‘We have three beasts to destroy, that lay burdens upon us. The first is the wolf, on whom we lay five pounds a head if a dog, and ten pounds if a bitch. The second beast is a priest, on whose head we lay ten pounds; if he be eminent, more. The third beast is a Tory, on whose head if he be a public Tory we lay twenty pounds; and forty shillings on a private Tory. Your army cannot catch them; the Irish bring them in; brothers and cousins cut one another’s throats.’ – Major Morgan (MP for Wicklow), speaking at Westminster in 1657.
Nowadays we think of the word tory as being a colloquial name for the British Conservative Party or its supporters. Whilst there is an interesting history behind why the name came to be used in English/British/UK politics, today I’m going to focus on the original meaning of the word.
The word tory comes from the Irish word tóraidhe – meaning an outlaw or a pursued man (the Irish word tóir means pursue, and some translate tóraidhe as pursuer rather than pursued man). Basically the tories were Irish rebels, and those rebels were on the run. They were disbanded Confederate soldiers, raiding English-held areas and operating as guerrillas against invaders. They operated in rugged areas, such as the Wicklow mountains, attacking Parliamentarian soldiers and stealing their supplies. Oh, and they attacked tax collectors, too. Obviously, the Parliamentarian soldiers were not too happy about such things. The New Model Army meant to reconquer Ireland, and such rebel activity was not to be tolerated.
If an area was a suspected tory stronghold, then the soldiers must do anything to bring things back under control. And when I say anything, I mean anything. Crops would be burned. Cattle would be destroyed. Burn them out … starve them out … any tactic was acceptable. Some areas were free-fire zones – everyone had to get out, and if they did not, they would be considered tories or tory sympathisers, and be slain.
The fact that innocent people died, or had their crops and houses razed forcing them to become dispossessed … well, all’s fair in war. The tactics led the country into famine – a terrible famine which was worsened by a plague outbreak. The population was decimated (most deaths being those of civilians). The country was in ruins. The country was on its knees. The country was – as intended – ripe for re-conquest.
Most tories met unpleasant fates. Some were sold into slavery. Some were given deals which allowed them to leave the country to serve as soldiers in France (the English Royalist court was in exile in France) or Spain. But such deals were not always what they seemed. In 1653, the last organised tories surrendered in Cavan, thinking that they were to be sent to France. In fact, they were either executed or sent to penal colonies.
Of course some rebels remained and, despite the formal surrender, they would continue their activities on a smaller scale for the remainder of the 1650s.
The Irish Confederate (Eleven Years’) War:
So why were the tories seen as Royalist supporters? Why support one form of English rule over another? Well, the fact is that they probably did not. Affiliations are rarely iron-clad, but held only as long as is convenient.
The Eleven Years’ War (1641-1653) did not start out with Royalist support as its aim. In fact, the original Confederation was a Catholic movement, with the intention of fighting English soldiers sent by the government of Charles I. But even then there were grey areas as to allegiance and objective – otherwise why would the Confederates have felt the need to insist that their fight was against the King’s advisers rather than the King himself?
The war began in 1641 with the Ulster Rebellion – in which thousands of English and Scottish settlers were killed. Until 1649 the Confederates had somewhat of a de facto rule over Ireland. They professed to side with the Cavaliers, they claimed loyalty to Charles I, and they had the support of the Catholic clergy.
It was a complicated war, with constantly shifting loyalties and, at one stage, a brief civil war within the Confederate factions themselves. It was the arrival of the New Model Army which put an end to it all (a brutal and bloody end), but most people reading about the events arrive at the same opinion: had the Confederates been united instead of constantly shifting sides and engaging in in-fighting, then the Irish Confederate Army might well have won Ireland back for good. In the words of the 17th century poem Tuireamh na hÉireann, the Eleven Years’ war was ‘an cogadh do chríochnaigh Éire’ – the war that finished Ireland.
This is a messy subject – hard to simplify, and even harder to confine to a short blog-post. There was no ‘right side.’ With people being killed on the basis of their religion, every side carried out what would be called ethnic cleansing today. There is a wealth of material dealing with this period (much of it available online) and I spent a huge amount of time poring over it all. At the end of that research this was the conclusion I came to: in this Irish conflict, the only thing that anyone really supported was their own best interests. Human nature?
But war is ever-present. The world today is filled with those displaced by conflict, desperate to find a safe place, a place to call home. So let’s not end on a cynical note. Let’s end on a hopeful one. In recent weeks, huge swathes of people have been marching to ask that Syrian refugees be welcomed into their countries. There are people – ordinary people – inviting these refugees to share their homes. Perhaps some of us are changing. Perhaps some of us are looking past our own immediate concerns. Perhaps four hundred years from now historians will look back and say: in the 21st century, people cared.