By the 12th of August, Henry Ireton had completed his operation in the Waterford area, having captured both the city and the nearby fort of Duncannon, with hardly any loss. Across the country, the Royalist faction was seething with revolt and discord, with Ormonde barely holding on to his position of Lord Lieutenant against the attempted coup of the Bishops.
Ireton had done an acceptable, if unspectacular, job thus far as the commander of the Parliamentarian forces in Ireland. He had done some directing, from distance, of the Tecroghan operations and personally led the forces engaged on the Waterford campaign, while things in Ulster, nominally under his purview, had also gone well during his time in the country. But now he was ready, in the midst of the autumn campaigning season, to attempt something a bit more ambitious.
The Royalists were weak and divided in the latter half of 1650 certainly, but they had a huge advantage that Ireton would have to tackle: the River Shannon. The longest river in the then British Isles, the Shannon was wide and deep through most of its course, from source to estuary. It was thus a natural defensive barrier for the Royalists, and keeping the Parliamentarians from getting a foothold over it was one of the main military concerns of Ormonde during this period.
There were only a handful of crossings over the river that were big enough to support a large army, and the few fording points would not allow for the transport of things like artillery and wagons in large numbers. Ireton could have engaged in a long march north to simply go around the river by Sligo, but such an endeavour would have been lengthy and would leave the New Model Army drained of supplies long before they got close to any enemy soldier or position. Further, Ireton also lacked any substantial amount of river boats that could have been used for a crossing.
No, the Royalist defences on the Shannon would have to be met head on. There were two key places that this would happen. The first was Limerick, a heavily fortified city that had been in Confederate/Royalist hands since 1642. The garrisoning of it had been a major headache for Ormonde in the previous weeks and months, but now it had a strong commander in Hugh Dubh O’Neill and a relatively strong garrison. The other was Athlone, in the midlands, another garrison town, this one under the command of Viscount Thomas Dillon. Both places had good walls and decent protection against attackers. Neither could have been considered a ”soft” target, but they would both have to be dealt with in turn.
Ireton’s campaign plan, perhaps inspired by the complexity of Cromwell’s Winter Offensive of earlier that year, was to strike at both targets at the same time, rather than focus on just one over the other. A small holding force would be sent to Limerick to initiate a siege while the main body of the army, under Ireton’s direct command, would march to Athlone. Whether through intelligence or his own active attempts at persuading, Ireton believed that Dillon could be convinced to surrender Athlone without a fight, in exchange for pardon and money. With Athlone taken and a bridgehead over the Shannon secured, Ireton and his army would march south to Limerick, there to enact a large siege from both the north and the south of the city. When Limerick fell, the way would be open for a march on Galway and the final destruction of the Royalists in Ireland.
Or, at least that was the plan. The entire affair took some rather fundamental risks that must have given subordinates pause, but then again the Royalists did seem to be on their last legs in the west of the country. With the Bishops declaration against Ormonde and threat of excommunication against those who supported him being read out in different parts of the country, Ormonde had arrested several leading clergymen, not least the Bishop of Killaloe. But when it became clear that the awaited Parliamentarian offensive was beginning, tensions cooled somewhat. Ormonde, having hesitated so much in the previous year, now moved more quickly, sending troops to guard the area around Limerick when a Parliamentarian column, under a man named Hardress Waller, a onetime Royalist who had become a regicide, arrived. The captor of Carlow Castle the previous month, Waller was expected to cut supply lines and offer some initial terms – and warnings – rather than carry out any active military operations.
The sudden appearance of these troops in the field put the Royalist dispute on hold for a time, though the Bishops now urged the military to follow the orders of the Earl of Clanrickarde instead of Ormonde. The plea had little effect in reality, and there may have been some popular resentment towards the Bishops for their attempted removal of Ormonde at such a critical moment. Certainly the threat of excommunication, having been used liberally during the time of Rinuccini, no longer meant as much to the Catholic aristocracy.
Ireton took a roundabout route to Athlone. He first wanted to march north from Waterford back into the Leinster heartland, to Naas, before turning west. This would allow another strand of his plan to come together, namely a rendezvous with forces of Charles Coote that was being arranged, with the war in Ulster all but over for the moment. This delay would also allow Ireton to face another problem.
I have mentioned already on a few occasions the existence of the “Tory” threat. Now seems like a good time to elaborate a little bit. From the old Irish word tóraidhe, loosely meaning “Pursued Man” or maybe “Hunted Man”, the Tories were guerrilla fighters, many of whom had sprung up in bands after defeats such as Dungan’s Hill and Rathmines (and, if you’re wondering, yes it is the origin for the modern political moniker “Tory”, though how that came to be is not something I’ll be talking about for a while). Though some would have been mere brigands, attacking the Parliamentarians and the local Irish for monetary gain, the rest were true insurgents, undertaking low-intensity warfare against the Parliamentarians as part of the Royalist or former Confederate cause. The Tories were becoming a greater and greater problem as time went on, growing larger in number and bolder in their attacks. Their tactics were those of the yester-year’s wood-kerns: ambushing supply columns and isolated garrisons, assassination of key officials, the burning of crops and the stealing of livestock. They would attack from areas like woods, mountains and bogs and retreat back into them as quickly as they came.
The Irish had been fighting this kind of war for a very long time, not least in the south Leinster region, where forces operating in such a fashion had once led to the downfall of an English monarch. Tackling the problem was difficult: a large army would be not only useless against such a mobile threat, but counter-productive, incurring more losses in the search of an area so difficult to traverse than it would ever hope to inflict. Garrisoning against the Tory problem was taking up more and more of the Parliamentarian supply of manpower though, so something would have to be done soon.
Ireton’s initial response was to lead a detachment from his army of around 800 men, and enter the Wicklow Mountains region. This force was small enough to be manoeuvrable in a pinch, but large enough for protection. Ireton presumably had enough sense to avoid a Glenmalure scenario. But his activities were mostly pointless anyway: his men burned crops and killed any Irish man they found with a weapon (which, given the fact that a war had been going on for nine years, could have been anyone really), but failed to really root out any of the major Tory bands in the area, not least those of the O’Byrne clan. Ireton spent several weeks undertaking such operations, but eventually headed north to meet up with the rest of his army. The Tory threat in south Leinster was not extinguished, and would resurge to a greater extent later, even as it swept across large parts of the rest of Ireland.
The Tories had once again proven their worth to the Royalist cause, having delayed Ireton for a crucial few weeks. He was not able to march towards Athlone in force until early September, and those few weeks would be more important than anyone would have realised at the time.
When Ireton and Coote arrived outside Athlone in mid-September, they received a nasty surprise. The eastern suburbs of the town, which straddled the Shannon, had been destroyed by Dillon, who had retreated over the river behind a raised drawbridge. Dillon was one of the original Confederates and had informed Ormonde of Ireton’s attempted bribery as soon as it had been offered. No firm rejection was sent, luring Ireton into sending forces to Athlone in the expectation of an immediate surrender.
The resistance of Athlone left Ireton’s larger plans in bits, with no ability to cross the river himself, no heavy guns to bombard and with Ormonde sending up troops to reinforce the midlands town anyway. Now it was Ireton’s turn to hesitate, and he would spend another two crucial weeks outside Athlone, waiting in vain for Dillon to surrender the town to him. By the end of September Ireton finally accepted no such surrender was coming, and belatedly decided to move his army south to join Waller outside Limerick, though he would now only be able to enact a siege from one side. That march took a few days, during which the Parliamentarians captured a few minor positions in Offaly and set guards across the major fording points of the Shannon, to cover their rear in the event of any Royalist raids over the river.
Ireton was outside Limerick by the 6th of October. By then, even though Ormonde had secured his status as Lord Lieutenant in the short term, his future seemed to be beyond Ireland. Around the same time as Ireton was setting up at Limerick, Ormonde received word that Cromwell had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Scots fighting for Charles Stuart. The Battle of Dunbar, fought on the 3rd of September, was one of Cromwell’s greatest victories, and caused so much damage to the new Royalist cause in Scotland that it would struggle to ever recover, though the fight there was far from over.
The news filled Ormonde with dread for the larger Royalist effort. He feared that the Irish would make their peace with the Parliamentarians if he stayed in command, freeing up vital resources to be flung against the, now primary, Scottish front. To avoid this, Ormonde was ready to stand aside, though he would not do so immediately, not while there were active military matters to consider. Privately he signalled an endorsement for Clanrickarde to succeed him after he left, which would be before the end of the year.
Ireton had hoped to take advantage of Royalist division, especially in Limerick, where the garrison was divided between men loyal to Ormonde, men loyal to the Bishops and men who would rather have surrendered altogether, especially when faced with the possibility of a Parliamentarian onslaught on a par with Drogheda or Wexford. But Ormonde’s decision to back down in the face of the Bishops’ continued resistance to him alleviated some of this factionalism and allowed the city to put on a united front, even if it might only have been temporary. Just over a week after arriving at Limerick, with no sign of surrender and still lacking heavy guns, Ireton threw up his hands. The weather was getting worse, and the bulk of the New Model Army did not want to be exposed to the conditions of an Irish winter for a second year in a row. Moving south, the New Model Army under Ireton went into winter quarters throughout Munster. The Royalist line on the Shannon had held.
Ireton, in his first real test of independent leadership ability, had failed totally. He should have picked a target and focused on it, either Limerick or Athlone, bringing the Parliamentarian advantage in numbers and artillery to bear. Instead he divided his forces and didn’t really bother with his heavy guns, so convinced he was that Athlone would surrender without the necessity of a fight. For once, the Royalists were able to hold the advantage of knowing where the main blow was coming, and were ready to meet it.
More importantly, twice Ireton allowed himself to be delayed unnecessarily. He spent a few weeks hunting Tories for little practical gain before the campaign started in earnest, and another two waiting outside Athlone for a surrender that would not come. By the time that he reached Limerick, he had lost his nerve for a prolonged campaign. There is around a month in these delays, and if Ireton had been able to concentrate all of his force against either Athlone or Limerick at the start of September, he could very well have been across the Shannon and in the Royalist heartland by mid-October, instead of slinking off to winter quarters. His command weaknesses had been vividly shown up, and the apparent embarrassment of this campaign would drive him on later in the war.
But as the Parliamentarians withdrew from outside Limerick, it might have seemed as if the war was winding down for 1650, with winter incoming and the Royalists still safe behind the Shannon. But this was incorrect. The Royalists had seen Parliamentarian weakness. They were going on the offensive, then and there.
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