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Irish Confederate Wars: Oliver Cromwell's Conquest of Ireland

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The Irish rebellion Oliver Cromwell suppressed in 1649 was the later stage of an uprising that had been going on since 1641. On October 23, 1641, 40 years after the great rebellion of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, the Irish rose in revolt, first in Ulster, then later in the rest of Ireland. About 3,000 English and Scottish settlers were killed in the initial uprising. The numbers were inflated by Parliament to hundreds of thousands as a propaganda ploy to prevent King Charles I from making peace and using the Irish against Parliament during the Civil War.

The English forces initially were commanded by James Butler, Duke of Ormonde and lord lieutenant of Ireland. In 1645, however, with Parliament in control of England, Ormonde took control of the rebellion and led the Confederacy, an alliance of all Royalists in Ireland. Others, such as Murrough O'Brien, Baron of Inchiquin, an Irish Protestant stationed in Munster opposed the Confederacy and laid waste to Munster, earning him the name Murrough of the Burnings and the hatred of his countrymen. Owen Roe O'Neill, nephew of Tyrone and a veteran of the Spanish army, kept his Ulster forces separate from Ormonde's, representing a purely Irish Catholic element.

The years 1647 to 1649 were pivotal for the rebellion. First, in 1647 Inchiquin switched sides for no apparent reason and joined Ormonde. Second, Colonel Michael Jones landed with 2,000 troops, expelled Ormonde from Dublin and defeated him at Rathmines in August 1649. That broke Ormonde's power. All that was left to do was capture the strongholds still in Confederate or Irish hands. Oliver Cromwell set out for Ireland to do just that.

Cromwell faced a bitterly divided Ireland. Native Irish, Old English (the descendants of the original English colonists), New English and Scottish, the more recent settlers, all distrusted one another almost as much as they did Cromwell, sometimes more so.

Cromwell's greatest obstacles were not Irish or Confederate troops but the nature of Ireland itself, where conditions were terrible and the climate is even wetter than in England. Plague and influenza proved more devastating to Cromwell's men than Irish arms.

Cromwell set sail for Ireland on August 13, 1649. He arrived in Dublin on the 15th and was greeted by the roar of cannons from the walls and a great, enthusiastic crowd. Cromwell was received so favorably because Dublin was the second city of the English empire and Colonel Jones had expelled all Catholics from the city.

Ormonde left Sir Arthur Aston, an English Catholic, at Drogheda with 2,200 infantry and 20 cavalry to delay Cromwell from marauding farther north. Aston was well aware of Cromwell's superior numbers–8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry–but he was confident that Drogheda's superior position would enable him to survive the Cromwellian onslaught even if he could not hope to take the lord lieutenant in the field–or, as he put it, 'He who could take Drogheda could take Hell. He also expected war's partners, disease and famine, to weaken the Parliamentary army.

The geography of Drogheda was crucial to the siege. The town was totally contained within a formidable wall one and a half miles long, 20 feet high, and 6 feet wide at the base, narrowing to 2 feet on top. The main town lay north of the River Boyne. To the south, still within the impressive fortifications, was an additional urban area situated on a hill that had to be tackled first by any army coming from the south. In the extreme southeast corner, virtually embedded in the city wall, stood St. Mary's Church. From its lofty steeple the defenders not only had a fine view of the city but were in a good position to fire upon attackers.

Flanking the church on the town side was a steep ravine called the Dale, then the heavily guarded Duleek Gate, the entrance to this southern outpost, and behind that an imposing artificial mound called the Mill Mount.

On September 10, Cromwell issued his first official summons to Sir Arthur Aston:

Having brought the army belonging to the Parliament of England before this place, to reduce it to obedience, to the end the effusion of blood may be prevented, I thought it fit to summon you to deliver the same into my hands to their use. If this be refused you will have no cause to blame me.

Aston refused to surrender, and Cromwell's cannons opened fire. The walls of the city began to crumble. Aston quickly realized that he was in danger. The Parliamentary fleet blockaded the harbor. Ormonde could send no more reinforcements, his arms and provisions were running short. Worst of all, like all of Ireland, Drogheda was not united. Some of those inside the walls preferred the English Parliamentary force.

Knowing that there could be no quarter if he refused to surrender, Aston decided to fight on, writing Ormonde that his soldiers, at least, were unanimous in their resolution to perish rather than to deliver up the place.

The defenders fought bravely, at first turning back the attackers, but eventually the Parliamentarians crashed through the walls and seized St. Mary's Church. Aston and some defenders fled to Mill Mount. Possessed by bloodlust, the Parliamentarians rushed up the hill, and all defenders, including Aston, were killed by order of Cromwell. The Parliamentarians swept through the streets with orders to kill anyone in arms. Against orders, civilians also were killed in the rush. Priests and friars were treated as combatants by Cromwell's Puritans and executed. Even more horrible was the fate of the defenders of St. Peter's Church in the northern part of the town; the church was burned down around them. By nightfall, only small pockets of resistance on the walls remained. When they managed to kill some Parliamentarians, Cromwell ordered the captured officers to be knocked on the head and every 10th soldier executed. Nearly 4,000 Confederates died at Drogheda.

Drogheda's being divided by the river caused some confusion and may have led to the massacre. When forces on one side of the river surrendered, it is alleged that Cromwell, still meeting resistance on the other side, ordered the annihilation of the entire population. I do not think that thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives, Cromwell later wrote. The survivors were sent to the sugar plantations at Barbados.

After the massacre, Cromwell sought to explain his actions in a letter to William Lenthall, speaker of the Parliament:

…I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood, and it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remourse and regret….

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, later said in Cromwell's defense: The practice of refusing quarter to a garrison which stands an assault is not a useless effusion of blood.

Ormonde tried to make excuses for not aiding Drogheda. He said that many of his officers and troops were on the verge of mutiny or were showing a lack of courage, so it was not wise to get close to the enemy. Ormonde later wrote to King Charles II: It is not to be imagined the terror these successes and the power of the rebels have struck into the people. They are so stupefied, that it is with great difficulty I can persuade them to act anything like men toward their own.

When Owen Roe O'Neill heard of the massacre, he swore an oath that he would retake the town even if he had to storm Hell.

Cromwell set out for the south a fortnight after Drogheda. Winter was fast approaching and no time could be lost if the southern part of the island was to be subdued. He had to follow up before the scattered Irish forces recovered from the initial panic and joined in a stronger union.

Cromwell and his army encamped at the walls of Wexford on October 1, 1649. It was most important to capture that town, for it was through Wexford that the Confederates received their arms and kept in touch with supporters in foreign countries. He hoped the capture would be easy.

Ormonde also realized the importance of the place and sent 1,000 infantry and 300 cavalry to reinforce the garrison. The townspeople, however, did not trust Ormonde. They remembered that he had surrendered Dublin a few years earlier; they knew he had recently made common cause with Inchiquin; they remembered how he had massacred his own people earlier in the revolt. Their distrust was so strong that they initially refused entry to Ormonde's forces and did so only after the Parliamentary fleet arrived.

Cromwell himself admitted that Wexford was pleasantly seated and strong. It had a rampart of earth 15 feet thick within the walls to improve its chances of withstanding a siege. It was garrisoned by more than 2,000 men. In the fort and elsewhere were nearly 100 cannons. In the harbor were three ships, one with 34 guns and two with 20. Since it was the middle of October, winter would soon be setting in, and sickness would soon take its toll on troops camped in the open. Ormonde was camped 20 miles away at Ross, waiting for a favorable moment to strike.

The Confederates faced a disadvantage that negated the town's impressive fortifications, however: there was a traitor in their midst, Captain James Stafford. Had Stafford's treason not occurred, Wexford would no doubt have been a tougher nut to crack. On October 11, Stafford gave Cromwell entrance to the town. The scenes that followed mirrored those at Drogheda. Many Franciscans and other priests were killed. Three hundred women were massacred while standing at the cross in the public square. They had hoped that being near the cross would soften the hearts of the Christian soldiers. Instead it identified them as Catholics, and they were put to death. The churches were then destroyed. The total number of dead at Wexford was about 2,000.

After Wexford, Parliament sent Cromwell reinforcements and an enormous sum of money to buy off his English enemies in Ireland. Cromwell then marched on Ross. Two days after the summons, the town surrendered without a fight, although Ormonde had sent 2,500 extra men into the town. The townspeople no doubt were frightened by the events at Drogheda and Wexford. Unable to prevent them from crossing the Barrow River, Cromwell granted terms: the inhabitants were protected from looting and violence, and the garrison was allowed to march away under arms. He turned down a request for freedom of worship, however.

About 500 men from the Ross garrison, mostly Inchiquin's men, defected to Cromwell. The reinforcements were welcome, because the expedition was beginning to take its toll on him and his men. At Ross, Cromwell himself suffered from a mild form of malaria. The defection of the troops was a blow to Ormonde. The ranks of the Confederacy were discouraged and disaffected. Ormonde wrote to Charles II that only his presence could hearten his discouraged subjects.

In early November, the Irish cause suffered an even worse blow. O'Neill died of a mysterious illness. Some say the only Irish commander who could have taken on Cromwell head to head had been poisoned. Before he died, O'Neill signed a treaty with Ormonde and sent some of his troops south, but after this severe setback Ormonde had to rely on withdrawal and evasion tactics.

After Ross, Cromwell built a bridge across the Barrow, advanced into Tipperary and captured Ormonde's castle. He then joined his son-in-law, General Henry Ireton, at Duncannon. After some deliberation, most of the army was withdrawn from Ross and placed at a less fortified post to form a blockade around Duncannon to prevent supplies coming in from Waterford. That proved unnecessary, because Waterford refused to part with any of its own scanty provisions.

The commander of the fort, Thomas Roche, informed Ormonde that there was no way he could hold the fort against Cromwell and that he would have to obey the summons. Ormonde promptly sent Colonel Edward Wogan, a defector from Ireton's ranks, along with 120 cavalry, to replace Roche. They arrived just in time to save the fort. They sent a defiant answer to Cromwell, and he abandoned the siege rather than pursue it in the winter.

Although Duncannon had a reprieve, the Confederates lost a more important place; the garrison at Cork revolted in favor of the Parliamentarians about the same time Cromwell was at Ross. The seeds of the revolt were sown before Cromwell's coming as Protestants sought to break the dominance of Catholics, especially the Confederates.

Cromwell sent agents to widen the differences. One of them was Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, a former royalist who joined Cromwell out of financial need. Another Cromwell agent was Colonel Richard Townsend, who pretended to be angered at the execution of the king but who was trying to corrupt the Munster forces. Their activities quickly bore fruit. The Munster Protestants had nothing to hope for and everything to fear from the Confederates. Cromwell remarked that if there had been a man like Boyle in every province, it would have been impossible for the Irish to raise a rebellion.

The result was that Broghill raised 1,500 infantry and a troop of cavalry from his family estates. Townsend led the English troops and citizens of Cork in driving out the Irish and declared the city for Parliament. The rising saved Townsend from being executed for hatching a plot to capture Inchiquin.

The revolt was a greater disaster for Ormonde than the mere loss of Cork. The Irish complained that Ormonde showed favoritism to the English, and he was thus compelled to restore Roche at Duncannon. The rest of Inchiquin's English troops deserted, making the campaign a tribal war between Celts and English. Inchiquin was even accused of being a traitor. The accusation was false, but the damage was done, and he lost much of his already scant credibility.

With the capture of Drogheda and Wexford, the major strongholds on the east coast, and the possession of Cork, the first stage of Cromwell's Irish campaign was over. His task was clear: reduce the garrisons that still held out in Munster and bring that province under Parliament. The rising in Cork made that task simpler by widening the gap between the Irish and the Old English. Cromwell spent as much time on diplomatic maneuvering as he did on field operations.

As matters stood in mid-November 1649, the Parliament held the east coast from Belfast down to Wexford, plus Cork in the west. Only a few towns in the north remained in Irish hands. Cromwell was still ill, so he sent Jones and Ireton to the county of Kilkenny to secure the garrisons there, cut Ormonde off from Waterford and draw him into an open engagement.

The plan was not successful. The Confederates first retired to Thomastown, then to the fortified city of Kilkenny. Ireton sent Colonel Daniel Abbott to take the town, but Abbott found that the River Nore was flooded and the bridge at Thomastown was destroyed. Ireton and Jones had to be content with sending Colonel John Reynolds to take Carriek and returning to Ross with the main army. Weather had joined disease and famine in the fight against Cromwell.

Carrick soon fell, and Cromwell, now recovered from his illness, led his army across the River Suir to Waterford

Ormonde lay with 10,000 men on the Kilkenny side of the Suir opposite Waterford and the Parliamentarians. He sent Inchiquin to try to recapture Carrick, but he failed. Cromwell had 7,000 at the beginning of the siege, but wet weather and plague reduced the number to 3,000. At that point, Ormonde could have stopped him. Again, Ormonde's army did not come into play, because of the same disunity that plagued the Irish at Drogheda and Wexford. His army was seen by most Irish as an alien force, just as offensive as Cromwell's. Cromwell sought to exploit this feeling in his summons to Waterford on November 21, 1649. His warning was similar to those given to Drogheda and Wexford, but the result was different. Hunger and disease had taken such a toll on Cromwell's force that eventually he was compelled to retreat.

Cromwell came out of winter quarters at the end of January 1650 and began the conquest of southern Ireland. He offered terms of surrender at the city of Fethard on February 2. Officers, soldiers and priests would be allowed to march away, and the townspeople would be protected from looting. The town of Cashel surrendered without a fight, and Cromwell turned his army on Callan, a city defended by a strong wall and three castles. He attacked with cannons, took two of the castles, put their defenders to the sword and accepted the surrender of the third.

Next Cromwell turned to Cahir, commanded by Ormonde's half-brother, Captain George Mathews. When Mathews refused the first demand to surrender, the Parliamentarians tried to scale the walls. A force of Ulstermen repulsed the attack, but Cromwell brought up his cannons. Mathews realized he could not hold out and surrendered under terms Cromwell agreed to–that the officers, soldiers and clergymen be allowed to march out.

Cromwell pushed on, taking the towns of Kiltenan, Dundrum, Ballynakill and Kildare. He and other Parliamentarians next converged on Kilkenny, headquarters of the Confederacy. He summoned Kilkenny on March 22, 1650:

My coming hither is to endeavour, if God so please to bless me, the reduction of the city of Kilkenny to their obedience to the state of England, from which, by an unheard of massacre of the innocent English, you have endeavored to rend yourselves.

Sir Walter Butler, governor of Kilkenny and a cousin of Ormonde, responded that he would maintain the town for the king. The city was not in good shape, however. Hundreds of the garrison died of plague, and reinforcements deserted. Nearby Cantwell Castle surrendered to Cromwell. Ormonde and the Supreme Council had long since fled.

Nevertheless, Cromwell found it not so easy to take the town. The city was divided by the River Nore into two parts, Kilkenny proper and Irishtown. A plot to betray the city was discovered, and a Captain Tickell was executed. Butler refused to surrender, and an attack beginning on the 24th at Irishtown was first repulsed, but ultimately succeeded. Butler again refused to surrender, and and the Parliamentary attack continued on the 25th. Hours of bombardment caused a breach in the wall of the town proper. Two attacks by the Parliamentarians were repulsed, and a third order to attack was not obeyed, but Butler soon decided that he'd done all he could do and surrendered.

Upon payment of 2,000 pounds sterling, the citizens of Kilkenny were protected from looting, and the officers and soldiers were allowed to march out disarmed for two miles. The clergymen also were allowed to march out.

For some weeks after Kilkenny, Cromwell did not take an active role in operations; instead he directed them, first from Carrick, then from Fethard. He realized that Ormonde was at the end of his resources. On the east coast, only Waterford was not in English hands, and on the west coast the plague-devastated city of Galway. Limerick refused to admit any forces not dominated by the Catholic clergy. Furthermore, the bishop of Derry was making arrangements with foreign princes to transport several thousand men out of Ireland.

On the combat side, Inchiquin tried to invade Limerick, but was routed by Broghill. Broghill then joined Cromwell at Clonmel after beating back an invasion of County Cork by David Roche.

By the end of March 1650, there was little to do except to take Clonmel, Waterford and Limerick and reduce the scattered Irish remnants, since the last major Confederate commander besides Ormonde, Inchiquin, was negotiating with Cromwell.

Cromwell's next objective, Clonmel, was commanded by General Hugh Duffy O'Neill, Black Hugh, who, like his uncle, Owen Roe O'Neill, had previously served in the Spanish army. At his command were 12,000 troops, mostly Ulstermen and all but 50 of whom were infantry. Ormonde promised to send aid but did not. It was in Black Hugh that Cromwell met his greatest adversary in Ireland.

Cromwell arrived at Clonmel on April 27, a month after Kilkenny. There is no evidence that he summoned the city to surrender. Supplies were running low when he arrived and, as in other places, there was treason to aid Cromwell's effort. A Major Fennell accepted 500 pounds sterling from Cromwell and opened the gates to 500 Parliamentarians. But Black Hugh had some of his uncle's savvy. He discovered the plot and arrested Fennell, who confessed on promise of a pardon. The 500 Parliamentarians were slaughtered by the Ulstermen.

This was not the beginning Cromwell desired. On April 30, he brought up the guns and began the bombardment. On May 9, the Parliamentarians poured through a breach–and right into a trap. O'Neill had made breastworks, with a masked battery, 80 yards from the breach. The Irish fired chain shot from their cannons, and the troops maintained a continuous fire from the breastworks. Stone and timber also were hurled at the attackers. More Parliamentarians came in, only to be killed. Finally, the Parliamentarians withdrew with a loss of 2,500 men. Cromwell lost more at Clonmel than he had in all the other battles in Ireland put together. Some speculate that Cromwell would have lost even more men if the promised reinforcements had arrived.

In the end, the Parliamentarians took Clonmel not by force of arms but the lack of supplies and the ineptitude of Ormonde. The fact that Hugh O'Neill and his men managed to sneak out of town during the night before Clonmel fell also doesn't say much for Cromwell's vigilance.

Less than a month later Cromwell returned to England, which was facing a threat of invasion from Scotland, which had declared for the exiled Stuart King Charles II. He left Ireton in command. The war in Ireland continued on Ormonde's forlorn hope that Charles II would come in from Scotland, but, for the most part, the Irish effort had degenerated into bands of guerrillas known as Tories. Two months after Clonmel, Bishop Hebere Mac Mahon led an Ulsterman army against Sir Charles Coote against the advice of Henry O'Neill, Owen Roe's son. The bishop was captured, hanged and quartered on the order of Coote and Ireton. The bishop had appealed to Owen Roe O'Neill to spare Coote at the siege of Derry several years earlier.

Ireton captured Waterford on June 21 and tried but failed to take Limerick. Coote narrowly defeated the remnants of Owen Roe O'Neill's army at Scariffhollis. At the end of 1650, Ormonde left Ireland and was replaced by the Earl of Clanridarde, who was just as despised as Ormonde and could not unite the factions. Ireton again tried to take Limerick in June 1651, and after a siege of five months, the city, under the command of Black Hugh O'Neill, yielded. Ireton died of the plague in November, but Edmund Ludlow and Charles Fleetwood completed the subjugation. Both of them later became lord lieutenants of Ireland. Galway, the last city to resist, surrendered in May 1652. The war that had begun in 1641 was over, and more than 616,000 people died in the 12 years of the war.

Many today trace the current problems in Northern Ireland back to Cromwell. The British troops in Northern Ireland are referred to as Cromwell's Boys, and there is hardly a ruined building in Ireland whose destruction is not blamed on Cromwell.

This article was written by Basil P. Briguglio, Jr. and originally published in the October 1999 issue of Military History.

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2 Responses to “Irish Confederate Wars: Oliver Cromwell's Conquest of Ireland”


  1. 1

    [...] de Cromwell às cidades de Drogheda e de Wexford figuram entre os pontos mais dramáticos da história da Irlanda, sendo tristemente lembrados pelo assassínio de populações civis, pela tortura e morte de padres [...]

  2. 2

    [...] As the English Civil War was unfolding in England, an uprising broke out against the plantation of Ulster. The Gaelic population, some of whom had become tenants, others who were the remnants of the Hugh O'Neill uprising that precipitated the plantation. Settlers were attacked and an estimated 3,000 killed, though these numbers were massively inflated for propaganda use in Britain. [...]



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