Ireland’s Wars: Rathmines

Welcome to the 100th edition of Ireland’s Wars. I started writing this series over two years ago, with little idea of how long it would take or even if it would ever be completed. The goal was to make an gradual and continuing narrative surrounding the military history of Ireland, starting with the mythical beginnings and continuing on up as far as I could go – I have had mad visions on entry #300+ or whatever it is discussing future threats that Ireland could possibly face before closing out this saga.

There have been gaps, for which I can only apologise and say that I hope, one day, to go back and fill them in. The first 500 years of the first millennium, some larger fights of the Viking era, the Norman conquest after the initial incursions, all elements of Ireland’s military history that I have either skipped over or not given the requisite attention to. These are things that I want to address, someday.

For the moment, I will continue with the present narrative course. It is oddly fitting that #100 comes here, when the Irish Confederate Wars see the arrival of a behemoth in Irish history, a true landmark in the chronicles of our country. I want to see out that story, the last few years of this gigantic, sprawling conflict, from the Battle of Rathmines to the last gasps of the Royalist, and indeed Confederate, cause in Ireland. After that, I might well go back to some of those missing chapters.

For now, I want to thank any and all readers, whether they have somehow stuck with me from #1 or if they have just read a line or two at some point. Writing is its own reward, and being able to practise some history, like this, has been one of the most consistent and enthralling joys of the last two years. The discovery of battles unknown to yourself, the outlining of intriguing personalities and the chance to offer a modern recitation of some events long ignored are all some of the things that I love about Ireland’s military history and this series in general.

I hope that I am able to keep it up. For now, we have a siege to get back to.

As the Earl of Inchiquin went about reducing the Parliamentarian positions in Louth, and Owen Roe O’Neill approached the besieged Londonderry, James Butler, the Earl of Ormonde, was left in place just north of Dublin, waiting for his full force to be reassembled. This was the critical phase of the entire campaign.

The Parliamentarian commander, Michael Jones, was staring out at a situation that was getting progressively worse for him. Monck was gone, many of the men he had under his command in Dundalk and Drogheda were out of the picture, and a large army now bore down on the chief city of Ireland. But there was cause for hope too. Dublin’s defences were impressive, with decent walls and a number of castles outside of them to supplement. Ormonde’s hoped for naval support had not arrived (and never would) leaving the seaward route open for supplies and reinforcements, some of which arrived just before the end of July, a small vanguard of troops, a few regiments of infantry, that heralded the coming arrival of Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army.

Ormonde must have known that Cromwell was very close to setting sail, so he could not afford to wait too long. While Inchiquin had been about his business Ormonde had done his best to shut down the land routes into Dublin, and to do what he could to control the resources just outside its walls, but it would all mean nothing if greater control was not achieved over Dublin harbour and the supply line through the sea. Jones would not be starved out unless that avenue could be closed or, at the very least, disputed.

When Inchiquin did return to the larger army on the 25th of July, bringing with him most of the artillery train, Ormonde elected to move south, taking up a position with the majority of his troops at Rathmines, a few miles from the walls of Dublin. The area is heavily urbanised today, but was mostly open countryside in 1649. A smaller detachment under Lord James Dillon – around 2’000 infantry and 500 horse – was left in the Finglas camp to watch and guard the northern approach to the city.

Ormonde made this move because of two key reasons. First, the area around Rathmines contained extensive grazing land that had been hitherto untouched, and which the garrison in Dublin was still using for supplies. Now in place, Ormonde and his army could take these cattle and other foodstuffs for themselves, or simply deny their use to the enemy by their presence. Secondly, and much more importantly, the Rathmines area and the approaches to the city from the south provided a much better opportunity to place guns whose reach could extend to Dublin harbour.

Jones kept up the expected sallies and raids from his own walls, but was mostly impotent in the face of Ormonde’s movements. He could call upon little more than 5’000 infantry and 1’200 cavalry to defend Dublin, and while this allowed for taking a few bites, it was not enough to consider a large scale engagement. The food situation was not totally desperate yet, but the stores in the city were faltering, as was the availability of money to pay the troops. Commanders in Ireland, on any side, were keenly aware of the dangers of desertion and defection.  Outnumbered over two to one, Jones was mostly content to stay inside Dublin, keep the approach to the harbour clear and await the massive Parliamentarian army of Cromwell. That would be more than enough to take the Royalist army on, but then something happened that significantly altered the strategic picture around Dublin.

A few days after his move to Rathmines, Ormonde held a council of war, the subject of which was almost entirely about the activities of Cromwell. It was now well known that the New Model Army was very close to embarkation from the west coast of England, and would take, at most, a few days to arrive outside Dublin. No one could have been quite sure as to the New Model Army’s size, but it would have an advantage, most likely, of nearly three to one over Ormonde, more when combined with Jones’ garrison.

But new fears were arising. What if Cromwell did not land in Dublin? What if he and his navy instead decided to try and surprise the Royalists, by instead sailing south and attempting a landing somewhere in Munster? If successfully done, the Royalists would have a gigantic enemy army in their heartland and would probably have to abandon their entire effort in Leinster.

The fears had some basis. The Royalist ports in Munster – Cork itself, Youghal and Kinsale being the most notable – were only loosely held and were probably manned by troops of Inchiquin’s whose loyalty could not be entirely unquestioned (the Parliamentarians had already been busy trying to turn as many as they could). But Cromwell was a smart man, and would probably never have attempted to land such a large army as his in a disputed port if any other option was available. The potential for a disaster would have been high, if not just the humiliation of having to sail back to England. Londonderry has also been mooted as a possible landing site, but the approaches to it were better defended than those of Dublin.

Dublin it was going to have to be: after some small consideration by Cromwell and his lieutenants for the possibility of landing in Munster, the idea was discounted. But, for some reason, it could not leave the minds of the Royalists.

Ormonde hesitated and then committed to a fateful course of action. Inchiquin was ordered to head back to Munster with three regiments of foot, to shore up the defences of the southern ports and to make sure of their loyalty. Ormonde’s main force, already down several thousand men due to the placement of Lord Dillon’s detachment, now lost a few more. It all made the odds a little bit less in his favour when it came to a confrontation with Jones. Worse perhaps, Inchiquin, probably the most capable military commander that the Royalists had, would be absent in the days ahead, though much of his infantry would remain.

But the decision was made, and once Inchiquin had departed Ormonde went to his own work. A few fortified positions stood in the way between his army and Dublin. The first, Rathfarnham Castle, was stormed and taken on the 28th of July, its small garrison failing to prove much of an obstacle to the Royalists. Ormonde sent out his cavalry to round up or drive away the grazing cattle closer to the walls. Jones sent out his own cavalry to meet them, and a minor skirmish took place that ended inconclusively.

The taking of Rathfarnham emboldened Ormonde, who now moved even closer to Dublin’s walls, just a few miles distant.  Small villages outside the walls, like Irishtown, now also fell under his grasp. The next target was Baggotrath Castle, a fortification that stood in what is now Dublin’s Baggot Street. Baggot Street is today considered a part of Dublin City Centre, which might give some indication as to the size of 1649 Dublin which, while remaining one of the key cities of Ireland, was nowhere near as big as it is today.

Jones had been well aware of how disastrous the Baggotrath site falling into enemy hands might be. The location could have been prime for any artillery to fire down on the harbour. So, some time before the siege began proper, he had the castle largely demolished, its fortifications and walls pulled down, the site itself left ungarrisoned.

But after a few key officers, the Earl of Castlehaven and Thomas Preston among them, reconnoitred the site, Ormonde came to the conclusion that it could still serve, if quickly taken and refortified. For that effort, Ormonde sent over a thousand infantry and nearly the same number of workmen to seize the area on the night of the 1st of August. The effort largely blundered, with the commanding officer, a General Robert Purcell, losing his way in the dark, only occupying the castle grounds after the sun had come up. It was not the first time night movements before a major battle had hamstrung the Irish.

It is hard to believe that the taking of the Baggotrath site was actually the high water mark of the entire Royalist effort in Ireland.

By the time Ormonde had ridden forward on the morning of the 2nd, precious little work had been done. It was also unclear, upon closer inspection, if Baggotrath would be any good for the work that Ormonde intended of it.  The Earl hoped to use Baggotrath as a place from which he could rain down fire on the harbour, thereby blocking any access to the Dublin, but could only do if Baggotrath had some measure of defensive protection and the right view of the river Liffey’s mouth. It was close enough to Dublin that a sally or raid could be devastatingly effective.

Jones knew this and, looking out at what was happening at Baggotrath, knew what kind of danger he might be in. Though almost certainly not looking to provoke any kind of major confrontationa, he could not simply let Baggotrath go without a fight, and this ordered his army, barely 5’000 strong in total, a fifth of them cavalry, to assemble outside the south gate of Dublin, in the meadows between the walls and Baggotrath.

Ormonde saw this move. He ordered his entire army to stand to arms in readiness in case Jones should make an aggressive move. He probably thought Jones was just making a demonstration, a show at a defence, maybe even just for personal honour. He certainly did not expect Jones to make a committed attack. So certain was he of this that Ormonde rode back to his camp at Rathmines to get some sleep, having been awake the entire night.

At nine o’clock in the morning, the men working and guarding Baggotrath got a nasty surprise, as Jones, seeing an opportunity, ordered a rapid advance and attack on the position. The Royalists were caught completely by surprise. The cavalry screen never got a chance to charge, and were routed by the sudden attack. The remaining infantry held a bit longer but were overwhelmed in just a short time, either killed, captured or routed back south towards Rathfarnham.

The moment belonged to Jones, who had accomplished a great feat. His men had surprised their enemy, killed or captured a great deal of them, and interrupted their larger strategic plan in a critical fashion. With Baggotrath held, and possibly not even worth fighting over anymore in the consideration of Ormonde, Jones could easily have retired for the day, happy that he had stemmed the Royalist advance as well as he could have been expected to.

But Jones, a proven battlefield commander of much experience, realised at Baggotrath while watching its previous defenders fleeing back towards the Royalist camp, that he had an immense opportunity on his hands if he had the spine to try and take it. He did. Jones ordered the troops that has just taken Baggotrath to continue advancing.

The move held obvious risks. Though not as badly as before, Jones was still outnumbered by the forces in front of him, not all of which were retreating in disorder. Every step taken further from Dublin increased the danger of his army being counter-attacked, surrounded or destroyed by a committed defence from Ormonde. Dillon’s force to the north could also sweep down on him from behind. But Jones clearly saw that the Royalist army was at a critical moment and, with the right pressure applied properly, could be made to break entirely. Perhaps nobody else in the area but Jones would have taken such initiative. Surely Ormonde, then fast asleep in his camp, would not have.

Jones moved as fast as he could, sending his infantry forward in a standard formation, with his cavalry protecting his flanks. Their gunfire drove back the first lines of defence they faced; the noise woke Ormonde, who must have wondered just what was happening. When informed of Jones’ unexpected advance, and probably realising immediately the danger, he rode forward, personally trying to rally those fleeing back from Baggotrath, with mixed success.

The problem was that the Royalist army, despite being put on guard, had clearly not expected to have to fight any kind of battle like the one now engulfing them, and had not been positioned with such a fight in mind. Now, as Jones advanced, loose formations and individual regiments formed up to try and deflect him. Uncoordinated and unable to support the others, Jones was able to defeat them in detail. Again and again his advancing army ran into opposing infantry, pinned them down with gunfire and then sent their cavalry around to attack exposed flanks. The Royalist units inevitably broke and went streaming backwards in the face of Jones’ advance, joining those still running from the initial rout, until the Parliamentarians met a new unit of defenders. Such was the rapidity of the offensive, that no coherent line could be made.

Ormonde continued to try and rally his men. The regiments of Inchiquin’s that he had left behind acquitted themselves the best of the Royalists, doing the most to try and stabilise the situation, having better experience of operating under fire, but even they could not be expected to stand up to frontal attacks from infantry while cavalry swept in from the sides and rear. The Royalists cavalry had deployed most of their strength at Baggotrath, and those soldiers had been scattered, so few horse troops came to the infantry’s rescue. Unit after unit broke and ran.

The one hope that Ormonde had to stop the unfolding disaster was Lord Dillon to the north, who still had 3’000 soldiers at his command. Panicked messages were sent, ordering him to move against Jones’ rear. But Dillon, upon receiving he messages, refused to budge. Though he had led armies throughout the war, first for the Confederation and now as a Royalist, he had precious little martial experience, his real notable military event being the destruction of his regiment at Dungan’s Hill. Such a lack of experience must have influenced his actions. He knew that there were still some Parliamentarian troops in the town, and feared that any action as Ormonde proposed would lead to his own rear being assaulted, leading to what would have been a bizarre sequence of repeating battles. Such a scenario was unlikely, given the numerical superiority that the Royalists enjoyed and the reluctance of Dublin’s last defenders to leave her walls.

Dillon’s refusal to move doomed the Royalist army, which had already taken heavy casualties. The final breaking occurred and only the continued resistance of a few of Inchiquin’s regiments prevented the total destruction of Ormonde’s army. Even they were forced to lay down arms in time, while the rest scattered southwards, desperately trying to save their lives from the pursuit, which lasted for several hours.

As with nearly all major battles of the time, the death toll was disputed. The Royalist sources would have us believe that only 600 of their number was actually killed, a lie easily picked apart by the troop shortage that marked nearly all subsequent Royalist operations. Jones claimed to have killed over 4’000 and to have taken over 2’500 prisoner. These numbers are exaggerated, but easily more believable than those Ormonde claimed to have suffered. With an application of some common sense, we can estimate that several thousand Royalist troops did not make it off the Rathmines field, either because they were dead or captured. The Parliamentarian casualties must have been comparatively light. Beyond all of that, nearly all of the Royalists artillery and baggage train fell into Jones’ hands.

Considering that Jones had been attacking a larger force, his victory was remarkable but can be traced to a few key factors. First, Ormonde failed to properly organise his men for combat. He could be forgiven for not expecting it I suppose, but the failure of the Royalist army to stand up to the assault is evidence of a terrible negligence. The army was positioned and prepared in such a manner that it was easily defeatable by a determined enemy. Second, Jones’ troops were probably, man for man, of a better fighting quality than their opponents. Inchiquin’s men aside, the standard Royalist soldiers was probably inexperienced and underpaid compared to their counterparts. Third, Inchiquin’s absence, along with the men he took with him, was probably crucial. A rout like that which took place needed a strong leader to try to overturn, and if the troops of Inchiquin’s that were present had full strength numbers to bring to the fight, maybe Jones’ advance could have been stopped. Fourth, Ormonde erred in placing so much of his force under the command of James Dillon, a man unsuited to such a command, who lacked the will to act decisively when it mattered. Fifth, Ormonde himself was shown up as a less than competent commander, underestimating the Parliamentarian foe and failing to manage the resulting crisis. Lastly, Jones was the right man in the right place, the best suited commander for leading his troops forward on an attack that might well have seemed a little suicidal when it started.

The aftermath of Rathmines was as you might expect. Different elements of the surviving Royalists scattered in all directions, the largest grouping winding up back in Kilkenny with Ormonde, with others heading to Dundalk and Drogheda. The Lord Liuetentant organised as many men as he could into a cohesive force, but there was only so much he could do. On the 7th of August Owen Roe O’Neill, who probably didn’t even know what had happened outside Rathmines, broke the siege of Londonderry and met Charles Coote. His actions were honouring his truce with Monck, but now ran opposite to his larger goals.

Jones, exultant after his victory, made a brief attempt to re-take Drogheda, but withdrew when it became clear that its enlarged garrison would be too hard a nut to crack, and that Ormonde could always threaten to interfere. It didn’t matter anyway. Drogheda could wait. Dublin was safe, and its vital port was secure.

On the 15th of August, less than two weeks after the Battle of Rathmines, Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland.

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

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12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Rathmines

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