The reasons are many. Connacht was no stranger to the general tumult of 1641, and the uprising was as prominent in the western province as it was elsewhere, as was the sectarian violence that followed. I briefly mentioned the massacre at Shrule, Mayo before as one of the main examples of such incidents. But in terms of military operations, Connacht found itself at the low end of the scale.
While the English had improved their authority, Connacht was still the furthest from the Pale and thus the furthest from Pale control. Its garrisons were few and far between. Its strategic worth was as limited as its meagre supply potential and low number of strongholds. Some of its main Earls and nobles were, as I will discuss, unwilling to actively join either side of the fighting. Connacht just did not carry the same importance as the rest of Ireland and no decisive clashes would take place there.
But fighting did take place in Connacht and today I’ll talk about the most significant combat of the early years of the Confederate Wars. It was a conflict of negotiation as much as it was with shot and pike, which illustrated the merits and demerits of both soft and hard power approaches.
I haven’t mentioned Galway in a while. No stranger to attacks and sieges since its early days as a pre-Norman fort, Galway had developed into a prosperous coastal trading town by the 1640’s, a focal point for ships from around Europe and protected by an impressive fort just south of the town own impressive walls dubbed “Forthill” or “St Augustine’s Fort” depending on who you read. Repaired and refurbished just five years before the rebellion broke out, Forthill was one of the more impressive defensive structures in Ireland. Like Limerick, Galway enjoyed a degree of autonomy and self-government due to its location and general lack of rebellion in the past, but the local noble was the Marquess (often identified as an Earl in Irish sources) of Clanricarde, in 1641 being Ulick Burke, a royalist who had served with Charles I in Scotland.
When the rebellion broke out, like many landowners across the country, Ulick gathered what militia he could, not as a source of soldiers for either side, but simply to maintain security and peace in the region that he controlled. This extended to Galway town itself, whose Mayor gladly welcomed Ulick’s protection and helped organise additional volunteers as well as adding to the supplies of the town in the event that it was attacked or besieged. Citizens took oaths to protect Galway from harm and swore allegiance to the King. The commander of Forthill, Sir Francis Willoughby, found in his initial assessment that the residents of Galway town itself were unlikely to rise. In that, he was badly mistaken, but like many other places the initial days of the rebellion seem to have brought many together in arms more out of a sense of self preservation from anybody as opposed to political beliefs.
There was a group of rebelliously minded citizens in Galway, which included and was encouraged by a section of Catholic clergy. Much like Limerick in fact, the largely Irish residents of Galway would have had heavy sympathy for the Catholic side of the confrontations raging across Ireland, and it would never have taken much for them to be stoked into showing outright support.
This group of rebels took their chance on instigating that support in mid- March when they seized an English ship in Galway Bay and brought it back to the town, along with the guns and other supplies it carried. Rapidly, any English soldiers within the town were overwhelmed and expelled, with the gates closed to outsiders. An uneasy stand-off now occurred between the town ,its new defenders and the aggrieved garrison forces in Forthill.
When he found out about this, Ulick Burke was at a loss. The Mayor of Galway tried to explain away the actions of the rebel faction as necessary for securing the defence of the town through the procurement of more arms, and was only in response to provocations from Forthill, but this was never likely to convince anyone. The same factions were now in communication with other rebel militias and groups in Connacht, gathering support, and the administration of the town was hopelessly compromised by pro-rebel sentiment. Ulick had a choice to make. Stepping in violently against the rebels would be risky and could easily provoke more uprisings.
Not waiting to see what Clanricarde would do, the rebels were already making their own moves. Having managed to get together roughly 1400 men, with a fair amount of guns and cannons, they now invested Forthill. They did not dare make an attempt to assault the fort, lacking the experience and probably the courage to do so, but felt they had a decent chance of starving the garrison out. After all, save for Ulick, it was unlikely that the Willoughby’s would receive any kind of relief force and the guns Forthill held were a tempting prize.
But the would-be siege was botched from the start. The rebels lacked any significant control on the water approaches to the fort, from which Willoughby was able to maintain his supply lines. Further, the rebels were unable to halt fire from the fort and the damage that could be caused by a good sortie, which resulted in the burning of much of the towns houses outside its walls.
Ulick, who had sworn to uphold the fort, maintained his promised supply train by the sea, before gathering every man that he could to his own banner, eventually having somewhere around 700 infantry and 200 horse. Hesitant to attack the rebels head on when they held so much artillery, he elected instead to play them at their own game, cutting off their supply routes, sending garrisons to patrol and secure all of the farmland nearby and settling in. Thus, a strange double-siege had taken root in and around Galway, with the rebels trying to stare Forthill and Ulick trying to starve the rebels. Ulick’s efforts, which came from a better military mind, were far more successful, and soon the rebels were asking to talk.
Since the position of the “government” forces was not the very best – they were, after all, still outnumbered and isolated – Ulick agreed to a truce until the end of April while talks took place. The negotiations were not very successful, with neither side seemingly willing to come to an accord with the other. Ulick wanted the rebels disarmed and suppressed, the rebels wanted more guns and promises of safety.
Things probably would have continued in that vein forever if it wasn’t for the actions of the Resolution, an English supply ship that managed to get through to Forthill during the talks and replenish the garrison with a mountain of supplies, guns and powder, not to mention an extra 130 men. The Pale hadn’t quite forgotten Galway after all. These men and material were a game changer, as everyone recognised. Wanting to avoid a bloody solution, Ulick was able to stop a vengeful Willoughby from simply bombarding Galway town into submission while the talks continued. The rebels, seeing the new strength that the English had, came back to the table in a more meek mood, and soon agreed to most of Ulick’s demands – to disarm, break up their “army”, return supplies to the English and swear obedience to the crown and its officials. Before an actual decision was made, Ulick risked a limited attack on the rebel siege lines, capturing many of them and launching a limited artillery barrage at the rest. That sealed it for most, and while a hardline faction of rebels still encouraged resistance, soon control of Galway had been handed over to Ulick.
The Clanricarde chief had actually achieved a very notable success. The overall death toll of all operations thus far was very limited. Forthill had been secured from attack and a vital coastal port and English town had been taken back from rebel control. But some thought his leadership had been too lenient. Officials in Dublin and officers in Forthill did not appreciate any mercy being shown to rebels, and Ulick had been extremely generous in his terms considering the situation. The Lords Justices ordered him to more vigorously prosecute any rebels he could find. While Ulick prevaricated on this order, the leaders of the Forthill garrison needed no such time for contemplation.
Ulick’s personal occupation of Galway was brief. He preferred to leave the business of occupying the town to others, mostly civilian Protestant officials, while he looked after the county at large. But he seems to have done so without considering the English garrison into his equations. With no Marquess to hold him back, Willoughby, joined by Captain Ashley of the Resolution, began his own campaign of reprisals and intimidation, which included seizing supplies from Galway, burning homes and ships, interfering with the towns trade, planting garrisons on or near the gates and just generally inflaming tensions even further. When the townspeople tried a formal approach to get him to stop, he threatened to fire his artillery into the town.
Much of what Willoughby was up to must be exaggerated by Irish source s, but even taking that into account, his actions seem to have been needlessly aggressive. It is not unfathomable that he was seeking to provoke a reaction, to root out would-be rebels and bring them back into the open so they could be dealt with in manner that would be more pleasing to the Dublin government.
Willoughby eventually went too far, when he imprisoned and then hung several townspeople he suspected as rebels, all under the purview of martial law. When the population began to get angry, he initiated a larger scale burning of the outlying suburbs of the town, perhaps leaving as many as 700 people homeless and dependent on the towns walls for shelter.
Things were probably heading towards another explosion anyway when the situation changed once more. On the 7th August, to the surprise of many, an English fleet of 17 warships appeared in Galway Bay. Commanded by a Lord Forbes, a Scottish noble, they were essentially commissioned privateers, sent by the Dublin administration to raid up and down the west coast and attack rebel settlements.
Lord Forbes landed troops, seized and burned a few more of the local houses and then demanded that the citizenry of the town make a fresh submission to him before allowing a garrison to be placed in Galway itself. Forbes was a hardline Parliamentarian appointee, and deemed Ulcik Burke’s agreement with the town to be an unsatisfactory resolution.
When the town, already up in arms over the actions of Willoughby and Ashley, refused Forbe’s demands, he was furious. The townspeople appealed to Ulick for help. The Clanricarde chief tried to get Forbes to back down and see the advantages of the peace he had orchestrated, but it was for naught.
Forbes, in concert with the garrison at Forthill and the Resolution, essentially laid siege to Galway for a month, destroying outlying settlements, cutting off supply routes and firing into the walls and the town itself. If such actions had been taken earlier the result may well have been devastating, but Galway was able to hold out, the citizenry now united again in defiance of the government forces, and more or less joined fully with the Confederate cause. Though put under great strain in terms of supplies, the walls of Galway were in good enough repair to withstand bombardment and it is doubtful that Ulick Burke would have joined his own men in Forbes’ endeavour.
When the sailors and soldiers under Forbes command started to get restless due to lack of success and lack of pay, Forbes was obliged to throw in the towel. Tiring of the situation, he weighed anchor in early September and sailed south for more lucrative ventures in the Shannon/Limerick region.
The entire episode illustrates some basic facts and realities of the geo-political life in Connacht. Far away from support, English garrisons operated with impunity and without much direction from above, which could lead to glaring errors in judgement that only exacerbated tension filled regions. If the English garrison had merely kept themselves to themselves Galway could easily have remained a loyal and trouble-free town. Ulick Burke’s accomplishments in creating this state of affairs are to be admired, just as much as Willoughby’s actions in destroying them are to be criticised.
Siege work in Connacht was a simple matter of a feed fight. Neither side had enough troops or enough know-how to take fortified positions by assault, so the main aspect of war became the targeting and protection of crops, sea lanes and other sources of supply. This was a war when the main battlefield was peoples bellies.
Forbes left the town and Forthill still arraigned against each other. Ulick attempted to intervene again, and a compromise arrangement was agreed between the civilian authority in Galway and Willoughby, whereby trade would be opened up again and the fort left unmolested. But, like the previous agreement, this one was not to last either.
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