“The Wexford Massacre”


"They knelt around the cross divine, the matron and the maid... Three hundred fair and helpless ones... Had battled for their own." The three hundred have fallen at the hands of Cromwell's English. They pray Heaven will avenge the wrong


In the 1630s, as Charles I found himself in more and more trouble in England, he tried to strengthen his Irish position by offering the rights to Catholics known as the "Graces" (see Mike Cronin, _A History of Ireland_, pp. 70-71). They didn't really make the Irish happy, but at least his lieutenant Wentworth was a good administrator. He was recalled in 1639, and executed 1641.

The rebellion started in Ulster as the Catholics tried to throw off the Protestants who ran the plantation and made life nearly impossible for Catholics. The rebellion probably could have been quashed easily -- except that Charles I and parliament couldn't agree on what to do, letting things get out of hand. Charles negotiated with all parties, but -- being Charles -- he never took his promises seriously.

The 1641 revolt had resulted in the death of some Protestants (and of course the tales grew with the telling). Oliver Cromwell -- who had no mercy even on the English -- was appointed in 1649 to stamp out royalists and rebels in Ireland.

Cromwell took Drogheda on September 11, 1649, and put the garrison, and the general population, to death. (Ironically, most of the population of Drogheda was English; see Peter and Iona Somerset Fry, _A History of Ireland_, pp. 154-155.) Garrisons which surrendered quickly were allowed to live, but soon after Wexford was subjected to the same treatment; according to Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, p. 17, Cromwell killed 2000 people there, including 250 women (cf. Fry/Fry, p. 155).

Cromwell left Ireland in 1650, but later saw to it that any who had not fervently supported him was punished, usually by loss of lands (The Frys compare the residue of Irish land to "an impoverished wilderness, rather like a South African homeland").

Exactly how much damage Cromwell did is hard to tell. The Frys state that "A third of the country's Catholics had been killed" (p. 156; compare Robert Kee, _The Most Distressful Country_, being volume I of _The Green Flag_, p. 16). Cronin states that the surviving population "numbered no more than half a million"; the Frys also quote a figure of half a million.

P. Berresford Ellis, _A History of the Irish Working Class_, p. 43, quotes Leyburn's comparison with the Mongol hordes and cites (pp. 43-44) Petty's statistics that, of an Irish population of 1,448,000, "some 616,000 perished by sword, famine, and plague. Of this number 504,000 were native Irish while 112,000 were colonists. A further 40,000 decided to leave Ireland to enlist in European armies... 100,000 Irish... were sold as slaves to the West Indies and other colonies." This of course is more than half the population of Ireland, which is impossible; I've never seen anyone else quote such numbers. But it still surely qualifies as the worst genocide of the era.

And Cromwell then imposed the 1652 Act of Settlement, which pushed the entire native population into Connaught (sending them "to Hell or Connaught" -- Golway, p. 28; Cronin, p. 74); Golway reports that, before the Act of Settlement, Catholics still owned 60% of the land; afterward, only 20%. And from the time the act was passed to the time it finally went into effect was less than three years -- and the initial law had allowed less time than that! (Fry/Fry, p. 157).

Cromwell's mass deportation -- again, something not seen for thousands of years; the last to practice such a thing seems to have been the Romans with Carthage, and before that the Assyrian and Babylonian tyrants -- had the interesting effect of bringing together two long-separate groups: The native Irish and the "Old English" settlers who had arrived in Norman times suddenly found themselves on the same side -- and both opposed to the Protestants (Kee, pp. 15-16).

The goal, of course, was to make the Protestants the dominant population. But, of course, it didn't work; there weren't enough Protestants in Britain to occupy the land, so the same old situation prevailed; The Protestants owned the land, but their tenants were Catholic. The only effect was to reduce the tenants' rights to nothing: They could be displaced at whim. This of course assured that the tenants would spend everything they had to try to stay on their land.

Cromwell cannot be considered the sole source of the Irish problems, but he probably contributed more to them than any other man. Indeed, more than any other five or six, including even William of Orange. - RBW

Historical references

  • Oct 23, 1641 - Outbreak of the revolt which eventually becomes "The War of the Three Kingdoms." Catholics in Ulster rebel to earn religious liberty, but commit too many brutalities against Protestants to allow peace. To make matters worse, one of their leaders, Sir Phelim O'Neill, claims authority from Charles I (see P. Berresford Ellis, _A History of the Irish Working Class_, p. 42; C.V. Wedgwood, _The King's War 1641-1647_, p. 26). Charles declares that O'Neill's commission is a forgery, but the forces arrayed against Charles in England refuse to believe this.
  • Nov. 29, 1641 - Battle of Julianstown. A small force of loyalist troops is scattered by rebels. The "Old English" (English immigrants who arrived before the reign of Elizabeth), afraid of the rebels, feel compelled to join their revolt. The English are forced to raise large forces to suppress the movement. They raise the money for this by selling the rights to land expected to be confiscated from rebels. The English government is now committed to punishing Ireland -- and to blaming Charles for the troubles
  • Aug 1642 - The English Civil War turns "hot," causing England to concentrate mostly on its internal affairs and leave Ireland to tend its own house
  • Oct 1642 - "Confederation of Kilkenny." The rebels try (and fail) to form a united governmental and religious front
  • 1643 - Inconclusive fighting. The English Civil War draws off more and more English soldiers. All sides in Ireland alternate between fighting, negotiating, and calling on King Charles. In the coming years, Charles will make various deals (usually of toleration in return for troops), but none amount to anything. The Irish factions are unable to unite in any way. Assorted battles are fought, but none are decisive. The Irish have placed themselves in the worst possible position: Clearly opposed to the English, but without the organization to oppose them. As soon as there is a united English government, the Irish can expect to face its wrath.
  • 1649 - The English execute King Charles and declare a commonwealth. England is at last united and ready to deal with Ireland.
  • August 1649 - Oliver Cromwell (the future Lord Protector of England) arrives in Ireland to regain control of the island. In theory, he is fighting Irish rebels; in practice, his chief opponents are royalists (as at Drogheda)
  • Sep 11, 1649 - Cromwell captures Drogheda. He backs this up with a massacre -- at the very least, the garrison and the Catholic clergy are killed. His enemies report that he slaughtered indiscriminately
  • October 1649 - Cromwell attacks and captures Wexford
  • May 26, 1650 - Cromwell leaves Ireland. In his absence, the struggle continues until May 1652, but the Irish/Royalist position is already doomed; they can neither agree on a plan nor find an acceptable leader. The closest thing they have to a commander, the Duke of Ormonde (1610-1688, a staunch supporter of the Stuarts who would be Lord Lieutenant under Charles II), flees to the continent in December 1650
  • 1652 - The English parliament passes its Act of Settlement. Cromwell will significantly alter the Act in 1653, but not in a way as to benefit the Irish. The Act is such as to deprive nearly everyone alive in Ireland of at least some property. The English send in settlers to take their places. The poverty which is to afflict Ireland for centuries dates largely from this incident


  1. PGalvin, pp. 96-97, "The Wexford Massacre" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. ADDITIONAL: Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859), Vol I, pp. 205-206, "The Wexford Massacre"
  3. BI, PGa096


Author: M. J. Barry
Earliest date: 1855 (Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859), Vol I)
Keywords: Ireland battle death