Ireland’s Wars: The Fall Of Ulster And O’Neill

While Cromwell and the majority of the New Model Army was busy trying to subjugate the south-east of the country, and doing a pretty good job of it by the middle of October, the rest of the Parliamentarian force was pushing north, past the fallen garrison towns of Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry. Under Colonel Robert Venables, their goal was to plant a dagger in the heart of the enemy movement in Ulster, and eliminate it forever. Venebles had 5’000 or so men to do that job, but not a lot of time, with his section of the New Model Army no less vulnerable to the incoming bad weather than anyone else. But it was Cromwell’s hope that a rapid and decisive campaign could gut the Royalists in Ulster before they would have a chance to organise serious resistance, taking advantage of a myriad of flaws and deficiencies in their position.

There were several different forces operating in Ulster under the larger Royalist banner in the autumn of 1649, but it was starting to look like a tenuous alliance at best. The Scots, back on the side of the monarchy since the “Engagement” held most of the province under men like George Munro, but were many of them were beginning to have second thoughts, in the face of Cromwell’s brutal advances and with unease over their Catholic allies. The Laggan Army of Robert Stewart had weakened itself at the failed Siege of Londonderry, and now suffered through defection and a lack of purpose, being subsumed into the Scottish, Royalist and Parliamentarian forces. And then there was the Ulster Army of Owen Roe O’Neill, only recently woken up to the damage that its temporary alliance with the Parliamentarians had caused, but found itself paralyzed at the highest level, due to an illness suffered by its commander. The province was suffering extreme war exhaustion among the population, who had little means to keep all these armies supplied.

Those various armies and units had common cause against the Parliamentarians, but little trusted the others, any more than any of their commanders could say that they completely trusted their own men to stay true. The fear of the New Model Army was a powerful motivator, as were concerns over pay and supply heading into the winter months. The Scots, in particular, were still largely an expeditionary army, and much of their make-up would probably have preferred to be back home, where tensions with the English Parliamentarians were unending and growing worse. Open warfare once more was not far away but even with that, so many of the Scottish soldiers saw a greater level of similarity with the Parliamentarians than their Catholic allies, the kind of sentiment that encouraged surrender and defection rather that iron-willed resistance. Ormonde was their nominal commander-in-chief, but he was far away in the south, losing to Cromwell, and little engaged with the struggles of the Scots.  They were scattered across the whole province as well, trying to consolidate the vast gains they had made that year and in 1648, with no single large concentration. Now, they would face a very stern test, the likes of which they had not yet fought in Ulster during these wars.

Venables approach would be two pronged. He and his men aimed to advance up the eastern coast, taking every garrison and town in their way that was held by the enemy, all the way up to the important settlement of Belfast and the nearby port of Carrickfergus. At the same time Charles Coote, free of the threat of siege, would advance out of Londonderry and head east to try and meet up with Venables, with places like Coleraine to re-take on the way. If all went well, the two forces would have severely weakened the Royalist position by the time they met up, together to crack the tougher egg of Carrickfergus. The forces of people like Monro were not going to just sit there and take it of course, and the Venables/Coote command likely wanted to lure him  (and Owen Roe) out and into an open battle that their well-supplied and experienced troops could win. Take the garrisons, eliminate the enemy military as a threat, and Ulster would fall.

Venables and his section had left Newry by the 24th of September or so, and met their first serious resistance of the campaign a few days later just outside the village of Dromore, County Down. While his troops settled in for the night, a local detachment of Scottish forces, mostly cavalry, closed in seeking an opportunity. They attacked just before dawn, but some poor coordination robbed them of the chance to really grab a large coup. Attacking in bits, they allowed Venables to prevent a rout after a few critical moments of panic. The New Model Army forces formed up and the attackers drifted away. Only a few casualties had been suffered on either side, the incident more down to the Parliamentarians lack of care than anything. As it was, Dromore was just a brief skirmish, but it could have been a great degree worse for the New Model Army. Venables paid it little mind and was moving north again as soon as he could.

George Monro, acting as a sort of unofficial commander of Ulster forces, now began to gather what men he could, those who weren’t already committed to garrison defence or sent south to aid Ormonde. This new army would be a very random assortment of units and regiments – former Covenanters, Scottish Royalists, elements of the Laggan Army, even former Confederates under Phelim O’Neill – but it would take a few crucial weeks for them all to be assembled and ready to challenge Venables, the Ulster militaries pitifully unprepared to deal with a threat of this nature.

On the 30th of September Venables was outside Belfast, and the town choose to surrender without a fight, another crucial position taken despite a shot not being fired. A delighted Venables set up a HQ there for the remainder of his campaign. With the fall of Wexford later, the Parliamentarians now held the entire east coast of Ireland, save for Carrickfergus, the well defended and manned fortress town down a few miles north-east of Belfast.

By this time, Coote was also on the march with a few thousand men, having been reinforced a few weeks earlier with a regiment of infantry from England. As with Venables, he received little challenge to his movements. On the 15th of September he had captured Coleraine, with sympathetic elements inside the town opening the gates, leading to a slaughter of the garrison, one that is noted in histories without the same vehemence as is given to the likes of Drogheda and Wexfords, perhaps indicating that civilian casualties were kept to a minimum. Coote kept moving, though at a much more lackadaisical pace, and only reached Belfast by the end of October. In the coming weeks, smaller Royalist garrisons in the surrounding area, like those at Lisburn and Antrim Town, would also fall with little resistance.

Monro finally was able to do something at this point, but his moves were fairly small and ultimately pointless. In October he and a group of his disparate army moved towards Belfast, but in the end had to settle for simply burning the Parliamentarian held forts of Antrim and Lisburn when the Parliamentarians would not give battle, returning to safer areas in central Ulster. The weather was by now turning bad fast, and there might have been doubts as to whether there would be any more fighting that year.

But Venables and Coote, who could call upon over 6’000 men at this point, were in no mood to simply sit back, and by November had marched to the gates of Carrickfergus and put it under siege. It was a non-violent operation for the most part it seems, with no artillery fire from the besiegers and little active resistance from the besieged. Most histories note some form of agreed settlement between Venables and the governor of Carrickfergus, a “Colonel Deyeale”, that the town would surrender by mid December if no relief had arrived to save it, indicating that its long-term defence must have been seen as impracticable.

Monro and his various lieutenants were not going to stand for such an arrangement, and moving out from their bases at Enniskillen and Charlemont, assembled what forces they could, which probably numbered somewhere in the region of 3’000 men, mostly infantry, but were hopeful of hovering up more from local sources as they marched. They advanced north-east through Ulster, eventually following the same path that Venables had trod in his initial incursion.

The Parliamentarians were well informed of their advance, and were probably delighted for the opportunity of having a battle at that point (which might well have been the purpose of the Carrickfergus operation, to provoke such a response), having more men overall and likely a better calibre of solider as well. With a covering force leaving Carrickfergus under siege, the expectation being that it would surrender shortly, Venables and Coote marched south past Belfast. It was by now early December, not the best time for campaigning at all, but both sides were willing to risk the harsh winter. Monro couldn’t let Carrickfergus fall, as it would leave him isolated in Ireland with no port handy with which to communicate with the homeland (or receive reinforcements), while Carrickfergus’ taking was, like the taking of any Irish port, crucial to Cromwell’s plans.

The two armies came together on the 6th of December, in the fields just south of Lisburn, dubbed Lisnagarvey. The subsequent battle has been named after both places, but more commonly after Lisnagarvey. But the truth was that it wasn’t much of a battle at all. Any expectation that the Royalists would grow in number as battle approached was not met, and they in fact lost men through desertion and defection. Monro and his subordinates were divided about how to get to Carrickfergus exactly, and found themselves easily outmanoeuvred by their enemy. On the morning of the 6th a small force of infantry under Coote came up on the Royalists rear as they attempted to pass through Lisnagarvey. A clash of infantry occurred, before Parliamentarian cavalry arrived and sent the Royalist rearguard into a rout. Units crashed into each other, confusion reigned, and suddenly the whole Royalist army was fleeing for its life.

Venables and Coote took their chance, and enjoyed a lengthy pursuit of this fleeing force, maybe as much as ten miles, killing as they went, with no sign of organised resistance after the initial clash of arms. Maybe as many as 1500 of the Royalist army was killed or captured, along with most of their arms and artillery. Monro escaped, but many other officers were not so lucky.

The Royalists, utterly defeated, drifted back to Charlemont and Enniskillen. Much of Monro’s force now disintegrated, most notably the Laggan Army elements, many of which made their way west and into the service of the Earl of Clanrickarde. Monro would not be able to really fight for Ulster again. True to his word, the governor of Carrickfergus surrendered in mid-December, completing Venables 1649 campaign in the province, one that had been nothing but victory upon victory. He now bunkered down for the winter, in a situation of considerable stability. Charlemont and Enniskillin remained in Royalist hands, but these were now strategically unimportant points, isolated and ill-defended anyway. Monro, seeing the way things were going and no longer having any stomach for Irish fighting, would sell the position at Enniskillen to the Parliamentarians early in 1650, for 500 pounds and the right to return to Scotland. The rest of Ulster was in the hands of the Parliamentarians. Resistance in the north had collapsed.

It all could have been different, if only the Ulster Army had been present, but they were not. Owen Roe had spent most of September and October in negotiations with Ormonde, seeking a suitable settlement so that the two could formalise their new alliance, one that had already seen O’Neill send some units south, which participated in the campaign around Wexford and afterward. But it was not until October 20th that such a formal agreement was reached, where Ormonde promised significant returns of Ulster land to their pre-Plantation owners, once the war was over.

But by then time was running out for O’Neill. Facing Cromwell was judged to be the more important task, and he led the Ulster Army south, even as Venables went north, into Westmeath and Cavan. But by early November he could go no further. Wracked by illness and the pain of old wounds, something that he had been suffering from for a few months now, Owen Roe became immobilized. On the 6th of November, at Cloughhoughter Castle, he died.

There are the expected conspiracy theories, from Irish sources, that claim Owen Roe was poisoned by English agents, seeking to eliminate one of their deadliest foes. While the possibility cannot be discounted, it should be realised that Owen Roe was a very old man for his day, aged 60 when he died (some sources claim he was actually nearer 70). For comparisons sake, in 1649 Oliver Cromwell was 50, Robert Monro was 48, George Monro was 47, Ormonde was 39, and Inchiquin was 35.

Owen Roe had spent much of his lifetime fighting and had suffered for it, and old wounds were a frequent cause of death for soldiers. Moreover, the last few years of stress and campaign life could not have been the healthiest environment for such an aged man. It is reasonable to think that his body simply couldn’t take any more, and that his death did not involve foul play.

An assessment of Owen Roe’s time in Ireland must come against the cavalcade of praise that the typical Irish source comes with. They treat him as some sort of savoir figure, the terror of his enemies, who could have easily freed Ireland from foreign oppression if he had not be so treacherously denied the opportunity by opportunists like the Ormondist faction of the Confederation. The truth is a little greyer. O’Neill had that one glorious day at Benburb, but his martial record in Ireland otherwise was less than stellar. He was driven out of Ulster early enough in the war, and his largest victory pre-Benburb had been a minor one at Portlester. His fortunes largely matched those of Rinuccini, and at his height he was the most powerful military man in Ireland, but the failure to take Dublin in 1646 was the beginning of the end, and one of the key results of his feud with Thomas Preston and others from the Ormondist faction. From that point on the Ulster Army spent most of its time avoiding battles rather than fighting them, and O’Neill’s final years were a hodgepodge of vacillation and inaction. His final notable effort to the war effort was an ill-judged alliance with the Parliamentarians that laid the ground work for the conquest of Ulster by that faction, and his death came before he ever had a chance to really get involved in the war again proper. Despite his emphasized qualities, his actual presence was considerably less than what he is presented as.

Still, his effect on the war, especially in the months after Benburb, cannot be doubted. He raised and outfitted the best Confederate army by a country mile, and his very presence in Ireland was a morale boost. In that way, we could compare him to someone like George Washington, whose martial abilities were less than stellar, but whose command authority and confidence made him a larger man than he really was.

His politics is another grey area. If you believe certain historians, Owen Roe could be the father of Irish republicanism. But while he was probably the most hard line when it came to opposition to the English, we can never really be sure how attached Owen Roe was to such principles, or the idea of abolishing monarchy as a form of government.

His death left the Ulster Army paralysed in northern Leinster, as it struggled to pick someone to replace him. This force thus stood motionless as the Royalists were smashed at Lisnagarvey, or even as Cromwell continued to advance in the south of the country, with some elements of it breaking off to assist Ormonde, but the majority staying put as winter came. The Ulster Army wasn’t finished yet, but the loss of its commander was a terrible blow it would struggle to recover from.

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

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Fall Of Ulster And O’Neill

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Protectorate And Resistance | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Eleven Year Wars | Never Felt Better

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

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