Kilkenny had fallen, and the Parliamentarians were rampant. Cromwell had been victorious nearly everywhere, and had the Royalist establishment in Ireland on its knees. His New Model Army had reformed into a more single cohesive force that had no match in the country, and was hungry for yet more conquests.
Everything still seemed to be going his way. The Earl of Castlehaven made a brief move into Carlow seeking a victory, but found the place bereft of any allies or opportunities. He was soon scuttling westwards, to join the Earl of Ormonde on the safer side of the Shannon. Ormonde was advised on, and eventually had to acquiesce to, the release of most of whatever Protestant soldiery was left under his command, due to suspicions over their loyalty, the increasing criticism of their behaviour and privileges from Catholics and sheer financial necessity. Inchiquin, the once great Protestant commander in Ireland, was adrift with only a small number of men in Limerick, and was soon forced into Connacht himself.
Cromwell made a generous deal with the Protestant royalists, meeting several of their representatives in Cashel in April of 1650. It was essentially a non-aggression pact, as they both forswore violent action against the other, with Cromwell allowing his former enemies to settle in Parliamentarian controlled areas or choose exile in Europe if they preferred. Ormonde and Inchiquin were exempt from its provisions.
Thus the Protestant/Catholic union that Ormonde had presided over for the better part of the last two years came to a bitter end. The Royalist cause in Ireland was now a mostly Catholic one, with its Protestant commander under ever increasing pressure from the people he was supposed to be the leader of. More and more, what military units that still existed, be they field armies or garrisons, took actions of their own accord, away from any suggested central authority.
One of those garrisons was Clonmel, County Tipperary, and it was there that Cromwell was heading next. The Parliamentarian commander was already receiving plenty of calls for his return to England, in the face of increasing hostility from Scotland and the constant political machinations in London, but Cromwell was not content to set sail for home just yet. He wanted matters to be to his liking in Ireland when he made his departure, and that meant removing one more problem. By mid-April his army, over 8’000 strong, was heading towards Clonmel, delayed only by his negotiations with the Protestants.
The man he would be facing was Hugh Dubh O’Neill, a nephew of Owen Roe (and thus a grand nephew of Hugh O’Neill of the Nine Years War). This third generation soldier had been one of the subordinates his uncle had brought to Ireland initially, having already served in the armies of Spain during their wars in the Low Countries. Hugh Dubh had been captured by Covenanters in 1643, released only as part of a prisoner exchange after Owen Roe’s great victory at Benburb, and had been making a name for himself as an increasingly important commander since then. Upon his uncles death he probably would have been one of the leading candidates to take over the command of the Ulster Army, but found himself, as part of Owen Roe’s late agreement with Ormonde, commanding a unit of 1’200 Ulster Army soldiers in Munster, dedicating to resisting the Cromwellian threat. That had eventually resulted in Hugh Dubh being given the command of Clonmel.
It was, though few maybe realised at the time, a good assignment. Clonmel had only briefly seen action in the war, but that incident – when Inchiquin balked at taking on its defences when they were commanded by Alasdair MacColla in 1647 – should give some indication as to its advantages. Its walls were very tall and thick for the time and place: 25 feet in height, over six in breadth, with an additional ditch built around its outer defences to ward off any attempts at mining. Moreover its geographical advantages were considerable: extensive swampland marked the western and eastern approaches, with the River Suir blocking any approach from the south. Thus, any attacker could only realistically approach Clonmel from the north, limiting the sections of the defence that had to be manned, and presenting the attacker with a distinct dilemma.
Hugh Dubh had orders to hold Clonmel as long as he could. Ormonde believed it to be one of the strongest positions in Ireland, greater than Drogheda, Wexford and New Ross put together. In the event that it came under attack, he promised that he would assemble all the forces he could and march to its relief within ten days, there to fight a decisive battle. Hugh Dubh took him at his word.
A partial blockade had been in effect around Clonmel since the early days of the winter offensive, little more than a barrier to substantial supplies. This would have little bothered Hugh Dubh, but Clonmel was not well provisioned in the first place, and then suffered, as Kilkenny had, a bout of plague that left many defenders and townspeople either dead or incapacitated. They received some reinforcement from random groups of Royalist soldiers left scattered from the other garrisons that Cromwell had taken, but were still far from at their strongest. When Cromwell arrived outside of its walls on the 27th of April, he had reasons to be cheerful: if Hugh Dubh would not surrender, then an artillery bombardment and a storm would soon see the weakened defence overwhelmed, and then he could be on his way back to London.
Things did not go as planned. Hugh Dubh had prepared well for the siege, with an earthen rampart erected in front of the walls to make them less susceptible to any bombardment Cromwell had a mind to make. It took over a week for Cromwell’s standard guns to be put in place and when they began to fire, he quickly realised they would not have the power to make the breach required for his men to storm. Starving Clonmel into submission was an option whose length did not appeal to Cromwell in the slightest, already with his mind on the boat to England, and so he insisted on his heavier siege guns being brought into place, an operation that took another week.
In the meantime, Hugh Dubh refused to be idle. His garrison was badly outnumbered, but busied themselves launching small raids, ambushes and other guerrilla attacks on the besiegers, usually at night, taking these opportunities to disrupt or eliminate work parties or any other effort being out into the siege. Such actions would have delayed Cromwell’s plans for a short time, but probably had a deeper effect in the morale stakes. Hugh Dubh’s men were running short on ammunition and food quickly, so keeping spirits up and discipline enforced would have been important. This was the Ulster Army, which still had much of the backbone instilled by events like Benburb.
Ormonde’s promised movement within ten days never materialised. Paralysed by the conflicts within his command, and with little men to spare anyway, he decided to reinforce Limerick instead of making any effort to relieve Clonmel. It was typical of him, that when Cromwell was actually being held by a walled town, he hesitated and then did nothing to try and pursue a seemingly favourable situation.
Hugh Dubh was not entirely alone though. A lower level Royalist named David Roache, in conjunction with Boetius MacEgan, a Bishop who had been present at Benburb, assembled a force of around 2’000 men out of the Kerry region (doubtless many of them were not of the highest quality) with the express purpose of marching east and bringing relief to Clonmel, the plan probably being to approach from the southern side and crossing the unguarded Suir to get to it.
Cromwell was prepared for such a move however, with the Lord Broghill still in place in the Cork region, with 1’200 infantry and 800 cavalry. He was able to manoeuvre Roache and MacEgan into an encounter at Macroom, Cork, on the 10th of May. A quick cavalry charge scattered the assembling Irish, a rout ensued and next thing anyone knew 600 Royalists were dead, the rest running for their lives. MacEgan was captured alive. Allegedly Broghill brought him to Carrigadrohid Castle, a Royalist holdout in Cork, in the belief he would insist the garrison surrender. MacEgan instead urged them to fight to the last man. He was executed, and after some generous terms were offered the castle surrendered the next day anyway. The destruction of this attempted relief marks one of the only times separate Royalist units attempted to assist others after Cromwell arrived. Regardless of this belated show of cooperation and unity, its failure meant that Hugh Dubh was left alone.
On the 16th of May Cromwell finally had his heavy siege guns on location and placed. Their destructive power was more than the earth ramparts and the old walls could handle, and after a day of fire a breach that Cromwell deemed workable had been created, around 80 feet wide.
The assault would take the place the following morning. The plan called for infantry to pour into the breach, seize it and push back any defenders on the other side. They would then open the gates and allow the Parliamentarian cavalry, led by Cromwell himself, to enter the town and complete its conquest. A simple plan, but the kind that had worked in other places during Cromwell’s campaigns. While it was probably agreed that Clonmel was a bit tougher than other places the New Model Army had assaulted, it is unlikely many had an inkling of what was about to transpire.
The morning came and the infantry went forward. They climbed the rubble, reached the top of the breach and entered a killing zone.
Hugh Dubh had not been idle before the siege had started and had not been idle after the breach had been blown. Another fortification had been rapidly constructed behind the breach, in the shape of a V, with the point directly opposite the oncoming enemy. Made of earth and crowned with wood, it was lined with musketeers. At the point were two cannon, with plenty of chain shot at hand.
A slaughter ensued, counted as one of the worst in the entire civil wars. The Parliamentarian infantry were unable to get past this hidden line of defence and, as more and more of them piled through the breach, were unable to retreat either. A mass of men were trapped in the gap. Musket and cannon fire, with their red hot chains tearing through multiple targets with ease, caused hundreds and hundreds of casualties.
After a terrible period of time, the New Model Army infantry were able to struggle back through the breach to the relative safety of the exterior, leaving scores of their comrades’ bodies behind. A disgusted Cromwell had been waiting by the main gate for his triumphant entry to Clonmel, but now how to deal with his battered and dispirited men. He tried to rally them to make another attempt at the breach. They refused.
Instead, the suggestion came for the cavalry of the New Model Army to dismount and attempt the gap. Wearing better quality armour and helmets than the infantry, and still fresh (and unbattered), it was hoped they would stand a better chance of withstanding the onslaught and forcing a way through. Cromwell, unsuited to adversity of this kind, was happy to order another assault.
The cavalrymen forced back the initial defenders at the breach and then stepped into the same situation as the infantry. The fighting lasted for hours, as both sides vied for control of the inner defences, as the musket fire continued, and as the cannon continued to roar. As the day wore on, the New Model Army had enough, and the second attacking party stumbled back out over the bodies of their fellow soldiers. Hugh Dubh had held, and taken the day decisively.
The actual numbers of the dead at Clonmel are not known for certain, with Cromwell being understandably reluctant to be clear. But they were at the lowest estimate 1’500, and at the higher scale 2’500, astonishing numbers for the day. Even if the lowest number is considered correct, it was still the largest casualties from a single engagement that the New Model Army ever took during its existence.
A distressed and humiliated Cromwell did his best to rally his troops for another assault on the 18th, but found the townspeople suing for terms that morning. Cromwell, desperate to bring proceedings to a close, offered generous terms, guaranteeing the lives and property of the civilian population. Thus agreed, he entered Clonmel, only to find it bereft of military defenders.
Hugh Dubh was gone. He had taken several hundred casualties of his own in the fighting, and his exhausted troops were nearly out of both food and ammunition. Believing that Cromwell would not let up on the offensive, he and his men agreed on a course of abandoning Clonmel, seeing no possibility of relief or any positive aim to be achieved by staying. On the night of the 17th/18th, they scaled the southern wall, crossed the Suir however they could, and then marched away as quickly as possible.
Cromwell was furious upon discovering what had happened, having believed that Hugh Dubh’s surrender was implicit in the giving up of Clonmel. He kept to his word in regards the town, but soon had cavalry chasing down Hugh Dubh’s force, which was heading south-east, towards Waterford, as fast as it could. A few hundred stragglers were cut down by the Parliamentarian horse, a brutal epilogue to the Clonmel fighting, but most of them, Hugh Dubh included, got away. They did not have a happy ending though, with the Waterford garrison refusing them entrance, apparently due to fear of plague (not unreasonable) and a belief that the town could not feed the extra mouths. Hugh Dubh was forced to disband his army into smaller groups, urging them to find their own way back to safer climes in Ulster. The governor of Waterford at the time was none other than Thomas Preston, back in a position of independent command out of sheer necessity. Both he and Hugh Dubh would have further parts to play in the war.
Clonmel was a siege and battle marked by the attitudes of the two commanders. Cromwell was impatient, reckless and more than a little callous when it came to the lives of his men. Hugh Dubh was patient, proactive, resourceful and strong-willed. He made Clonmel a stronger position than it had been when he got there. He refused to just leave the breach exist as it was, and his initiative to fortify its entrance led to one of the most spectacular single day victories the Royalists would ever win in the entire civil wars. The exhausted New Model Army, in the field for months at this point, could not be expected to perform miracles, and paid the price for the refusal of its leader to recognise he had finally reached a situation where he was not guaranteed of victory.
In a strange way, Clonmel was a slight justification for the overall strategy of Ormonde. He had chosen to adopt a defensive posture when Cromwell came to Ireland, largely because of the result of Rathmines. In Ormonde’s mind, he had foreseen every town that Cromwell attacked being a potential Clonmel, where Cromwell might win victories but would be bled white in the process. But this relied on places like Drogheda and Wexford having the same level of defences and, more importantly, commanders, as Clonmel had. If this had been the case, maybe the New Model Army would have been worn down in a brutal war of attrition, but it was not. Ormonde’s idea was sound, but he failed to realise he did not have the means to undertake it to the full. Only at Clonmel, and to a lesser extent outside Waterford and Duncannon, did things work out as he would have liked.
The result also smashed the aura of invincibility surrounding the New Model Army. Only outside Duncannon had they really been defeated by the enemy, and that had been a very small scale thing in the larger context of the wars, while at Waterford it had been the elements and not military action that had decided things. At Clonmel, notwithstanding Cromwell’s entry into the undefended town the following day, the New Model Army was very decisively beaten, and badly too. Such a result showed the Royalists, as scattered and demoralised as they were, that the enemy could be beaten, and that his victory was not guaranteed. The example of Clonmel would steel many hearts in the weeks, months and years to come.
Cromwell had achieved his final goal and taken Clonmel, but at a terrible cost. One week later, he was back in Youghal, and setting sail for Westminster. He would never come back. The command of the New Model Army in Ireland was given to Henry Ireton, with orders to complete the destruction of the Royalist cause.
Cromwell’s time in Ireland, not even a year, would have repercussions and invoke powerful feelings generations and centuries after. His ruthless and efficient command gutted the Royalist and former Confederate cause in Ireland, as town after town fell to his troops, the vast majority of which without much fighting at all. Clonmel was a gigantic exception, but if Cromwell had been told before landing in Ireland that his army would suffer just upwards of 3’000 casualties in their entire campaign in the country, I think he would have been happy. For that exchange, Leinster, Ulster and most of Munster were pacified, and what was left of the enemy damaged beyond repair. The massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, though worthy of more in-depth study today, have insured that his is a name that is largely reviled in the popular consciousness of the Irish nation, even to this day, but we cannot forget the brilliance and results of Cromwell’s military command in Ireland, an intervention as decisive as Mountjoy’s had been in the Nine Years War half a century earlier. Now it would be left to other, lesser, men to finish what he had started.
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