(By Declan Quaile)
While perusing an article from the 1919/20 Co. Louth Archaeological & Historical Society journal, covering events in Co Louth between 1641 and 1653, the author, W.F. Butler, without further comment, notes a massacre which occurred at Termonfeckin in 1642.1 Intrigued with this brief but profound piece of information an investigation was begun to determine the origin of the statement, and if the event could be historically accurate.
W.F. Butler does not advance a source for the specific massacre in Termonfeckin noted in his article but the incident is recorded in Cardinal Patrick Moran’s book, Historical Sketch of the Persecutions suffered by the Catholics of Ireland (Dublin 1862, p457), as follows:
‘In 1642 a party of the horse and foot of the garrison of Tredath killed and burned in the furze above one hundred and sixty men, women and children, of the inhabitants of Termonfeighkin, within three miles of Tredath.’
It is probable that Moran may have sourced the information from a 1740 book on the Irish Rebellion by Edward Hyde Clarendon,2 in which Clarendon quotes:
‘1642. A party of Horse and Foot of the Garrison of Tradath kill’d and burnt in the Firs, above one hundred and sixty men, Women, and Children, of the inhabitants of Termonfeighin, within three miles of Tredath…’
Apart from some minor divergence in spelling, Moran’s detail is a faithful quotation from Clarendon’s earlier work. But where did Clarendon glean his information from? A scan of the title page of his book notes an appendix towards the bottom, ‘…giving an account of the several Massacres and Murders committed in Ireland both of Papists and Protestants, since the 23rd of October 1641.’ This appendix was written anonymously in 1662 by an individual with the initials ‘R.S.’ and titled, ‘A Collection of some of the Murthers and Massacres committed on the Irish since 23rd of October 1641: with some observation and falsifications on a late printed abstract of murthers said to be committed by the Irish.’ It was included in Clarendon’s 1740 book without explaining the author’s initials or title of work.
The Siege of Drogheda 1641/42:
To try and establish the circumstances leading up to the alleged incident it is necessary to briefly plot the course of the siege of Drogheda in late 1641 from which the incident in Termonfeckin was more than likely linked.
Eight years prior to Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army setting foot in Ireland, Old English and Catholic forces rose up in open revolt against the new English and Scottish Planter classes in Ulster. On 22nd October 1641 the Irish or Confederate Forces, led by Rory O’More and Phelim O’Neill, gained control of many Ulster towns and, having achieved complete surprise, began to move their forces south towards Dublin. The towns of Newry, Dundalk and Ardee were quickly taken and O’Neill with a force of over 6,000 marched south through the countryside of Louth towards government controlled Drogheda, knowing that to take the town would seriously undermine Dublin’s attempt to regain control. Though ill-prepared to conduct siege warfare (they had no artillery) O’Neill’s Confederate forces were numerous enough to quickly surround the town and cut it off from outside assistance, thus hoping to starve the Government defenders into submission..
Thus the first Siege of Drogheda began on 21st November 1641, with O’Neill’s forces taking up positions at various points north and south of the Boyne, such as at Tullyallen, Ballymakenny, Beaulieu, Mornington and Oldbridge. The Plunkett’s of Beaulieu, of Old English Catholic stock, had already thrown in their lot with O’Neill and they gave him the use of their castle and lands at Beaulieu as his headquarters.
It would have been during this period of the encirclement of Drogheda that the Primate’s castle in Termonfeckin was probably ransacked and torched by O’Neill’s forces as they consolidated their hold on the area, seeking out and destroying much of what they regarded as government and Protestant property. It is also probable that some of O’Neill’s units would have encamped at Termonfeckin, to make use of whatever food was available from the local population.
A force of several hundred government troops were sent from Dublin late in November to try and lift the siege but were defeated by besieging forces who ambushed them at Julianstown, thereby ruling out any further intervention. The inhabitants of Drogheda suffered great deprivations during the winter of 1641/42 as the besiegers blockade tightened. The inhabitants, mainly Catholic, were in an invidious position. Those forces holding Drogheda (and therefore keeping them in) were Protestant defenders whilst outside were the Catholic forces of O’Neill who were trying to starve the defenders out. Very few supplies got through and those that did offered only temporary succour to the starving townspeople. O’Neill had the entrance to the Boyne blockaded by placing wooden beams tied with chains across it to thwart maritime relief efforts. This obstacle however was quickly broken up by a winter storm.3
The defence of Drogheda was led by an Englishman, Sir Henry Tichborne who, many years afterwards, wrote of the siege and its aftermath:
…The 7th of February I made a sally on the north side of the town, fir’d two or three of their lodgings, and recovered a little forage and provision to refresh us a few days. The rebels drew forth from Bewley, their headquarters, with a body of five hundred or thereabouts, but upon my advance with the like number, and skirmishing with them in their fastness, they retreated with a little loss, which greatly emboldened our soldiers for future services, who received no loss at all.
… February 11th in the afternoon, upon intelligence that the rebels had removed from one of their quarters, and left it void for the lodging of others that were to arrive that day out of the north, I thought it a fit opportunity to issue suddenly out of the town, with intent to recover part of their provisions, and to fire the rest that could not be brought away together with their quarter, and to that end I drew forth a party of five hundred to confront the rebels head quarter at Bewly.4
Tichburne, in his history, tells of several of these sorties from the town in early 1642, mainly to procure provisions, but also to test O’Neill’s forces for weak spots in their encirclement.
O’Neill attempted three times to forcibly take the town, the final one being in early March 1642, when his forces were again repulsed. Shortly afterwards (on 4th March) a relieving army from Dublin, under Lord Moore, made contact with Tichborne, forcing O’Neill to retreat northwards to Dundalk, thereby finally lifting the siege and leaving scattered groups of his outlying forces to their fate.
The Lifting of the Siege and follow-up Reprisals:
This was the time, in early March 1642, when Tichborne and Moore’s forces began a campaign of search and destroy missions throughout the countryside around Drogheda, seeking out anyone who had been attached to O’Neill’s army, or indeed anyone suspected of harbouring or abetting the besiegers.
On the 7th March the Earl of Ormond arrived at Drogheda with 300 infantry and 500 cavalry and, with rumours spreading that the Protestants of Ardee had been massacred by O’Neill’s fleeing forces, Tichborne, Moore and Ormond’s forces gave full vent to retaliatory strikes on the natives of south and mid Louth. It is at this juncture that, in the context of post-siege vengeance and with strict orders from Dublin that ‘…all was to be destroyed by fire and sword. Not only were all rebels to be destroyed, but in all places where the rebels had been harboured all males capable of bearing arms were to be put to death,’ many of the inhabitants of Termonfeckin, together with whatever remnants of O’Neill’s forces who were still in the vicinity were attacked and in the conflagration many men, women and children were butchered without mercy.
It is impossible to establish where the atrocity may have occurred. The Yellow Gap area at the south end of Termonfeckin village, on the Drogheda road, takes its name from the yellow furze which grew in the area, and may have been a likely spot. There were also locations on the Sheetland Road and at Almondstown Hill and Castlecoohill to the north of Termonfeckin, which were covered in furze (as they are today) which may have been possible locations.