In 1587, the “Armada alarm” was sweeping across England and Ireland. The fear that ships of Philip II were about to land at any point along the coastline of Elizabeth I’s Kingdom was very real and led to degree of panic.
Part of that panic resulted in more practical measures being implemented to bulk up the English position. One of those was the building or refurbishment of coastal forts and defences. And one of those was the fort at Duncannon, County Wexford, designed to guard the approaches upriver to the town of Waterford.
By the time the fort was completed in 1590, the threat from the Armada was gone. The English administration was left however, with a sizable, well-armed and easily defended position as a legacy, one that brooked little threat for over 50 years.
The latter half of 1644 yielded little large scale fighting in Ireland, as the Confederates licked their wounds after the failed Ulster Expedition, looked to the likes of Alasdair MacColla to provide offensive options, and continued negotiations with the representatives of Charles I. This would result in a renewal of the so called “cessation” for another year, while the Confederate government continued to try and gain favour and supplies from sources abroad, most notably the Papal States, who were starting to take a keener interest in the events then engulfing Ireland.
But there was still a war to be fought. Inchiquin, in Cork, defected from the side of Charles to that of the Parliamentarians in the latter half of 1644, taking a number of lower ranking nobles with him. Unhappy with the cessation and unwilling to contemplate any kind of rapprochement with the Confederates, they were happy instead to place the territory and men they controlled at the disposal of the London legislature.
Following the ups and downs of the campaigns in Munster, where both sides had won victories, Inchiquin’s territory was limited, with full English control existing only on the narrowest strip of land along the coastline. Inchiquin lacked the men to control a larger territory, and was perhaps fearful of a larger scale version of the Fermoy Ford, and maybe even realised that his great victory at Liscarroll had a feel of a fluke about it.
But that strip of land still contained numerous ports, not least Cork itself, and others like Youghal. That gave them a degree of power in terms of resupply potential, and the ability to land Parliamentary reinforcements. As such, they were an obvious target for the Confederates. While the ports in Cork might be a bit far off and, for the moment, out of reach, others were not.
Duncannon Fort had been under the command of a Sir Laurence Esmond, a Royalist noble. His contribution to the war thus far had been limited. Wexford was mostly controlled by the Confederates from very early on in the conflict, being largely controlled by the Viscount Mountgarrett, as was Waterford Town, so Duncannon was a fort stranded in enemy land. But its strength meant that no patchwork of rebel militia could have ever hoped to take it. Esmond contented himself, in the early years of the war, to carrying out raids into the local countryside while the local rebels tried, mostly in vain, to blockade the fort. The war here was low-intensity but vicious, with Esmond at one point hanging 16 Irish prisoners and the Irish hanging 18 English prisoners in retaliation.
When the cessation came, Duncannon enjoyed a measure of relief. But in September 1644, this situation was thrown out of kilter by Esmond’s sudden declaration for the Parliament and his taking up of the Covenanter oath.
Why he did so is up for debate. It has been suggested that he was under pressure from elements of his own garrison, many of whom had been supplied by Inchiquin. Esmond’s second-in-command, a Major Larkan, is claimed by at least one source to have been a plant by Inchiquin whose goal was to be the de facto commander of the fort over the weak and easily influenced Esmond. After all, Esmond owed his position and advancement to Charles and should not have been liable to desert him so easily.
In truth, there was probably just a smack of realism to the whole affair. As with Inchiquin, it was the Parliamentarians who were supplying Duncannon with the supplies and men it needed to remain a viable position, so Esmond probably could not have hoped to remain in place without defecting. Moreover, the war in England did not appear to be going in the Kings favour, so why not switch to the winning side?
Unfortunately for Esmond, that made Duncannon a perfectly legitimate target for the Confederates once more. Mostly passive in the final few months of the year, in Duncannon their leadership must have seen the opportunity to snuff out a major English garrison and prove to Ormonde and Charles that they were still a potent fighting force, at least after the debacle in Ulster. As 1644 came to a close, the Confederates drew their plans together.
Those plans would be laid upon the shoulders of Thomas Preston, the commander of the Leinster Army. We haven’t talked much about Preston since his ignominious arrival to the Irish war in 1643 and the defeat at New Ross. His army had, in the intervening time, been busy undertaking smaller scale operations, not least the taking of Birr in 1643 or trying to draw Ormonde’s army into another battle. When the cessation came, Preston perhaps more than any other Confederate commander, found himself without much to do other than recruit, train and try to keep his forces in some kind of coherent shape. When the Confederate government had operations to carry out, they had typically looked elsewhere for commanders, with Preston and his army left in the cold.
The chance to use them had now come, but the task would not be an easy one. Duncannon’s reputation was well made. Located on a small peninsula that juts into Waterford Harbour from the east, it had two sets of walls: a large one that went all around its border, matched with an earthen rampart, and then an inner curtain wall going straight across its width. Both walls had numerous towers that would have to be overcome. The fort was well-manned, with both men and artillery who could fire out at any besieger and at any Confederate ship that tried to sail past. Even worse, it had a small but not inconsiderable naval detachment anchored at its dock, courtesy of Inchiquin.
But there was also two key weaknesses, that Duncannon’s defenders had actually yet to really suffer through due to the previous inability of any attacker. First, was that Duncannon Fort was overlooked by a prominent hill to the east which would be a prime staging point for any artillery brought to bear. Second, was that the fort had no internal water supply, with the nearest wells being found outside its walls. These may seem like major drawbacks to the fort, but it should be remembered that it was built in a hurry, in a time when the Irish had yet to even come close to mastering artillery or the besieging of English defensive points and was designed largely to be a deterrent to naval forces.
In January 1645, Preston approached the fort. The weather, it being winter, was miserable, with perpetual rain and cold making things difficult for the 1300 or so men under his command – hardly a very large force for an army that had not be engaged in direct combat for a long period, but it would have been difficult to muster all of the available men back into service in time. They were mostly given by Lord Mountgarrett and were locals from Wexford.
Much more importantly, Preston had an artillery train, consisting of four cannon and one mortar. Commanded by Nicholas La Loue, a French engineer who had served with Preston in Flanders, they represented one of the largest artillery sections ever commanded by an Irish leader. The mortar had been donated by the Spanish crown, another remnant of the Flanders campaigns, and was the first of its kind to be used in Ireland. Mortars operate much as regular artillery, but are designed to lob their shells and bombs in a high arc, better to get them over walls or to hit enemy siege trenches directly.
Preston, while not covering himself in glory so far in Ireland, was the ideal man to lead the operation, as he had numerous experience with siege work while in the service of Spain. Now, he set to work, knowing that he could not rely on his men to remain an effective force for too long, due to their own inexperience, the weather and the threat the English still posed.
On the day he arrived, January 20th, Preston immediately ordered the digging of trenches to cut off Duncannon on its landward side, turning a mediocre blockade into a full-blown siege. Esmond was content to watch him, perhaps overly-confident in his own armaments – the fort had over 20 cannon of various sizes – and his naval support. At the same time Preston seized the high ground.
It might have been expected that Preston would immediately bring all his guns to bear on the fort, but instead he defied these expectations and targeted the ships docked just outside it instead. None of them would have been great warships, but they were still a threat to him, with their own guns, their resupply potential, and as an avenue of escape for the forts defenders, who would, perhaps, be less likely to surrender if such an option existed behind them.
This initial cannonade was remarkably successful. The largest of the ships, the Great Louis, was badly damaged and then sunk by mortar fire as it attempted to escape down the harbour. 200 men drowned on her. The other three ships weighed anchor and sailed out of range of the artillery, but also so far away that they could no longer provide support for the town. In a stroke, Preston had gained a decided advantage.
From there, Preston launched a three pronged offensive on the fort. His trenchworks, or “saps”, were gradually extended, its diggers and engineers protected from the artillery fire from the fort by their depth, until they could create bulwarks for Preston’s cannon and blow a breach in the wall. Other besiegers started digging a tunnel to undermine the walls of the fort. All the while, Preston maintained a continued and unabated bombardment of the inside of the fort with his artillery, especially the mortar, with support from Confederate sharpshooters.
The defenders were not idle. Aside from fire from their cannon, they launched small sorties on the Irish lines, trying to disrupt the digging of the trenches, activities which may have encouraged the digging of the mine under the walls. In truth though, it was the wet and windy weather that was a greater impediment on the Irish, disrupting the firing of artillery and encouraging the spread of sickness.
Some sources record a Trojan horse type ruse carried out by the Irish under the direction of La Loue (called” Laloo” by some Irish writers) who left a trunk at the gate of Duncannon, left there by “pretended fugitives”. The defenders, hoping it contained “articles of values” dragged it inside, where, filled with powder that had somehow been rigged, it exploded, killing “large numbers” of the Duncannon defenders. This tale obviously sounds a little fictional, but is noted in more than one place. It’s possible such a ruse was attempted, although it probably had little practical effect on the entire affair.
Three weeks into the siege, with his sap lines inching closer and closer to the walls, Preston called on Esmond to surrender. Esmond, or whoever was controlling him inside the walls, refused and fired on the messenger who brought the request. The siege would grind on for a while still, with both sides blasting back and forth at the other. On occasion a ship would attempt to make it to Duncannon to try and resupply the garrison, but nearly always veered away upon coming under Irish artillery fire. Ships were at a premium for the Parliamentarian side during these Civil Wars, and sacrificing more than one for Duncannon may have been seen as too great a price for the continued survival of the fort.
As February turned to March, the inevitable tide became obvious. No ships seemed able or willing to break through the blockade and combined with some efforts from Preston, using arrows to send messages inside the walls encouraging the garrison to surrender, this had the combined effect of reducing the defenders morale and will to a large degree. Preston’s trenches were soon within a pistols shot of the walls, which came under direct assault from his cannon. On the 12th of March Larcan, noted as a major reason for the defenders commitment, was killed by a sharpshooter while gazing out from the outer wall.
After being told point blank by Inchiquin and others that no relief was possible, and that the rebels would probably kill him and all his men if they took the fort, Esmond attempted the desperate stratagem of re-declaring for Charles and trying to send messages to Ormonde asking for a new garrison to be sent. It didn’t avail him anything, as Preston sensibly ignored the protestations.
On the 16th of March, a combined artillery assault and the detonation of an underground mine opened up a large breach in Duncannon’s outer wall. This breach was immediately assaulted by a “forlorn hope” of musketeers, the term used for any advance party tasked with being the first to assault a breach, due to the extremely high casualties any such unit typically suffers.
After a vicious firefight, with shot, cannon and even bits of the disintegrating walls brought into play by the defenders, the Irish were beaten off. Preston was not to be deterred though, and the next day – St Patrick’s Day – another assault was attempted. The same storm greeted them, but this time the Irish broke through.
Some further fighting secured the outer walls and its towers, but the defenders were able to flee inside the curtain wall and hold out there. The casualties in taking that much of Duncannon vary according to the sources, though they could have been as low as 24 on the Irish side.
A truce was called to allow both sides to collect and bury their dead, although Preston must also have known that the time would allow even greater unease to enter the defenders minds. By now Esmond had lost most of what was left of his control over the forts defence. His soldiers were unhappy and fearful of a slaughter if they kept fighting, no relief was possible, and Esmond’s nominal superiors had all but told him to seek terms if he could.
On the 18th, he did so. The terms were exceedingly generous given the situation, with the garrison allowed to march out of the fort unmolested and head to Youghal, though they had to leave the forts cannon behind them. Preston took command of Duncannon, having lost little over 60 men total to take it, mostly from disease. Esmond was dead within two months, his reputation in tatters.
While it is important not to overstate the importance of Duncannon’s capture, it is equally important not to understate it. A great English fort had been captured with relatively little loss. The Irish had secured the seaway to the town of Waterford, and gained a position where they could themselves become a threat to English shipping. They had captured a large amount of guns and other war supplies. They had demonstrated an acute talent for siege work as a result of Preston’s leadership, and had used artillery to its utmost in the effort. The Parliamentarian position in Ireland was weakened, both practically in terms of the lost fort, and intangibly in terms of lost prestige and face over its inglorious surrender.
Preston’s siege had been a masterly and competent affair. He had recognised the weaknesses of the fort and seized upon the, focused on driving way the ships supplying it before beginning any offensive on the fort itself, and had shown enough determination to break through its defences and force the matter when he had to. In so doing, he had largely restored his own reputation after the embarrassment of New Ross and provided a much needed morale boost to the Confederate cause in general. That the fort essentially fell on St Patrick’s Day certainly didn’t hurt.
The victory at Duncannon would result in an enthusiasm for more siege works, and Preston would be called upon again, very soon after Esmond’s surrender, to continue pressing the Parliamentarians. Confederate Ireland was heading into Cork again.
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