Ireland’s Wars: Fermoy Ford

The war was going poorly on most fronts for the Irish Confederates. While Galway had been secured, the armies in Leinster and Ulster had been defeated, with the northern province largely abandoned by the rebels in the face of a vastly superior enemy forces.

In Munster, a malaise of sorts was in evidence. The defeat at Liscarroll in 1642 had been a shocking blow, one that was keeping the nominal head of the Munster Army, Garrett Barry from the field or from the responsibilities that the Confederate government had given him. The war in Munster was largely a stalemate, with lack of men and supplies keeping either side from trying operations of too much risk. The English, under Inchiquin, still largely held to the area of land in southern Cork and Waterford that had been secured following Liscarroll, while the Irish maintained their strongest positions in Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry.

In the summer of 1643, Inchiquin did decide to go on the defensive, albeit a somewhat limited one. The aim was to extend outwards the influence and control of his forces, while at the same time gathering in as much supplies and foodstuffs for his own men as possible. The numbers he had to call upon were not great, only a few thousand, so Inchiquin was probably not predisposed to fighting a major engagement. He had gotten somewhat lucky at Liscarroll, and could not rely on the same thing happening again.

To that end, he split his forces in three. The main focus of the offensive would actually be heading west into Kerry, there to ransack and pillage to the best of their ability. While that flank was doing that, Inchiquin would be commanding a distraction force, which would march into Limerick and besiege the strategically important town of Kilmallock, thus drawing away vital Confederate forces from Kerry. Meanwhile, a third arm would do the same as the first, only in Tipperary and other parts of Cork under Irish control.

The operation was, initially, a great success. The Confederates, caught unprepared and lacking strong leadership, were frozen when faced with the three pronged attack, and the expeditions into Kerry, North Cork and Tipperary managed to grab a great deal of supplies, herds and other vital requirements for Inchiquin’s army. The threat to Killmallock could not be ignored, and so any Confederate counter-moves were stunted.

When Barry failed to act in a speedy manner, the Confederate government in Kilkenny had enough, stripping him of his command and instead giving it to the 26 year old Earl of Castlehaven James Tuchet. Tuchet had actually started the war on the other side, and had volunteered to help with the English war effort. But his Catholic religion had worked against him, and Castlehaven had his volunteering refused before he was arrested on suspicion of Confederate sympathies. Whether he was a sympathiser at that point, he certainly was when he escaped from prison late in 1642, fleeing to Kilkenny where he was made a member of the Supreme Council and given a military command. With things going poorly in Munster, the Confederates turned to him.

Tuchet immediately headed west into Munster with his personal detachment of cavalry, meeting up with a force of 700 or so infantry under General Barry in Tipperary. By now, early June, Inchiquin had actually left Kilmallock, the distraction’s worth all used up, and was heading back into safer territory. Castlehaven’s mandate to pursue and confront those royalist armies was out of date, but there was still the matter of the third expedition.

That one, under the command of Charles Vavasour, had only just completed the capture of Cloughleagh Castle, a Confederate held fortification not far from the town of Fermoy in Cork in northern Cork. The garrison had been slaughtered, apparently against the wishes of Vavasour. He next wished to head into Tipperary, but the advance of Tuchet precluded this possibility.

Having heard of the siege going on at Cloughleagh, and the chance to face an enemy army in the field, Castlehaven headed south-west, marching to within a few miles of Vavasour’s position. Sending out scouts, he discovered that Cloughleagh had fallen, but that there was still an opportunity to be taken.

Much of what happened during the following fight stemmed from the fact that Vavasour’s scouting and intelligence sections failed him completely. While surveying around Cloughleagh and scouting out a path to Tipperary, his forces had been stalled by a few units of Irish cavalry that planted themselves in their way, taking a hill and staying there. To Vavasour, such an appearance of cavalry indicating that a larger force of infantry could not be far behind. To that end, rather than risk an engagement with an enemy of uncertain numbers, he made plans for a withdrawal back to south Cork.

In fact, Vavasour was facing nothing but cavalry, and only a few squadrons at that. Castlehaven had advanced well ahead of his infantry contingent, which were struggling to keep up with the pace under General Barry. Tuchet, apparently unwilling to wait, had pressed on ahead, but could not have had more than a few hundred cavalry soldiers to command. Using his troops of lesser important and experience – the ”horseboys” – to remain on the hill and give the impression that he was staying out, Castlehaven then went back and around, trying to stay out of sight and gain the element of surprise.

Vavsour’s route of retreat meant fording the Munster Blackwater River, which he decided to do at the town of Fermoy. Carrying a large amount of supplies and several artillery pieces, this movement was never going to be a speedy one, and Vavasour placed himself in command of a rearguard with which to protect his army from any possible attack. He had word that Inchiquin was sending infantry units to assist him, so all he had to do was get across the ford and he would be safe.

Unfortunately, the geography of the ford did not help his cause, with the road to it dipping into a low valley with high ground on both sides. In this narrow defile, Vavasour was unable to arrange his men as effectively as he wanted. His cavalry and musketeers were boxed in on a very small amount of ground and to make matters worse, a heavy rainfall was obscuring view.

Castlehaven’s force of cavalry achieved complete surprise when they attacked on the 4th of June 1643. Details of the battle are not recorded in depth, but it appears to have been a short, messy encounter, with an Irish cavalry charge into their English counterparts sending the enemy horse retreating into their own infantry. In the confusion Vavasour could not command effectively, and very quickly a rout was on, as the remnants of the English army on the north side of the river tried desperately to escape.

The results are disputed. As many as 600 dead on the English side has been claimed, but this is probably an exaggeration. Most of them would have been infantry, with the cavalry largely escaping the Irish blades. Similarly disputed is whether the Irish captured the English artillery. What is not disputed is that it was a clear defeat for the English, with a good number of them dead or captured, which included Vavasour himself and several of his lieutenants. Castlehaven, his infantry still trailing behind and with only a few hundred horse to command, was in no position to even attempt a pursuit of the rest of the enemy, and so choose to take what he got.

Vavasour, operating without vital intelligence as he was, walked into a disaster. Castlehaven had enough daring to make the most of the opportunity that had been presented to him, but it is important to note that such circumstances were fairly unique and unlikely to be replicated. On most days, a small force of cavalry would have been unable to attack Vavasour’s army. Still, the victory was costly to the English, probably negating the gains that Inchiquin had made elsewhere. The English would remain locked up on the southern coast of Munster for the time being.

There would be little more notable fighting in Munster for the remainder of the year, and even loss once the “cessation” came into being.

The desire from Charles to make a peace with the Confederates was, by the Autumn of 1643, an open secret, and James Butler, the nominal head of the English forces, had been instructed to seek such an arrangement. The terms were simple, designed to be a precursor to further negotiations. They included a ceasefire, leaving the Confederates in control of the areas they currently held, along with promises of future religious liberty, the kind of things that the Confederates had been seeking all along. The Confederates were obliged to start paying Charles a sizable sum of money in installments, but got a degree of a legitimate recognition in turn. Ormonde was also obligated to protect the cessation from those who would break it, though it remained to be seen how far he was willing to go in order to do that. The English royalists got a degree of breathing room and the opportunity to divert troops, funds and supplies to the war in England, and the Confederates gained a huge victory, seeing the overall enemy numbers drop to a large degree and having the ability to focus more of their resources on those that were remaining.

Time was a big issue. The Confederates needed time to recruit and train better armies, to plant and harvest crops to feed the people and the troops and to foster support abroad, from places like France, Spain and the Papacy. The cessation, designed to last for at least a year, gave them that. There was obviously an underlying proposal that the royalists and the Confederates would become more firm and lasting allies, joining together to combat the Parliamentarian and Scottish menace, but such talks could wait for another day.

Having negotiated through secret back channels, the “cessation” was agreed on the 15th of September 1643, signed at Naas, just a few days after the skirmish at Portlester. There are some who believe that the cessation came at the wrong time, when the Confederates were starting to turn the tide of defeats and could even have potentially threatened Dublin. But this is wishful thinking, exaggerating the overall effect of victories at Galway, Portlester and Fermoy, which were minor at best. While the Confederates held a large amount of territory, they had still yet to win a decisive engagement in a pitched battle.

The English in Ireland, already fairly fractured down royalist and Parliamentarian lines, suffered an irrevocable split following the cessation, with many garrisons, especially those in Cork, under Inchiquin, refusing to follow it, essentially declaring themselves on the side of the Parliament, where most would remain until the end of the war. The Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters were brought closer together by a shared rejection of the cessation and those who were following it, and made commitments to even more firmly combat the enemy in Ireland. Another phase of the Confederate War had come to an end, but the next one would be even bloodier.

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

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Fermoy Ford

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Monro Takes Command In Ulster | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Eleven Year Wars | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Castlehaven Reduces Munster | Never Felt Better

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