The Irish had fallen back from the failed assault on Drogheda, and while they continued to control very large swaths of territory in Ireland (the amount does bear repeating, over 80% of Irish territory was not in English control by 1642), and maintained attacks on isolated towns and garrisons, it could not be said that the war was going well for them. Starting in April, things would only get worse and worse.
English garrisons were certainly on a leash in the aftermath of Drogheda. Ormonde’s army was on the move and men like Tichbourne had proven themselves to be capable fighters, but the Dublin government, seeing clearly how much land they had lost control of and none too sure about the size and disposition of the rebel forces, was unwilling to give its military commanders leeway when it came to facing the rebels. As a result, the rebels were able to maintain a great degree of freedom of movement, at least in most of the countryside. The Dublin administration was happy to keep seeing reinforcements arrive from England, where the situation between crown and parliament was still quite tense.
Part of that was certainly to do with the Scottish Covenanters. Still defying Charles I and his attempts at religious reforms, many of them were shocked and appalled at the reports coming from Ulster during the 1641 crisis. Many of the planter class would have been Scottish in origin or of Scottish descent and tales of Catholic atrocity committed against Protestants stoked many fires. It was not long before the Scots, already in arms to face down the forces of Charles, were busy arranging a army to head to Ireland to protect their colonists.
In this they were supported and encouraged by the English Parliament, suspicious of Charles’ role in the Irish unrest and hopeful that the Scots could solve the problem for them – and weaken the Scots own position in the event of future conflict (one of the reasons that Charles supported the Scots activities as well). They were willing to help outfit and transport a Scottish army, but eyebrows were raised when elements of the Scottish army insisted on a number of extra concession from London, like payment for the upkeep of the army while it was in Ireland, and military control of numerous key coastal towns and cities to be handed over to the Scots. No firm agreement was ever really made on these matters, as Parliament worried about the territorial ambitions of their northern neighbours.
Parliament had also just passed a very important piece of law, the Adventurers Act, which would, in time, have a dramatic effect on the history of Ireland. Simply put, it offered a thousand acres of land in Ireland, to be confiscated from rebels, in return for an investment of 200 pounds. The implementation of this scheme would be at the heart of future invasions.
The Scottish army, arrived in dribs and drabs in the first months of the rebellion and was centred around the garrison town of Carrickfergus in Antrim, a tough nut to crack at the best of times, which the Irish had been unable to really threaten. It was not until the middle of April that a more substantial army arrived, roughly 2’500 men and cavalry. They were led nominally by people like Alexander Leslie, a high ranking Scottish noble, but in reality by a man named Robert Monro.
Monro was a Scottish noble of Clan Munro. He was one of many Scots who left their home at a relatively young age to find service, adventure and fortune in the Thirty Years War, a brutal sectarian conflict being fought among the various states of what today makes up Germany between 1618 and 1648. Monro fought under the Swedish banner of King Gustavus Adolphus, leading a regiment of Highlanders. He was a distinguished and aggressive fighter, taking part in numerous battles, most notably perhaps at Breitenfeld.
After the defeat and exit of the Swedish from the war, Monro returned home, using his experience with battle to get a high ranking position in the Covenanter army that was raised to fight the Bishops Wars. After distinguishing himself in these conflicts, such as with his role in the capture of Edinburgh Castle, he was appointed to lead the expedition to Ulster.
Monro’s time in Ireland is controversial, and save for the intervention of Cromwell later in the war, he might have been the worst regarded personality of the British sides. For the first few months of his time in Ulster, he faced no conventional forces. Phelim’s troops were still scattered, inexperienced and mostly leaderless, and he could not get them co-ordinated enough to actually stand and fight Monro’s men who, while small enough in number, were professional, battle-hardened troops. The war in Ulster would take on a guerrilla form in time, but for the end of Spring and Summer of 1642, Monro was free to sally forth from Carrickfergus, pillage, burn and devastate in the lands all around, causing a great deal of hardship as he went. Within a short time most of what we would know as Down and large parts of Antrim were under Scottish control, though Monro did not seek to extend his power further.
For the first time since Mountjoy’s last great campaign, an all out war had come to the province. What rebel forces there were melted away and launched themselves into “wood-kerne” tactics as best they could, but that was Monro’s time. The apex of it was probably the capture of Newry in early May, and the slaughter of its defenders and townsfolk. Newry, being one of the places that Phelim had seized early on, held special significance, hence the focus attached to it. Everywhere Monro went in that period, he found little opposition worth talking about.
It was the only option open to Phelim really. Seeking a pitched battle, even if he had numerical superiority, would have been asking for disaster. He simply didn’t have enough experience or arms, and the rebellion was still in an infancy phase, a phase where one defeat could easily have neutered the entire endeavour. Monro, like so many invaders from Britain before him, would have savoured a battle, and the only reason the war in Ulster lasted long enough for some parity to be restored is because the rebellion did not get stamped out in those early days. The cost was in civilian lives and resources, but Drogheda had shown the rebels deficiencies.
It would be some time before the rebels would see anything resembling a balancing of the scales. It is somewhat ironic since the Covenanters and the Confederates were so similar in many respects – both armies were based on sworn oaths to protect their religious rights in the face of tyranny, and neither had the stated aim of overthrowing Charles.
Things were going just as poorly elsewhere, as the next major battle of the conflict came to be fought on the same day that Monro’s army arrived.
One of the key rebel leaders was Richard Butler, the Viscount Mountgarrett. Probably the oldest rebel leader at the age of 64, his ownership of lands in the south-east made him the focal point of the rebellion there, and after he had made the commitment to join the Confederate cause (apparently after considering joining with the English, in shades of Hugh O’Neill), in a famous meeting near Tara, he set to work raising as many men as he could in the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny and Tipperary, taking whatever towns and other fortified places as possible. Mountgarrett was able to seize a lot of territory very fast, and seems to have been a competent enough organiser, since he was able to field and supply an army by the Spring of 1642. That army was not quite as strong as he would have liked, due to a lack of expected troops from Munster, but it was still one of the only rebel armies in existence at the time.
Mountgarrett happened to be a Butler, as mentioned, which made him related to the Earl of Ormonde. In fact, Richard was James’ elder cousin and relations between the two remained surprisingly cordial despite the circumstances, with Mountgarrett insuring that James’ wife and children were escorted into his protection when they were caught in Kilkenny.
In April, Ormonde was abroad from his supply base in Dublin with what forces he had. His mission was not actually that aggressive, merely to move out into friendly-ish territory in Kildare and Laois, reconnoitre rebel strength and positions while reinforcing the English garrisons that were still operating. By the middle of April he had gone as far as he dared at Portlaoise (then Maryborough) and turned for home.
Why exactly may never be ascertained with confidence, but Richard was waiting for his cousin with his own army. That he felt the need to seek a battle is somewhat curious. He must have known that his men, while probably more numerous, lacked the experience and the training to stand up to the more professional forces of Ormonde.
But, maybe he felt that he could catch his cousin out in the fields of Kildare while he was at a disadvantage, tired from a long enough march and eager for home. Ormonde would have to break through Mountgarrett’s lines in order to get home to Dublin, so Richard could operate on the defensive. After Drogheda and with the soon to be widespread news of Monro’s landing, the rebels could do with some good news, and an aggressive move towards the main English army still operating in Ireland would do that.
They fought on the 15th April, near Kilrush, County Kildare. The two armies had spent a day and night shadowing each other beforehand, each sticking to high ridges in the mostly flat land of Kildare, before Mountgarrett pushed on and placed himself ahead of Ormonde. A clash was unavoidable.
The sources are not reliable, with one of the few claiming that Richard brought over 8’000 men to James’ 2’500. Considering what happened afterwards, I deem this unlikely, unless most of Richard’s army were unarmed peasantry, easily beaten at the moment of decision.
The battle did not go well for the Irish. The left flank of the Irish army was apparently broken in an opening charge, essentially ending the battle as a contest, even as other sections fought on more bravely. In the end, the whole of Mountgarrett’s force appears to have been routed, with a great deal of slaughter carried on by Ormonde’s cavalry. He is recorded as being as chivalrous as they came in the time period, but Ormonde was also in the company of more aggressive offices, like Charles Coote, who had no compunctions about sectarian killings and massacres of prisoners and fleeing enemies.
One source claims that over 700 Irish were killed that day, which is unlikely, but it was probably still a terrible defeat. Mountgarrett and his army survived to fight another day, mostly due to the fact that James wasn’t in a position to pursue too far. He returned to Dublin in triumph, with the tide of the war in Ireland seemingly turning against the rebels in a large way. Any conventional force the rebels had put together was defeated if it sought battle, the origin point of the rising was being preyed upon by Monro, and the English could expect more and more reinforcements to come flooding in, until the rebel position collapsed completely. Mountgarrett and Phelim O’Neill were left to retreat and reconsider, licking their wounds and awaiting some badly needed good news.
Fighting was taking place in other places as well though, especially in Munster. One of the fights there will be the focus of the next entry.
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