On the 5th of June 1646, Owen Roe O’Neill led his Ulster Army of Confederate Ireland to a decisive victory over Robert Monro at the Battle of Benburb, a victory almost unmatched in the history of Ireland.
105 days later, he was marching on the Confederate capital of Kilkenny.
In the immediate aftermath of Benburb, O’Neill hesitated, something that the more nationalist Irish historians have long lamented, probably unfairly. He had destroyed a large part of the British armed forces in Ulster, this is true, but the situation had not radically turned in his favour overnight. As he buried his dead and took possession of the enemy’s cannon and food supplies, O’Neill had a lot to consider.
He initially thought – or maybe just hoped – that Robert Monro had been among the dead, with no clear intelligence available as to where he was, whether it was fleeing back north or fallen on the field of battle somewhere.
But Monro had escaped, albeit with his tail between his legs. With what forces he was able to rally, he rapidly moved back to his Carrickfergus HQ, lamenting his defeat and blaming it all on the “sinfulness” of his troops which divine intervention had apparently chosen to punish. He quickly sent word back to Edinburgh and London, and called on every available man in Ulster to be mustered for its defence, convinced that Owen Roe was about to fall on all of his strongholds.
But this did not happen. A few days after Benburb Owen Roe marched towards Clones, seeking an engagement with the Laggan Army, but Robert Stewart was in no mood for a rematch of the previous battle fought in the area, now that the Covenanters had been scattered and defeated. Instead, he retreated back into Derry, hoping that Owen Roe would not follow. He didn’t.
Instead, his army rich with plunder and drunk on victory, O’Neill turned back south and left the rest of Ulster unmolested. He had other things on his mind now. His army was actually suffering from a bit of a desertion problem, but this ceased once he was able to make camp back in Confederate territory. News of his victory went far and wide, and a delighted Papal Nuncio was soon sending him more money and more supplies, and grasping for the captured British banners so they could be displayed throughout Ireland like victory tokens. Recruitment for the Ulster Army – now dubbed a “Catholic Army” by its commander, probably in deference to his patron – soared, and soon O’Neill could claim to have over 10’000 men under arms, the largest single army the Confederates would ever field.
O’Neill’s closeness to Rinuccini, a state of affairs that was no secret, practically made his army a Papal one, something that soon aroused the temporarily dormant enmity of Thomas Preston, who was busy with his own, less famous campaigns. The government in Kilkenny would have been initially delighted with the victory that O’Neill won over Monro, but this would probably have turned to alarm at subsequent events, as Rinuccini grew even bolder in his recriminations with the Ormondist faction within Kilkenny, now with the possibility of Ireland’s great martial hero backing him.
The victory was also providing a panicked reaction in Dublin, where Ormond wondered if his hard-negotiated peace treaty was about to be repudiated. Though most elements of it had been agreed at this point, the Treaty still remained an official secret, with some provisions still to be worked at. A victory like that won at Benburb upset all of those plans, and left Ormond worried that the Irish would now be emboldened to reject any offer of truce and friendship with the Royalist faction, instead turning on them with all of their newly acquired strength. Ormond not only wanted to avoid this, but wanted to pursue the completely opposite outcome, with the Irish Confederates coming over wholesale to the cause of Charles, even if it was now one largely bereft of victory.
Meanwhile, in London, the news of Benburb hit the Parliamentarians like a thunderbolt, and they were soon organising for more supplies and financial assistance to be sent to Ulster to try and protect the British there, while plans started to be put in motion to assault Ireland directly, and maybe even to remove Monro, plans that would not see their zenith for some time yet. While Benburb hardly endangered the Parliamentarian position in Britain, it did give them a nasty shock, as they realised that the Confederates might not be such an easy nut to crack after all. Efforts to get some Royalist commanders on their side, not least Ormond, were soon redoubled.
Events were reaching a critical point in Kilkenny and in the political circles of the Confederacy. The debate over the Ormond Peace continued with much recrimination, as the Nuncio and Ormondist factions grew more and more bitter in their dealings with each other. In late June Ormond received word that Charles had refuted his authority to make such a deal, but with the King clearly acting under duress due to his Scottish imprisonment, the Lord Lieutenant was convinced to move forward.
Rinuccini still had an inordinate amount of faith placed in the Papal treaty negotiated with Henrietta Maria, but this was never signed. His attempts to get this avenue going perhaps blinded him to the situation in Ireland temporarily, but everything worked to his advantage in the end.
Worried that the Confederates were headed towards a course of open warfare with the Royalist faction once more, and hoping to head off this course, Ormond took the initiative. With the agreement of the (nominal) leading figures of the Kilkenny government, he had the Ormond Peace terms publically proclaimed in Dublin, terms that now essentially made him the overlord of the Confederate movement, with command over its troops and the ability to appoint his own choices for provincial leadership positions, extensions of the original agreement that essentially ended Confederate Ireland as an independent entity.
If Ormond and the faction that supported him hoped that such an action would work out to their advantage, they were very much mistaken. Just like the Supreme Council of the Confederation was wracked with discord over the Ormond Peace, so was much of the Confederation itself. With the Nuncio’s influence and fame on the rise, and with the clergy backing him of course, a large section of Irish society that was living under Kilkenny rule refused to contemplate the Ormond Peace. Plenty did support the treaty, not least Preston, who apparently ordered his army to celebrate its open declaration when it was encamped at Birr, but most do not seem to have followed his lead.
Ormond sent heralds to get support for the treaty and see that it was proclaimed across the land, but he was wasting his time. In places like Waterford and Limerick, the heralds seeking to proclaim it were chased out of the towns. In Galway, they were not even allowed entrance. In Ulster, there does not even seem to have been any attempt to make the treaty a proclaimed agreement, with the Confederate-minded population repudiating it immediately.
O’Neill and his gigantic army now moved into Leinster, probably on the instruction of Rinuccini, the Ulster commanders ties to the Supreme Council now all but broken. Rinuccini was now doing his own part, convening a synod of clergy in Waterford for August 12th. It was a meeting utterly dominated by its leading figure, and its result was pre-ordained: an unanimous condemnation of the treaty, the words of which were soon communicated across the land, changing many minds and making more firm the opposition of others.
The Church’s power was not absolute in Ireland, but they had a direct connection to the people of Ireland – and, by extension, its soldiers – that the Lords in the Supreme Council did not have. In vain, they sent messages to Waterford trying to change minds and turn heads, but Rinuccini had his mind made up, not just about the Ormond Peace, but probably on the fate of the Council itself. Next, he was threatening excommunications.
Getting more and more worried about Owen Roe, whose recruitment drive had not been approved by the Council, the Confederate government, the Ormondist faction in any case, played what might have been their final card: a direct invitation to Ormond for him to visit Kilkenny and essentially take up a command role there. Ormond accepted the invitation, and set out from Dublin with a force of around 2’000 men as a guard on August 28th.
He arrived in Kilkenny with pomp and ceremony, though few of the Nuncio faction were there to greet him. It was a bizarre moment I suppose, having the man who represented British power in Ireland more than any other received with so much honour in the capital of the group rebelling against that authority. The joy was short-lived. Ormond soon learned that what Confederate forces were nearby Kilkenny were deserting to O’Neill’ command. When Ormond tried to visit nearby towns, he found the gates barred, with Owen Roe threatening to storm any place that gave Ormond comfort, a threat he appears to have carried out in the case of Roscrea, Tipperary, which was attacked on the 17th of September.
Ormond sent letters pleading the case of the treaty to Owen Roe, who was heading inexorably towards Kilkenny. The Ulster commander didn’t listen. Then, Ormond sent pleas to Inchiquin in Cork, seeking an alliance that could yet tip the balance back in his favour. Inchiquin, suspicious of Ormond’s allegiance and motive, refused.
Now warned by advisors (and allegedly tipped off by the Earl of Castlehaven) that his own position was not secure, Ormond fled back to Dublin. He was forced to take a roundabout route through Wicklow to avoid O’Neill’s scouts and vanguards, and according to one account escaped capture by only a half hour at Leighlin Bridge, Carlow, when the man in charge of its passage allowed the Lord Lieutenant to pass, unknowing of how the political and military situation had changed. Had he refused it seems likely that Ormond would have found himself a prisoner of Owen Roe and Rinuccini that very day, to be used as a hostage in further negotiations, and leaving the Royalists in Ireland without a clear leader for what was to follow. How history could have changed if that had happened, if the man in charge of the bridge – a “Sir Walter Bagnall” – had done as Owen Roe would have liked, we will never know.
Instead, Ormond got back to Dublin safely, there to prepare for the coming storm. It has been suggested that his activities outside Dublin were designed to provoke an open schism in the Confederation, poking at an open wound that could lead to civil war, with the Lord Lieutenant having abandoned any pretence of getting the rebels on the Royalist side and simply wanting to weaken them for a subsequent crushing. But this is probably a stretch too far, as any weakening of the Confederates would be to the advantage of the Parliamentarians if anybody.
Now there was nothing to stop Rinuccini. The last real obstacle was overcome when Thomas Preston altered his position and declared for the Nuncio faction, portrayed by surviving accounts as simply picking the winning horse. The leading figures of the Ormondist faction, men like Muskerry and Mountgarrett, no longer had any power.
The end was not long in the coming. By mid-September, the Ulster Army was encamped not more than three miles from Kilkenny, its commander and soldiers long since given up on obeying the orders of the Confederate government.
On the 18th of September, 105 days after Benburb, Rinuccini led a small force into Kilkenny, with O’Neill and Preston riding on either side of him, a political stunt designed to impress upon all seeing it that there was a unity of military command under the Nuncio. Kilkenny fell bloodlessly. Rinuccini moved fast, disbanding the Supreme Council and imprisoning nearly all of the Ormondist faction that remained in the town. Within a few days, a new Council, one made up entirely of Catholic clergy and with Rinuccini as its president, was convened.
Rinuccini had launched a successful coup d’état of the Confederate government, and was now its head in reality, and not just de facto. His imprisonment policy would have its critics later, saying that it was a needless step that engendered unnecessary hostility towards him and his new role, but this was probably the only chance Rinuccini had to avoid an open civil war within the Confederation, of nipping any potential military rivalry in the bud. The aims and beliefs of the opposing factions within the Confederation simply could not be made to mingle with the other. The hardliners wanted more independence, to retain Protestant church lands captured, greater religious freedoms, and wanted them there and then. The Ormondists were more concerned with their own lands and less drastic changes in the law, with taking the King at his word and bringing the Confederates and Royalist factions together. In this clash of moderates and radicals, facilitators and militants, Rinuccini’s inclusion, with all of the martial, financial and persuasive power that he directly controlled, meant it could only ever end one way.
Like Caeser crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC, Owen Roe had committed to a military overthrow of the Kilkenny government, and all that came with it in terms of consequences. He was now irrevocably tied to Rinuccini and his policies, with Preston dragged along with him. For the Confederation, the die had well and truly been cast, as Rinuccini now looked to more military campaigns, aimed at eliminating the enemy he considered the most dangerous to his position at that time, the man whose name adorned the peace treaty he had just dismantled so effectively.
1646 had been a year of victories for the Irish thus far. That was about to change.
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