The Portadown massacre took place in November 1641 at what is now Portadown, County Armagh. Between 100 and 300 Protestants were killed in the River Bann by a group of O'Neill clansmen. This was the biggest individual massacre of Protestants during the Irish Rebellion of 1641.
The rebellion had broken out in October 1641 and was marked by attacks by dispossessed Gaelic clansmen on the English and Scottish Protestant settlers who had arrived in Ulster in the Ulster Plantation, which began over 30 years earlier. At first, there were beatings and robbing of local settlers who lived on land taken from the Irish Catholics by force of arms, then house burnings and expulsions and finally killings. By November 1641, armed parties of Ulstermen were rounding up British Protestant settlers and marching them to the coast, from which they were forced to board ships to Britain.
Irish historian Nicholas Canny suggests that the violence escalated after a failed rebel assault on Lisnagarvey in November 1641, after which the settlers killed several hundred captured insurgents. Canny writes, 'the bloody mindedness of the settlers in taking revenge when they gained the upper hand in battle seems to have made such a deep impression on the insurgents that, as one deponent put it, "the slaughter of the English" could be dated from this encounter'.
One such group of Protestants was imprisoned in a church in Loughgall. They had been informed that they were going to be marched eastwards where they were to be expelled to England. The Irish soldiers were said to be led by either Captain Manus O'Cane or Toole McCann – later accounts of the event differed on this point. After some time, the English civilians were taken out of the church and marched to a bridge over the River Bann. Once on the bridge, the group was stopped. At this point the civilians, threatened by pikes and swords, were forcibly stripped of their clothes. They were then herded off the bridge into the icy cold river waters at swordpoint. Most drowned or died of exposure, although some were said to have been shot by musket-fire as they struggled to stay afloat. Estimates of the number of those killed varied from less than 100 to over 300. William Clarke, a survivor of the massacre, said during the 1642 depositions that as many as 100 were killed at the bridge. As Clarke was a witness of the massacre his figure is taken as being the most credible.
The total of Protestant civilians killed in Ulster in the early months of the rebellion was about 4,000. In County Armagh, recent research has shown that about 1,250 Protestants were killed or about 25 percent of the planter population there. In County Tyrone, modern research has identified three blackspots for the killing of settlers, with the worst being near Kinard, County Tyrone, "where most of the British families planted ... were ultimately murdered.".
The massacre was used to support the view that the Uprising was a papal conspiracy to massacre Protestant inhabitants of Ireland, though in truth large scale massacres such as this were mostly confined to Ulster. The atrocity featured prominently in Parliamentarian writing in the 1640s, most famously by John Temple's The Irish Rebellion (1646). The immediate goal was to isolate King Charles, whom many prominent English Protestants such as John Pym, viewed as being sympathetic to Irish Catholics.
In the longer term, accounts of the massacre strengthened the resolve of many Parliamentarians to launch a reconquest of Ireland, which they did in 1649. Temple's work was published at least ten times between 1646 and 1812. – the graphic massacres depicted therein were frequently used as a justification for the Penal Laws. There were massacres of local Catholics, such as at Islandmagee in County Antrim, and on Rathlin Island where Covenanter Campbell soldiers of the Argyll's Foot were encouraged by their commanding officer Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck to kill the local Catholic MacDonalds, near relatives of their arch Clan enemy in the Scottish Highlands Clan MacDonald, several hundred were killed. William Lecky, the 19th century historian of the 1641 rebellion, concluded that, "it is far from clear on which side the balance of cruelty rests".
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