If the war was going poorly for the Confederates in Ulster and Leinster, and was locked in an apparent stalemate in Connacht, it at least appeared to be going a great deal better in Munster.
Initial setbacks for the rebels when trying to capture the urban regions on the southern coast of County Cork had been alleviated by the great success of taking Limerick and its castle with very little loss. Not only a capture of a vital strategic point, Limerick was a great propaganda success in a time when the rebels entire effort seemed to be faltering. The capture of the castle yielded up supplies, powder, but most importantly of all, artillery, something that the rebels had crucially lacked thus far in Munster.
General Garret Barry had been much maligned by some of his immediate subordinates, but there was no diminishing his conquest of Limerick. With his new artillery train he set to work securing the rest of County Limerick and its many smaller castles, most of which had been left with only tiny garrisons. With little to no chance of relief and facing the terror of cannon, most surrendered without much of a fight. Within a few weeks of Limerick’s fall, much of the country and the northern part of County Cork had fallen decisively into rebel hands, with Barry’s army swelling in size as he went.
The English were now under the direct command of the Baron Inchiquin in Munster, following the sudden death of William St Leger. Inchiquin would prove himself a far more capable regional commander than St Leger had been, but for the moment his options were severely limited. He only had direct control over a stretch of the Cork coastline stretching from Cork City itself to places like Kinsale, Youghal and Bandon, with other castles in the Cork still being manned by loyal garrisons. His troop numbers were not high, reduced severely by desertion and sickness, and as such he was forced to be a reactive commander, ceding the initiative in most respects to Barry. His limited attempt at relieving Limerick had gotten only as far as Mountgarret’s stronghold in Kilmallock, well short of the objective, before turning back without offering real battle. Inchiquin’s one big advantage lay in having a more experienced army under his command, but in many ways it seemed like he was fighting a losing battle.
Barry was eager to have another crack at Cork City, having ingloriously failed to take the city a few months previously, driven off in disorder by Inchiquin’s small sortie. But now he had much more things going in his favour: more troops, more experience, more supplies and the critical factor of cannon. The rebels wanted Munster, nearly entirely in their hands, taken completely, and that meant eliminating Inchiquin and the threat he represented. As the English were stretched thin defending what they still held, the opportunity would be there to do that. All Barry had to do was get Inchiquin to come out and play.
That meant having to fight a pitched battle. The Irish had no luck with them so far in the war, but things in Munster did seem to favour the rebels wholesale. This time, when the Irish advanced into Cork, the English could not afford to simply sit back and try to absorb the assault as they had done before, the disparity in numbers and access to supplies precluded that. Unless reinforcements arrived from the sea or from Leinster – neither very likely – Inchiquin would face the prospect of enduring several sieges he could possibly have spun out for a time but had little hope of succeeding in, the English being picked off piecemeal. If the English were going to hold on in Munster, they would have to defeat the Irish in the field.
Barry knew just how to bring an engagement on terms favourable to him, centring his eyes on the tempting target of Liscarroll Castle, just a few miles south of the modern day border between Counties Limerick and Cork. A strong position of Norman origin, Liscarroll was considered a major defensive point for the English, and as of late August, was probably as far north as the English in Munster still dared to garrison. That garrison, under a man named Thomas Reymond, was tiny, probably little more than 30 men, owing to the general troop shortage. Those 30 men could be counted upon to hold Liscarroll’s walls for a short time, but no more than that. If Inchiquin wanted to keep Liscarroll when it came under attack, he was going to have to come out from his Cork walls and fight for it. In mid-August, Barry gathered his forces – something in the region of 6’000 men and 400 horse by most accounts – and marched south from Kilmallock. The English had been on edge for weeks, having mustered their forces several times upon rumours of Gaelic invasions, only for the Irish hordes not to appear over the hill. This time, as Barry’s army poured through the Ballyhoura Gap, there could be no mistaking that a critical battle was looming.
The Irish were investing Liscarroll by the 30th of August. If Reymond could have called upon more men, he could conceivably have held out for months, even with the treat of artillery, but his 30 or so troops were doomed from the start. When word reached Inchiquin at his headquarters in Mallow, he immediately recognised that this was the real deal, and called on all remaining garrisons and held towns to furnish him with troops for an army.
The mustering of this force, scattered across the English-held territory in Cork and Waterford, took several crucial days and eventually yielded a rather unimpressive force, of barely 1700 men and 400 horse. Some marching 40 miles in a day in order to reach Mallow, this army was tired and, owing to the depredations in the general area and the unreliability of the harvest that year, hungry. But Inchiquin was determined to make the effort to hold his frontier, and marched north as soon as he could, his bedraggled force with him.
By then, Liscarroll was just about finished. A very short siege and even shorter artillery bombardment, once the artillery train had been set-up and prepared, convinced Reymond that resistance was pointless. If he fought, the walls would probably be breached and he lacked the men to repeal any assault. On the 2nd of September, Liscarroll was surrendered. Crucially, this happened without Inchiquin hearing about it, and as he approached from the south, he and his commanders still believed that they could save the castle. In fact, Barry was already making it part of his plans.
What occurred next is essentially the first battle of the Confederate Wars that we have an in-depth amount of detail on. It was a classic formation battle of the period, both sides a mixture of armed foot, flanking cavalry and artillery pieces, organising with two flanks and a centre.
Barry, hearing of Inchiquin’s approach, decided upon a defensive strategy. He must have known that Inchiquin would be obliged to attack him, believing that the castle could still be relieved, and that with the fortress in hand, he could have an extra advantage of receiving an attack rather than making one. He fixed the castle and an earthwork prepared around it as his left flank, using a similar earthwork to do the same on his right, placing his artillery wiith the castle. The right, centre and left got a roughly even number of troops, the army split into three equal sections, 2’000 men each, mostly armed with a pike and a smattering of musketeers. These were near-tercio like formations, the kind Barry had been well used to seeing and using in his Spanish service, but they lacked the usual proportion of pikemen to musketeers – trained musketeers anyway – to make them truly effective. Barry put his cavalry on his right near the earthwork, with a further ditch dug to provide extra protection for a contingent of musketeers. All arraigned on a small ridge, Barry was being cautious, but probably correct.
Inchiquin, approaching Barry’s position shortly after dawn on the 3rd September, sent out a small “forlorn hope” unit of cavalry to lead the way, forming the rest of his forces into a structure similar to Barry, just with less men. His centre saw the largest concentration of troops, his left was made almost entirely of 300 musketeers and what cavalry he had, while his right was a larger contingent of musket troops. His artillery was divided evenly enough among the positions. The battle opened when the cavalry pathfinders came into contact with the Irish lines and were driven off after an exchange of gunfire, after which a more traditional fight emerged.
If Inchiquin had been fully aware that Liscarroll had fallen, he might have been convinced to fall back and seek somewhere else to fight, somewhere he could get a better position. But, owing to his lack of numbers, Liscarroll was probably as good a place as any.
Artillery fire marked the first phase, as it often did in fights of the period. Neither side was particular proficient with their rate of fire or with their accuracy, and this would have been more of an intimidation exercise and a test of resolve than a critical part of either commanders plans. Artillery at the time was still not a major part of set-piece battles, though action on the continent was changing that.
After these exchanges, the real business of the day began. Up to that point everything still seemed to be going Barry’s way: he had more men, he held a strong-ish defensive position, his army was fed and better rested than Inchiquin and he had the luxury of fighting on the defensive. The issue of fatigue and hunger have often decided battles all on their own, sapping men’s energy to march, fire and charge in formation. But despite all of these advantages, Liscarroll would become one of the exceptions that proved the rule.
Inchiquin, commanding the cavalry on his left flank, decided to focus his attack on that side and to lead it personally. The fighting here would dictate much of what happened afterward, and as is typical, it was a muddle and misunderstood situation that provoked the worst of it. Inchiquin recognised that a general attack against superior numbers and uphill, would be pointless. His best chance was to turn one of Barry’s flanks and then get in behind his army, causing a panic and hopefully a retreat. His focus would be on wherever the Irish placed their horse, the Irish right as it happened, as Inchiquin guessed, correctly, that his own cavalry would be of a higher standard and more likely to make a breakthrough.
Inchiquin sent forward a limited amount of musketeers and cavalry first in order to clear the ditch that was providing cover for some of the enemy gunmen. The fighting was brief and the Irish soldiers fell back in good enough order, never meant to be more than a delay and skirmish force. Then, the Irish horse advanced and charged into the flanks of the English attackers. Inchiquin, advancing slowly behind his forward units, attempted to support them with a “caracole” manoeuvre, a continental tactic where cavalry soldiers fired pistols at the enemy in lines, wheeled to the rear, reloaded and then fired again. It was the kind of movement that need coordination and practices, neither of which Inchiquin had in abundance.
Trying to wheel backward, elements of the left flank force , believing that a retreat was beginning, fell back. The Irish cavalry closed in, and the infantry on that flank broke formation sensing victory. Inchiquin, in great personal danger, could have been about to lose his army, the battle and his life.
Perhaps that was the crucial moment then, as the commander of the Irish horse, a man named Colonel Oliver Stephenson, was cut down and killed, allegedly by Inchiquin himself. The loss of a leader can have a terrible effect in the maelstrom of battle, and soon the English horse and infantry had regrouped and were advancing, while the Irish cavalry was scattered across their portion of the field fighting a piecemeal battle against their counterparts with no authority to guide them effectively. The Irish pikemen, advancing towards what they thought was a rout, were suddenly easy prey for the English cavalry, and soon the entire Irish position on their right flank had collapsed.
Seeing what was happening, the English commander on the other side of the field, a Colonel Charles Vavasour, took his opportunity and ordered an advance of both the English left and centre. It was on that left (the Irish right) that most of the rest of the key fighting took place, as the English infantry moved forward through a hail of musket fire and artillery shots. The fire was inaccurate and ineffective.
The Irish, seeing their horse and entire right flank put to flight, began to panic. Seeing the English advance steadily towards them, the left flank troops in the earthwork fled. By now Inchiquin’s personal attack had curved around and was threatening the centre’s line of retreat, which led to it too breaking formation and heading for the north.
The battle devolved into a rout and slaughter, though not as great as it could have been. The respective formations had now practically disintegrated from their previous forms, and the Irish were running for the safety of nearby bogs and woods. Inchiquin had trouble recognising which infantry were his and which were the enemy, and at one point, fearful that a large grouo of footmen were Irish, apparently ordered a retreat from them. They were actually English soldiers, and by the time the confusion was cleared up, most of what was left of the Irish army had escaped. Aside from all that, Inchiquin’s army was exhausted, by both the battle and the long march it had taken to get there, and lacked any sort of supplies with which to maintain a pursuit.
The sources are sketchy, but it seems that at least 600 Irish were killed and many more wounded, Few prisoners were taken. The recorded English losses seem suspiciously underwhelming (one source claims they lost only 12 men throughout the battle) but they were most definitely much less than the Irish. Inchiquin also gained hundred of muskets and artillery pieces, and also retook Liscarroll Castle, its Irish garrison having fled with the left flank.
Liscarroll could have been a very different story. Perhaps if Barry had been a bit more offensive in attitude and made a general advance before Inchiquin attacked his right. Weight of numbers might have made a breakthrough, though they hadn’t at Kilrush. If his infantry on the right had held their ground rather than rush into the fighting, Inchiquin’s attack there may have floundered. If Stephenson had lived and been able to get his cavalry back into a formation that could have better protected the flank of the army. If the Irish centre and right had a bit more resolve (especially in the castle, which one English officer believed could have held out for months with the garrison that had been left in it).
Inchiquin risked nearly everything on that one flank attack and it paid off. Any lengthy confrontation would have been to his detriment. As it stood, he had defeated the Irish rebels (again) saved an important garrison point, secured southern Munster and insured that the English would have a presence in the province for some time to come. While the war in Munster was more evenly matched than in the rest of the country, it could not be said to be going decisively in the rebels favour.
It is important to note that, while a defeat, the Irish could at least claim to have survived. Beaten and bloody, most of Barry’s army was able to make it back to friendlier territory in Limerick and the experience they gained would stand to them in future battles. They still outnumbered the enemy in Munster, and Inchiquin was still largely pegged back to Southern Cork.
It didn’t help Barry. Already under fire for previous failures, such as in the initial attack on Cork, he essentially retired from command of the Munster forces after Liscarroll to live in Limerick, and is barely mentioned in any further chronicles of the war. This was, perhaps, an unfair way for him to end his military career, as his plans at Liscarroll were not inherently flawed, anymore than Inchiquin’s were inherently brilliant. Regardless, the Munster Irish rebels would reorganise and retake the field the following year under a new leader.
By now, events in England were starting to overtake those in Ireland. The King and Parliament had essentially split, now Charles had all but declared war on the legislature by raising his banners in Nottingham. The first battle of that war would come shortly, and would influence the fighting in Ireland greatly.
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