Thursday, September 25, 2008

Portadown Massacre

The Massacre of Portadown occurred in the Irish county of Antrim, in Ulster, during early stages of the Irish Uprising of 1641. Up to 100 mostly English Protestants were killed by a group of armed Irishmen. It was by probably the worst massacre of Protestants to occur during the 1641–42 Irish Uprising; certainly it would become the most notorious.

In November 1641, armed parties of Ulstermen were rounding up British Protestant settlers and marching them to the coast, from which they were forced to board ships to Britain. One such a group of Protestants were imprisoned in a church in Loughall. They had been informed that they were going to be marched eastwards where they were to be expelled to England. The Irish soldiers were said by to be led by either Captain Manus O'Cane or Toole McCann- later accounts of the event differed on this point. The area was technically under the control of Phelim O'Neill, although the massacre which was to occur seems to have been spontaneous in nature. After some time,the English civilians were taken out of the Church and marched to the Portadown bridge over the river Bann. Once on the bridge, the group was stopped. At this point the civilians, threatened by pikes and swords, were forcibly stripped of their clothes. They were then herded off the bridge into the icy cold river waters at swordpoint. Most drowned or died of exposure, although some were said to have been shot by musket-fire as they struggled to stay afloat.

Estimates of the number of those killed varied from less than 100 to over 300.

William Clark's account

In 1642, the Lord Justice of Ireland appointed eight Protestant Clergymen led by Henry Jones, Dean of Kilmore, to take evidence of all robberies and murders that had taken place in 1641. Of all the incidents recorded, the Portadown massacre was the most frequently mentioned.

William Clark was a survivor of the massacre, who managed to escape after paying the sum of 15 pounds to the attackers. During the 1642 depositions, Clark stated that around 100 were killed at the bridge. Of all those involved in the depositions, Clark was one of only ones to have witnessed the massacre, and his figure is generally accepted as being the most credible.

Clark stated that the victims were forced to go onto a bridge, and then stripped of their clothes, before being forced into the river headlong, after which they soon perished. The account by Clark is backed up by the version of the events found in a work by an anonymous British Officer in the regiment of Sir John Clotsworthy. This officer made his own enquiries about the 1641 massacres and concluded that the worst occurred at Portadown. He estimated that up to ninety were killed, a figure close to that given by Clark.

Atrocities in Ulster, 1641

Although the 1641 uprising later became associated with massacres of Protestants, the most common atrocity was what was known as 'stripping': the victims had their clothes torn off them, and were driven away from their homes under threat of violence. This atrocity had occurred in Ireland before the 1641 rebellion: for example, in Munster in 1598 many of the Elizabethan planters suffered this indignity at the hands of rebels. However, the scale of these attacks was far greater in 1641, and a second important point was that the attacks took place in the sub-zero temperatures of winter.

This was the cause of the vast majority of civillian deaths during the early months of the Ulster insurrection. The intent of this kind of attack was obviously to humiliate the victim, though robbery was also a motive, given the relative expense of clothing in the 17th century. Given the scale of the attacks, and the time of year, such acts of mass brutality proved fatal for many thousands of the victims.

The Portadown Massacre should perhaps be viewed in light of this. William Clark's account makes it clear that weapons were not employed in the initial stages of the attack, and also mentions that he was allowed to leave after giving the attackers some money, making it likely that robbery was the initial motive of the attackers rather than bloodshed. The victims were driven naked into to water in a brutal humiliation, perhaps a crude sectarian joke relating to the Catholic sacrament of baptism. The attack was brutal, and can fairly be called an atrocity, but the attack may not have been a premeditated act of mass murder. Having said that, while the incident likely began as robbery and assault, it quickly degenerated into something far more serious. By mid November 1641, the insurgency in Ulster had lost momentum, providing an opportunity for the British Planter forces to regroup and counter-attack. In this tense environment, a single bloody minded individual would have been more than capable of inciting a crowd to deadly violence.

The Portadown Ghosts

Not all of the accounts contained in the depositions were as reliable as that of Clark. One woman, called Elizabeth Price, claimed to have seen at the spot of the massacre a spirit in the shape of a woman: 'her eyes seemed to twinkle in her head and her skin as white as snow...divulged and then repeated the word "Revenge, Revenge, Revenge". It continued to appear for some time and only disappeared when the settler force reached the town.

The message of these stories is readily apparent. Over two hundred years later, such fantastical accounts would lead sceptical Victorians such as the historian Robert Dunlop to argue that the depositions were 'worthless' as evidence. Dunlop's idea was taken up by later by a Catholic school teacher, Thomas Fitzpatrick, who shed a great deal of ink attempting to debunk allegations of atrocities such as that at Portadown. Modern historians generally accept that there were in fact a number of atrocities in Ulster in 1641, though the scepticism of Dunlop and Fitzpatrick regarding much of the evidence was not entirely misplaced.


The atrocity at Portadown was used to support the view that the Irish Uprising was a conspiracy to massacre all of the Protestant inhabitants of Ireland. The atrocity featured prominently in Parliamentarian propaganda works in the 1640s, most famously by John Temple's The Irish Rebellion of 1646, an inflammatory work which would go on to be published at least ten times between 1646 and 1812. The immediate goal of this propaganda was to isolate King Charles, who many prominent English Protestants such as John Pym viewed as being sympathetic to Irish Catholics. In the longer term, accounts of the massacre strengthened the resolve of many Parliamentarians to launch a reconquest of Ireland, which they did in 1649. For about a century after the Williamite wars, infamous massacres such as that at Portadown were often cited as a justification for the discriminatory Penal Laws in Ireland. Invariably, much of the research published on the massacre within the past two centuries has been coloured by bias: writers with nationalist sympathies such as FitzPatrick have tended to be predictably sceptical about such claims of atrocity, whereas writers with Protestant sympathies (Geoffrey Robertson is a recent example) regularly display an uncritical acceptance of propagandist sources relating to such atrocities.


MacCuarta, Brian, Ulster 1641, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast, 1993
Connolly, S.J, Divided Kingdom Ireland 1630-1800, Oxford University Press,2008
Robertson, Geoffrey, The Tyrannicide Brief, London, Vintage Books, 2006
E.H, The History of the Warr of Ireland from 1641 to 1653, McGlashan & Gill Dublin, 1873 ed.

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