Ireland’s Wars: Inchiquin’s Advance And The Sack Of Cashel

As the autumn of 1647 continued in Ireland, it was clear that the defeat of the Leinster Army at Dungan’s Hill had thrown the Confederates into turmoil. The whole of Leinster suddenly seemed open to a Parliamentarian attack, and even if Owen Roe O’Neill was able to bottle Michael Jones up in Dublin, the tide of the war seemed to have turned against the Kilkenny government since the heady days of Benburb, which were little more than a year past.

The Parliamentarians had been the focus of the numerous campaigns in Munster, but they had frequently been viewed by many as little more than a side show, unimportant, with Ormond to be dealt with in the east and Robert Monro in the north, a state of affairs encouraged by Rinuccini. Murrough O’Brien, the Earl of Inchiquin, was a crafty and dangerous foe, but his defeat did not have the hearts and minds of the Supreme Council as a primary objective, not since the “reduction” campaign of the Earl of Castlehaven several years previously.

Now, with the Parliamentarians replacing the Royalists in Dublin and with that new army inflicting such a stunning defeat on the Confederates at the first real opportunity, the threat of the Parliamentarians loomed large. The realisation was a painful one to come to: the Confederation was caught between one foe on two fronts, with the very real possibility that it could be squeezed from both sides.

Certainly, Inchiquin had every reason to press on. He had more supplies and reinforcements from London. His own position, after the temporary placement of Lord Lisle in command, had been resolutely secured. Jones in Dublin was drawing Confederate forces in that direction. The Munster Army had just gone through several commanders, was undermanned, underpaid, and was currently in the hands of a man picked for the position because of political, not military, prowess. The Confederate position in Munster, outside of the core area of north Limerick, Clare and parts of Tipperary, was manned by a serious of garrisons only sparsely inhabited, and ripe to fall.

Though Inchiquin had many of the same supply problems as the Confederates when it came to food, he had the means and the impetus to go out and rectify the situation. In August of 1647, shortly after the news of Dungan’s Hill swept round the country, he and his army were on the march, heading north.

Taafe, in Limerick, did precious little. His own command was an untested thing, and he had no idea if his troops would actually follow him into battle. Even if they did, he had little expectation that they would actually be able to match up to Inchiquin’s Roundheads. He did not want to turn out like Preston.

As such, Taafe vacillated, and largely left Inchiquin free to do whatever he wanted. This resulted in a pillaging of large parts of County Limerick, with Inchiquin going one step forward and entering Clare before he was done, raiding Bunratty, capturing supplies and wasting the rest. He then headed back to Cork, temporarily sated.

Taafe’s performance thus far had been underwhelming, but it appears he was heavily advised by members of the Ormondist faction to do nothing. Many considered, with the destruction of Preston’s force, that the Munster Army had to be kept intact for the time being. If it was destroyed, only O’Neill’s Ulster Army would remain, insuring the perpetual dominance of the Nuncio faction with which it was intrinsically connected. As long as the Munster Army, fairly loyal to Muskerry and thus to the Ormondists, was still around, that eventuality was offset.

But the result was a further damaging of the Confederate position in Munster, and Inchiquin was far from done. In early September he set out again, this time out of necessity more than anything – his garrisons and troops were beginning to feel the pinch in their bellies, and no amount of gunpowder or cash would subdue that. Ordering his men to march and ride only with what food they could carry in their packs along with their weapons, he set off for his most ambitious target post-Youghal: Tipperary. The Premier County was the most untouched part of Munster, and had never been more unguarded.

Inchiquin’s campaign there mirrored most of what he had done that year. He attacked and stormed several small outposts, forts and castles in the south of the county, ones so sparsely manned that they could barely hold out under any kind of sustained attack. Soon, he crossed the Suir, and was met with the strongpoint of Cahir Castle.

Last talked about in this series during the Nine Years War, Cahir was considered one of the strongest positions that the Confederation held. It’s most famous moment had occurred whe n it held out for several months against the massive army of the Earl of Essex in 1599, a stand that contributed greatly to the paltry performance of that English force in the field. Here, it barely lasted a few days, Inchiquin taking it with apparent ease despite his deficiency in cannon.

The reasons tend to vary depending on who you read, but the constant refrain is one of stupidity and carelessness being demonstrated by Taafe, who was reduced to doing little more than shadowing Inchiquin’s more competent army around as it ravaged Tipperary. One curious story indicates that a wounded Parliamentarian taken inside Cahir’s walls was able to ask for one of his own surgeons to come and treat him. Inchiquin sent an engineer in disguise, who observed the defences from the inside and identified a weakpoint that could be easily assaulted. Inchiquin hammered at this spot and the castles commander quickly surrendered to avoid a slaughter.

So non-existent was the response of the Munster Army that there were open accusations that Taafe must have been colluding with Inchiquin. But Taafe was incapable of doing anything to stop O’Brien, though his forces were not completely immobile. Cork had been stripped of men for the expedition, and now Confederate raiding parties started striking as deep as they dared. They had no chance of recovering castles or territory, but were strong enough to enact more of a scorched earth policy than had been consciously pursued beforehand, leaving more supply problems that Inchiquin would have to deal with when he got home.

But Inchiquin was not going home yet, set on getting more forage for his own troops and denying the same to the enemy, exacting his own “devastation” policy wherever he went, taking or burning whatever crops and herds he could find.

For all that, it does not seem as if Inchiquin’s autumn campaign would have been particularly well noted if it had not been for the events that took place in Cashel.

Cashel, in south Tipperary, was not a town of great strategic significance, but its importance was great in other ways. It was the traditional seat of the old Munster Kingdom, and an ecclesiastical centre for the province. Its fortress and a cathedral were located on the famous Rock of Cashel, a rocky outcropping near the town, reputed to have fallen there after St Patrick drove Satan out of a nearby cave. With its oldest building already over 500 years old in 1647, Cashel was a place considered of great consequence to the Confederates that held it.

Inchiquin was determined to take Cashel, and in so doing send a message to the rest of the Confederates.

Taafe deemed the Rock and its buildings defensible, and had several companies of men stationed there, but on the approach of Inchiquin left the area, and his own troops to their own devices, solidifying the historical portrayals of him as a gutless coward. Inchiquin demanded the garrison and the towns surrender. This was refused, and the bloodletting began.

Cashel was an impressive looking place, but its walls belonged to another age of warfare, and not even cannon was required to bring some of it down. The Parliamentarians advanced without pause, and soon were at the outskirts of the Rock itself, with many of the surrounding areas civilians having fled inside. Calls for negotiation were now ignored, and Inchiquin pressed the attack. It was not long before the last of the defences were swarmed.

The slaughter that took place must have been large, probably not quite as large as some contemporaries claimed, but large enough that the news of it moved like wildfire around the country. There was little mercy shown to any soldiers calling for clemency, with nearly all killed after they had thrown down their arms. Clergy and civilians tried to take refuge in the church, but its glass was battered down and the inhabitants mostly terminated. Their followed a further orgy of killing and burning on the Rock and the town, as the Parliamentarians went about destroying as much as they could, and ending the lives of most that came into their path. As many as a thousand men, women and children could have been killed, more believable than the pro-Confederate reports that place the number at over three times that. It was a punishment campaign to match the final stages of the Battle of Dungan’s Hill, and to serve as a portent for what future Parliamentarian armies would be willing to do in Ireland.

Irish chroniclers are at great pains to not only point out that Taafe left the area undermanned, but to also vividly describe the atrocity and horrors. It does not really bear going into. What does, is that the events at Cashel influenced the thinking of many, in the nearby towns and in the Confederate government.

After the sacking had been completed, Inchiquin moved on, and still Taafe did not challenge him, now more content to focus on the raids in Cork than any pretence of trying to stop O’Brien. Now towns and garrisoned surrendered without any kind of resistance on his approach. A key exception was Clonmel, whose garrison was largely made up of a much more formidable foe than most of the Munster Army: the surviving “redshanks” of Alasdair MacColla, reformed and reassigned after Dungan’s Hill. Inchiquin refused to take them on in the manner he had previous garrisons, and withdrew. He obviously feared coming up against someone remotely competent, after dealing with Taafe for the last several months. His campaign was drawing to an end, but he able to inflict one last scare: a raid on the small town of Callan, only a few miles from the Confederate capital of Kilkenny. Inchiquin then headed back to Cork with the plunder he had obtained, satisfied with the destruction and wasteland he had left behind him.

The campaigns were a tremendous blow to the Confederates, in ways that were not even clear yet. Their position of authority in Munster was in serious question, and the political divide within the Supreme Council became more apparent than ever, between those who wanted to avenge the Confederation on Inchiquin and those who wanted to make a deal with the same man. That he had gotten so close to their capital was extremely worrying, and the terrible prospect of a joint Parliamentarian assault from the south and east was one that many now began to contemplate with more expectation of it coming to pass. The Munster position of the rebels was getting weaker and weaker with every captured garrison and stormed castle, and while Inchiquin still had food problems, he was in a far better situation than his counterparts. Taafe seemed utterly hopeless as a commander, and the future looked bleak.

Inchiquin had written his name in the annals of Irish history with this campaign, just as so many before him had done the same in Munster, a province with more than its fair share of “devastation”. But Inchiquin even got the dubious honour of a nickname because of his activities – “Murrough the Burner”.

And he was not done yet.

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

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Inchiquin’s Advance And The Sack Of Cashel

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