Ireland’s Wars: Owen Roe, Preston And Confederate Ireland Born

This is as good a point as any to declare the end of what we can view as the second phase of the Irish Confederate Wars. There are going to be a lot of those, since this was a sprawling, confusing conflict where enemies became allies and soon became enemies again.

The first phase was the violence of 1641 and early 1642, when the “war” was little more than a wave of directionless violence that engulfed the island. The second phase was the start of actual military operations, carried out by armies in the field combating against each other with recognisable strategic purpose. That phase had been marked by a succession of victories by the English side, as well as the Scottish Covenanters to the north. The Irish side had managed to achieve a greater amount of organisation and had accomplished some successful sieges and territory grabbing – Limerick was probably their greatest success in this phase. But when it came to actually fighting, the Irish had been shown up time and time again. They had failed to take Drogheda. They had been beaten by Ormonde at Kilrush. They had been driven off from their initial assault on Cork, and later roundly defeated at Liscarroll despite numerous advantages. They were in a stalemate in Galway. Munro’s Scots held complete sway in Ulster, with Phelim’s O’Neill’s army beaten at Glenmaquin and looking increasing powerless.

The Irish held most of Ireland’s territory, they held Limerick and Galway, along with a few other urban centres. But the English controlled Dublin, Cork and most of the eastern coast, areas of vital strategic importance.

But for events in England, the rebellion could easily have been crushed at that point, if the English and Scots had just continued as they had been doing. But the final schism between King Charles and his Parliament was a huge boon to the rebel forces. The Battle of Edgehill, recognised as the first proper clash of the Civil War in England, took place in October. With no decisive result, it was clear that the war could be a protracted one.

That resulted in both sides focusing primarily on the war in England, to the detriment of the war in Ireland. The English forces, whose loyalties were conflicted between King and legislature, were left without a continuing stream of reinforcements, without financial or material support. The Scots in Ulster were given even more autonomy, lacking suddenly even the pretence of Parliamentary oversight. For the time being Ormonde, the nominal head of the English forces in Ireland, was on his own.

The Irish had to take advantage of this opportunity, or see their rebellion defeated piece by piece. But first, they received two welcome additions to their forces. This entry will be a short one, discussing the changes in Irish military organisation in late 1642.

I’ve mentioned Owen Roe O’Neill at several points before without any great elaboration, but he was seen as the great hope for the rebel Irish. Owen Roe was a nephew of Hugh O’Neill, he of the Nine Years War. Owen would have grown up surrounded by the war (he was born in 1590) and as a teenager joined his uncle in his flight from Ireland.

He spent the next 40 years mostly in the Spanish Netherlands. Like many others from his family he pledged his service to the Kingdom of Spain, and became an officer of their army, serving with distinction in what is known as the Eighty Years War, a conflict with independent elements of the Netherlands, and later the Franco-Spanish War. Owen Roe went high enough to command his own garrisons and was a widely respected fighter, something on a par with his uncle.

And like his uncle, Owen Roe never gave up on the higher cause, of bringing war back to Ireland and to uproot the Protestant power that had taken over there. Throughout his time in Spanish military service Owen Roe rallied to try and get support for an invasion, which would bring Irish independence under Spanish hegemony. Unlike the Confederates in Ireland, Owen Roe had little time for the English crown, and aimed for a more complete separation from London. In fact, some may consider him the first high-profile Irish republican in history.

But it was not until the violence of 1641 and the subsequent military activity that Owen decided to commit fully to his enterprises. He gathered a small force of between 100 and 300 men, veterans of the Netherlands campaigns, and in the autumn of 1642, he set sail for Ireland.

Owen landed in Donegal, probably not too far from where he had left all those years ago. He arrival had been long expected, the only question was what kind of position he would gain now.

Phelim recognised that his own time as a commander was running out. He was not a bad leader leader, but did not have the experience to be the best commander in the field. His defeats to the Laggan Army were bad reflections on him, and he was in no position to confront the seeming might of Munro’s Covenanter force.

To that end, when Phelim met up with Owen Roe, he ceded command of his army to him. He would become a subordinate to Owen Roe, in charge of the cavalry, a respected position. Phelim did so with some reluctance and no small degree of begrudgery, but his position was untenable. Owen was not especially impressed with the army that he inherited, deeming them undisciplined and little more than a rabble, and his main duty over the following weeks, months and even years was to turn this force into a proper army with the right arming and training. His larger aims regarding titles were not so easily sorted, and his desire to be recognised as the Earl of Tyrone did not come to fruition as he expected. Phelim was still a rival for that position, and was not so willing to give it up.

But from Donegal we have to suddenly head to the opposite side of the country, to Wexford, where another ex-pat was returning home to aid the war effort. Thomas Preston was the younger son of the Viscount Gormonston. Lacking specific prospects for himself, he had left Ireland at a young age to serve in Irish regiments fighting in the Netherlands for the Spanish crown. Preston would go to serve on many fronts and fight in many battles for Spain, but he refused to join any Spanish armies that fought the English, as he felt he had no quarrel with King Charles. This put him at the opposite end of the spectrum to Owen Roe, and would be, perhaps, the root of future conflict between them.

When the rebellion broke out in 1641, Preston made arrangements to head home. He felt that the rebels cause was that of Charles and his family was one of the earliest noble lines to join the original conspirators. When he landed, he proved himself, perhaps, a better recruiter of men than Owen Roe, bringing 500 soldiers, including engineers and artillerymen, along with substantial amounts of cannon, powder, muskets and other supplies. His men were veterans of the Dutch wars, with some of them previously in the service of France.

Owen and Preston, having served together abroad, were already acquainted and neither got on well with the other. Their political beliefs and aims were largely in compatible, and one would not serve under the other.

Before having to sort out this animosity, the Confederates had to organise an actual government. Previously sworn oaths had given them the bare hint of cohesion, but for all intents and purposes, the rebels were simply different armies acting in a general sort of concert. Regional commands were all-powerful, and this lack of coordination could not be allowed to continue. If the Confederates wanted to have a chance, they had to unite. They could not allow their armies to be tackled piecemeal. They needed the proper structure in place for recruitment and for training, so that the rabble that so disgusted Owen Roe upon first viewing could be rectified.

They needed defined military regions and commands, answering to a higher authority who could create strategy and direct the Confederate forces to achieve it. Basically put, they actually had to become a Confederacy.

The assembly that would create that system took place in October 1642, at Kilkenny, which would become the seat of government for “Confederate Ireland” ever after. That assembly was essentially a Parliament, although it refused to take that name so as not to threaten the still-maintained pledge that they were fighting for King Charles and were not attempting to usurp his authority.

This mixture of nobles, clergy and commoners created the Confederate Constitution, re-pledged their devotion to King Charles and carried out some political and military reorganisation. A “Supreme Council” of 24 men, six from each province, with Mountgarrett acting as its head was appointed to be the executive of the new entity.

`Those four provinces would be the military districts through which the Confederates would fight their war. Each would recruit, train and field its own army, with its own selected commander. To the north, Owen Roe would command the Ulster Army. Preston, thanks to his gathered troops and support from the Gormonston family, was given the command of Leinster, the largest and best armed force. Garrett Barry, though all but retired from actual military life, was given the command in Munster, though this would soon fall to others. A rebel named John Burke was given the command in Connacht. A position akin to supreme commander in that province was cooked up and given to the Earl of Clanricarde, whom the rebels hoped to lure openly onto their side, but Ulick would not rise to the title, and it was a meaningless appointment.

A treasury was set up, coins began to be minted, banners were set and taxes began to be collected. Orders for a recruitment drive to raise over 30’000 men in Leinster alone were sent out. The regional commanders were sent to their posts to be ready for the next campaigning season, to gather more men, to train them and prepare for the next round of fighting.

Fighting for the rest of 1642 would die down compared to the rest of the year, allowing the Confederates the chance to put their reorganisation into effect. The fighting in England dominated affairs, and the weather was not the best for military matters. As such, both sides spent most of the next few months contemplating the fighting that was to come.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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