Ireland’s Wars: The “Siege” Of Youghal

A nice short one today.

Things appeared to be going well for the Confederates in the summer of 1645. Inchiquin’s defection to the Parliamentarian side had appeared to be a major blow, but the campaign of James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, had reduced the English controlled sections of Cork to a bare minimum, essentially just the thin strip of coastline going from Bandon in the west to Youghal in the east, with Cork City in the middle. In just a few weeks, Castlehaven had essentially demolished the Parliamentarian position in Munster.

Now, he had to go for one of the big prizes, but in so doing, everything would be come unstuck spectacularly.

Youghal was the target, probably because it was nearer to the Confederate heartland, and maybe, in the eyes of the attackers, offered an easier target than Cork or elsewhere. On the approach, it might have seemed much like Duncannon had, a town and fortress on a river, in this case the Blackwater, guarding the mouth of the sea for trading purposes. It had strong walls, artillery and several ships in its harbour which would also have provided support.

While it may have seemed like Youghal would be an easy nut for the Confederates to crack judging by their previous experience at Duncannon, it proved anything but. Details for the actual siege are sketchy, fraught with limited information on military affairs, but it seems clear that the effort was botched – and may have been done so deliberately.

Castlehaven was besieging Youghal by June, and Thomas Preston was involved in some capacity with his Leinster Army. But the co-operation between the two would range from poor to non-existent, with the Leinster and Munster armies acting like two independent units that both happened to be besieging the same town. We have already seen how Preston chaffed at the idea of being placed on the same level, or underneath that, of Owen Roe O’Neill, the enmity between the two being one of the defining aspects of the Confederate military. But in truth, this confluence of dislike and recrimination was a trinity, not a duo, with Castlehaven disliked by both other men, and Tuchet disliking them in turn. We have also already seen the failure of Castlehaven and O’Neill in what was supposed to be a combined offensive into Munster. Now, Preston refused to follow the orders of Tuchet, leading to an unworkable situation outside the walls of Youghal.

The actual siege was a limited affair, more noted for its naval aspect than anything else. The town was nominally under the control of Roger Boyle, the Earl or Orrery, previously mentioned in Castlehaven’s campaign, but he was abroad seeking Parliamentarian support and supplies in England, leaving the town under a subordinate, Sir Percy Smyth. But most of the actual fighting would be undertaken by William Penn, the Vice-Admiral of the Parliamentarian Irish fleet.

While Inchiquin did his best (allegedly, see below) to organise a relief force to save Youghal by land, Penn was tasked with doing everything that he could be sea, ferrying men from the Cork garrison to bolster that of Youghal, and then using the few ships that he commanded as floating artillery positions to bombard the Confederates. Preston and Castlehaven had dug emplacements and earthworks to house their own artillery, which came under fire from Penn’s ships. By Penn’s own account, the earthworks were dug too far away to return fire on the ships.

But the English did not have it all their own way. The coincidently named Duncannon, placed north of the town, exploded while firing on a Confederate earthwork, apparently due to an accident in its magazine, sinking in the harbour though most of its guns were later recovered. Castlehaven claimed in his memoirs that a shot from his artillery was responsible, but we’ll never really know.

Penn’s other main ship, the Nicholas, was situated at the south of the town. Contrary to his expectations, Penn’s vessel did come under Confederate artillery fire, just as the English ships had off the coast of Duncannon, and after suffering some damage was obliged to withdraw a short distance.

Such an event should have proved critical to the taking of Youghal, but the Irish completely failed to take advantage. No breaches are recorded as being made in the walls, let alone any attempted breakthroughs. Penn’s ships were not so far away as to be ineffective and successfully shepherded in many smaller vessels carrying food and other supplies to keep Youghal going, with the Irish being unable to stop them.

So the siege went for the next few months, as summer became autumn and no sign of greater Irish co-operation became evident. Both sides exchanged raids – the Youghal garrison captured at least one of the Irish guns doing so – while Penn and other naval officers kept up their re-supply of the town. By September it was clear that the situation was deadlocked, but the Irish could not stay in position forever.

Castlehaven, frustrated at his inability to stop Inchiquin from resupplying the garrison and with no prospect of help from Preston, had enough, and moved his army off several miles, choosing to devastate and plunder the surrounding country side as well as he could before the winter months set in. Supply of the Confederate army was probably not great, which would also have influenced his decision. By then Broghill had returned from England with even more ships and supplies anyway, so Youghal’s defences had only gotten stronger. More or less around the same time, Preston would have moved off as well, choosing to cut his losses in what had essentially been a waste of the Confederates time. Irish forces would remain in the area threatening the town until the end of the year, but would never really come close to taking it.

There are several suggested conspiracies surrounding Youghal and the mangled way the operation was carried out. Many threads, from both sides, remain mysterious.

On the Parliamentarian side, there are suggestions that Inchiquin had already begun to regret his defection and that the failure to really test Youghal as much as possible might have been as a result of pressure to from the likes of Ormonde, seeking to offer a way back into the royalist fold for Inchiquin. Some secondary sources repeat this claim, although I doubt it could ever be substantially proven. Certainly things had not gone entirely Inchiquin’s way since his declaration for the Parliament, but I fail to see how leaving his bases on the coast alone would have encouraged him to switch sides yet again – better I would think to seize as many as possible in order to force him into such a climbdown.

Of course, there is also the possibility that Ormonde was double dealing with the Confederate in such pressures, hoping to both entice Inchiquin back into the royalist fold and maintain English control of such key coastal towns and cities, just in case hostilities broke out with the Confederates once more. If that’s true though, it was a very dangerous game from Ormond, who risked keeping a place a very potent enemy for an advantage that could have been completely non-existent. Some sources claim that that Kilkenny government ordered Castlehaven and Preston out of the area because of royalist pressure, but we will, as stated, most likely never know for sure.

However it happened, the Confederates failed to take Youghal, resulting in a damp end to Castlehaven’s otherwise remarkable campaign in Munster, allowing Inchiquin to remain as a threat in the province. From this point on the war in Ireland would start to expand out across the country once more, as more and more violence returned after a substantial period of peace.

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

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The “Siege” Of Youghal

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

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