Ireland’s Wars: Dungan’s Hill

The height of summer, 1647, saw the Leinster Army under Thomas Preston, one of the key fighting forces of the Confederation of Kilkenny, poised awkwardly in County Carlow, prepared for a march on Dublin but critically delayed by political infighting among its higher masters. As the Parliamentarians were taking full control of Dublin and its surrounds, Preston could only watch on frustrated, while even further away, Owen Roe O’Neill must have been cursing. The Parliamentarians would be well supplied in terms of war material and battle hardened from years of warfare in England, and a clash with them would be inevitable.

Preston had more reason to be apprehensive of the task in front of him. Perhaps he would not have admitted it, but he was no great battlefield commander, losing badly at New Ross in the only large set-piece encounter he had fought in Ireland, and showcasing an abject failing in the handling of cavalry throughout the war, especially at Roscommon in 1646. His successes, like Duncannon, had been sieges, something he was far more suited to. But with the Parliamentarians in Dublin, and certain to march, he would have to fight a battle.

Colonel Michael Jones would be a formidable opponent. Initially a Royalist, he had served with the King’s army in Ireland in 1641, but later defected and joined Parliament, serving with distinction in campaigns around Wales and Cheshire. Now, he had been given command of just over 4’000 men, which when combined with the regiments he inherited from Ormond gave him a total of around 7’000 with an additional thousand in horse to supplement them.

But this paints too rosy a picture for the English really. There was expected distrust between the Parliamentarian veterans and the former Royalists they were now subsumed into their armies, and grumbles over arrears in pay. Jones knew that he could not completely rely on much of his army to fight for him. Worse, his food supply situation was under threat. The region had not fully recovered from the scorched earth approach that Ormond had taken to the threatened siege the previous year, with Confederate raids and local sympathisers doing the rest.

Of course, similar problems effected Preston’s army, and part of the reason he did not advance quickly on Dublin when he had the chance was the lack of supply to his own army, with murmurings of the creaghts, those cattle herds that kept such forces moving, being too unpopular to the farmers of Leinster, who had to suffer through much of their lands being eaten to the roots over the last six years.

In the end, the Supreme Council authorised Preston to move forward with limited objectives, namely to try and starve the Parliamentarians out without engaging in a direct siege. He would do this by planting his army in the key strongholds of Kildare, denying the county to the enemy, and thus creating a “hunger belt”. The Parliamentarians would either have to come out and fight, hopefully on terms that were disadvantageous to them, reduce the size of their standing army, or go home.

Preston, once he received these orders, wasted little time, and was in Kildare by late June, making one of his first targets the town and castle of Naas, which was soon under siege, and with no prospect of holding out long.

Jones was no fool, and understood the danger that he was in, with hostile rebels threatening his limited supply area and potentially mutinous troops inside the walls of Dublin. Somewhat desperately he marched out with less than half of the armed force available to him and headed for Naas.

What happened next is not especially clear, and mostly depends on which accounts you favour. Preston had camped near a bog, to be used as a naturally protection. On the other side of this, Jones marched his army up and down, and then suddenly retreated. Preston, bemused and assuming some form of trick to coax him away, did nothing.

The next morning, Jones was back. This time Preston allowed his artillery train to open fire, and the effect was for the English to apparently scatter backwards in disorder. Preston was urged by many advisors to break camp and follow, with dreams of a rout and slaughter clearly in the minds of many, but again, Preston refused, fearing that it was all a ruse designed to trick him before a volte face. He has been much criticised by some Irish sources for this hesitance, but his reasoning was sound. I deem it unlikely that a few cannon balls could have caused an English Army full of veterans from England to run away so easily, and this had been the second straight day of such a display. Jones, operating from a point of numerical inferiority, could well have been trying to trick Preston into abandoning favourable ground before a sudden counter-attack.

Preston refused to take the bait and soon Naas was his. He followed that up with a serious of outpost seizures across the county. Harristown, Cotlandstown, Jigginstown, Castlewarden and Hartwell, all small positions that had supplemented and been supplemented by Naas, fell rapidly in the following few weeks, with this speedy campaign culminating in the attack and capture of Maynooth Castle on the 23rd of July. Maynooth had not seen serious combat for over a century, and fell even faster this time. Preston apparently executed several dozen of the defenders who were captured, Catholics, whom he considered turncoats. It was a merciless campaign, and this action presaged worse atrocities to come.

It was not quite a mirror image of Castlehaven’s previous reduction campaign in Cork, but it bore hallmarks of success, and a driven attempt to fulfil the assigned objectives of tightening the noose on a beleaguered Dublin. Now, Preston turned north into Meath, targeting the town and castle of Trim. Jones, knowing that Trim was the last town of any consequence that he nominally held inland, knew that he could ill afford its loss, for both its practical purpose in assuring supplies from the surrounding area, and his own prestige. Raiders from Preston’s army were already darting close to the sea-based garrisons in Drogheda and Dundalk, in one memorable instance ambushing the commander of Drogheda and stealing its garrisons paychest.

Jones, taking regiments from Dundalk and Drogheda, increased the size of his operating force substantially, now close to 5’000 infantry combined with nearly all of his cavalry, an army that was far more of a match for the 5’000 or so infantry and 800 horse that Preston called his army. It came with the risk of disobedience and desertion, but Jones had come to realise that he had to take that risk.

Preston, ever quick to avoid a fight, burned his camp at Trim and left it untaken, choosing to march for Portlester, where Owen Roe O’Neill had once won a small but important victory. Well guarded by numerous natural defences – river, wood and bog – it was as secure an area as the Leinster Army could hope to find.

Jones tried to draw Preston out by besieging nearby Confederate castles, but Preston initially refused to budge. It is implied by some sources that he was simply trying to wait Jones out, mindful that the Parliamentarian commander was leading an army that was marching unpaid, and liable to demand a return to Dublin any day.

Then on the 7th, to the surprise of his lieutenants, Preston broke camp and headed west. Why he did so remains a source of many questions. Some claim that he did so out of a lack of supplies, although this fails to ring a little true reading the descriptions of the war councils, which outline a plan for an ambitious march throughout the general region, which might also have included an attempt at taking Dublin.

Perhaps Preston did think that he could surprise Jones and march on the capital quickly, taking it before the Parliamentarians had time to get back and defend it. Maybe he really wanted to head towards Wicklow and round out his campaign without suffering any potential losses. Maybe he didn’t realise that Jones had been reinforced, and that his strength in cavalry was a truly terrible prospect for the Confederates.

Whatever his reason, Preston was on the march, but his movements were betrayed near instantly by Jones’ forward scouts. The Colonel soon had a cavalry detachment seeking the Irish, and they found them encamped on near the village of Agher, only a few miles from Maynooth, the apparent initial destination of the army. Jones, upon hearing this, wasted little time, moving out his own army, which was camped less than eight miles away, and marching towards an intended interception. If Preston had possibly thought about making an attempt on a little guarded Dublin, he had badly over-estimated the ability of his own army to outpace that of the enemy.

On the morning of the 8th, the Leinster Army resumed its march, but were badly delayed by a damaged wagon that prevented the fording of the Rye Water for over two hours. As the day continued, Preston heard gunfire coming from the small Confederate held castle of Dangan to the north-west and realised that Jones’ army was right behind him, little more than a few miles distant.

Having ignored warnings about this very possibility, Preston scrambled for a decent position to defend, now resigned to fighting the set-piece battle he had wanted to avoid. Just about two miles south or so from the modern day village of Summerhill, he deployed his army on a rise in the mostly flat terrain called Dungan’s Hill.

It was a good position to hold and Preston would have had time to make a careful deployment before battle was joined. The battle is one of many of which no firm details are known, and what accounts exist differ significantly in parts, but it seems likely that Preston would have deployed his infantry in the expected “checkerboard” type formation, similar to that which Owen Roe O’Neill had used at Benburb, with three units of troops in the front, two behind in a second line ready to fill the gaps in the first, and three more behind. Situated on the hill facing north, their left flank was protected by a stretch of boggy ground at the base, where another unit of infantry was placed as a screen. This was a regiment of 500 “redshanks”, from western Ulster and Scotland, many of them veterans of the campaigns in Scotland who now sought service in the rest of Ireland.

The Confederate right was covered by a small laneway, whose sides were overgrown with thorns and brambles in hedgerows. Preston’s horse were split into three detachments, one on or near the road to the right, one just behind his main force, and another held in reserve a half mile to the south. As was standard practise at the time, Preston sent forward a contingent of musketeer skirmishers ahead of his army, which took position in some of the ditches and trenches further down the hill, to harass any enemy that dared approach.

Of Jones’ deployment, we know precious little. The approach from the north gave him a key advantage it that it was covered first in woods and then in high growing corn crops, and as such meant that he had a limited amount of cover with which to conceal his exact numbers. These crop fields extended all the way to the position of the Leinster Army, meaning some of Preston’s soldiers had no visibility of the approaching enemy whatsoever. Jones’ was a straightforward deployment with a strong core of infantry in the centre, and his flanks guarded by cavalry. Preston ordered some opening artillery fire to try and break up Jones’ deployment and perhaps provoke another “rout” like that which had happened at Naas, but the English were not moved, further indicating that it had been previously a ruse.

The first move proper was a sign of much to come. Preston probably hoped that his cavalry on the right, on the laneway, would be able to charge down this unimpeded space – better than the hill itself, which was covered in ditches and impediments – and attack the Parliamentarian left. It was similar in many respects to a cavalry attack Preston had tired at New Ross, also along a laneway, and one that ended in a similarly brutal fashion. Jones saw this move coming, and attacked first, sending the contingent of horse under a Sir James Clotworthy charging up the laneway.

The Irish horse here was quickly trapped, with advancing enemy in front, sides blocked and advancing allies behind. A slaughter ensured, as the Irish, under a Pierce Mac Thomas Fitzgerald, could not resist the momentum of the English advance. Much of the cavalry were killed, a few, including Mac Thomas, escaping when neighbouring infantry battered a passage through the hedgerow to save them.

It didn’t really help the situation though, as the Irish cavalry, now forced back behind the army, fled the field. The troop just behind Preston’s force, and then the reserve, were sucked into this retreat, the Irish cavalry fleeing pell-mell from the chasing English horse, and leaving Preston without any kind of mounted protection. Why the other units of horse did so will remain a mystery, but it likely that they and their commander panicked at the sight of Mac Thomas retreating and simply decided to join them.

Now Jones pressed his advantage, sending his centre and right wing forward. In the centre, a skirmishing line of Confederates held up the attack, suffering heavy loss in doing so, but preventing the main force of English infantry from engaging their Irish counterparts.

On the Irish left, the redshanks found themselves under heavy attack from numerically superior forces. They were used to being deployed in the dead centre of a battle from their time under Montrose in Scotland, from which they could pierce the heart of the enemy, but Preston went another way, seeing them as a means of defending a vital point away from the main body of the army.

Their leader was a man who had already become a legend in the wars: None other than Alasdair MacColla, often identified in Irish sources by the name “Alexander MacDonnell” or the nickname “Colkitto”, meaning “left-handed”. MacColla had fought on in Scotland for as long as he could following the defeat at Philiphaugh, but his efforts were small-scale and piecemeal. He was eventually forced to abandon the doomed effort there, and brought what men that he could muster back over the sea and into the service of the Confederation. They were now the men guarding the left flank of the Leinster Army. Ramsay Colles’ The History Of Ulster identifies “Colkitto” being present at Dungan’s Hill, but this is not corroborated by other accounts and it seems likely the man himself was elsewhere.

As was their way, they went on the attack themselves, with patented Highland charges sending the English scurrying back, only to return once again with fresh numbers. This was treacherous, boggy ground and the back and forth nature of the fight was little more than a delay. Eventually, having been forced back and counter-attacked several times over, the redshanks had enough. With seemingly no movement from the main force of Irish infantry to come and relieve them, they struck out on their own, launching one last massive attack on their enemy, breaking through their lines and headed westwards through bog and wood where cavalry could not follow, losing several hundred of their scant number in the process.

Preston had remained stubbornly in place on the top of the hill with his main body of infantry, but his options were limited at this point anyway. The English had beaten him on both flanks, and while a breakout attempt like that which the redshanks had performed was possible, it would have been a bloody affair. His infantry was trained to fight in set units that did not move with any great speed if they wanted to maintain their cohesion, and now they lacked the cavalry screen that was supposed to protect them in such a circumstance. He perhaps still held out hope that the natural defences of his position would see his army hold out under the assault until circumstances changed or Jones chose to withdraw.

It was not to be. The English cavalry broke off their pursuit after a few miles and returned to the battlefield, now attacking the Leinster Army in its rear. A desperate about turn allowed the Irish to pour fire on this sudden attack, inflicting heavy casualties on the horses, but the writing was on the wall. The Irish were now forced back, moving downhill, straight into the waiting arms, guns and blades of the English.

Preston, belatedly, ordered a swing west, to try and follow the redshanks and escape through the woods and bogs, but it was far too late for such an order to be effective. Now, the English cavalry rode through the Irish at will, now the English infantry closed for the kill. As the Irish broke ranks and stumbled towards escape, a slaughter to match and exceed that of Benburb commenced.

The numbers are, as ever, sketchy, but Preston had marched to Dungan’s Hill a few hundred shy of 6’000 troops all told. Roughly 2’000 of them got out through the bogs or previously on horseback, Preston among them.  Several hundred, including most of the officers, were captured. The rest died there, either in the battle or in the terrible destruction that followed the achievement of the result. If quarter was asked for, it was rarely given. The Leinster Army of the Confederation was wiped out on the slope of Dungan’s Hill, never to really rise again. The English casualties were nowhere near as heavy, and were even light given the circumstances.

Preston lost at Dungan’s Hill, and the fault was mostly with his approach to cavalry. He had no great experience in the managing and deploying of horse, something he had already demonstrated in the course of the war. Only a man of such inexperience would have contemplated separating so much of his cavalry from his main force on either side of a thorn hedgerow. He faced a man who had made his name in the war from commanding cavalry troops, and who would never make the same mistakes. The cavalry fight had been the most crucial part of the entire battle, and once the English had defeated the enemy horse, they were able to close in for the end.

Not only was such a large number of Irish killed at Dungan’s Hill, but Jones refused to allow even the nicety of their burial. Preston made the request upon his retreat to Portlester, but did not even get a reply. This action ties into to one of the more unique and rather unsettling aspects of the English Civil Wars, namely the belief and reporting that on several battle sites, most notably Edgehill, the dead would nightly re-enact their previous fight, haunting the area until their remains, still left on the field, would be buried with the proper rites. These kinds of stories continue all the way to the present day, but back then were taken with a much higher degree of seriousness. It was a war with a heavy influence of religion, and few wanted the weight of angry ghosts plaguing their minds and their conscience, real or imagined. As such, Jones’ action – or rather, inaction – should be seen with an eye for the deeper message. It was a warning to the Confederates, and a declaration of Jones’ own determination to wipe the Confederate menace, body and soul, from Ireland. It is likely however that plenty of people within his own army – a fair number of whom were probably Catholics previously under the command of Ormond – would not have appreciated this gesture.

I have never really gone, in-depth, into the finer point of the laws of war in the mid 17th century. They were ill-defined and based almost whole sale in favour of the attacker or victor, who held the lives of the enemy in his hands and, if he so choose, could kill them all and never be thought particularly ill of it afterwards. “Gentlemen” were frequently given quarter, since they were a useful source of ransoms and could be exchanged to the other side in return for other prisoners, but the rank and file had little opportunity to benefit from such an arrangement. Time and again in this period, you will read accounts of just surrendered officers witness the butchery of the soldiers they had led into battle, despite pleas for quarter.

Every side in the Civil Wars had their slaughters and atrocities. Every side massacred prisoners and those seeking surrender.  Every side had instances of betrayed promises of quarter. But it is perhaps not unfair to judge the Parliamentarians a bit more than others, given their rabid and almost racial hatred for Catholic Ireland, a position that had been enshrined in their law as far back as 1644 with the “Ordinance of no quarter to the Irish”. Such legal declarations essentially gave any soldier immunity when it came breaking the laws of war, as long as it involved the Confederates. Jones and his soldiers indulged themselves with this freedom, as future Parliamentarian armies also would, with a vengeance.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to posit that the Confederates could well have been just as bad, but they would never get the same opportunity.

The result at Dungan’s Hill, perhaps the worst defeat the Irish had suffered thus far in the war, had far reaching consequences, some obvious, some not so obvious, but it is actually remarkable how little the strategic picture changed in the short term. When news went back to Dublin about the battle, many Parliamentarians envisioned the destruction of the Confederation by the end of the year. Instead, much of the original aims of the Supreme Council were still achieved.

Jones turned around after Dungan’s Hill and recaptured both Maynooth and Naas, which the Confederates had left sparsely garrisoned. But by that point he was running short on supplies and payment for his army, and was thus obliged to release a large portion of it and return back to Dublin to rebuild his strength, forgoing any pursuit of the shattered remnant of Preston’s army. Worse, when the news of Dungan’s Hill reached Kilkenny, the stunned Council quickly ordered the Ulster Army to abandon its rather pointless operations near Sligo, and for Owen Roe O’Neill to advance immediately into Leinster.

Owen Roe gladly did so, with the support he had previously lacked now given over fully. The cavalry of the Leinster Army was given over to his command. Jones lacked the men or means to engage O’Neill, and even when he shelled out the badly needed cash to get his previous British regiments back in the field, the Ulster commander refused to countenance a direct engagement, probably mindful that he did not want to repeat Preston’s mistake. Instead, he focused on the destruction of Dublin’s food belt, which when achieved kept the Parliamentarians occupied with the provision of basic necessities in Dublin over military matters outside the capital. He also found the time to revisit Dungan’s Hill, and see that the Confederate fallen received a proper burial (and the site has not, like so many others, become wrapped up in fanciful tales of ghostly recreations).

But while such a state of affairs seemed good for the Confederates, the damage was done. They had lost numbers that could not be easily replaced, nor their arms or equipment. All of the previous momentum they had gained in 1646 was now decisively gone, and any hopes that the Parliamentarians could be ousted from Dublin were greatly diminished. The grand division of Ireland into four military commands five years ago was now a distant memory, with only two of those armies still intact in a recognisable form.

On a political level, the destruction of the Leinster Army was a disaster for the more conciliatory Ormondist faction. Preston’s force had a very sizable “Old English” make-up, who were sympathetic to the King and more likely to accept a negotiated settlement like the Ormond Peace: Preston had been the highest ranking military commander to welcome that arrangement. Many of those men were now dead or imprisoned. Preston’s reputation was in tatters, his command finished, though his career in these wars was far from over. The Ormondist faction within the Confederate government was thoroughly demoralised, and began to look more and more to finding a deal that would get them out of the worsening strategic hole they found themselves in, a state of affairs that would only insure greater future conflict with the Nuncio faction.

Dungan’s Hill holds a limited place in Irish history. Ask the layman about Irish defeats in the Confederate Wars, and the first answers will probably be in the time of Cromwell. But Dungan’s Hill was the precedent that led the way to those events. It was a large scale victory of a Parliamentarian Army over a Confederate one, a battle followed by an abject slaughter – a pattern that would be repeated time and again in the years to come. Dungan’s Hill solidified the Parliamentarian foothold in the east of Ireland, insuring that it would not be eliminated at the only time that it could conceivably have been eliminated. Cromwell’s later arrival – and victories – could not have been without the result of that August day.

Astonishingly for the Confederates, it was only going to get worse. In Cork, Inchiquin was stirring.

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

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18 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Dungan’s Hill

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  16. great points altogether, you simply won a new reader. What might you suggest about your put up that you just made a few days in the past? Any certain?

  17. Dave Morris says:

    I believe McColla was elsewhere in August 1647, so would not have been in direct command at Dungan’s Hill.

    • NFB says:

      This is going back a good bit in terms of when I wrote it, and my notes at the time are long since gone. Looking around only Ramsay Colles History Of Ulster mentions “Colkitto” being actually at the battle himself, so I must presume I took that as more concrete than I should have, as I cannot source a more primary account, or any others, that verify it. I’ll take this as a lesson. Thank you for the correction.

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