Ireland’s Wars: The Royalist Summer Offensive Of 1649

While Charles Coote resisted the Laggan Army and their allies from within Londonderry’s walls, the war continued in the rest of Ireland. The combined forces of the Royalist faction and the former Confederacy, united under the central command of Ormonde, now looked forward to its own offensive.

With what forces they had in place already and with whatever else they had been able to hoover up since the signing of the Second Ormonde Peace, this faction was able to field a few impressive forces, though a large amount of their make-up could not have been that experienced after so many years of warfare. With the Scots pinning the Parliamentarians back in Ulster and the situation relatively stable in Connacht and Munster (the Earl of Clanrickarde would capture Sligo from the Parliamentarians in July), it was in Leinster where the blows would fall. The Parliamentarian garrisons on the east coast, most especially Dundalk, Drogheda and of course Dublin, would have to be tackled. George Monck and Michael Jones still held those places with not insubstantial numbers of trained fighting men, and they were a challenge that had to be met.

There were numerous minor reasons for this. The Royalists wanted to be on the offensive in a way that they hadn’t in Ireland for a while now. They wanted to match the exploits of the Scots further north. They wanted to keep alive the military hopes of the young exiled Charles II.

But much more than any of that, they knew what was coming. It could hardly be hidden, the preparations that were now well advanced in England, for an expeditionary force of the New Model Army, under Oliver Cromwell, to embark for Ireland to bring an end to the fighting there once and for all.

The New Model Army and its commander had a fearsome reputation, won by repeated victories in England and Scotland, where Cromwell had demonstrated his martial prowess over and over. A well supplied and battle hardened force with him at its head was a terrible prospect for the largely weak and divided Royalist and Irish factions waiting for him across the sea. Already, this huge army – 30’000 troops or thereabouts – was preparing to be ferried.

If Cromwell was allowed to land his army in circumstances of his choosing – say, in a well held Parliament garrisoned coastal town like Dublin – then he would have a great starting point to launch a campaign against the legislatures enemies. But if those ports could be captured and closed to him, then the New Model Army, and the fleet it would have to travel in, might not find any place with which they could land in Ireland in the safety that such an operation would require. This was a period when amphibious operations were still in their infancy – only the Kingdom of Spain had established a Marine unit of naval infantry by this time – and the landing of armies was routinely only done when a suitable port was in hand.

So, the campaign to take those eastern ports in Parliamentarian hands had a vital purpose. In order to undertake it, Ormonde could have had anywhere between 11’000 or 20’000 troops that he could call upon, divided into respective commands headed by himself or the Earl of Inchiquin. The plan for the Summer of 1649 was to strike directly through Leinster, besiege and take the eastern ports, and then use what naval power the Royalists had to protect that eastern coastline.

That naval power was supposed to be supplied by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Charles I’s nephew and one of the leading Royalist commanders of the war in England. He and his ships sailed to and operated out of Cork for a time, harassing Parliamentarian shipping, but the Prince largely balked at the idea of supporting Ormonde’s land based campaigns, preferring his own battles at sea to any kind of coordinated strategy. Before Ormonde’s plans had even been put into motion, Rupert’s squadron had been bottled up in Kinsale harbour by a reinforced Parliamentarian navy that was keen to prevent Ormonde’s designs for keeping the Irish Sea clear of enemy ships. The ships, and their valuable crews and cannon, would remain there for the rest of the campaigning season.

The lack of naval support was not the only issue that Ormonde and his allies would have to deal with. There was still the Ulster Army of Owen Roe O’Neill, beholden to no one at the time. Ormonde desperately wanted O’Neill and his troops onside, to truly unite the forces on the island against the Parliament, but Owen Roe simply wasn’t interested, viewing this new Royalist faction as too anathema to his own goals and desires. That, and the “commissioners of trust”, the remnant of the Confederate Supreme Council, still loathed O’Neill and feared his influence, speaking consistently against any kind of rapprochement.

But O’Neill had to do something. On his own he had very little power to do anything and he could not keep his army together indefinitely if nothing was happening – he no longer had Rinuccini to give him financial backing. When George Monck got in contact, he was willing to listen.

The deal was simple: in exchange for the Ulster Army acting as a deterrent to the Royalists simply by being in the general area of Armagh/north Leinster, and intercepting communications between Ormonde and the Scots, Monck and his men would refrain from attacking O’Neill, and even supply his army with some badly needed gunpowder (and, allegedly, money).

With a common enemy, O’Neill acquiesced. A truce was agreed on the 8th of May 1649 between the two men and their armies, but one that would extend no longer than three months. They were still intrinsically opposed to the other, and O’Neill paid little attention to Monck’s promises of religious liberty for Catholics in the event of his victory. For now, it was a brief alliance of convenience, although the making of it would come back to haunt Monck later that year. For O’Neill, it gave him a brief improvement in his strategic position, even if it was somewhat of a compromise on his usually stern principles. He may already have begun to feel the effects of an illness that would have a large effect on him over the coming months.

O’Neill’s choice of position was in Crossmaglen in southern Armagh, only ten or so miles from Monck’s garrison in Dundalk. His camp there would achieve its purpose of making Ormonde pause and consider his options for a few crucial weeks in May, with his army not marching until June. It was all time for Cromwell to get his affairs in order, and for the Parliamentarians to hold out for his arrival. Financial issues also played their part, as Ormonde struggled to find the requisite capital to supply and pay his men. Charles II might have been the King, but he had no access to taxes in England anymore. At one point in the upcoming campaign, Ormonde was forced to send trusted Lieutenants, like the Earl of Castlehaven, to areas like Limerick just to collect promised monies.

Ormonde assembled his army in Carlow. It is likely to say he had around 10’000 infantry and 3’000 cavalry at his command, as well as a decent amount of artillery. The best of his troops were undoubtedly those that had served with Inchiquin in Munster, but these were also the men whose loyalty was most in flux.

On the 1st of June they were marching north, while other forces were moving up from Munster. The first order of business was to seize  a few garrisons in west and central Leinster that were opposed to them, held either by men loyal to Parliament or to O’Neill. These small garrisons, largely left unchecked simply because they were not worth taking, did not stand up long to the kind of army that was marching to their gates now. The likes of Maryborough in Offaly and Athy in Kildare are the most notable examples, reduced and taken by detachments of Ormonde’s main force under the Earl of Castlehaven, back doing what he did best.

By the 19th of June Ormonde’s army was in Finglas on the northern outskirts of Dublin, where a decision had to be made. It is typical of Royalist strategy that it was put off to this point, but it could be put off no longer: should the army attack the main prize of Dublin immediately, or focus on the smaller garrisons in Dundalk and Drogheda first?

Dublin was, naturally, the main goal of the entire offensive, it having the largest garrison and the most value. But it was well fortified and well supplied. Any siege of it at that point was bound to be difficult, as it could continue to get supplies from the sea, and could count upon the other garrisons to the north to disrupt any encirclement effort with their own forces. If Dublin was to be taken, the likes of Dundalk, Drogheda, and also Trim in Meath, would have to be eliminated as threats. Then, with the expected naval support of Prince Rupert, the Siege of Dublin could begin proper.

Ormonde elected to stay where he was with a holding force of just under half of the soldiers available to him, to start a partial blockade of Dublin, at least from the land. Inchiquin was given the rest, with which to carry out the necessary operations further north. Ormonde’s decision might have had something to do with his own lack of martial experience over the past few years – it had been a long time since he had actually led an army in the field in a campaign of this type – and he may well have felt that he was better suited to a less battle-intensive operation that a siege represents. Ironically enough, the man he had faced in that last military foray, Thomas Preston, was now one of his immediate underlings.

Drogheda was first. The town was one of the first locations of major combat in the wars, when ragged Irish rebels had attempted to take it from its Royalist commanders in 1641. Now, Royalist troops attempted to take it from its Parliamentarian garrison. The circle turned.

The garrison that held Drogheda was not tiny, but it was outnumbered nonetheless. Inchiquin had taken much of the army’s artillery with him, and he was in mood to try and starve people out. A bombardment of the walls and the town began as soon as he was ready, on the 23rd of June. O’Neill’s Ulster Army did not interfere, remaining where he was. Drogheda was still a hard nut to crack, with substantial walls, but Inchiquin was in a hurry.

After only a few days, Inchiquin ordered an assault on the walls, content with the damage he had done. Two of the gates leading into the town were fired and breached: 200 men managed to enter the town, but were then forced back with some loss in a desperate defence by the 600 Parliamentarian troops inside. Inchiquin was ready to resume his bombardment with even more artillery, but a few days later the garrison surrendered. They had expended nearly all of their ammunition in the fight thus far and could not hope to resist another assault. Inchiquin let them march out and to Dublin with their colours. Drogheda had fallen.

Monck, in Dundalk, now felt himself hard-pressed. Inchiquin wasted no time in revelry, immediately moving to besiege the other town. The Parliamentarian commander asked Owen Roe to help. O’Neill agreed, but only if he was given more gunpowder with which to do so. Monck sent a cavalry detachment with 20 barrels to fulfil this request.

Unfortunately for them, Inchiquin received intelligence of this endeavour, and had forces positioned to ambush this party. They were largely routed, and the vital gunpowder captured. It was a double disaster for Monck, not just for the loss of supplies, but because Owen Roe then thought better of his position and headed north. He was not breaking his loose alliance with Monck totally just yet of course, and his route would take him to the besieged town of Londonderry, as I noted last week. But, in the east of Ireland, there was nothing that he could do. Inchiquin’s army was too strong.

Morale in the Dundalk garrison sank, and the will to resist the inevitable investment all but disappeared. Monck’s troops essentially mutinied and forced their commander to surrender. Two days after the investment, Inchiquin had taken Dundalk without even the bare minimum of fighting, a town of at least a similar defensive level as Drogheda captured with unexpected ease. Much of its garrison now joined his forces, declaring for the King. Monck’s exact fate is not clearly recorded at this point (he was apparently allowed to leave Dundalk and sail to England of his own free will), but his time in command in Ireland was at an end.

In the aftermath, the rest of the Parliamentarian position outside of Dublin collapsed. Trim, Carlingford, Newry, the last of the tiny garrisons, all laid down their arms without a fight, unwilling to fight a losing battle. The sectarian aspect, where Inchiquin’s troops were Protestants facing Parliamentarian Protestants, might also have a played a part in such decisions. Aside from Londonderry in the north, all the Parliamentarians had left in Ireland was Dublin.

Inchiquin now returned to join the force that Ormonde had remained in control of. The campaign had thus far been an utter triumph, bettering the previous attempt to reduce the Dublin region by a wide margin. Inchquin had made excellent use of his numerical superiority in infantry and artillery. Further, through a simple ambush with little loss of life, he had essentially been able to take the town of Dundalk without firing a shot or raising a sword in anger, both in terms of the Parliamentarians in the town and the Ulster Army of Owen Roe O’Neill.

The Royalists seemed to be in a supreme position as July ran out. Londonderry was under intense pressure – no one yet seemed to contemplate the idea that O’Neill would interfere there – and now a large Royalist army was poised to fall upon Dublin, outnumbering its garrison by two to one in every department. The previous factionalism in Ireland seemed to be nearly finished, a total Royalist triumph at hand. If Dublin fell, as most surely have believed in would in late July of 1649, then the Parliamentarians would have the most immense difficulty in landing any army in Ireland. The whole strategic picture of the larger civil war would change if the new King had such a base of operations.

It might be fair to say that the whole Confederate War (or Eleven Years War if you prefer) hinged around this moment more than it did at any other. It would have been hard to believe at the time, that it was essentially the last notable offensive the Royalists would ever undertake in Ireland.

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: The Royalist Summer Offensive Of 1649

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

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  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: New Ross And Duncannon (1649) | Never Felt Better

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