Witnesses to mass murder in the icy Bann

Now on show in Dublin, the 1641 Depositions on the slaughter of dozens of Protestant families in Portadown were gathered not …

Now on show in Dublin, the 1641 Depositions on the slaughter of dozens of Protestant families in Portadown were gathered not with peace and reconciliation in mind but as preparation for the revenge later taken by Cromwell

THE WINTER OF 1641 was the coldest in memory, but in Portadown it is remembered for something else. That year one of the worst atrocities in this island’s history took place, when about 100 men, women and children were stripped of their clothes, corralled overnight in a barn and then thrown over the town bridge to drown in the icy waters of the Bann. Was this yet another crime by the old enemy Cromwell? No, it was a massacre of Protestants by Irish-speaking natives intent on revenge for land taken from them by the Ulster settlers.

After this, and other attacks throughout Ireland, it was decided to gather evidence against the insurgents, which is how the 1641 Depositions came into being. Now, for the first time, the depositions’ 20,000 folios of witness statements have gone on display in the Long Room Library of Trinity College Dublin.

A number of commissioners were appointed to take evidence, the majority of whom were Church of Ireland clergymen, including Henry Jones, bishop of Meath and vice-chancellor of Trinity. Clerks were brought in to record the statements, many of which, unusually, were made by women.


Deponents (those giving evidence) spoke of their houses being burned, of their cattle, horses and fowl being taken or destroyed, of large families left without a father, of babies killed and of children abducted by rebels, never to be seen again. Sheaves of corn are counted, farmhouses valued, goods and chattels noted and, as a result, the 1641 Depositions are regarded as one of the most valuable of early modern European collections. They tell us much about the social, economic and cultural life of that time.

High up in a quiet room under the eaves of Trinity College, a team of historians, calligraphers, printers, bookbinders, conservationists, archivists, photographers, linguists and computer boffins have been working for the past three years transcribing the depositions, comparing and correcting earlier efforts and checking and cross-referencing evidence.

Irish place names were often written down phonetically, words were omitted, punctuation was erratic, handwriting was varied and folios were worn at the edges. Meanings changed too, as Scottish settlers introduced new words to the English language.

Felicity O’Mahony, historian in Trinity’s manuscripts and archives research library, shows me some of the folios made of linen rag paper and bound in buckram.

“Paper-making was a thriving industry at that time,” she explains, pointing out that the watermark is a useful way of dating a document. Carefully turning over a page, she points to the statement taken from Elizabeth Price of Armagh, who lost five of her six children in the Portadown massacre. It is a handwritten folio that has now been stuck on to fresh paper – interleaved – so that the original folio is no longer touched.

Was it difficult, I ask, working on such a painful exercise? She nods. “There are a lot of pamphlets and books from that period, with engravings showing babies being torn from their mothers’ breasts, children being roasted over a fire, women run through with a sword while a Catholic priest blesses the insurgents. Some of that will be propaganda, but we have been able to cross-reference the actual depositions against other witness statements, which means we could test them.”

But given the time that has elapsed, the sociopolitical make-up of the commissioners, the fact that the evidence could be used to obtain financial compensation, can we believe everything we read? Micheal Ó Siochrú, senior lecturer and one of the curators of the exhibition, is clear about this: “These are statements from people who were traumatised. They were refugees, displaced people, deprived of their homes and their livelihoods. All that has to be taken into account, but at the end of the day we accept them for what they are.”

So what exactly was the 1641 uprising all about? “A lot of things,” says Ó Siochrú. “There was an economic recession and a poor harvest, and the living conditions of the native Irish were worsening.”

There was also the growing movement to give more power to parliament and less to the monarchy. King Charles I was losing his grip; the Scottish parliament was gaining ground. Fast forward eight years and Cromwell’s parliamentarians would win the day, albeit only temporarily.

Observing what was going on across the water, Sir Phelim O’Neill, a landowner elected to the Irish Parliament in 1641, decided to stage a coup, but his supporters in Dublin failed to turn out and the action was left to the poor and dispossessed among the Ulster Irish, who, it is alleged, committed many atrocities. Words such as “allege”, “rumoured” and “arguably” crop up regularly in this narrative, for some of it is disputed, and a conscientious historian – and indeed journalist – must be aware that the truth has many faces.

What is especially valuable about this precious exhibition is that it has been digitised and is now available online. When the exhibition closes, the buckram-bound volumes will be packed away for good, preserved in their original state while the online version will be there for all to read and study.

Why not get online now and have a look at the statement taken from William Bickerdyke of Fermanagh? Zoom in on his account of how the rebels took “200 lls worth of household goods and plate . . . and cowes and sheepe worth another 200 lls” and how his wife and two children had been “stript naked in the town of Navan and died quickly of starvation”. The 1641 Depositions, full of frightened children and terrified parents, make for a bloody and disturbing read but not one to be ignored.

Although the collecting of witness statements may seem like South Africa’s peace and reconciliation hearings, back in 1641 there was no reconciliation. The main aim of the exercise was to gather evidence in support of a later all-out attack on Ireland, and in this it succeeded. But while the pages of Irish history are slow to turn – it’s 369 years since the Portadown drownings – on October 22nd the Ireland in Turmoil exhibition will celebrate its formal opening (though it is already open to the public) with President McAleese making a speech and the Rev Ian Paisley responding, the presence of both ensuring that Elizabeth Price and her poor drowned children are not forgotten.

Ireland in Turmoil runs until April 3 2011 in the Long Room Library, Trinity College Dublin, 9.30am to 5pm Mondays to Saturdays, 12 noon to 4.30pm Sundays, tickets €9, concessions €8, school groups free. See the online exhibition at 1641.tcd.ie

Song of vengeance

In sixteen hundred and forty-one those Fenians formed a plan

To massacre us Protestants down by the River Bann

To massacre us Protestants and not to spare a man

But to drive us down like a herd of swine into the River Bann . . .

At least a hundred faithful souls in Portadown were slain,

All were the deeds of popery their wicked way to gain,

But God sent down brave Cromwell our deliverer to be

And he put down popery in this land, us Protestants set free

– from Portadown, a popular song about the drownings

The 1641 Depositions

Five thousand people throughout Ireland gave evidence to the commissioners.

Their statements added up to 19,101 folios. These were collected into 31 volumes, of which Leinster had 11 volumes, Connaught two, Ulster eight and Munster 10.

The commissioner who took statements in Munster was subsequently murdered.