Ireland’s Wars: Carrick-on-Suir And Waterford

The Royalists had retreated north, almost all the way to Kilkenny, while the Parliamentarian army had been cut off from their pursuit at Thomastown. But this state of affairs merely prevented a large scale clash of the two armies, and did nothing to stop the advances of the New Model Army elsewhere. Cromwell’s eyes were fixed on eliminating the Royalists ports, and his gaze was firmly on Waterford.

Waterford could not be attacked with any expectation of success if approached purely from the north side, as most of the town and its surrounding settlements was south of the River Suir. That river would have to be crossed, and quickly: this being mid-November, the weather would soon prevent any kind of campaigning. Cromwell, sick with fever, could not wait another two weeks as he had with the Barrow crossing.

In order to prevent such a likelihood, the town of Carrick-on-Suir, just inside the border of Tipperary, 10-15 miles west of Waterford, and straddling the Suir at a higher point in its course, was chosen as the point of attack. A detachment of troops under a Colonel John Reynolds, a veteran of Rathmines, was sent from the main force around New Ross to facilitate its capture.

This detachment was nearly all cavalry, its aim being surprise rather than siege. Ormonde was well aware of Carrick-on-Suir’s importance, and a garrison had been placed there to ward off any potential assault. But the men and their officers had not been well chosen, as both sides in the fighting were about to find out.

Early in the morning of the 19th of November, Reynolds’ men were outside Carrick-on-Suir. The town had two gates and substantial walls that should have been able to resist for far longer than they did. But the garrison was sloppy. Reynolds’ forces attacked the main gate while he led a simultaneous assault on another. He, probably to his surprise and delight, found it open and largely unguarded. Once inside, the will of his enemies collapsed completely, and the Royalists fled for their lives, climbing over the walls, commandeering boats on the river or just heading out other entrances. It’s possible the town was betrayed by a Parliamentarian sympathiser inside, but Cromwell makes no note of this in his letters about the operation. Reynolds took the town with hardly any loss, along with 100 prisoners, supplies and a fairly well fortified position.

Cromwell, whose health had taken a turn for the better, was delighted upon hearing the news, and soon nearly all of the New Model Army was marching towards Carrick-on-Suir, and its crossing over the river. Ormonde received the news with an ever increasing sense of dread presumably – not only was the way to Waterford open for Cromwell now, but Carrick-on-Suir was actually one of the oldest holdings of his own family, now in enemy hands.

Pressed by his subordinates, and mindful of increasing resentment to his leadership from the rank and file, Ormonde was caught. There was no chance of catching Cromwell before he reached the Suir and even if he did the result of such an encounter was very much up in the air. Waterford was more important than Carrick-on-Suir, being a connection to the supplies of the continent, and could not be ignored. But, neither could the first target.

Rather than focusing on one over the other, Ormonde choose to split his forces in two, a weak response that simply indicates his own lack of decisiveness. One singular thrust at Carrick-on-Suir, while trusting in Waterford to hold out, would probably have been the far better course. Ormonde probably had little faith in the ability of Waterford to resist, following the examples of Drogheda, Wexford and New Ross, but Waterford had advantages that they didn’t. The waterways supporting it were defended by Passage and Duncannon Forts, and the weather would not allow for campaigning for much longer. But Ormonde was faced with old divides in his camp, between traditional Royalists and units of the Ulster Army that had been sent by Owen Roe before his death, who both suggested different courses. Ormonde lacked the command ability to favour one over the other.

Cromwell’s forces were crossing through Carrick-on-Suir by the 21st of November. The taking of the positions also allowed for more stable communications with Broghill in Munster, whose campaign to reinforce the defecting garrisons in Cork was meeting wholesale success. Cromwell didn’t stay too long though, content to leave Reynolds and 700 men to garrison the town while he took a crack at Waterford, his army ever decreasing in size from the need for such garrisons and disease.

Ormonde headed south after him, making sure to keep his distance. Approaching Carrick-on-Suir, he halved his already small army, taking one portion of it eastwards along the north bank of the Suir, seeking a crossing point from which he could move to reinforce Waterford. The rest, under Castlehaven and Inchiquin, were given the task of retaking Carrick-on-Suir, an operation they attempted to carry out on the 24th of November. One of the men assisting Inchiquin was none other than Theobald Taaffe, the former commander of the Confederate Munster Army, whom Inchiquin had roundly defeated at Knocknanuss just over two years previously.

The attack was a botched disaster. Inchiquin, following his humiliation at Arklow earlier in the month, was probably desperate for a success and too eager for the attack. Ormonde left his subordinates with no artillery, so they had no means of making any kind of breach in the walls. Attempts were made to burn the gates and scale the walls, with even a brief attempt at undermining them enacted, but Reynolds’ defenders were equal to the task. The gates had been reinforced with stone, and the defenders firepower kept the walls from being taken. According to Cromwell, Reynolds’ men were briefly reduced to throwing rocks as a defence, but persevered: after an attack of nearly four hours, the Royalists withdrew, having sustained an uncertain loss. Castlehaven’s memoirs make mention of “some hundreds” of losses, and Cromwell estimates more based on the knowledge of Royalist defectors, who claimed over a thousand had fallen, probably an exaggeration. The New Model Army commander also relates a claim that, in their bungling haste to attack, the Royalist killed the man they had sent forward to demand Carrick-on-Suir’s surrender before he could report back its refusal. Reynolds’ forces were left relatively unscathed.

This failed counter-attack on Carrick-on-Suir was indicative of larger Royalist failings, in quality of troops, officer ability and supply shortages. It was another nail in the reputation of Inchiquin, who had twice in a month failed totally when called upon to deliver a vital military success. Reynolds’ defence, much praised by Cromwell, kept the New Model Army’s supply lines intact and would remain an important position for any springboard into the rest of Munster. But for now, all eyes turned to the drama unfolding outside of Waterford.

The town’s loyalties were not entirely solid. Ormonde already had trouble reinforcing it, with Protestant troops under Castlehaven being refused entry before the siege started. The town was one of the Confederate heartlands, or at least had been. Now, some thought that most of the population would rather give in to Cromwell peaceably than risk a sack. Still, the place was well garrisoned and possessed of decent defences, its officers determined to hold out.

Cromwell was outside Waterford on the same day that the ill-prepared attack on Carrick-on-Suir took place. By then, things were really becoming desperate, as the winter weather howled around the New Model Army, which could not shake the fever and dysentery that was afflicting it. It’s overall size – of effective troops anyway – was drastically lower than it had been even a few weeks ago, maybe as little as 3’000.

Still, the siege started very well for the Parliamentarians. Cromwelll needed to be able to get supplies and artillery up the Barrow estuary, which meant that Passage Fort, on its western banks had to be taken. Michael Jones was dispatched with a force to do so. Passage was a well defended position but to the shock of many, the garrison sought terms and surrendered almost immediately, letting Jones take the Fort without a shot being fired.

Even with the terrible weather, Cromwell must have believed that he had a realistic shot at taking Waterford at that moment. All he had to do was get his heavy guns into position, they having been transported by sea like always, make a few holes and the town would surely surrender. The taking of Passage opened up that side of the Barrow estuary to traffic, with Duncannon Fort on the other side defiant but mostly helpless to do anything.

But the weather had reached the tipping point. When the heavy guns were landed, it was discovered that the incessant rain had left the ground around Waterford too marshy and soft for them to be moved without a tremendous amount of energy and difficulty, and they were unlikely to fire effectively either.

It was the vital lifeline that Waterford needed. With no artillery, Cromwell had no ability to make any breaches. With his sick, tired army, he had no chance of taking the position by storm, at least not without unacceptable casualties. He entered negotiations, his last hope of getting inside the walls, but the Governor of the town, a Colonel Lyvett, was probably more than happy to draw such talks out as long as possible. He could probably see the Parliamentarian lack of artillery for himself, and knew that reinforcements were marching to him.

Those reinforcements, whatever few thousand Ormonde commanded, were on the north side of the Suir, across from Waterford, on the 30th of November. Because of Cromwell’s scarcity of fit men, he could not oppose their gradual crossing over the Suir, in dribs and drabs, nor could he stop their entry into Waterford to bolster its garrison. By apparent agreement of the town and Ormonde, those defenders sent across were Catholics of the Ulster Army units.

By the 2nd of December, Cromwell had finally decided to throw in the towel. Describing the moment of the march as “being so terrible a day as I ever saw in my life”, he and what was left of the active New Model Army, packed up their camp and headed west. Waterford had survived.

The campaigning of 1649 was over. While the New Model Army had suffered greatly during the Waterford campaign, it had made gains that were very impressive relative to what they had lost. Since leaving Dublin in October, Wexford, New Ross, Carrick-on-Suir and Passage Fort had fallen, along with the defection of the Cork ports, a prize just as valuable as all the others. The Royalists had been unable (or unwilling) to do anything to face Cromwell in the field and their counter-moves had been largely ineffective, save for Duncannon and Waterford itself. It was not Ormonde who had stopped the towns fall, but sickness and terrible weather. Now, the New Model Army, which would winter in the Cork ports, would have a chance to rest, recuperate and refit before continuing on the struggle in the new year.

However, it would have to do so without the services of Michael Jones, who caught the fever endemic in the army and died around the 10th of December. His loss was a grievous one to Cromwell (“What England lost hereby is above me to speak. I am sure I lost a noble friend and companion in labours”), shorn of one of his best lieutenants, whose leadership throughout the last two and half years had maintained the Parliamentarian position in eastern Ireland and prevented a Royalist takeover of Dublin in the crucial period before Cromwell’s arrival. His victories at Dungan’s Hill and Rathmines were his glorious highpoints, but his leadership and support through Cromwell’s campaign subsequently was also pivotal. The Parliamentarians would miss him.

For the Royalists, Cromwell’s decision to retire was badly-needed, as they too needed a respite from the weather and the constant setbacks. The victories at Duncannon and Waterford had given Ormonde some breathing space, but his position was still too weak to really be considered in anyway stable. Most of Ulster, the east coast, most of County Waterford and the southern Cork coast had fallen, his army was reduced in size greatly and his subordinates were failing at nearly every turn. And his own leadership had been far from stellar, showcasing indecisiveness and a crucial lack of will. The Royalists still had chronic financial issues, as well as a scarcity of vital supplies.

As 1650 dawned, Ireland was into its 8th year of continuous warfare. For the moment, it showed no signs of stopping.

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: Carrick-on-Suir And Waterford

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