Ireland’s Wars: The Dublin Campaign of 1646

Rinuccini, whose presence had so altered the dynamics of the Confederation of Kilkenny, now stood as its undisputed master. Having bankrolled the success of Owen Roe O’Neill up to and after his stunning victory at Benburb and having managed to snare the allegiance of Thomas Preston and his Leinster army, he had found it an easy task to depose the Supreme Council of the Confederation without much fuss, and put into jeopardy everything that it had been working towards thus far. Rinuccini wrote back to his master, Innocent X, crowing triumphantly about how the Catholic clergy of Ireland, having been in a subordinate position when he arrived, now stood with mastery over most of the country.

Rinuccini now pressed ahead with his prized military endeavour, the aim of which had probably driven most of his actions since Benburb. That aim was the removal of Ormond from the equation, and the taking of Dublin City.

It was a very tempting target. The Royalists were at a very low ebb in the waning months of 1646, holding Dublin, the surrounding coastal towns like Drogheda, and a few other outposts in Leinster. But their forces were reduced to a very sorry state, with Ormond being able to actively call upon little more than 6’000 men total in all of the territory that he controlled, and with zero hope of receiving reinforcements from England.

So, a strike at Dublin was possible. Rinuccini, through O’Neill and Preston controlled a large military force, that would outnumber anything that the Royalists could muster by at least two to one, and probably more. A successful attack on Dublin would lead to the inevitable collapse of the royal administration in Ireland, and would probably be followed up with the seizure of what other few positions Ormond could claim to hold. If Ormond was not killed or captured, he would at least be forced to leave Ireland, and Rinuccini could then place whomever he liked in the position of Lord Lieutenant, his plan being to offer the seat to the Earl of Glamorgan, whom he had already placed in command of the Confederate Munster forces over the Viscount Muskerry, then locked up in Kilkenny for his Ormondist tendencies. Glamorgan had proven himself a loyal toady of the Nuncio since his own plans for a treaty between the two sides had gone awry. The reason for Rinuccini’s interest in him was simple: the Nuncio still believed that the Confederates would be sending troops to England at some point to save Charles’ bacon from both the Scottish and the Parliamentarians, and reckoned that Glamorgan, being apparently a close confident of Charles, would be an acceptable choice, once Dublin was taken.

With that, the Confederates would reign supreme throughout nearly all of the country, save the southern part of the Munster, and the very northern part of Ulster, areas that they could focus on at their leisure in the following year. They would also deny a large port to either the Royalists or the Parliamentarian, with all of the associated loss of commerce and potential landing position for any army.

Perhaps more than all of that though, the taking of Dublin would have gigantic propaganda and morale value. If the Confederates could capture the capital, they would look even more legitimate a government, even more likely to be the winning horse that the people of Ireland should back.

There was also the very real fear that Ormond could simply give up any day, and hand Dublin over to the Parliamentarians without any fuss, perhaps in exchange for clemency. Rinuccini, who could foresee no kind of reconciliation with the English legislature, wanted at all costs to prevent them having an easy embarkation point on the east coast. Ormond was, indeed, in active correspondence with the Parliament in London, not wanting to surrender Dublin to the Irish at any cost, even if it meant handing over the keys of the city to his sworn enemies on the other side of the Irish Sea. Rumours of Ormond’s harbouring of Parliamentarian naval officers provoked great worry in Confederate circles.

But there were problems of course. Dublin, despite its importance in Ireland and to the English, has not featured much in this series, not since the Silken Thomas rebellion at any rate, for a reason. The city was large and had impressive walls, and its castle was no weak point to be easily breached in the event that the city fell. Its large port facilities meant that it could be supplied more easily than other towns on the coast of Ireland in the event of a siege, and nearby fortress towns like Drogheda supplemented its defence. Dublin’s suburbs and surrounding environs did suffer from raids and the like from the acrimonious Wicklow clans, like the O’Byrne’s, but the city had not been in any serious peril for over a century. For his part, once he returned from Kilkenny, narrowly avoiding capture along the way, Ormond set to work on improving the outer defences of Dublin, ordering the creation of thicker earthen ramparts at the walls and eventually burning down some of the cities suburbs to provide clearer fields of fire for defenders.

This was to be a combined operation, with the armies of O’Neill and Preston uniting to form one giant Confederate army. The aim was probably for this army to cross the Liffey and attack Dublin from the north, with the clans in Wicklow providing forces that would harry the city from the less advantageous south. Considering the time of year, siege, at least not a lengthy one, was probably not on the minds of the attackers. This was to be an assault.

An acceptable plan in theory. But in reality, the common problems of the Confederations political and military circles would doom it, much in the way that the Siege of Youghal had been doomed.

The enmity between O’Neill and Preston was rearing its head again. Rinuccini obviously favoured O’Neill, but needed Preston onside for the soldiers he controlled and just for good politics. But Rinuccini did not trust Preston, whose initial rejoicing when the Ormond Peace was declared had provoked much disquiet within the mind of the Nuncio. Preston was also known to be in contact with the Earl of Clanrickarde and possibly also with Ormond, the subject of which is cause for much query. It’s possible Preston, never the most committed to the Confederate cause, was either trying to create his own peace, or be persuaded to defect to the royal side and turn on his Confederate enemies.

The debates in the new Supreme Council, compromised entirely of clergy under Rinuccini’s thumb, centred before the campaign started on whether Preston should be involved at all, such was the suspicion that his loyalties might be testable. But, it was figured, probably rightly, that snubbing Preston for a command in the province where he was supposed to be the commander, might push him over the edge. In the end, the council choose a middle course that satisfied no one and ultimately insured that the campaign would be an abortive failure. O’Neill and Preston were to share a joint command.

Rinuccini further insisted that Preston take an oath to pursue the campaign to take Dublin with faithfulness and honestly. Preston refused until promises were made that further negotiations with Ormond would be attempted. The campaign was already a mess. Preston had real fears that his smaller Leinster Army might be attacked and destroyed by a vengeful O’Neill, and seems to have had no heart for the operation to take Dublin at all.

By the end of October, the largest combined force that the Confederates would ever field, over 16’000 men, was on the move towards Dublin, but contrary to the hopes of Rinuccini, it remained distinctly divided between its Ulster and Leinster contingents.

The march was slow, due to Preston’s sluggishness and O’Neill’s frequent stopovers. With his gigantic infantry arms and excess of artillery after the capture of new stock at Benburb, he made sure to take whatever opportunities he could to “reduce” the Royalist presence in Leinster as he did, probably forcing surrenders from forts and castles with just the sight of his army. Before the Confederates got anywhere near to Dublin, O’Neill had already taken Maryborough, Stradbally, Grange, Mellan and other strong places within Laois and Offaly. Preston, for his part, was given the opportunity to attack and take Carlow and its garrison, but begged off.

By the 9th of November, the two armies were into Kildare, choosing to camp at Lucan. There Preston and O’Neill decided it would be better to go their separate ways to an extent, with Preston moving to Leixlip with the Leinster Army and O’Neill moving to the smaller townland of Newcastle. Neither position was close enough to Dublin to effectively threaten it.

The outlook was not good. Ormond had made sure that any refuge and any crops that were available in the area around Dublin had either been taken in or destroyed, a scorched earth strategy that the Irish were used to inflicting, not dealing with themselves. Those areas of Kildare and County Dublin outside the city were thus, an unprofitable wasteland as the winter set in “with unusual rigour” according to one account. O’Neill and Preston were hesitant to attack, and had no means to keep their men or their herds fed.

There was still massive panic within Dublin, with the campfires of the Confederates visible from its walls, portending doom. Few thought that Dublin could withstand a direct attack, although if the numbers that Ormond could call upon were true, it would hardly have been a walkover.

But O’Neill and Preston did not move to the attack. Neither trusted the other, and the lack of communication between the two was telling. Preston still feared that Owen Roe might attack him on the orders of Rinuccini, so maintained his position. For his part, O’Neill feared that Preston would attack him while the Lord Lieutenant struck from Dublin in a deadly pincer, so was not predisposed to movement himself. As they waited, floods broke the bridges they had been using to bring in supplies from south of Dublin, food ran low and the withering rains were then replaced by snow and frost.

As had been agreed with Preston, messages were sent to Ormond seeking the surrender of Dublin and other places, with greater rights for Catholics along the lines of Rinuccini’s desires to boot. Ormond ignored such messages, perhaps now seeing the advantage that he had. The Confederate leadership was paralysed, and the conditions would soon force their hand.

Rinuccini, presumably tearing his hair out, went from camp to camp to try and achieve some form of reconciliation, however temporary, so Dublin could be attacked and taken. The armies either had to attack very soon, or abandon the enterprise.

Try as he might, the Nuncio, could not create a harmony from the discord. He and his council considered trying to seize and arrest Preston when it became clear that nothing could be done, but Rinuccini eventually discounted this possibility, as it would be too risky: failure would bring civil war, and even success could end in the same result.

The Earl of Clanrickarde now arrived on the scene, lending his considerable diplomatic weight to the hopes for a peaceful settlement, Through him, Ormond was able to offer terms that included the repeal of most discriminations against Catholics, But with Charles unable to confirm his assent, Rinuccini balked.

Things disintegrated fast. Rinuccini accused Preston of fermenting plots against him, planning his arrest in the service of Ormond: Preston apparently did not deny the charge, only said he would never acquiesce to the Nuncio’s arrest. More and more Confederate soldiers were dying from the cold and disease, with neither army moving one inch from their Kildare camps.

A few weeks after their arrival, the council met to try and forge some kind of plan for the continuation of the campaign, at a meeting where both O’Neill and Preston were present. During the meeting, Preston received a message that Parliamentarians had arrived in Dublin. Having shared this information, the meeting was broken up, as both commanders scattered back to their respective armies, there to break camp and head south, fording the swollen Liffey with bridge made of trees. The council fled back to Kilkenny.

The reports were actually false, but it mattered little. The fear of a Parliamentarian force landing in Dublin was so strong that it was the final straw for the Confederate leadership, who feared their strength being annihilated in its present, acrimonious form. Regardless, there was no enthusiasm from the Leinster or Ulster armies for an attack on Dublin, so it was probably just as well that the campaign was aborted.

Surprisingly enough, Rinuccini stuck around Kildare while the armies that he was supposed to be in control of scampered. He still went through talks with Clanrickarde, who, with Ormond’s approval, was willing to make one last big concession: agreeing to the occupation of Dublin with the formerly stated terms, but only if the troops doing it were the Leinster Army under Preston. Though Preston was eager, Rinuccini balked at what he feared was conspiracy, and Preston never got his chance. Clanrickarde was left alienated by the whole exercise, his talks coming to nought.

Instead, the focus of the rebellion now went back to Kilkenny and a depressing post mortem. Rinuccini forced O’Neill and Preston to actually sign a document that promised they would forgo any enmity between the two in pursuit of the stated goal of the Confederation – freedom of conscience for Catholics and the end of London domination of Irish politics. Few would have had any faith in such a promise from either man, since such declarations had been made before and broken. Such an exercise may well have been the Nuncio’s form of a public scolding.

The Council was soon meeting, with Rinuccini keenly aware of his own loss of power and prestige in the aftermath of the awful campaign. The hardcore support that he had previously held now began to visibly soften. Discontent from the military and civilians was on the rise and Rinuccini realised that his plans for maintaining a control of the Confederation were on the wane. He was obliged to release those members of the Ormondist faction then locked up in Kilkenny, in preparation for a new General Assembly of the Confederation, to be held in January of the following year, little more than a month distant.

From being in a position of stability in its political leadership and looking invincible on its military fronts, the Confederation had suffered horribly in the ill-conceived attempt to take Dublin. The fractures between its key military leaders had become worse than ever, a public disaster that undermined everything that Rinuccini was trying to achieve. The military effort around Dublin had simply resulted in losses of many crucial troops and the wasting of supplies. The momentum that the Confederates had gained in the summer was done, and the negotiations between Kilkenny and the Royalists were at one of their lowest ebbs, fraught with mistrust and false promises.

1646 wound down into a bitter, harsh winter, with the war no closer to resolution. 1646 had seen momentous victories and abject defeat for the Confederates. 1647 would be a little different.

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

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Dublin Campaign of 1646

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

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