The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre (4)


Massacre and atrocity reached a crescendo near the end of the Nine Years War against Hugh O'Neill (1594-1603). John McGurk ('The Pacification Of Ulster, 1600-3') deals with this period in Age Of Atrocity

"A quick end to a war of attrition after Kinsale seems to have been the first concern of the majority of the military commanders ... Scorched earth tactics of causing famine by burning barns of corn, destroying cattle and sheep, and ripping up growing crops, proved the most effective means of bringing war to an end. In a frequently cited despatch from Sir Arthur Chichester when he raided across Lough Neagh into east Co. Tyrone in 1601 he claimed: 

“We have burned and destroyed along the Lough even within four miles of Dungannon, where we killed man, woman, child, horse, beast and whatever we found. The last service from which we returned yesterday was upon Patrick O'Quin, one of the chief men of Tyrone, dwelling within four miles of Dungannon, fearing nothing, but we lighted upon him and killed him, his wife, sons and daughters, servants and followers being many, and burned all to the ground.” 

"... Dowcra carried out a similar massacre on Inch Island in Lough Swilly, reporting 150 killed when he attacked the fertile lands of Mac Sweeney Fanad ... Sir John Bolles, Dowcra's second-in-command in Derry, attacked Cumber in O'Cahan's country and reported killing nearly 100 people" (pp,121-3). 

Bolles was a notable killer of priests, accounting for over twenty of them in a single incident. 

As for Mountjoy, he was something of a theorist of famine, as well as being its prime creator. 

"Mountjoy led the way in scorched earth tactics, as he seemed to have few qualms of conscience about the killing of civilian non-combatants claiming that “even the very best of the Irish people were in their nature little better than devils”. He noted that if fish live in water as rebels do among the people of the countryside, then you dry up the water, repeating Julius Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic wars and anticipating Chairman Mao in the twentieth century. Mountjoy wrote as follows to his fellow Devonian, Sir George Carew, who was using the same tactics against the remnants of resistance among the O'Sullivans and Driscolls after Kinsale: “Here in Ulster we do continually hunt all their woods, spoil their corn, burn their houses, and kill as many churls as it grieveth me to think it is necessary to do so”. His secretary and companion in the field, Fynes Moryson, wrote of these last days of the war in Ulster: “No spectacle was more frequent than to see multitudes of these poor people dead with their mouths all coloured green by eating nettles, shamrocks and docks and all things they could rend above ground…" (p.123). 

Meanwhile, Carew was seeing to it that Munster too would have its share of atrocity. Pope-Hennessy quotes a report of his in 1602 on how "there were killed and hanged divers poor men, women and children appertaining to Cormac (MacCarthy)" (Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland p.56). After the siege of Dunboy in 1602 he had a makeshift gallows constructed and in relays "four score Spaniards and rebels were hanged thereon, 2, 3 or 4 upon it, until all were hanged, as well women and boys as men of service ..." (Age Of Atrocity p.124). 

In summary: 

"The slaughter of clergy, women, children, and other defenceless non-combatants who did not carry arms, was perpetrated on a scale hardly paralleled elsewhere in Europe at that time ... Mountjoy and his commanders launched an exceptionally harsh campaign to create famine and decimate the civilian population ... In Ulster, Sir Henry Dowcra, Sir Arthur Chichester and Mountjoy himself acknowledged the exceptional character of the Nine Years War in their many references to the deliberate slaughter of non-combatants ... It may very well be concluded that the post-Kinsale period in Ulster, in the putting down of the fifteen-month resistance campaign, was carried out with unprecedented violence against non-combatants, clergy, women and children, who traditionally were immune in warfare" (p.126, pp.128-9). 

In the face of all these facts, one is surely entitled to conclude that no general prohibition of massacre, and no general principle of the immunity of non-combatants, was operative in English culture in the late 16th century. If such principles had been operative, this history could hardly have happened. 

The principle of the immunity of non-combatants went back a long way not only in the culture of Europe but also in the culture of Gaelic Ireland. 

"The medieval church had promulgated the Lex Innocentium or Law of the Innocents ever since the seventh century; this was particularly focused on women, who were not to be killed, assaulted or abused, and urged all rulers to protect them from such dangers. The law that women should have no part in warfare, attributed to the work of Adamnán at the Synod of Tara 697, was absorbed into Gaelic legal traditions through the Brehon laws" (p.126). 

The synod in question was actually held at Birr. On the initiative of the Columban monasteries, the most important Kings from all parts of Ireland, or their representatives, were brought together in the midlands to agree to humane restrictions on the practices of war and a procedure to penalise infringements. It was an amazing feat of organisation in the politically-fragmented Ireland of that time. 

For men like Chichester and Mountjoy, there could be no question of a Lex Innocentium, or not one that applied to Ireland. They did on occasion feel the need to give some sort of reason for all the killing they were doing—though if anyone was pressing them on this, they don't seem to have pressed too hard. "Many times in excusing the harshness of his men from the Derry/Foyle garrisons, Sir Henry Dowcra stressed to the Privy Council that if the government of England would not feed them he could not be responsible for their killing of civilians when they went foraging and plundering. Here was another variant of the argument that necessity knows no law" (p.127). Mountjoy also, in his letter to Carew quoted earlier, expressed his regret that it was necessary to kill so many farming folk.