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For more on the political history of Portadown go to http://orangecitadel.blogspot.

com/
For more on the 1641 Depositions see the Trinity College digital archive: http://1641.tcd.ie/

The following article appeared in:


The Irish Times - Saturday, October 9, 2010

Witnesses to mass murder in the icy Bann


• The massacre in Portadown, from Matthew Taylor's England's Bloody Tribunal, or, Popish Cruelty Displayed,
from 1770. Images courtesy of Trinity College Dublin

• A page of John Temple's The Irish


Rebellion (Dublin 1724). Images courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
• The deposition of Elizabeth Price,
five of whose six children were massacred at Portadown. Images courtesy of Trinity College Dublin

• Two Irish bishops are tortured in


Richard Verstegan's Theatrum crudelitatum haereticorum nostri temporis (Antwerp 1587). Images courtesy of
Trinity College Dublin

MARY RUSSELL

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.