Ireland’s Wars: The Ulster Expedition Of 1644

As Monro was consolidating the power of his Covenanter army in the north, seizing Belfast and being appointed supreme commander of all Parliament forces in Ireland, the Confederate government was considering its next military move.

Since the signing of the cessation, and its eventual extension, a constant back and forth was ongoing with the Earl of Ormonde and his representatives, as the numerous factions with an interest in Ireland tried to manoeuvre themselves into a better position. Charles, being pressed hard in England during the summer of 1644, wanted Irish troops to cross the sea and serve his cause directly. But the Confederates were hesitant to make such a commitment, due to distrust over Charles’ promises of greater religious liberty – easy to promise, easy to reject once the war was over – and the lingering threat from up north.

Monro controlled large forces. His own regiments, the English garrisons in Carrickfergus and Robert Stewart’s Laggan Army could bring his total number of available troops close to 20’000 trained and experienced men, not to mention the likes of Inchiquin to the south who could be counted upon to harass and occupy the attention of numerous Confederate forces. Nearly every single major engagement so far had fallen on the side of the British forces, and while the Confederation had raised new units and armed them, they were still inferior to their opponents in terms of numbers and experience. The recent lull in fighting had damaged their attempts to improve the armed forces, as men were released to head home and till the soil, rather than simply stand around and be a useless drain on Irish finances.

But there could be no final victory in Ireland, no armies sent to aid Charles, if Monro and the Parliamentarian forces in Ireland were not defeated. Figures like Owen Roe O’Neill, following his hectic retreat from Ulster in 1643, must have yearned to march back into the province with force, and take the fight to Monro.

The Confederate leadership agreed, but there was discord over who should lead the mission. So far, none of the major players of the Confederate military had really distinguished himself. O’Neill and others like Thomas Preston had taken command with grand expectations, and failed to deliver. O’Neill was viewed as the nominal commander of any effort to retake Ulster, but there was opposition to such an appointment.

That opposition resulted in the awarding of the command to launch the Ulster expedition being given to James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, he who had won the victory at Fermoy Ford the previous year. Tuchet may have had little experience in commanding large armies, and actually started the war on the opposite side, but he was also seen as a rising star – a young (27) commander who had won a daring victory in Munster while so many other Confederate generals were failing left, right and centre. The choice of Castlehaven came after a Confederate Assembly in Waterford, and appears to have been the result of democratic vote by its members – hardly the best way to determine military leaders in a time of war.

Owen Roe was apparently stunned and disgusted, but bit his tongue, swallowed his pride and agreed to work under Castlehaven’s command. He had brought such misfortune down upon himself really – not alone with the defeats to Monro and Stewart, but by his depressingly downbeat report to the Assembly, where he claimed that his army was so under-supplied and under-manned that they could not face Monro without assistance from the other provinces. Such a declaration was probably very true, but perhaps Owen Roe would have been better served by presenting the facts in a less blunt manner.

Owen Roe hoped to be able to raise at least 4’000 troops in Ulster when he got back there, to be supplemented by an additional 6’000 supplied by other parts of the country. But even if such plans were realised to the full, the Irish would still have been outnumbered by the combined armies that Monro could command. Such realities seem to have failed to permeate Confederate thinking, and the expedition went ahead as planned.

Castlehaven, initially buoyant after his promotion to a position approaching supreme commander status, was soon in a less exuberant mood as he considered the task ahead of him. According to his own memoirs, he had come to the conclusion that the expedition was a bad idea before it had even properly started, and this is reflected in his actual actions during the campaign. Castlehaven complains about relying on Owen Roe, garrisoned closer to Ulster than he was, for intelligence on Monro, and about Owen Roe’s apparent penchant for promising thousands of men and failing to deliver. He also goes on about the deplorable state of the army in general, as men were slowly re-assembled following months away from duty during winter and spring, having lost much of the benefits of earlier training.

The general strategy was also unclear. Castlehaven very early committed his forces to not fighting a battle, reckoning that there was little chance of success if he was forced to do so. But on the Council’s urging he was embarking on an offensive campaign, so it would be difficult to carry out his orders to the fore and still avoid a battle.

But more than that, there does not seem to have been any set end goal or targeted point. If the destruction of Monro’s army was considered impossible, it is not clear just what the Confederates intended to achieve by marching a large part of their forces into Ulster. Perhaps the seizure of some towns and forts to extend their fragile position in southern Ulster, but even that is not made expressly clear in the surviving sources.

Caslehaven, having gotten his army together from Munster and Leinster, set off north, with orders to first attend to some small scale warfare in Connacht. Elements of both the Irish and Parliamentarian sides there were refusing to respect the cessation, and Tuchet’s army was quickly able to establish a degree of control and greater stability through sheer weight of numbers.

In July, having accomplished this task, Castlehaven moved his armies east in order to meet up with Owen Roe, who was garrisoned near Portlester. Tuchet was continually calling for more troops from Kilkenny, fearful of what his spies were telling him about the size of Monro’s army.

An incident worth of note happened at this time, as Castlehaven covered his withdrawal from the Longford/Westmeath area by placing a small amount of troops at a bridge (or possible a ford) near the village of Finnea, Westmeath. Elements of Monro’s army were nearby, and Tuchet wanted to deflect any possible attack on his rear.

What happened there is debatable. Some local sources claim a very bloody battle took place, with the Irish dealing heavy casualties on the Covenanters as they moved forward, before they were all slaughtered. However, most other sources of the period, even Irish ones, view this fight as a small-scale skirmish where a selection of Irish cavalry were roundly defeated by Scottish counterparts after being flung into an ill-advised assault. I’d judge such an account to be more reliable, since a battle like the local historians describe would have been a much bigger deal. The Scots gained the crossing of the river, but Castlehaven’s army was too far ahead and they lacked the supplies to maintain a proper pursuit.

Castlehaven and what forces he had, rendezvoused with O’Neill at Portlester. Tuchet had maybe 7’000 men in all, 1’000 of them being cavalry. O’Neill was still to assemble his main forces, according to Tuchet anyway, and continually delayed on his promises to raise another 4’000.

What was going on here is not clear. Perhaps O’Neill really was not in a position to raise his armies as he would have wished. Maybe he wanted to sabotage Castlehaven’s command by ruining any chance the expedition had. Or maybe Castlehaven, in his memoirs, is simply painting O’Neill as a scapegoat for his own failures, claiming that his inability to press the issue with Monro was done to mistakes made by his (nominal) subordinate.

Castlehaven, under pressure from the leaders of the rebellion, moved into Ulster with what forces he had, but it is clear that he had no wish to actually come to an engagement with Monro. The Scottish commander did not balk at the apparent invasion of Ulster, moving the majority of his forces south of Belfast, encamping at the town of Dromore.

Castlehaven had crossed over through Leinster, but advanced with no great vigour. Few locals came to join the army, which Castlehaven blames on O’Neill in his records. Long before he had come close to Dromore, Tuchet seems to have come to the conclusion that the expedition was a useless endeavour.

Unwilling to simply turn back and head home, Tuchet resolved upon at least coming within sight of the enemy himself. There may well have been an element of salvaging honour is such a move, similar in some respects to Henry V’s march from Harfleur to Calais during his Agincourt campaign in 1415, a method of showing up the enemy without actually having to fight him. Leaving O’Neill in command of most of the army, he set off with a mobile cavalry force of around a thousand men. He got within a few miles of Monro’s army before being detected; Castlehaven claims that he fought a successful cavalry skirmish, personally leading a breakout of a Scottish encirclement. Other sources refer to this, somewhat sarcastically, as “a fine story”.

Meeting back up with O’Neill, Castlehaven was persuaded to head to the Charlemont Fort, on the Blackwater river, one of the only major fortifications in Ulster that the Confederates still held. With Monro suddenly advancing, the choice was between total withdrawal or holing up somewhere, and the Confederates had enough men to deter any serious siege work.

A standoff ensued in the early part of July, as the rebels re-enforced Charlemont and Monro garrisoned the nearby town of Armagh. Some small scale raids and ambushes took place, a far cry from the decisive engagement that the Confederate leadership probably wanted. This would have taken place in the general area of the Battle of the Yellow Ford a generation previously in 1598, but no similar fight took place.

After a time, with supplies for the Confederates starting to look a little low, Castlehaven had enough, and withdrew, marching south before dispersing his armies back to wherever they had come from. The Ulster Expedition had ended with a whimper. Castlehaven laid almost the entirety of the blame of Owen Roe, but also claimed a sort of success from the entire affair, stating that his efforts prevented the Scots from advancing anywhere outside of Ulster for the rest of the year, a rather dubious conclusion to come to.

The expedition was a debacle from start to finish. Castlehaven was clearly unsuited to the command of so many men, and lacked any sort of determination to actually succeed or impose his will on the likes of Monro or Owen Roe. That being said, even if the maximum amount of troops had been raised for the Irish, they still would have been outnumbered by the Covenanters and their allies, making any victory unlikely, and making the entire expedition somewhat pointless, an operation undertaken for political rather than genuine military aims.

The inter-feuding between Confederate generals was also very apparent. I’ve previously noted the dislike between Owen Roe and Preston, and this was repeated when O’Neill’s expected command was given to someone else. They were all proud men, who struggled when placed in a subordinate position to anyone else. The British forces had this problem too, but people like Monro were able to rise above the squabbling.

That resulted in a confused, fractured command structure within the Irish camp, with recriminations on both sides when things went wrong. Pre-existing problems related to the aims and goals of individual commanders – based largely around how far they were willing to go with the war – produced a sense of distrust and unhappiness, as those more inclined with a complete break from England, like Owen Roe, clashed with those in more of a conciliatory mood, like Tuchet.

It seems very unlikely that the expedition could have had a different ending. You would have to imagine that any kind of set-piece engagement between the two sides could only have ended in the Covenanters favour, due to their larger army, wealth of experience and closeness to their supplies. Even if O’Neill had been in command, it seems very unlikely that the Irish could ever have been in a position, during the summer of 1644, to defeat Monro.

The Ulster Expedition was another failure for the Confederates, and Charles’ summer didn’t get any better around the same time, as his forces lost the critical battle on Marston Moor, Yorkshire, on July 2nd. The Civil Wars of the Three Kingdoms had reached a critical turning point.

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

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9 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Ulster Expedition Of 1644

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