While Owen Roe O’Neill was winning one of the greatest Irish victories over British opposition in history, the Confederation of Kilkenny was also fighting elsewhere, campaigns against Inchiquin in Munster and Coote in Sligo.
Rinuccini, when drawing his plans in Kilkenny for the success of the rebellion, knew two things had to be accomplished. The first was that the Irish needed to start winning battles. To that end, he choose to focus the majority of his resources in backing Owen Roe and his campaigns in Ulster, a policy spectacularly affirmed at Benburb.
But secondly, he knew that the Confederation would tear itself apart if such lone favouritism was shown to O’Neill. There were other enemies to fight, and other victories to be gained. Having done as much as he could to reconcile him to O’Neill, Rinuccini had to give a helping hand to Thomas Preston, even as his more favoured commander was marching to face Robert Monro.
We last touched on Preston’s activities during the aborted siege campaign at Youghal, when the commander of the Leinster Army dithered about serving under Castlehaven, and aided in the whimpering collapse of that campaign. Since then he had been mostly inactive, with suspicions that he was still “Ormond’s man”. Much of his army had been earmarked for the potential campaign across the Irish Sea, and so was just waiting for orders.
Rinuccini and the element that he controlled in Kilkenny wanted that army out doing something, and so it was sent. There were two key targets to try and hit in the west of Ireland, which were important to the overall war effort, if not quite as vital as the campaigns in Ulster (at least to Rinuccini).
The first was Bunratty. In April of 1646 the ruling Earl of Thomond, Barnabas O’Brien, had finally made a choice in the Civil Wars having played both sides while staying on the fence since 1641. With little territory and virtually no armed forces to offer, he was easily ignored for a long time, but such a state of affairs could not continue forever. By that Spring he was no longer in a position to maintain that position, having received threats from the Confederate powers situated in Limerick that his lands and castled would be seized if he would not join the Catholic cause. Fearful of this, Thomond simply opened his doors to the Parliamentarians of Inchiquin, then resurgent in the south of Munster, who with this new ally were able to send a Parliamentarian garrison to man the impressive castle at Bunratty and a small fleet to try and blockade the Shannon estuary, therefore denying the Confederates a vitally important trade route, one of the only reasons that Limerick City had been attacked and captured in the first place.
Inchiquin himself thought that Munster was ripe for the attacking, believing that the Confederate presence in the province was undersupplied and likely to crumble in the face of a determined attack. This might explain his decision to send the expedition to Bunratty despite the inherent risks of a garrison being planted so far from home territory.
Rinuccini encouraged the idea that the Leinster Army should be split into separate sections and sent west to supplement the Confederate Munster forces that were assembling for an attempt to take Bunratty. It was a wise enough move, as Preston’s men were well experienced in siege campaigns throughout the war, and it would simply give them something t do. Bunratty was too close to Limerick and too dangerous a position to leave unhindered. It relieved some of the pressure that had previously been directed at Inchiquin, and the fleet in the Shannon was a big enough worry that attempts were made in Limerick to impress and use Dutch ships to try and attack it.
The siege was begun almost immediately, although in its early stages it would have amounted to little more than a blockade carried out by what troops were available. Under the Viscount Muskerry, this force grew bit by bit, until substantially supplemented by the arriving contingents of the Leinster Army. They were still supposed to be for the support of Charles, but that was no longer a viable option, even if most of the Confederates had not realised this yet.
600 or so men under a Colonel McAdam made up the garrison in Bunratty, many of them sailors from William Penn’s fleet in the estuary, who was nominally in charge of the entire affair. Inchiquin’s advisors had told him that more than twice that number of troops would be required, but he apparently did not have the men to spare. Doggedly, they went about their task, building up earthen ramparts and fortifying a small island in the Shannon near the castle, which provided a place for ships to anchor. Only the smaller ships of Penn’s fleet could do so, but it was avenue of supply that could not be easily taken. The Confederates could not enact a total blockade, so resupply and raids were constant threats. But the Confederates did still have the open hand in terms of artillery, which would prove critical. Bunratty was no ancient crumbling castle after all, but a more modern structure, that had been rebuilt from its earlier Norman days.
Penn did his best to keep the garrison in Bunratty supplied, but he did not have that many ships and had trouble getting them through the Confederate counter-measures. His own sailors were soon on half rations. By the end of April, with the siege having lasted around a month, Penn acknowledged privately that the castle could only hope to be definitively supplied for another three weeks. The early optimism of the Parliamentarians quickly faded.
The Irish, digging siege lines and getting artillery in place, moved closer and closer, to both the castle walls and within firing distance of the mid-river fort, which was now of critical importance. Penn soon lost the ability to supply the castle at all, his only focus being on getting some of its non-combatants out. By mid-May it seems as if the campaign around Bunratty was almost a write-off for the Parliamentarians, as McAdam was largely left to his own devices when it came to resisting the Confederate bombardment now hammering at the walls of the castle.
Still, McAdam held on, on the hopes that Penn and the Parliamentarians would be able to get more ships and more men with which to break through the strengthening Confederate blockade and relieve him. On the other side, Rinuccini himself visited Limerick to witness the siege operations firsthand, urging Muskerry to the attack and providing an important morale boost for the troops in the area – the kind of thing that few political figures in Kilkenny ever did, which goes some way to explaining Rinuccini’s popularity.
By mid-June it was all Penn could do to release one or two ships to try and harry the rebels and prevent them from launching an all-out assault. On the 23rd of that month, 30 of the defenders died in a disastrous sally that might have been a raid for supplies. A week later, McAdam himself was killed by a lucky Confederate shot.
His death was the beginning of the end. Penn, risking a visit to the now quite encircled castle, now found that morale within the garrison had plummeted, though the castle continued to bravely hold on beyond all realistic hope of rescue. On the 10th of July the mid-river position fell after an artillery barrage, finishing any last hopes that the castle could be re-supplied. Four days later, the garrison surrendered on terms, being allowed to march out and, through Penn’s transport, return to the Cork coast.
It was a small, but important triumph for the Confederates. Inchiquin’s designs on Limerick and the north of Munster had been checked, and the Confederate military had proven itself capable of carrying out siege operations despite an initial disadvantage. Parliamentarian naval strength had been deflected, and Rinuccini had another victory that he could claim some credit for. It didn’t stop Inchiquin from pressing northward from the Cork coast, but it certainly helped. The Nuncio had wild plans of the army that had taken Bunratty immediately marching on Cork, inspired by the arrival of the captured British banners from Benburb perhaps, but these expectations were quickly tempered.
Preston was not at Bunratty, though a large part of his army was. Instead, he had been sent further north into Connacht, to try and check the advances of Charles Coote from the direction of Sligo, and to re-affirm Confederate control in parts of the province.
The details of his campaign there are not recorded in any great amount. He did not get the hoped for support from the Earl of Clanrickarde, whom so many in the Confederate political circles still hoped would join their cause. Instead, he was largely left to his own devices, and ended up focusing most of his attention on the castle at Roscommon.
The castle fell relatively quickly, and the campaign to take it is better noted for a cavalry clash that occurred outside its walls early on. In this fight, Preston reluctantly released his contingent of horse into a fight with the defenders, and everyone was somewhat surprised to see them rout a force that may have been twice their number, somehow. Preston’s army, partially supplied by Rinuccini in the interests of Confederate army, mirrored Owen Roe’s in that it was relatively large at nearly 6’000 men. After a small relief force tried and failed to save Roscommon, the castle surrendered.
The expectation would have been for Preston to strike further west at the British position in Sligo, where Coote was now alarmingly outnumbered. But Preston instead wound his army down into an inactive state, blaming supply failures for his apparently lacking ability to keep them in the field for anything longer than a few weeks. The taking of Roscommon was not completely insignificant, but the failure to push Coote out of the province was a bad one – an opportunity for a triumph on a par with Benburb could have been there for Preston, but it was not taken, whether the Leinster Army was capable of trying or not.
Instead, Preston found himself heading back into what was supposed to be his primary area of operations, seeking a more secure supply base and a place from which he could re-group and re-think with others. The victory at Benburb had radically altered the military and political picture in Ireland, especially in combination with the surrender of Charles in England.
As future events would show, Preston might well have had an ulterior motive to his movements. It was not in Connacht that the fate of the rebellion – or the direction of its leadership – would be decided.
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