This is actually my 50th entry at what can generally be called the “Eleven Years War” (it’s the best catch all title really). I started out on it on April 3rd last year and am still plugging away now. Hopefully it won’t take another 50 (we are in the endgame, it is fair to say) but I suppose we should be remember that of all the recognised Irish conflicts post 1169, this one was by far the longest and bloodiest, a topic I’ll get into more at a later date. For now, I’d like to thank all readers, subscribers and commenters for sticking with me.
The disaster of Scarrifholis had left the Royalist position in Ulster mostly crushed. The survivors of that debacle had either scattered into the wind or had fled into Connacht, there to be submerged into other Royalist units. Everywhere the Parliamentarians, under Robert Venables and Charles Coote, were dominant in the province.
Except for one place under a very particular commander. One of the most high profile survivors of Scarrifholis was Phelim O’Neill and he did not head west. Instead, he cut around the Parliamentarians and, with what few men he was able to rally, sped eastwards to Armagh and the fort at Charlemont, there to await an inevitable assault. Charlemont stood alone against the Parliamentarians in Ulster.
But it was not some weak weed waiting to be torn up. Charlemont, the successor of the Blackwater Fort that had seen so much action during the Nine Years War, was a monster of a position. Initially built by Lord Mountjoy as a part of his strangulation policy, Charlemont had that distinct advantage over nearly every other fort, castle or walled town in Ireland: it was modern, built in an age of gunpowder, to resist such weapons. It was located on an earthen bank, with curved walls, shaped to provide enfilade fire at vital sections (in the modern “star fort” fashion), with an outer ditch for additional defence. The Blackwater River to the north-west and woods to the south-east made an approach difficult. Within the walls was a small castle, a magazine and a well for water supplies. If manned and armed properly, Charlemont had the potential to repel any attacking force.
Phelim had taken Charlemont by surprise very early in the conflict, by subterfuge, in those mad cap days when the sectarian violence was starting to get completely out of control. Back then, it was the only way it could have been taken. So much had changed since 1641, but Charlemont had remained in the control of the Confederation and now the Royalists without interruption, or even much challenge. The position was simply too strong to be considered a good candidate for attack and the enemies of O’Neill in Ulster, be they Royalists, Covenanters or Parliamentarians, had preferred to simply leave Charlemont unmolested. Better to leave it and its garrison isolated, and negate its importance in the process, even if they would mean awkward movement restrictions in that area of Ulster.
But now Coote and Venables were happy to finally try and snuff the fortress out as a Royalist stronghold. O’Neill’s garrison was small while their combined armies would number in the thousands, and the Parliamentarians would enjoy the advantage of artillery dominance, an absolute necessity if they were to break through the outer fortifications. The only delay in their inevitable march on Charlemont was in the appropriation and transport of these heavy pieces, which included mortars to attack the interior of the fort.
What pushed O’Neill and his small garrison to resist this attack? After all, they were outnumbered, isolated and could not expect any kind of relief effort from Ormonde, who was already turning to other parts of the war, while Clanrickarde had to be pushed and prodded just to leave the confines of Connacht to go into west Leinster.
But Charlemont was the kind of place that could hold out, even if the garrison was overwhelmingly outnumbered. O’Neill may well have hoped that he could goad Coote and Venables into a costly, failed assault on Charlemont, a recreation of Clonmel, that could yet break the back of their forces in that province. Moreover, Phelim must have known that his own personal options were severely limited. Of the chief conspirators of 1641, O’Neill was the only one left, the others having either been executed or died in the meantime. That made Phelim a very obvious target for Parliamentarian rage, the face they put on their need to avenge the violence of 1641. Phelim knew that, if captured, he would almost certainly be executed. As such, he had all the motivation he needed to try and hold out and resist.
The larger garrison also had the fear of Coote to motivate them. Rightly or wrongly, Coote had a savage reputation for atrocity and hatred of Catholics in Ulster, and it was firmly believed that surrender to him, or being captured by him, would result in a sudden death. The war in Ireland had always had a vicious quality, but was reaching an even bloodier stage at this point, where the laws of war would be ignored more and more. But if enough of a resistance could be made, the right terms could be bought that would guarantee the lives of the garrison at the very least.
By late July Coote, Venables and their forces were in position outside Charlemont, cutting its supply lines and beginning their bombardment of both the walls and, with mortars, the interior. The dates get a little tricky here with different sources saying different things happened on different dates, but we can be reasonably sure that it was at least a week, probably two, before Coote was in a position to attempt a storming. There was at least a partial delay when the Parliamentarians had to send for more gunpowder and cannon balls, indicating the difficulty of the task.
This was because the walls were strong, thick and angled, making them difficult to penetrate and because once a “workable” breach was made, Coote patiently set to building siege lines going up towards it so that the final approach would be as safe as possible. At the same time, the Parliamentarians also attempted to undermine another section of the fortress, to dig a tunnel underneath its base and then explode a large amount of gunpowder to bring down another section of the wall. But this work was difficult and took longer than the artillery.
There does not appear to have been much in the way of counter-offensives. We don’t even know for sure how many men Phelim O’Neill commanded at Charlemont, or the state of their preparedness for combat operations in terms of muskets, gunpowder, etc. Certainly it seems that little or no attempt was made to interrupt the attack on the walls or the digging of siege lines, so we can make a reasonable assumption that the garrison was very small and probably lacked any really significant kind of cavalry unit.
Probably on the 6th of August, Coote was ready to attempt a storming. There’s divide again between different sources as to how this was carried out, specifically on the number of attempts. The Parliamentarian infantry selected for the assault went forward into the breach and met stiff resistance, very much in the same vein as the fighting in Clonmel earlier in the year – that too had been a defence carried out by Ulster Army troops – and suffered badly. O’Neill, allegedly with the civilians of the fort backing him up, drove the Parliamentarians back with musket fire and brutal hand to hand fighting.
Irish sources claim that the Parliamentarians attacked twice more that day, with similar results. The breach, though considered “workable” by the likes of Venables, could not be taken by the force of arms employed, though the Irish too suffered in the defence. One source claims that Coote casually watched from afar while smoking tobacco, though this is probably a skewed view to try and discredit him.
Venables, in a letter to Cromwell, makes no mention of multiple assaults, only the one that was repulsed by the Irish. Again, a divide comes in the histories of the event: Venables claims to have lost just 70 men with several hundred wounded, while local bishops sending letters to Ormonde (having been “informed” of events but not actually witnessing them) insisted that 800 Parliamentarians forces fell in three separate assaults.
Venables was actually there of course, so it might feel natural to trust his opinion of events. Certainly, the bishop’s line has been taken up by a great many historians, then and now, without any real degree of investigation beyond taking them at their word. I feel that a loss of 800 soldiers, which would have been a very large part of Coote’s army, would have been of much greater interest to contemporary chroniclers if true, certainly on a par with the losses Cromwell suffered at Clonmel.
So how many did really fall in this assault? Venables had reason to downplay the casualties (while the Parliamentarian command was more united than their opponents, no one wanted to look bad in Cromwell’s eyes) while the Bishops obviously had reason to aggrandise them. It’s tempting to simply split the difference and say something in the region of 400-500, but even this doesn’t ring true to me. It is simply educated guesswork, but Venables’ proximity to the fighting makes me have more time for his account. I imagine there may have been just one assault, that the Irish inflicted several hundred casualties (not deaths) in repulsing it and then exaggerated afterwards for morale and propaganda reasons.
However many died, the assault did not work. But Coote was not of a mind to give up and walk away, though he now apparently balked at the idea of another frontal attack. Instead more work went into the planned mine and more soldiers were detailed to dig additional trenches, to get closer and closer to the walls.
Such activities occupied most of the next week, until O’Neill suddenly signalled his willingness to negotiate a surrender. The Irish had taken substantial casualties of their own in defending the breach (Venables claimed they lost nearly all of their officers, bar Phelim and two others), and had expended most of what ammunition and powder they had. Food supplies had been poor when the siege started, and now reached critical levels. As with other places in the war that year, continued resistance only made sense if there was a possibility of relief, which was not forthcoming.
While there would have been apprehension about dealing with Coote, the terms offered were satisfactory. The garrison and their followers would be allowed to march away unmolested and with what remained of their baggage. Upon occupying Charlemont, Venables reported that his men found only a single barrel of gunpowder and provisions that would have been completely expended in three weeks at most. Phelim and his men lived to fight another day, heading in the direction of Connacht.
It might seem like I am repeating myself constantly as of late, but this was simply the way the war in Ireland was unfolding: a series of sieges where resistance was offered for a time, before suitable terms were offered, allowing the garrison to leave the position and the attackers to occupy it. Charlemont was just another example, albeit one where the defender was in an arguably stronger position than the attacker right from the off. With more men and supplies it is reasonable to expect that O’Neill could have held out far longer, and even won the contest, but the Royalists in Ireland were unable to offer either of these things to him.
Coote conducted a good siege, exploring multiple avenues of attack. His assault was a failure, though I deem it likely it was not such a damaging one as some sources would have you believe. In the aftermath of that he moved forward with other options, and if O’Neill had chosen to hold out longer, it is likely that an undermining would have provided additional options for attack in the not too distant future. Either way, Charlemont was probably doomed from the start.
With the fall of this fort, the last remnants of conventional Royalist resistance in Ulster had come to an end. I say “conventional” for a very important reason, but for the moment the Parliamentarians could well claim to have cleared all of the northern province of enemy troops and positions. Connacht and handholds in Leinster and Munster were all that the Royalist faction had left. And Henry Ireton was ready to attempt a killing blow.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.