deteriorating under Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth’s rule.
A failed attempt was made to seize control of the government in Dublin which led to a widespread rebellion in 1641 throughout the island. The loyalty to the Crown shown by previous generations of the Barons of Upper Ossory was not shared by the Fitzpatricks of the early 1640s. They were strident opponents to English rule and one of the most prominent rebel leaders in Laois during the rebellion was Florence Fitzpatrick of Castletown, heir to John Fitzpatick. His deeds and the deeds of the rebels that he commanded are described in graphic detail in the 1641 Depositions collection currently housed in Trinity College Dublin.
But before we look at these depositions, it is very important to look at the context within which the depositions were taken. As the violence in 1641 escalated, English and Scottish settlers fled to the Pale around Dublin for their safety. Authorities in Dublin realised that drastic measures were needed to quell the violence and unrest in Ireland so they decided to speak to the refugees that were coming into the capital and have them explain what the native Irish had done to them. The ‘Commission for the Despoiled Subject’ was established to gather this information and it consisted of eight Church of Ireland clergymen and the 8,000 statements that they heard and transcribed became collectively known as the 1641 Depositions. The depositions’ content became the basis of the justification for the putting down of the Irish rebellion with such force and the invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army in 1649.
Much of the contents of these depositions is truly harrowing. The Irish rebels are portrayed as being akin to demonic beings who were committing near unspeakable acts upon the English settlers. But the fact that the depositions themselves were used to justify later atrocities brings into the mind of an unbiased observer the possibility for exaggeration and unreliability. Indeed, a project in 2011 which looked at the language of the depositions all but proved that the statements were largely based upon wild rumour and could not be demonstrated to be legitimate and credible sources of information. For instance, the linguistic project showed that the ‘more obvious items relating to violence are associated with the hearsay marker than with the eyewitness marker’. In other words, when descriptions of heinous and bloody violence is given in the deposition it is usually preceded by the witness stating ‘I heard that’ or ‘someone told me that’ as opposed to ‘I saw’. And when the witness does mention that they had heard from someone else of acts of violence, the source is very rarely named and was usually ‘a neighbour’, ‘a friend’ or ‘someone I met’.
Some of the most violent and disturbing passages of the depositions seem to be taken straight from biblical stories and contemporary accounts of massacres taking place in Europe. The depositions were deliberately leaked in England with the obvious intention of stirring up the anger of the Church of England. Indeed, several of the depositions relating to the Mountrath area include the story of how rebels ‘did dig up many Coffins and other dead bodies and dead men’s bones of Protestants in the parish Church of Mountrath’.
 Feehan, Slieve Bloom, P. 108.
 Barbara Fennell, ‘Dodgy dossiers’? Hearsay and the 1641 Depositions’ in History Ireland, 3: 19 (May/June 2011), p. 28.
 The Guardian, 18 Feb. 2011.
 Deposition of Thomas Cutlar, MS 815 183r, Trinity College Dublin 1641 Depositions Collection.
So if the credibility of the depositions cannot be accepted as being thoroughly true accounts of what was taking place around Ireland in 1641, why are they being discussed in this book? They are being discussed as it would be naïve to reject them out of hand altogether. As Nicholas Canny observed the ‘gory narrations, detailing supposed brutal murders, and the ripping of babies from the wombs of pregnant women, are of historical value if only because they convey the sense of the terror which gripped the minds of the settlers as word reached them of the breakdown of authority in several parts of the county’.
One of the first acts of the rebellion in the Laois area was the attack of Florence Fitzpatrick upon a fortified house in Maryborough. The deposition of Lieutenant Henry Gilbert of Knocmay, whose house was being attacked, describes how Fitzpatrick allegedly meted out harsh justice in the attack;
On or about the [23rd] day of January 1641 when the Rebellion first brake out in [Queen’s County] the grand rebel Florence Fitzpatrick of Castletowne … did with about 300 of his rebellious soldiers [marched to and congregated] themselves … before … [Gilbert’s house in] Knockmay (Gilbert being then absent). And then and there, the same house being guarded & kept by ten men of [Gilbert’s] (4 of which were Irish, the rest being English). The said Florence Fitzpatrick & his rebellious crew then and there forcibly seized on the outhouses there & shot a maid servant that looked out at a window dead then also demanding possession of the dwelling house … [Whilst the] Rebels laying siege upon the house [Gilbert’s] English servants being persuaded by the other 4 Irish servants to take [cover] … Florence Fitzpatrick then and there swore and protested that if the [servants] would yield up [Gilbert’s house] they should have faire [cover] and that not one drop of any of their bloods should be drawn, but that they should safely and quietly be suffered with their wives & children to go away with their clothes to the fort… Those servants and their wives & children believing [Fitzpatrick yielded possession of] the possession of [Gilbert’s house] to … Florence Fitzpatrick & his soldiers: who gave such [cover] as he promised to those four Irish servants: But as for the other six English servants, five of those the said Florence and his soldiers most perfidiously & cruelly hanged all to death & stripped their wives & children of their clothes & sent them all away stark naked: And then & there those Rebels by force and arms deprived [and robbed Gilbert] of his household goods, Corn, Cattle … & other goods of the value of three hundred pounds at the least.
[Gilbert] further [states] that the said Florence Fitzpatrick & one Cosny O’Doran of Rafeilan [of Queen’s County], … Dermott McDonnell Fitzpatrick of Cuddagh in the same County, … Brian McShane Fitzpatrick of Camrosse in the same County, … Donnogh McFynin Fitzpatrick of Maning in the same County, … McBrian Fitzpatrick eldest son to Donnell McBrian McDonnell Fitzpatrick of Gurtuacleah in the same County, … Andrew Fitzpatrick of Castlefleming in the same County … & a great number of other Rebels did by force and arms about the time aforesaid also robbed & [deprived Gilbert] of the possession Rents and profits of his other Lands, Cattle, Corn, sheep, horses, household goods & other goods & chattels at the Cloonin, Carrigin & Knockinatie & other places in the same County to [the value of 400 pounds] at the Least. And [Gilbert] further [stated] that the Rebels aforesaid together with one James McFergus O’Donnell of Tinnykill in the said County about the same [time] forcibly deprived and robbed Sir William Gilbert, this deponents father, of the possession Rents & profits of his part of Clonyn and of Clontaglasse, Church Towne Glandowne, Gurtinamalogh, Clonadd, Clonboyne, Clonkenie & Ballinabuddogh. And they also deprived and robbed [Gilbert’s] father of a stock of a corn, cattle, sheep, stud of horses & mares … and other goods worth five hundred pounds more.
Gilbert’s account is typical of the traumatic details that appear in the 1641 Depositions. Whilst viewing his account in relation to the overall context of fabrication, there is little doubt that, no matter the details, Fitzpatrick’s men were certainly determined to strike a blow against English settlers at all costs. Furthermore, Gilbert’s deposition introduces us to one of the most prominent landowners in Camross at the time; Brian McShane Fitzpatrick. Brian was an extended member of the Castletown Fitzpatrick clan and he was the owner of the 463 Irish acres of land that made up the townland of Camross. He also owned land in the townlands of Derrylahan, Derrduff and Derrynaseera which means that he was likely to have been the eldest son and heir of Edmund Fitzpatrick who, as we have seen, resided in Derrynaseera earlier in the 17th Century. There is little doubt that Brian shared his cousin, Florence’s, views on the political situation but there may also have been an element of opportunism involved in his actions.
Gilbert was not alone in naming Brian as being one of the leaders of Florence’s men. Richard Hooke, of Mountrath, also named him as one of the most prominent rebels. Hooke closes his deposition by stating that the rebels’ common language was ‘English doggs’. He also said ‘that they had the Kings authority’, a reference to the support many of the rebels had for the King of England as opposed to the English Parliament or the Scots.
According to one deposition, when tensions were rising across the country immediately before the rebellion broke out, Fitzpatrick presented himself as a loyal subject and a special friend to Sir Charles Coote, who had established himself in Castelcuffe, near Clonaslee. John Glasse, of Mountrath, swore that several English people placed their land and goods under the protection of Fitzpatrick only to have him betray them.
Glasse also mentions an incident whereby Fitzpatrick was involved in the murder of an English couple at the height of the rebellion. There are numerous references to this murder and the correlation between the different accounts seem to suggest that the murder can indeed be attributed to Fitzpatrick and his men. Glasse’s deposition goes into great detail about the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson of Mountrath. He describes how the couple had stayed with Fitzpatrick in his home for protection. Whilst there Fitzpatrick tried to get them to denounce their Protestant faith. Mrs. Nicholson, being the more resolute of the two, refused. When Fitzpatrick urged her to burn her bible she said that she would rather die ‘by the point of a sword’ than denounce their faith and go against their countrymen. Fitzpatrick duly obliged, and he had them killed. The actual assassin was named as John Harding, who was subsequently tormented by their ghosts for years.
The Nicholsons were allegedly killed in a wood near Mountrath and when news of their death reached an English settler called Walter Dishcome, he decided to give them a Christian burial. He knew that he was taking a big risk in doing such a thing and he wisely left for the safety of Maryborough shortly after completing the burial. Fitzpatrick’s men were making inquiries in the area whether ‘the doggs & crowes’ had consumed the bodies of the Nicholsons yet and they were furious when they were told that someone had in fact buried the bodies. Dishcome’s wife, Hanora, an Irish woman, felt the full fury of Fitzpatrick himself when she was captured as she was out running an errand for Sir William Gilbert, Governor of Maryborough. Honora was hung from Fitzpatrick’s gallows for half an hour. She managed to survive, albeit lying lifelessly on the ground for over two days. When she finally came around she tried to escape for Maryborough. But Fitzpatrick’s men captured her once more and told her that once Fitzpatrick returned she would be hanged until she was dead. Luckily for Hanora, a force of English soldiers were approaching and she was released. The rope was still around Hanora’s neck when she was reunited with her husband.
As we have seen, many English and Scottish settlers immediately fled for Dublin at the first signs of trouble in 1641. But several of them in the area of the Slieve Blooms opted for the safety of the Duke of Buckingham’s castle in Borris-in-Ossory. Florence joined other members of the Fitzpatrick clan and together with 700 men they laid siege to the castle and its inhabitants. The siege lasted until Easter 1642 when English forces engaged the Fitzpatricks. The Fitzpatricks suffered heavy losses and Florence was badly wounded. Bryan Connor of Shrahane was also killed in the fight. Connor was the eldest son and heir of Patrick Connor of Shrahane Castle. However, the Fitzpatrick’s recovered and laid siege to the castle once more and succeeded in capturing Borris-in-Ossory in November 1642.
Florence’s wife, Bridget Darcy, is portrayed in depositions as being a demonic woman whose excessive cruelty is enough to bring into sharp question the credibility of the descriptions of her. An extraordinary claim is made by a number of deponents, who said that they had been present when Mrs. Fitzpatrick admonished her husband’s soldiers for not bringing her ‘the grease and fat of Mrs. Nicholson for making her candles with’. She was eventually captured by Cromwell’s forces and was sentenced to death by burning in 1652.
Florence was also captured but he died in custody before his execution could be carried out. It is said that he died ‘of grief’ after being told that his son, John, had turned his back on his father’s cause and had come to an arrangement with the Cromwellians whereby all the lands of the Castletown Fitzpatricks would be sold at a high price in exchange for a Fitzpatrick surrender. John moved to Madrid immediately after the sale and died in London in 1694.
In August 1649 Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland with a force of 12,000 men. To his New Model Army, Cromwell added 8,000 soldiers already stationed in Dublin and they immediately laid siege to Drogheda. Whereas sieges in early modern Europe could last for weeks, Cromwell’s tactics and superior firepower ensured the siege ended in a bloody mess in a few days. He employed similarly brutal tactics in Wexford and had re-conquered much of the island in a few months.
Sir Charles Coote had fought with Cromwell during his brief Irish campaign but he changed his allegiance back to the English monarchy when the tide was turning against the parliamentarians towards the end of the English Civil War. He was rewarded an appointment as the governor of Queen’s County. He was also awarded with the title Earl of Mountrath and a large land grant of over 7,000 acres, a great deal of which was located in the Camross area.
In 1652 the Act of Settlement set out who would be forced off their lands in favour of English settlers. The list included anyone accused of being involved in violence in 1641 and most of the prominent Catholic landowners in Ireland. Different parts of the country were assigned to ‘adventurers’, the government or army officers. When one compares land ownership in 1641 to land ownership in 1670, the material impact of the 1641 Rebellion and the subsequent war and Cromwellian conquest can be plainly seen. In 1641, just as the rebellion was breaking out, there was quite a significant amount of land in Catholic ownership in Camross. The main Catholic landowner, as mentioned previously, was Brian McShane Fitzpatrick. But in 1670 there was an entirely new state of affairs, a state of affairs that obviously did not feature any of the rebellious Fitzpatrick clan. In fact there was not a single Catholic landowner in Camross by the 1670s. Charles Coote attained land in Ballinrally, Windsor, Derrynaseera and Cappanarrow amongst other places. Indeed, he gained even further land when the soldiers who were granted land moved away and sold their holdings after about ten years toil. The influence of the Cootes upon the parish would only strengthen as the 17th Century came to an end and would endure until the early 20th Century.
 Fennell, ‘Dodgy dossiers’? Hearsay and the 1641 Depositions’, p. 28.
 Deposition of Henry Gilbert, MS 815 328r, Trinity College Dublin 1641 Depositions Collection.
 Deposition of John Glasse, MS 815 197v. Trinity College Dublin 1641 Depositions Collection.
 Deposition of Walter Dishcome, MS 815 186r. Trinity College Dublin 1641 Depositions Collection.
 Deposition of Elizabeth Baskerville, MS 815 314r. Trinity College Dublin 1641 Depositions Collection.
 Carrigan, The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory,Vol. 1, p. 102.
 Carrigan, The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory,Vol. 1, p. 106.
 Raymond Gillespie, Seventeenth-Century Ireland: Making Ireland Modern (Dublin, 2006), p. 178.