1646 would be a momentous year for the Irish Confederates, bringing victories, defeats, political triumphs and in-fighting disaster. But the year did not start off in any great rush of military expeditions of large battles, with the important events largely confined to the town of Kilkenny, and the machinations of the Supreme Council.
As previously mentioned, the arrival of the new Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, had cemented the already pre-existing factions within the Confederate government, factions whose disputes were becoming ever more acrimonious. Rinuccini became the figurehead for a hardline Catholic element, representing the clergy and the Old Irish, who wanted the Church restored to its pre-plantations powers and for greater freedom in Ireland from London rule. They believed in doing this through supporting Charles in his war against the English Parliament, but only after wringing the necessary concessions from him.
Then there was the more conservative faction, the Anglo-Irish and Protestants, who were willing to make a more conciliatory deal with Ormonde in Dublin and whose aims did not go as far as those of the Papacy, a faction which largely came to revolve around Donagh McCarthy, the Viscount Muskerry, who had been one the earliest defectors from the government side. This faction, perhaps, had a more cynical view of the conflict, and hoped to gain with negotiation what they believed they could not possibly win by force. Both factions had their favourite generals and favoured strategies, and as had already been shown in the course of the war, those favours had created messes that need not have been so.
Two possible courses now dominated the political scene. Negotiations with Ormonde were outgoing, as was the truce signed between the Royalist and Confederate factions three years previously. Rinuccini, distrusting Ormonde, wanted to focus on a more Papal-orientated settlement, one that was apparently negotiated between a representative of Charles wife – Heinrietta Maria, a Catholic – and the Pope. The terms of that treaty were exceedingly generous, perhaps too generous to be trustworthy, but it was the one that Rinuccini pushed.
It was to no avail. By the end of March, the Supreme Council had come to an agreement with Ormonde, one that remained secret for the time being, but which was the first really substantial treaty between the two sides. The rebels were given legal immunity for their acts since 1641, Catholics could serve in public office and found schools, and there would be no more land seizures.
But the agreement fell short on many other areas. There would no reversal of the infamous Poynings Law, which made the Irish legislature subordinate to England, no reversal of the ingrained Protestant majority in the Irish House of Commons, and Churches seized by Catholics during the war thus far had to be returned. For all this, the Confederates agreed to send a large army to assist Charles in England.
There was widespread opposition to the treaty’s terms from the Church Party when its terms became more widely known. Rinuccini considered it abhorrent, and totally opposed to his aims of restoring the church in Ireland. There was claims and suspicions that many members of the Supreme Council, joined to Ormond through blood or marriage, were being too conciliatory towards him, and could not be trusted to look out for Ireland’s best interests.
Rinuccini drew up his own plans to subvert this treaty, which was not yet publically proclaimed, enlisting the help of bishops to launch a propaganda war of sorts, and getting closer to the military commanders of the Confederation. But, in truth, the treaty – known as the “Ormonde Peace” and backed by what some now called the “Peace Party” – was a non-runner in so many respects, as its crucial provision, for Irish soldiers to join the fighting in England, was already outdated.
Everything that now occurred in Ireland did so as a reflection of what was happening in England. As the year had continued, Charles’ position essentially disintegrated. His armies were largely defeated or dispersed, the Royalist hold towns captured. These included, crucially, every port that Charles had previously held on the western coast capable of receiving troops from Ireland.
The Earl of Glamorgan had previously succeeded in crafting an agreement, modified twice over, whereby the Confederates would send thousands of troops to England to assist Charles in his war. It was the only realistic source of manpower that Charles had left, but the agreement came too late. The fallout from the revealing of the Glamorgan treaty had killed any likelihood of its implementation, and by the time the Confederates were even halfway close to having their expeditionary force prepared and authorised by the Ormonde Peace, there was nowhere they could conceivably land in England without too great a risk of total destruction.
In truth, this was probably a good thing. The so called “New Model Army” of Oliver Cromwell, not to mention the Scottish Covenanters, would probably have been more than a match for any Confederate Army sent to fight them, even if it had been outfitted to the hilt by Rinuccini with his arms and money. The Irish had, thus far, failed repeatedly in most actual battles, with only events like the Siege of Duncannon preventing them from looking like rank amateurs. An Irish Army invading England would likely have been annihilated in the spring or summer of 1646.
By May, what we call the First English Civil War was essentially over, as Charles fled his last heartland in the Oxford area and surrendered himself to the Scots rather than risk the wrath of the Parliament. This action was a game changer for the Irish Confederates, though it took a while before the full effects to become apparent.
In the meantime, there was still plenty to occupy the minds of the Confederate government from a military perspective, at least in a low-intensity way. The forces of Charles Coote raided southward from their new stronghold in the Sligo region, getting as far Galway and Clare, threatening the Confederate position in Limerick, and drawing the ire of the Clanrickarde.
Inchiquin received a boost for his effort when in April the Earl of Thomond, Barnabas O’Brien, declared for the Parliament, having stayed on the fence for nearly the entirety of the war thus far. Thomond’s decision, possibly influenced by threats from the Confederates that they would seize his lands and castles, introduced a new foe for the Confederates to deal with, personified in the form of Bunratty Castle, a strong fortification not far from Limerick City itself. While the Earl himself was unlikely to take the field anytime soon, lacking any significant pool of manpower, he could grant access to the Parliamentarians, and they were able to use a naval force to blockade the Shannon estuary because of this. The threat from Bunratty could not be ignored, and soon the Confederates were sending several regiments westwards in an attempt to eliminate it as a problem.
The Earl of Antrim, who had pushed so hard for the initial expeditionary force to Scotland the previous year, now launched his own small scale endeavour, with the blessing Rinuccini, who perhaps thought that it would be best to try and maintain the fighting in Scotland than risk it sweeping over Ireland. But Antrim’s expedition occurred too late – he had barely landed with a small number of men who news came of Charles’ surrender, which subsequently turned into a disbandment order to his followers. Unable to join up with Alasdair McColla, who still held out in the Highlands, Antrim packed up and went home.
In March, the Parliamentarians also launched a sudden surprise assault on the town of Dingle in Kerry, attacking from the sea, burning and pillaging, before retreating back the way they came. The attack was small and, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant, but still demonstrated the power that the enemies of the Confederation had. A key aspect of sovereignty was the ability to protect the land that you held: the Confederates seemed unable to do that, even in a place that was as nominally secure as Kerry. Inchiquin was recouping his losses of the previous year as well, gradually spreading out from the coastal strip he had previously been confined to during the campaigns of Castlehaven.
Of more concern to everyone in the first half of 1646 were the movements of Robert Monro in Ulster. Ever since Owen Roe’s withdrawal and the failed Ulster Expedition, the Kilkenny government (and, if he was being honest, Ormonde in Dublin) had been waiting to see what the Covenanter commander would do next.
That Spring and Summer, disturbing reports reached Kilkenny, aggravated by the exaggerations of Rinuccini, that Monro and his Covenanter Army, having secured Ulster and been reassured that Scotland was no longer in danger from the Royalists that had nearly overrun her, were preparing for a major thrust southward into Confederate held territory. Monro was reportedly acquiring supplies, powder and sending out scouts, even seeking to once again team up with Robert Stewart’s Laggan Army.
Some thought that Monro would just be seeking to expand his immediate area of influence. Others that he might be seeking Owen Roe O’Neill for a battle where he could finally destroy his main adversary once and for all. Maybe he was aiming straight at Kilkenny and the total obliteration of the Confederates. Maybe, instead, he would aim at Dublin and the Royalists under Ormond. Maybe he would hook up with Inchiquin. Maybe he would head west instead. Maybe it was a grand offensive into both Leinster and Connacht, with the Laggan Army doing the fighting in the west. Maybe it would just be a very large raid.
Such were the rumours and gossip of this panicky period, as the Confederates dealt with the possibility of such action. As it happened, nothing happened. Despite all the rumours and supposed intelligence, as Spring went and Summer began, Monro and his Covenanters, as they largely had for the past few years, went nowhere, and were still going nowhere as May drew on. But the fear of what he could be about to do was a powerful motivator of much of what occurred in that period further south.
The disputes between the Confederate commanders also became wrapped up in the political affairs of the government. Rinuccini had a preference for Owen Roe, who had the same aims of restoring Catholic power in Ireland to its highest extent, though he appears to have had a personal dislike for the man, whom he felt did not have enough control over his soldiers. He thought less of Thomas Preston, who seemed more likely to be Ormonde’s man if it came right down to it.
Rinuccini, who held the power to dole out substantial supplies and weapons, was the one man in Ireland who could pick and choose the location of offensives, practically going over the heads of the Confederate government. The choice was fairly clear in that respect.
It could be a southern-focused strategy that would eliminate Inchiquin and his local allies as a threat, one to be carried out by what forces existed in Munster already, probably backed up by Preston and his Leinster Army, which was already getting involved in the fighting around Bunratty. Such an operation could be extended to an attack on Dublin too, choosing to focus all of the Confederate attention on the English, as opposed to Scottish, enemy. There were plenty of advantages to this. The Parliamentarians would, in the event of an offensive in Ireland, start from their held bases in Munster, so it made sense to remove them from the equation. It could be argued that they were an easier target than Ulster, and Monro had yet to actually move out from the northern province to threaten the rest of Ireland.
But the fear of that threat was very real. Many considered Monro and his Covenanters the truest foe of the Confederates, the worst that Protestant Britain could throw at Ireland. He held the most territory, and his Scottish kinsmen were, perhaps, the worst foe of Charles in many respects.
Moreover, much like it has been suggested for Ormond, it is possible that Rinuccini thought that Inchiquin, once a Royalist, could be dealt with diplomatically. As such, the Nuncio’s preference was for a northern offensive.
Rinuccini’s vision was for an expansive assault, two pronged, with an attack straight into Ulster towards Monro while another force crossed the Shannon and cleared the enemy – whoever he was – out of Connacht. This was too ambitious. While Rinuccini could provide enough arms for such an endeavour, an absence of trained men was the actual problem. O’Neill was still reforming his bedraggled army and, at the time, could call on upon less than 3’500 men at most. Rinuccini would provide for their upkeep and arming, but the aim of any summer offensive into Ulster would have to be more limited. But the offensive would be made.
The politics of the Kilkenny did mean that the effort would be diluted, as Rinuccini was obliged to also fork out for some armaments and supplies for Preston and his efforts around Bunratty and elsewhere. This was probably just a means to divert defection or even sedition, and Rinuccini, though supporting the effort around Bunratty, regretted it later.
Those regrets would not come for a time though. Nobody could have foreseen it, but the Confederates were about to embark upon their most successful period of the war, even if they would destroy themselves in the process.
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