Ireland’s Wars: Knocknanuss

1647 was wearing on, and the Confederate position in the south and east looked ever as fragile as ever. For the moment, the Parliamentarians in Dublin looked bottled up, thanks to Owen Roe O’Neill’s army. But the activities of Murrough O’Brien, “the burner”, in Munster seemed to be a prelude to a joint assault on the Confederate heartland, one that the rebels would be hard-pressed to defeat.

Up to Inchiquin’s whirlwind campaign in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary, the Ormondist faction of the Confederate council, headed by men like the Viscount Muskerry, had wanted the Munster Army to hang back, shadow Inchiquin, and most importantly avoid a pitched battle. No one wanted a repeat of Dungan’s Hill, and the Ormondists felt that the army under Lord Taaffe was their best bet to countering the influence of Rinuccini and his Nuncio faction.

But the vicious sack of Cashel altered many perceptions. Suddenly, Inchiquin did not look like a threat that was contained in southern Munster. Suddenly, he looked like a man who had the capability and the means to strike as far as Kilkenny. If Michael Jones and his Dublin-based troops backed him up, there was no telling what Inchiquin could achieve.

For many of the Ormondists, still desperately hoping that a negotiated settlement with the Royalists in England could be reached and that something akin to the Ormonde Peace might be allowed to prevail, perceptions had now changed. Inchiquin could not be allowed to strike out of Cork unhindered as he had in the previous few months. Tunes were changed, and soon Taaffe and received new instructions: to meet Inchiquin in battle, and eliminate him as a threat.

It was not a decision taken lightly. The Confederates had only faced Inchiquin in the field on a very small number of occasions, never successfully. But the danger that he posed could not be ignored any longer, or such was the thinking. This ignored the inherent problems to any possible endeavour: that Taaffe’s army was undermanned, undertrained, underpaid and unreliable when it came to their ability to obey orders. Furthermore, October was nearly over and it was no time for campaigning, with the bitter chill of winter upon Ireland once more.

(As an aside, it is worth nothing that the conditions of winter in those years was far harsher than those we experience today, not just because of the obvious inferiority in clothing, housing and heating, but because the times were literally colder than they were today. This was due to the “Little Ice Age” a term generally applied to the period between the 16th and 19th centuries when winters were harsh. In this exact time period, it coincides with the “Maunder Minimum” – the lowest recorded observation of sun spots – which was occurring from around 1645 to the end of the century, and may have had some connection. Regardless, this was no standard Irish winter; it was a more brutal annual freeze.)

Taaffe had his instructions though, and he did not have to wait long to pursue them. Inchiquin was abroad again at the start of November, going for another raid, seeking further supplies, but this time he would not be simply shadowed by the Munster Army. Inchiquin took with him the majority of the forces available to him at the time, roughly 6’000 infantry, over a thousand horse, and a well-regarded artillery train. Many of them were recently arrived reinforcements from England, battle-hardened men, or soldiers who had previously been driven out of the country in the early years of the war and were now back, seeking redress and revenge on the Confederates.  In opposition to him, Taaffe could apparently call on over a thousand more infantry and the same amount of cavalry, but the sources vary, both on the numbers and on the strength and experience of such men. He had been reinforced from regiments sent from Connacht, which were largely untested in battle, but could at least call upon the services of the Scottish redshanks, those who had survived Dungan’s Hill, successfully defended Clonmel a few months previously and were led by Alasdair MacColla, a soldier whose reputation made him feared and respected as a warrior.

Inchiquin was encamped near the town of Mallow, 15 or so miles from the Limerick border, around the 12th of November. A the same time, Taaffe was approaching from the north, making his camp at Kanturk, no more than ten miles away, his intentions clear by his position. The Munster Army, while not exactly in Inchiquin’s way – they were to west of the Parliamentarians, rather than the north – but they were still close by and not veering away. This must have given O’Brien some pause.

Taaffe is a much criticised figure in Irish histories, with barely any sources attributing anything positive to him at all. He is seen as a witless political appointee, whose command should have been taken up by Muskerry. But for the coming battle, Taaffe at least started off well enough. Deciding to seize the initiative, on the 13th he moved his troops out from Kanturk and made a general advance towards Inchiquin’s forces. Finding a fair-sized hill just a few miles east of Kanturk, he stopped and assembled his forces on his summit and around. The hill was called Knocknanuss, “the hill of the fawns”, “the hill of thickets” or “Englishman’s Hill” depending on which translation you want to put your faith in.

If Taaffe did nothing else, he had at least picked a good spot to defend. The ground was steep, though not too steep, and could not be easily attacked.

But that was all the good that Taaffe was able to do, as his deployment betrayed all of his inexperience and tactical incompetence. He choose to split his army into two distinct sections – one of the Munster/Connacht contingents, and one of the redshanks with some other Irish under MacColla – and placed them in either side of the hill’s summit, the Scots on the Confederate right, the Irish on the other. The result was a deployment where neither wing of the army could make out the other completely. An attempt to defend the entirety of the hill now meant that the Confederates were badly weakened.

Inchiquin made his approach from the east. He was happy to engage the Irish if he was given a chance to do so, but he would probably have been happier to avoid this fight when it came right down to it. While, on the open field, he would surely have been supremely confident of a victory to match Liscarroll, an attack on Knocknanuss, regardless of the weak deployment of the Irish, would not be beneficial to his troops. Even with the weakness of the Irish, all they had to do was maintain fire and stand their ground if the Parliamentarian infantry was sent up after them. But Inchiquin was pushed to the attack by some of his key subordinates, and perhaps by some of his political motivations as well: he had only just received the full backing of the London legislature, and there was still a degree of distrust in that relationship – with good reason, as would be discovered the following year.

But before he could even consider his own plan of attack, he had to first deal with some bizarre interactions with his opposite number. Taaffe sent a message to Inchiquin offering to take a thousand of his men to a more level playing field to take on the same number from the Parliamentarians in a fair fight, “more for recreation than with a suspicion that it might breake your army”. Inchiquin’s response was curt: “And being ‘ you have performed as much as I desire in bringing your Army hither, I shall not desire you to loose any advantage you may have in numbers of men.” I would wager both men were trying to unnerve the other, as they also bickered about their respective political allegiances, but Taaffe “offer” seems bizarre.

It continued as Inchiquin made his final approach, with O’Brien sending Taaffe another message, this time with a different tone:  “Here is a very faire piece of ground betwixt your Lordships Army and ours on this side the brook; whither if you please to advance we will do the like; we do not so much doubt the gallantry of your resolution as to think you will not come but give you this notice to the end you may see we do stand upon no advantage of ground and are willing to dispute our quarrel upon indifferent terms.”

Taaffe refused this offer as “he was not so little a souldier as not to improve any advantage he had whether of ground or otherwise, which he doubted not the President would do in like case.” Irish sources bitterly accuse Taaffe of having a chivalrous streak that damaged his perception, but it seems more likely that this back and forth was just part of a psychological attempt to get inside the head of Inchiquin, which Inchiquin attempted in turn. It should be noted that all of the above is recorded by an English officer, and parroted by Irish sources in a bid to make Taaffe look as bad as possible, which also included a claim that Taaffe stuck to Knocknanuss Hill because he believed an ancient prophecy that a descendent of an old Irish family that once owned the land would win a great victory over the English if he stayed on the hill. This seems a step too far, and just idle propaganda meant to make the opposition look as pitiful and stupid as possible.

Inchiquin now undertook his actual attack on the hill, choosing to place his forces in a formation that enabled him to fire on all the Irish at once, which is how he opened the fighting, with an artillery bombardment.

The Confederates were so separated that MacColla essentially operated independently of Taaffe. Now, he did what he did best: the Highland charge. His redshanks fired only a few volleys, threw down their guns, and charged screaming down the hill with melee weapons to close with the enemy, especially the artillery that was directly in front of them. This attack, as it had done time and again in Scotland, worked spectacularly. The Parliamentarians, totally unused to such a savagely aggressive move, fled in the face of the assault, and with one charge MacColla had captured a large amount of artillery. With a little bit of leeway, he now had the opportunity to turn these guns on the rest of the English army, before continuing his pursuit of Inchiquin’s left, which was leaving the field in confusion.

It might have seemed like a great Irish victory was imminent, but the situation on the other side of the field told a different story. The Irish had advanced a little way to engage the Parliamentarian infantry here, but in the fighting that followed, found themselves all too easily beaten and pushed back, the woeful training and experience taking their tolls. The English cavalry routed their counterparts and the infantry pressed on, with Inchiquin seeing an advantage in that the summit of the hill was no longer being held in force. He detached some of his cavalry and sent them around. As he was doing this, the Irish were close to breaking, and soon the Munster contingent was streaming backwards and around the hill, though Taaffe rode fore and aft trying to rally them, with some accounts claiming he took his sword to his own men in an effort to stop them running.

It was to no avail. The cavalry attack on the rear of the Irish position made up the minds of what few had remained steadfast, even the rest of the Confederate cavalry, and now the force was routed, running off the hill to try and save their own lives, while the English discipline kept them in check.

With that part of the battle now over, Inchiquin had the freedom to look to his left. MacColla and his redshanks had returned from their pursuit at that point and were busy rifling through the Parliamentarian baggage and supply train, unprepared for the sudden attack from their right. Caught completely by surprise, MacColla had no time to organise a defence, and he and his men were soon overrun. The exact manner of their final stand differs in the telling: some say the redshanks fought to the last man, some say they were butchered, unarmed, after trying to surrender. What we do know is that the vast majority of them, now shorn of their Irish allies, died at the base of the hill, with the English showing little mercy. This includes MacColla himself, the famous warrior allegedly cut down while he was trying to surrender to an English colonel. For a man so noted for taking on and beating superior armies, it was, perhaps, to be expected that his time would come sooner or later when faced with such a scenario repeatedly. His legacy would long outlive him, and today one of the only local commemorations of the battle mentions him – and only him – by name.

The English forces pursued the Confederates, killing many, but the chase was called off after a time, the damage done. The English chronicler, Colonel Richard Townesend, noted this by saying “Homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to his fellow man). No wonder Ireland swarmed with wolves when man provided such feasts for creatures not more savage than himself.”

The casualties suffered that day are not recorded in reliable detail. If you believe the more pro-English accounts, 4’000 or 5’000 Irish were killed, which seems unlikely, but equally unlikely is the pro-Irish estimate of around 1500. A middle ground somewhere in between these two extremes probably has the right of it, with most of them coming from the Confederate right, as few redshanks escaped the field. Parliamentarian deaths are even harder to judge. As is typical, they claim they lost mere hundreds, but the fight on their left must have involved heavier casualties (though, not the thousands that the Irish claimed were killed).

Regardless, Inchiquin held the field, had inflicted far higher casualties and had captured most of the Confederates guns and supplies. The Munster Army was scattered and as a field force, never really came back together, as the Confederate troops in the province fled back to the towns and other garrisons. In that respect, it was much the same as Dungan’s Hill, even if the overall casualties were lighter. Taaffe also escaped, to report on his failure to the Confederate council. This report would provide much of the impetus and motivation to the new general assembly that would soon meet.

But the Parliamentarian army did not press their advantage by continuing on their way, even though large parts of Munster now lay open and undefended. Despite the victory, O’Brien turned for home, sending word to London of his deeds and receiving their plaudits in return. But despite all signs of his allegiance, Inchiquin was already playing a much more underhanded game.

And much of that depended on the news from outside Ireland. As Taaffe and Inchiquin fought in the countryside of Cork, the higher subject of their fight was fleeing Parliamentarian captivity and seeking a way out of England. Charles I would not get too far, but his actions precipitated a reopening of hostilities in the larger Civil Wars.

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

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Knocknanuss

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