As Henry Ireton was now the commander of the Parliamentarian effort in Ireland, and it would be his offensives that would continue that struggle going forward, it is probably a good idea to take a closer look at him.
Born in Nottingham in 1611 (so he was just 39 when given the full Irish command) to a prosperous country family, Ireton studied law at Oxford before becoming one of the more prominent men from his area to be opposed to episcopacy and the military activities of Charles I. Initially a leader and organiser of civilian militia, Ireton was commissioned as a cavalry officer by the Parliamentarian cause when the political situation deteriorated, serving at the crucial, but indecisive, battle at Edgehill in 1642.
Ireton moved up the ranks rapidly, taking part in a number of smaller engagements, perhaps most notably at Gainsborough in 1643, a minor Parliamentarian victory largely won by a series of cavalry charges led by Colonel Oliver Cromwell. The two began a continuing association and friendship there, with Cromwell selecting Ireton as his right hand man when he took the position of Governor of Ely and later helping to secure his further advancement in disputes with other Parliamentarian leaders. At the critical Battle of Naseby Ireton displayed the opposing parts of his martial skill when he led a daring raid on Royalist lines the night before the battle, was then promoted to commissary-general, before nearly costing his side the battle proper the next day, allowing the left flank to largely collapse under a Royalist assault where Ireton himself was wounded and temporarily taken prisoner. Cromwell was on hand to save the day again, but it was clear that Ireton was no equal to him in military matters.
Still, their friendship grew, to the extent that Cromwell allowed Ireton to marry his eldest daughter, Bridget, in 1646, just after the two men had helped capture the Royalist city of Oxford. Ireton, by then an MP, became one of Cromwell’s and the New Model Army’s loudest supporters in the legislature, one of the key “grandees” that would so dominate Parliament as time moved forward. After greater martial success in the brief Second Civil War, Ireton was one of the main instigators of “Pride’s Purge” and the removal of the Long Parliament from power, before taking a leading role in the trial and execution of Charles I in 1648. Though he had displayed greater skill at politics than field craft up to that point, Cromwell did not hesitate to appoint Ireton as his second in command for the expedition to Ireland, a role that had now led, despite some notable failures, to the overall command of the effort.
Ireton controlled thousands of well trained, supplied and spirited men, with cavalry and artillery to break down armies and smash open walls. The task before him was simple: to bring the Royalist faction to heel. He would so this by removing their last bases of power, namely their remaining urban centres of Waterford, Limerick and Galway, along with any other position that stood in the way of those key three. In line with those tasks would be the capture of a crossing (or crossings) over the River Shannon, the destruction of what few armies the Royalists were still able to field and a final reckoning with that faction, leading either to its forced finish or its negotiated passing away.
Cromwell had laid the groundwork, Ireton just had to keep things going. But he was patient, perhaps even hesitant, willing to draw the noose tighter at a gradual pace, focusing on one task at a time over a grander movement in the same vein as Cromwell’s winter offensive. While the Ulster commanders were left to their own devices when it came to potential threats, Ireton first looked to mid-Leinster to open his own operations.
In Westmeath, a few miles south-west of Trim and near the modern day border with Meath and Kildare, stood the castle of Tecroghan (presumably a FitzGerald construction, though the sources are not clear: it was apparently also known as “Queen Mary’s Castle” so was probably pre-Elizabethan). Today only the bare lines of this position can be seen in the much altered landscape, but then the castle was a formidable obstacle, with thick walls and numerous cannon pieces pointing outward. But the castle’s real strength was not so much in its artificial construction, but in its environment. Tecroghan was built, probably at great expense, in the middle of an island of solid ground within a large stretch of bog. That made the castle difficult to approach with troops and, much more importantly, made it near impossible to set up artillery to attack its walls.
Why build a castle in such a location? Tecroghan was only a few miles from the main Dublin – Athlone road, one of the key transport links between the west and east sides of the country, and as such was well placed to provide oversight and protection for that trade route.
The Royalists had lost much of Leinster – nearly all of its more important urban centres and nearly all of its important garrisons – but still held a few positions in the midlands and the north of the province, though it did them little good. The most important was Tecroghan, held by a garrison of troops under Sir Richard Talbot, a Confederate veteran of the Leinster Army.
Ireton, and Cromwell, though the latter was now back in England, wanted Tecroghan taken. If it was, the road to Athlone, another vital Royalist position, would be open even more, an important Royalist position in Leinster would be gone and another Royalist garrison would be defeated. With that expectation, Ireton had Parliamentarian forces under Colonel Hewson and Reynolds outside of its walls by the end of May, presumably several thousand men. Talbot’s garrison was large enough, according to what few sources exist, but we can presume they were not the best quality of troops. They didn’t have to be. The Parliamentarians closed the ring around Tecroghan and then dug in, unable to bring their artillery to bear and unwilling to risk an infantry assault across the boggy landscape. So, it was a case of trying to starve the garrison out.
Ormonde did not want Tecroghan to fall without some attempted relief. Ulick Burke, the Earl of Clanrickarde and now a fully confirmed Royalist after previous prevarication, was idle with his forces in Connacht, unwilling to assist Heber MacMahon in Ulster or to spread his troops out in garrisons across Royalist held territory. Ormonde ordered him to muster his forces and attempt a relief.
This was problematic in several ways. Clanrickarde was notoriously unwilling to leave Connacht on any kind of military operation, and pleaded to be excused from the command of this current effort. Ormonde, whether he was just making excuses for himself or was genuinely distracted, would not take the command himself for stated reasons of trying to reorganise the Royalist government in Limerick, for which he had to be present. The Earl of Castlehaven also had forces he could use, as did the Bishop of Dromore, but Ormonde was apparently unwilling to offend anybody by appointing either of them to a position of sole command. Instead, Castlehaven, Clanrickarde and Dromore were ordered to relieve the castle, with no clarity on who exactly was in charge. Not for the first time, Ormonde’s military weakness at this high level would hamstring the Royalist efforts on the field.
Despite his much stated reservations, Clanrickarde marched out of Connacht and rendezvoused with Castlehaven and Dromore in Tyrrellspass, Westmeath in June, a few miles west of Tecroghan. Their combined forces were fairly minimal, probably no more than 2’500 to 3’000 men, mostly infantry, with Dromore offering very few and Clanrickarde not bringing the fullness of his strength out of Connacht.
The bickering between these men, with resentment over Clanrickarde’s presence in Leinster and Dromore’s lack of manpower, erupted from the start. Clanrickarde was 46 years old at the time and plagued with ill-health, with indications that his mental state may have been inclined to depression if the constant string of downbeat and exaggerated missives from the field are any indication. He was hesitant to lead any kind of major effort against the Parliamentarian forces around the castle, even though they had been somewhat reduced since the siege started: Hewson had been forced to take men back to Dublin to deal with a sudden burst of Tory activity. I mentioned them briefly in the last entry, but the time has still not come to go into greater detail, except to say that they were becoming a bigger problem as time went on.
Castlehaven, as we are familiar with by now, was a bit bolder than Clanrickarde, and volunteered to lead the army against the Parliamentarians. A frontal assault on the siege lines via the roads would be problematic, with John Reynolds being a competent and skilled fighter, who could not be allowed such an advantage. The Irish had a deficiency of good cavalry, a weakness that the Parliamentarians did not share. They would utilise their cavalry to deadly effect on good ground. Instead, Castlehaven proposed to march directly to the castle, through the bogland. Such a march would be difficult, but stood a chance of avoiding a substantial English presence, especially cavalry, until it was too late to organise a challenge. Clanrickarde, seemingly desperate to throw off the yoke of responsibility, agreed to the plan.
On the 19th of June Castlehaven led the advance. His infantry were instructed to all carry packages of extra food and gunpowder, for the relief of the castle if they got through. Castlehaven was hedging his bets, aware of the possibility that only part of his force might make it as far as the castle. Reynolds received word of the march and moved his own men into position to block it. Around four miles from the walls of Tecroghan, around some of the only solid ground within the bog, the two forces fought a brief engagement.
The battle was a mixed affair, brief and with relatively low casualties. The Irish left wing attacked in force and managed to break through the English lines, the infantry advancing onwards rather than staying to fight. The right wing attacked too, but was repulsed and soon scattered. That caused the centre, where Castlehaven had located himself, to retreat as well, without orders, the Earl unable to keep his men standing. His own memoirs, not very trustworthy, assign all the blame to the weakness of his subordinates, who were unwilling to keep their units in position even when victory was within their grasp, a common complaint of Tuchet’s. It was now nearing nightfall, so there was no pursuit.
Most of the Irish were thus in retreat but, as stated, casualties were light, one source claiming that only eight men were killed on the Royalist side. Those that broke through made it without much further disruption to Tecroghan, pausing only to dismantle a few lightly defended siegeworks that were in their path. These few hundred men bolstered the garrison with their presence, their supplies of food and quantities of gunpowder. The Irish had achieved a partial success then, with the hard-pressed position of Talbot momentarily reinforced.
That was as far as it went though. Castlehaven retreated back to Tyrrellspass. He quarrelled with Clanrickarde about what was to be done from that point. Tecroghan was still besieged, and the lines of Parliamentarian troops enacting that siege remained mostly unbroken. Colonel Hewson could bring additional troops from Dublin any day, and the Royalists were not expecting any reinforcements of their own. Clanrickarde was, according to himself, running low on money and supplies to keep his forces going.
Unable to come to a resolution, and unwilling to try another attack, Clanrickarde washed his hands of the affair, marching away on the 23rd of June, not even bothering to wait for Ormonde’s permission to do so. Castlehaven stayed longer, just to offer some partial disruption of the Parliamentarian siege, but he was helpless to really do anything substantial at that point. Talbot had nothing he could do. To defend Tecroghan without any possibility of relief was pointless and so he turned to negotiation to extricate him and his troops from the situation. On the 25th, Reynolds accepted the surrender of the castle, with the garrison allowed to march away with their arms and colours.
The situation was needlessly detrimental to the Royalists. In a different world Ormonde would have sent the soldiers under just one commander, preferably himself. They would have attacked the siegelines directly, in conjunction with a major sally from the castles not insubstantial garrison. They would have organised their cavalry better across the country to forestall the advantage of the Parliamentarian horse. They would have coordinated their efforts with the Tory threat.
None of that transpired, and so the opportunity to hold Tecroghan was lost. Clanrickarde’s sheer pessimism and refusal to accept responsibility for any kind of dangerous move destroyed the movements hopes for success, with Castlehaven more able to risk danger but not able to properly manage troops on the field of battle (though, in his defence, it was not the best ground on which to organise a battle). For Reynolds, he merely had to keep the siege lines tight and deflect the Royalists moves towards the fortress. It was not the hardest fight he ever had to oversee.
The result was a bigger loss than the Royalists may have at first realised. Ormonde pronounced himself satisfied with how things had gone, Clanrickarde moved back into the depths of Connacht and even Castlehaven refrained in his memoirs from assigning specific blame to one of his peers.
But the loss was important. The flimsy Royalist hold on north Leinster was slipping away and the road to Athlone now lay open to the Parliamentarians to an even greater extent than it had before. A very substantial fortress had been lost, another defeat to add to the ever growing list.
The effect of Tecroghan was made worse by the incoming news of Scarrifholis, which occurred on the 21st of June. The population of Royalist controlled areas, the clergy already promoting dissension against Ormonde and the Lord Lieutenant himself would have received news of both calamities at around the same time. The unrest and discord this would have caused must have been substantial. That unrest would not go away.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.