The winter of 1642/43 was a slow time for the rebellion. The colder months were, as ever, a bad time for campaigning. It should be noted that this period was within what is conventionally described as the “Little Ice Age” today, a period of indeterminate length when the weather was unusually colder throughout Europe and the rest of the world, for reasons that are not very clear. There were few commanders in Ireland willing to emulate the more aggressive and pro-active stance of people like Lord Mountjoy and campaign in winter.
There was also the halt on troops coming from England, and the movement of soldiers in the opposite direction due to what we now call the First English Civil War. The opening battles had taken place, with Charles’ royalist side strong in the north and west of the country and Parliament holding the south. The opening exchanges were largely indecisive and left neither side with an obvious advantage, though Charles’ failure to take London after the Battle of Edgehill would prove extremely important.
In Ireland, after a year of unexpected turmoil, violence and widescale destruction, both sides took a breath. The new Confederacy was still finding its feet, and it would not be until the spring of 1643 that major combat operations resumed. The intervening time was taken up with recruitment and training.
The next major combat began back in Galway and will be the focus of this entry. Timelines for different entries will begin to merge with each other as we move forward, as the war maintained its pattern of really being several different campaigns being fought at the same time in different areas.
When we last left Galway, a very precarious balance had been found between the Confederate supporting townsfolk of Galway itself, and the Parliamentarian soldiers of the Forthill position. It is important to remember how close this conflict was: Forthill was literally just outside the city borders, a stone’s throw distance from Galway town itself, as illustrated by this 1651 engraving (Forthill is the square walled structure on the upper right peninsula). A dispute between the parties that held Galway and Forthill was not something that could be ignored, the opposing sides were simply too close to each other.
Throughout the latter half of 1642 and the early weeks of 1643 the peace that Ulick Burke, the Earl of Clanricarde, had helped to found between town and fort had held, barely. Both sides detested each other, and had little faith in the others ability to hold to the terms. A resurgence of fighting was inevitable, it was a simply a matter of who would strike first. As before, Dublin was more concerned with things closer to home, so the war in Galway was an isolated thing. Ulick Burke rowing in on the rebel side could well have swung the situation decisively in favour of the Confederacy, but despite their hopes, this was not to be.
Instead, the Confederacy had appointed John Burke, a Mayo born soldier who, like Owen Roe O’Neill and Thomas Preston, had spent most of his life fighting abroad in the service of Spain, though he seems to have had a less illustrious and well-known career as the other two. His position was not enviable really: the Confederacy was probably the least organised in Connacht and the only really critical fighting was taking place in and around Galway. Burke’s objective was clearly to secure the town from the English, whatever their particular allegiance, but he also aimed to completely eliminate the enemy presence if he could.
Having taken command and situated himself in Galway in February 1643, Burke first tried to keep the status quo going, even trying to extend the truce agreement so that commerce could open back up between Galway and the fort. Burke’s personal forces were probably pretty meagre, and with Ulick Burke (it is not clear if they were related, there were a lot of Burke families in Connacht) likely to stop any serious offensive move, he was probably unwilling to launch any kind of siege or assault.
But the refusal of Willoughby, the commander of Forthill, to make any sort of agreement with Burke angered him. When one of his officers was able to successfully capture the castle at Claregalway, ten km north of Galway town, through subterfuge and internal help, Burke was further buoyed. Claregalway was a strong enough position, formerly belonging to Ulick, and could provide defence from any action taken by the Earl.
Thus encouraged, Burke struck. He called upon the sympathetic nobles of the countryside to provide troops, which many did, and placing himself at their head, invested Forthill as best he could. His “army” had to be reduced in order to prevent possible intervention by Ulick Burke, with garrisons stationed at Claregalway and Athenry, so he probably had little more than a thousand men at Forthill.
This siege was just another feed fight as before. Lacking the numbers, equipment or expertise to assault the fort, Burke had no choice but to try and starve the defenders out. Willougby, for his turn, lacked enough men to attempt to beat off the attackers, and was reliant on support from elsewhere.
The effort to take Forthill then was just a war of supply and attrition. The residents of Galway did their utmost to keep the rebel army supplied and in position as spring wore on and turned to Summer. Food and money was provided, a boom was laid across Galway harbour to prevent ships from landing and every effort was taken to distract and hassle the Lord Clanricarde. Ulick was actually somewhat paralysed, having expended a small fortune in his previous campaigns in the region, lacking the means to raise the same kind of army with which to relieve Forthill a second time. Willoughby attempted a few sorties to try and grab supplies from Galway, but they were intercepted and sent back without reward.
In June, Willougby and his men were getting desperate, running out of food and with seemingly no chance of Ulick’s intervention. That month a ship called the Providence attempted a resupply of the fort, but was unable to dock close to Forthill due to the boom and to two battery positions that Burke had been able to raise and supply with limited artillery. When long boats were sent to try and force a way through, they were engaged by others from the town. After a short fight, they were obliged to retreat.
After nearly four months of siege, Willoughby was nearly out of options. He attempted to subvert the Confederates designs by trying to arrange his surrender of the fort into the hands of Ulick Burke, but the rebel commander refused to continence this, as Ulick consistently rejected attempts to get him to join the rebel side. With this last, desperate ploy defeated, Willoughby had no choice left. On the 20th of June, he surrendered, on terms, to John Burke and the position of Forthill passed to the Confederates.
The time was somewhat fortunate: the very next day apparently, more ships arrived to attempt a resupply, but they were too late. Willoughby and his remaining men were permitted leave to board the ships and sail to friendlier shores. On the orders of the new Confederate government, the Forthill structure was destroyed, though it would be rebuilt later.
The victory there was another rebel success at siegework, after the fall of Limerick the previous year. While it is important not to overestimate the effort required to secure the Forthill position, considering the large amount of weaknesses that Willoughby’s position had, the strategic effect was fairly important. Galway, its population and trade, was brought into the Confederate fold decisively, one of the only major urban coastal centres to be so treated. The biggest English threat west of the Shannon was removed. Ulick Burke, his loyalties still in question, was left neutered and ineffective by the proceedings. The rebels had mostly free reign throughout Connacht, which they would use as a fertile ground for recruitment and defence.
Burke’s career as a regional commander was off to a great success. He successfully utilised the forces he held and the allies he had by limiting his offensive activities to a simple siege and blockade, letting hunger do the actual fighting for him. He recognised their limitations and did nothing too adventurous or risky. He took his opportunities, like with Claregalway, when they came, and was able to improve his overall strategic position immeasurably while doing so. Thanks to him, the rebel leadership could be rest assured that, in at least one theatre of the war, things were going decidedly in their favour.
Galway town was secured for the Confederates. Known of them could have known it at the time, but nine years later, it would be the last major position that they held, and its fall would be the death knell of the rebellion.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.