Ireland’s Wars: Charlemont, Clones And Portlester

In this new phase of the Confederate War, we’ve looked at how the conflict was progressing in Leinster and Connacht. Today, we’ll turn back northwards and discuss how things were going in Ulster, the original heartland of the rebellion, and the three major actions that characterised the fighting of the armies stationed there.

Owen Roe O’Neill, seen by many as the saviour of the Irish and of the rebellion, had been put in command of the Confederate forces in Ulster, with the previous commander, Phelim O’Neill, as essentially his second in command. The feuding between the two would never quite go away, but for the time being they appeared able to work together.

Owen Roe had taken his position with a degree of hope that he would be able to forge an army through recruiting, training and better organisation, and with that army be able to take on the two key foes that would be facing him in Ulster: Robert Stewart’s Laggan Army in Donegal, and Robert Monro’s Scottish Covenanter Army in the east, stationed mostly around Carrickfergus. But only a short time after his arrival, it became clear that the task would be far more difficult than he had imagined.

The activities of the three main forces that had been active in the province had been far more pronounced than in other areas. Ulster was where the rebellion had really kicked off, and the various sides had been fighting there longer than any other place. It had also been very limited in terms of conventional engagements, aside from the Battle of Glenmaquin and a few large skirmishes. As such, there had been three substantial armies with nothing to do but raid and burn.

And that is what they did. Farms and small settlements became the target of attack, with crops and herds destroyed or confiscated, to feed marching armies and to deny them to the enemy. Munro’s army was particularly active in this kind of thing, but no part of Ulster was safe from sick depredations. The constant cycle of pillage and raid led, destruction of property and ethnic cleansing, movement of refugees and lack of stability, meant that there were only poor opportunities for sowing, leading to bad harvests, further damaged by the poor weather.

As a result, by 1643, food was becoming scarce in Ulster. Farms were ravaged and not producing, herds had been devastated and the supply lines from England had been damaged by the ongoing war there. Something had to give.

Owen Roe had no actual problems with recruitment by all accounts, with plenty of available men in Ulster willing to take up the cause, perhaps with a mind for an avenue to stay fed more than anything else. Training and organising them was a different manner, with a lack of prospective regimental commanders who were not vastly inexperienced for the task that was expected to them, or embroiled in inter-dynasty feuding. The Ulster Army numbered a few thousand effectives, and the Confederate government was able to organise a fair amount of guns and other supplies, but it would take time to turn them into a proper fighting force, and that was time Owen Roe did not have. Phelim O’Neill still regretted his displacement as leader of the Ulster forces and any hesitance of weakness on Owen Roe’s party would have made his position very unstable. Owen Roe’s sole success in this period was the successful siege and capture of Dungannon, Tyrone, the traditional seat of power for the O’Neill clan.

By April, with the food situation becoming desperate throughout the province, both sides had to make moves or become stuck were they were, unable to march their armies anywhere. While the Laggan Army and the Covenanters were not firm allies, they had common cause in their enemy, and that put O’Neill at a disadvantage: he would have to face both at different times in the weeks and months ahead. It was Monro who would strike first, though Stewart was on the march at the same time.

In May of 1643, Monro gathered his forces from around the north-east of Ulster and struck south into Armagh, with a few weeks worth of food to keep his army going. His aim was the Charlemont Fort, one of the first strongholds taken by the rebels in 1641, and now operating as their de facto HQ in Ulster, with Owen Roe and his personal unit of soldiers stationed there. Charlemont was a substantially strong position, the descendent of the Blackwater Forts that had been so viciously fought over in the Nine Years War half a century earlier (built and named after Lord Mountjoy, the last English commander who had faced famine in Ulster), and would be difficult for any attacking force to take.

Monro aimed to launch a surprise assault and catch the Irish napping. In so doing, he might have been able to take the fort much as the Irish rebels had done, and maybe even cut off the head of the Ulster Army before he had to face most of its force in battle.

His army did achieve a measure of surprise on the Irish, and came astonishingly close to achieving one of its primary objectives. On the day of the attack, with a completely failure of his intelligence and scouting network leaving him blind, Owen Roe and his son were out with a large force of soldiers hunting, when Monro’s army blundered into their party. A short, vicious fight ensued, with Owen Roe very nearly captured and killed by the Covenanters, before he was able to disengage and withdraw to the safety of the fort. The Irish made use of the hedgerows and natural defensive positions of the countryside to deflect the Covenanter attacks, and through outnumbered two to one, were able to avoid a rout and get back to the safety of Charlemont in good order.

Owen Roe was lucky. Having failed to take the Ulster leader or the fort in a surprise attack, Monro, lacking anything near the amount of supplies necessary to feed his men  for a siege, had no choice but to withdraw a short while later, heading back to Antrim to shore up the defences of his armies main operating base.  Owen Roe had survived his first major clash of the Confederate Wars, but it can hardly have been said to be a glorious one. Further, Munro and some others who followed after him were able to lay waste to much of the country all around, making the supply problems for the Ulster Army even worse, with Owen Roe powerless to do anything to stop the Scottish commander.

With that, and with the realisation that there was nothing he could do in Ulster at that time, Owen Roe and his lieutenants came to the inevitable conclusion: Ulster had to be abandoned. With no supplies and an overabundance of enemies, the province was simply not capable of sustaining successful operations for the Ulster Army. Better to withdraw to points of better supply and with more strikable targets than waste their time up north. The withdrawal would cause further problems for the Confederates and could only be seen as a defeat of sorts, but it was only meant to be a temporary solution. The plan would be to rebase his army and supplies in the northern points of Leinster and Connacht, continue training, and be ready to face the Covenanters and the Laggan Army when the situation had improved.

There was pressure to stay, from some commanders like Phelim, who viewed the retreat as dishonourable and too much of a surrender to the various enemies the Confederacy had in Ulster. But before the withdrawal could be properly completed, the Ulster Army would get its first taste of proper battle, from their other major foe in the province.

Stewart, operating in the Donegal region, got word of Owen Roe’s withdrawal plans and decided to press forward, in a campaign similar to Monro’s insofar as he probably only had a limited amount of supplies with which to carry it out. He marched south, seeking to cut off Owen Roe’s retreat and corner him into an engagement.

Owen Roe, with his men, civilian followers and herds, was crossing the Finn River near Clones, Monaghan, on the 13th of June when he received word that several regiments of the Laggan Army were about to attack his position. O’Neill had over 3’000 men and a few units of cavalry with him, but had only a thousand or so ready for fighting and would be facing nearly twice that.

The resulting battle has not been recorded to any great detail, but a general picture can be ascertained. It was fought in two phases, the first being a cavalry clash, and the second an attack by the Irish infantry. Owen Roe aimed to fight a deflective delaying action, allowing the rest of his army and supplies to cross the Finn safely before withdrawing himself. To this end, he placed a large bulk of his infantry at a small pass leading to the river, with orders to stay put and act as a defensive perimeter.

Both Owen Roe and Robert Stewart led their cavalry detachments forward into a clash along a causeway leading to the Finn crossing point, and a stalemated battle resulted, with both sides being pushed back and forth, outflanking and counter-attacking in turn. Irish musketeers tried to support their cavalry as best they could, but it was not a fight for infantry forces.

The battle at Clones could well have turned out to be little more than a cavalry skirmish to mark Owen Roe’s retreat south, if not for the actions of one of his subordinates and relatives, Shane Og O’Neill, who had been left closer to the Finn in command of the infantry. Against orders, he marched his men forward to attack the Laggan Army, perhaps seeing an opportunity to hit their exposed infantry while the cavalry was busy.

The result was a disaster. Stewart saw what was happening, disengaged himself from the fight with Owen Roe, and commanded another group of Laggan cavalry to swing around and attack the advancing infantry directly. Shane Og held his ground for a short time, but was soon broken, his men fleeing back to the Finn, colliding with other Irish units and spreading the panic. Owen Roe, who had been involved in the thick of the fighting personally, had no choice but to disengage himself and his troops, and try to rescue the situation.

Unlike New Ross, Stewart had plenty of men and horses capable of pursuit, and for ten miles southwards the routing Irish were harassed and cut down in small groups by the Laggan Army. Owen Roe and his son, Henry, barely escaped. The casualties are not recorded in specific detail but are stated to have been the worst the rebels has suffered in a single engagement in Ulster during the Confederate War. The Laggan casualties were comparatively light, though one source that claims only six of their soldiers were killed is probably an exaggeration. I suppose it is only fair to note some Irish sources which insist the Clones fight was a minor affair with minimal casualties.

The Ulster Army scattered into surrounding counties and it took a week for Owen Roe to get them back into anything like an organised unit, eventually basing them in Leitrim. His losses were not unrecoverable, but a disproportionate amount of them had, apparently, been the Flanders veterans he had brought to Ireland with him, his better troops. This was a hard loss to bear.

Stewart, in no position to pursue Owen Roe all the way into Leinster and Connacht, ravaged the land around Clones, and then assisted in the retaking of Dungannon, before heading back to his home territory. For the time being, and with the exception of a few small positions of strength, Ulster belonged to the enemies of the Confederacy.

Owen Roe had to account for himself before the Supreme Council of the Confederate government, which was meeting for the second time. His losses were large and the war was going poorly in Ulster, but Owen Roe had excuses. His men were inexperienced and badly supplied, the enemy was of greater strength in numbers and guns and the setback at Clones could be laid squarely at the feet of his kinsman Shane Og. It was not as if the war was going exceedingly well elsewhere but a measure of disappointment in Owen Roe’s contribution was very much evident.

Owen Roe retained his command, but vowed to never again fight a pitched battle until he deemed his army ready for it, and went back to the matters of recruitment, training and organisation, assisting in minor operations in both Connacht and Leinster being carried out by other rebel commanders, mostly raids or sieges of relatively minor positions.

There was one more action of note for Owen Roe and his army to undertake before we must sign off on this period of the war. In August he, along with forces under John Dillon, advanced into Meath with several thousand men. This movement caused a degree of consternation and panic in Dublin, where the government feared that a direct attack on the capital was about to take place. Ormonde and his army were absent seeking an engagement against Preston’s Leinster Army which never occurred.

Lord Moore, he who had been critical in the defence of Drogheda early in the war, was sent out with a force to try and push Owen Roe back out of the area. At a small townland called Portlester, not far west of Trim, they met in a small-scale skirmish. Owen-Roe, cautious as he had proclaimed himself to now be, fought a defensive engagement, placing his troops behind a breastwork covered with artillery, inviting Moore to attack. Moore did, but his assault was aborted when he himself was killed in an early salvo, which some alleged was aimed and fired by Owen Roe himself. The Dublin troops fell back in a degree of disorder, but Owen Roe did not pursue.

It was probably a good thing that he did not, due to a rather important piece of news he received three days later, which I will cover in the next entry.

Owen Roe’s Ulster Army had a faltering baptism into the Confederate War. The situation in Ulster precluded active campaigning, but judging from the state of it, this was probably a good thing for O’Neill’s force. Able to hold out against Monro by hiding in forts, the army was torn apart at the seams when faced with actual battle at Clones. The “battle” at Portlester helped to restore Owen Roe’s reputation a little, but much more would be expected of both him and the Ulster Army in the months and years ahead.

In the next entry, I’ll turn back to Munster to discuss how the war was progressing there, before discussing a moment of great importance in the conflict: the “cessation”.

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

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11 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Charlemont, Clones And Portlester

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