One of the things I feel I should state here is that I cannot hope to cover everything. Starting around this point, the military history of Ireland begins to become better recorded and more complex, far more than earlier days when only major fights were remembered. This is especially true for the early days of the Confederate Wars, when clashes, atrocities and burnings are recorded from all over the place, sometimes exaggerated in their importance by chroniclers. I beg some forgiveness if the narrative seems overly simple, but I find it is better to focus on major events and important moments, rather than attempt a complete and total chronicle of the conflict.
While Ireland descended into chaos, the actual military aspect of the rebellion did not go un-regarded.
Even while it was becoming increasingly clear that the violence was getting out of their control, the rebels were on the move. Phelim O’Neill knew that he couldn’t just rest on his laurels, as the English administration was liable to crush him if he simply stayed put. The failed attempt to take Dublin at the start of the rebellion was a major problem, as it kept the Pale authority intact and functioning. But though he certainly had confidence and a sense of when to take the initiative – he would hardly of undertaken the rebellion at all if he did not – the situation in the last months of 1641 must have given Phelim some pause. Should he try and put in a greater effort to control the violence all around and form some sort of cohesion, or strike out with what he had?
In late 1641, O’Neill would not have had a massive army, just militia really, with little experience and not especially well-armed. Other rebel groups throughout the country were scattered, uncoordinated and more concerned with sectarian retribution than strategic necessities.
O’Neill, along with other rebel leaders, could maybe have called upon 5’000 men, but of dubious quality at best. Knowing full well that counter-attacks from Dublin and from across the Irish Sea were inevitable, in November they struck out in an offensive mode.
The key was controlling the ports, or as many of them as they could anyway, which would severely affect the capacity of either the English crown, English Parliament or Scottish Covenanters to invade Ireland. Scottish armies were already zeroing in on Carrickfergus as a staging point for example. The rebels had already seized places like Waterford, and could even claim to have controlled Dundalk for a short time, so this was clearly an aim of the rebel leadership .The main port was Dublin of course, but the rebels would not have had the capability of attacking that city, now that any element of surprise had been extinguished.
Instead, Phelim fixed his sights on Drogheda. Smaller than Dublin, it was still an important port and a potential landing point for any incoming army. The city had decent walls, but a sudden attack, before it could be properly garrisoned, could well succeed, and leave the rebels within striking distance of the capital itself. Drogheda also happened to have substantial grain stores, making it an even more tempting target. Its garrison was half-Irish, which could prove an advantage, and the Dublin government seemed more concerned with defending their own city than helping out their neighbours.
Moreover, the Irish rebels had to do something. Seizing a few towns and whipping up discontent was one thing, but they needed a victory to keep the fires burning, and to increase their fragile legitimacy. Despite the poor time of year for campaigning, off they went.
The English had not been idle either. Charles had appointed James Butler, the Earl of Ormonde, as his commander in Ireland, heading the standing English army, which consisted of little more than 2’500 troops. James was the grandson of the last Butler I mentioned in this series, Thomas, who had died at the venerable age of 82 in 1614. The current Earl would become a pivotal figure in the history of the region over the following few years.
Knowing that he was limited due to the size of his own army and the overwhelming amount of violence going on around him, Ormonde was cautious and did not make any significant military moves with the forces at his command.
The first significant clash of arms of what became the Irish Confederate Wars occurred at Julianstown, Meath, on the 29th of November 1641. A force of rebel Irish, apparently under the command of Rory O’Moore, approached the small town between Dublin and Drogheda, when they were faced by a force of the enemy. They were probably a hastily assembled group, a mixture of Palesmen and northern planters who had been called up to try and provide an relief for Drogheda. Some would probably have been refugees.
The rebels had already attacked and burned a number of undefended settlements in the area, and had little fear of the force they faced. The “English” advanced across the bridge over the River Nanny. When an order was given to attack the Irish forming up against them, it was apparently misinterpreted by some as an order to withdraw. A confused muddle followed as parts of the “army” began to retreat. The Irish attacked and the result was an embarrassing flight for the English. The better soldiers laid down some fire but were quickly overwhelmed. The Irish took the bridge with little loss, and were able to continue on to Drogheda.
It was a minor skirmish, but its long-term effect was out of all proportion to what actually happened there. Exaggerated casualty figures made the battle huge news, and the victory of the rebels over an English force granted them increased legitimacy in the eyes of many who were on the fence. Across Ireland, people read the reports about Julianstown and the imminent siege of Drogheda, and made the choice to pitch their lot in with the rebels. It was, very much so, a propaganda coup that the rebels benefitted enormously from. It was matched by Phelim’s personal capture of Mellifont Abbey, the place where the last great war had ended.
Phelim O’Neill left command of the siege to local keaders while he busied himself pacifying areas of Ulster. There were probably around 6’000 troops laying siege to Drogheda in December, with Ormonde still hanging back, calling for reinforcements. Things looked somewhat grim for the English garrison.
But their position was actually fairly strong. Drogheda was well-supplied and offered better shelter from the winter weather than those the besiegers were using. It had 2’000 English troops, under a Colonel Tichborne, who had just replaced its more incompetent previous governor. Quick work by a Lord Moore, future Earl of Drogheda, had seen over a thousand extra English troops sent to its defence, as well as the securing of artillery and improvement of the walls with civilian labour. The rebels had a complete lack of any kind of artillery, and most of them had no experience of siege work. Choosing between assault or waiting it out, one mad attack was carried out in late December where the rebels seemed to have simply tried to rush the walls. This was beaten off with some loss, and after that the starvation option was preferred.
But this had no guarantee of success. The rebels were hardly flush with food themselves, and attempts to block the Boyne River to stop Dublin sending supply ships failed. Food supplies did get low in the town, but not near low enough for them to consider surrender.
In January a small ship made it past the blockade to bring supplies to Drogheda. According to Irish sources, this resulted in the garrison getting drunk during celebrations, where upon it was decided upon a risky, but daring, initiative. 500 picked men, with the aid of a traitor inside the town, were able to get inside the walls in the dead of night using a small, old, unused entrance to the town. That should have seen the capture of the town completed, but the party neither opened the gates nor captured the guns defending the town. Instead, probably drunk themselves, they raised too much noise upon entrance and alerted the sleeping garrison. A pitched fight erupted inside the town and the defenders, armed with longer pikes and fighting desperately, forced the attackers back out the way they came, leaving 200 dead behind them.
Drogheda continued to hold. Tichborne proved himself an active commander, leading his cavalry contingents on sortie’s and raids outside the town as supplies were getting low, pulling off a major coup when he captured a large herd of Irish sheep and cattle at the end of January.
When Phelim heard that more ships from Dublin were headed to Drogheda – for communications and intelligence were readily available in those early hectic days – he came south himself and took over personal command of the siege, adding a few of his own militia to the besieging force. With ladders he attempted a great assault on the walls on the 20th of February, but this was, like the other attempts, beaten back with loss. The Irish couldn’t hold up under the English cannon and musket fire, and their inexperience with siege assaults most have told. They simply weren’tcapable of taking the city.
By early March, the rebel’s position was untenable. They had lost many men, had gained little, and enemies were closing in all around. When Ormonde, reinforced by the English Parliament, finally gathered his army and headed north from Dublin, Phelim was obliged to withdraw his own forces and disperse them back north. The siege was over.
The rebels were now looking like they were in dire straits. They had failed in their first major military operation, the violence around the country was still ongoing, and they stood poised to receive at least two major armies onto the island, from the Parliament and the Scots, not to mention the reinforcements for Ormond. They lacked arms, training, strong leadership and a common strategic aim.
But there were silver linings. Messages had been sent to exiled Irish leaders in Europe, who were already preparing to come home and do their part. The Catholic Church in Ireland and rowed in on the side of the rebels and assistance, of a kind, was already on the way from the Papacy. The rebels controlled a large amount of territory and could call upon a vast host of men. The fractious political situation in England could yet turn to their advantage.
And greater unity in the rebel leadership was coming. It would not be for a number of months that a proper rebel government would be set up, but in March, at Trim, Meath, a meeting of Catholic nobles issued a remonstrance to King Charles outlining their pleas and complaints while in nearby Kells the Catholic Bishops proclaimed the conflict a just and holy war. In May a synod at Kilkenny drafted what became known as the “Confederate Oath of Association”, calling on all Catholics to take it, swear allegiance to King Charles, and to then fight for religious liberty. Confederate Ireland was taking shape.
Whether it could survive the coming waves of invasion would be another matter entirely.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.