Henry Ireton’s first major coordinated offensive against the Shannon defensive line of the Irish Royalists was over before the end of October, the Parliamentarian commander slinking back into the depths of Munster, there to house his troops and horses in winter quarters so he could have another crack at it the following year, when the weather cleared. Very few in the Parliamentarian faction would have reckoned on having to fight a major battle before then.
They reckoned without a sudden burst of enthusiasm and initiative from a few key individuals within the Royalist faction, the most important in this case being Ulick Burke. The Earl of Clanricarde had been caught up in the machinations of the Bishops Coup, their anointed choice to succeed the Earl of Ormonde, a state of affairs that Ormonde himself had practically accepted. Part of that included clergy urging Royalist soldiers to treat Clanricarde as the commander of their armies instead of Ormonde, and while such a request would not have been uniformly carried out, it might explain why Clanricarde found himself in command of over 3’000 men that October. He had raised that force to help relieve the Viscount Dillon in Athlone, but had never actually had to fire a shot in such an endeavour, with Ireton quitting that siege without any offensive action of consequence.
Given the military situation, and Clanricarde’s track record of considered military leadership thus far, it was probably expected that he would withdraw and then disperse those forces, or at most send them marching south to back up the defences at Limerick. But instead, Clanricarde did the most unexpected thing: with the blessing of Ormonde, he decided to cross the Shannon in force and take the fight to the enemy. Why Burke suddenly had this urge is unknown to us, but perhaps he just saw the opportunity and took it.
His army was large-ish, but mostly infantry, which would have badly affected the mobility of the planned operation. While records of this offensive are scant, we can imagine from the forces employed and the man leading them, it was to be a limited campaign, designed perhaps to strike out, capture a few key positions when the Parliamentarians’ backs were turned and hold them. Maybe, in the right circumstances, a battle could be fought against an obliging enemy force, but Clanricarde, going on the last ten years, would probably not seek out such an event willingly. If all went well, the Royalists could give the Parliamentarians a figurative box on the nose, draw some blood, before the coming of the winter proper, increasing the stability of their position just a little bit.
Ireton had left Athlone on the 6th of October. Using nearby fording points just south of Athlone, Clanricarde moved his army over the Shannon a few days later, probably choosing that option, over Athlone’s bridge, because it might help retain an element of surprise. Such surprise was kept intact, and for a few crucial days the Parliamentarians, at large, had no idea an enemy force had slipped into their midst.
Some might, with cause, wonder why Ireton did not use such fords as well, instead of trying to capture the walled towns and cities of Athlone and Limerick. After all, there were plenty of fords on the Shannon that could conceivably have allowed him to get his soldiers across the river. But there are key reasons he did not. Crossing such a river as the Shannon with the large amount of men that he had would have taken a great deal of time: we’re talking thousands of troops, with all of their own weapons and gear, then horses, then supply wagons, then artillery and every other element that makes an army work. Clanricarde marched light and without many attachments. Ireton did not.
The slowness of the crossing (remember, a fordable point of water could still be as deep as chest-level depending on the season) made an army vulnerable: the vanguard could easily come under a consistent attack after it crossed, especially if the enemy had cavalry nearby, while its main bulk of support floundered somewhere behind. Once across the lines of supply would be difficult to maintain, and easily cut off. And worst of all, if the campaign to take Athlone or Limerick was a failure, then Ireton would be in enemy land with a defeated, demoralised army, and the likely possibility that the line of retreat back over the fords could be held against him. After all, a ford might have a small fort guarding it, not a walled town or city. The banks of a ford can be easily captured and re-captured. The nightmare scenario then would be Ireton having to fight a battle not of his own choosing just to retreat successfully – or rather, just to be able to attempt to re-ford the river, with all of the same problems as before. It was not something he was willing to risk. But Clanricarde was, this time, in these specific circumstances.
Clanricarde advanced, into a region synonymous with Offaly today, as fast as he could. Several small Parliamentarian outposts and minor forts fell almost immediately, the most notable being the castle at Ferbane, probably guarded by very few men, unwilling to put up a fight against such overwhelming numbers. Now the cat was out of the bag. Ireton was in no position to offer immediate assistance to his soldiers in that area, and for the moment they would have to respond themselves.
The commander of Parliamentarian forces in Offaly was Colonel Daniel Axtell, a zealous Baptist soldier with a relatively short record of service in the war thus far, the governorship of that area of Ireland being his most distinguished appointment. He had been present at the siege of Drogheda the previous year, being the officer who captured the Windmill Mount position, where nearly all the defenders, including the garrison’s commander, Arthur Aston, were slain.
Axtell didn’t have enough men to hand with which to combat the threat facing him, and was obliged to retreat for a time, fighting only the briefest of skirmishes with the advanced elements of the Royalist force. Axtell went east to Birr, but when Clanricarde kept advancing, he was forced to march to Roscrea instead. There, he awaited reinforcements.
Clanricarde busied himself with taking more minor positions in the region of Birr, though it is unclear if he made a serious attempt on that town itself. His success led to reinforcements, with men under James Preston, the son of Thomas, coming to join his army, swelling its size to possibly over 4’000 men. This would have the bulk of the serviceable troops available in Connacht, and would have been larger than any Parliamentarian force in the immediate area.
But what to do with it? Birr was presumably a tempting option, but there had to always be a measure of realism in what to do in the long run. These men couldn’t stay in the field forever, and the positions they would try and hold once the offensive was over would have to be intelligently chosen.
By the 21st of October, Axtell had cause for cheer, as Colonels Cooke and Abbot, commanding Parliamentarian garrisons in Wexford and Kilkenny, marched to meet him in Roscrea, bringing the size of his army much closer to that of Clanricarde. He immediately began marching back to Birr, to directly challenge the Royalist foe.
Clanricarde, in the face of this advance, withdrew. This is typical of what we know of him, but does not seem like too illogical a decision in retrospect. His army might have been large, but we can imagine it was poorly armed and supplied, compared to the nearly always superior Parliamentarians. His cavalry wing was tiny, and he (presumably) had no artillery. He did not want to get cut off in Parliamentarian held land and seeking a battle head on was simply not his style.
But he did not just flee back over the Shannon with his tail between his legs. There were new garrisons to support and still a chance to inflict some damage on the enemy. Clanricarde determined to invite that chance, but in as safe a position as he could find.
So, his army marched west to a place called Meelick Island. According to several sources, this was a crannog, or an artificial island, built into the course of the Shannon, not far from the small townland of Meelick, Galway, where the Little Brosna River feeds into the larger waterway. A major fording point, this portion of the Shannon, to this day, is filled with islands of various size, and we don’t know just what kind of crannog itself Meelick Island was – a completely wooden structure sticking out of the river, a fort on a built up bed or an already existing island that troops were placed on – but Clanricarde thought enough of it that he moved his army there and set them to building up its defences.
Clanricarde was apparently absent for what followed, ordered to Limerick by Ormonde, who suddenly wanted the Connacht forces to back up the defence of that city – even though Ireton had already left. Perhaps Butler had simply lost his nerve when it came to this expedition, and wanted them back over the Shannon and into relative safety.
On the 25th of October, Axtell attacked. He offset his deficiency in numbers by making his move as the light was failing, hiding his weakness and increasing the inevitable confusion of his enemies. Night attacks are always risky, but Axtell was willing to be daring where Clanricarde was not.
The initial guard points on the eastern bank were overcome, and then Parliamentarian infantry poured onto the Island, which could not have been well walled, probably only having a palisade barrier around its edges. The defenders were caught completely off guard, and we can guess that a confusing and vicious fight broke out as night fell. The details are not recorded (more on that in a bit), but the result is: another decisive Parliamentarian victory. The Irish were routed out of Meelick Island and back over to the western side of the Shannon, with as many as a thousand soldiers killed in the process, either by Axtell’s men or by the waters of the Shannon as they tried to escape. Most of Clanricarde’s baggage and war material were captured intact. In the aftermath, all of the positions that Clanricarde had captured in Offaly were retaken, now bereft of support and supply.
Burke, slung back into a state of depression and ill-health, told Ormonde that the defeat was “so unhandsome I am not willing to have any written records of it” which might explain the dearth of discussion on the event. Despite the casualties and its significance, it is not even mentioned in some of the more well-known accounts of these wars, and usually as a very minor affair when it is. But I believe Meelick Island was a bit more important than that.
Ironically, if Clanricarde actually had retreated over the Shannon and left the captured garrisons to their fate, it would have been a better result. As it was, the Connacht Army proved itself incapable of fighting under difficult circumstances, and further proved no match for the more experienced and better supported Parliamentarian soldiers. Meelick Island, if properly defended, may have been a formidable position, but it was not properly defended. It was another key example of Irish military weakness in comparison to Parliamentarian military strength. The Connacht Army simply did not have the experience to fight at the level required.
In a strange serendipity, every provincial force raised by the Confederates and then turned into Royalists, had faced a decisive defeat in battle. The Leinster Army at Dungan’s Hill (and Rathmines if you want to be technical), the Munster Army at Knocknanuss, the Ulster Army at Scarrifholis and now the Connacht Army at Meelick Island. They had all come to that crucial test of their martial ability, and all had failed, with terrible results.
Now the Royalists had a thousand less men to see to the defence of Connacht when the next campaigning season arrived. Now Clanricarde’s coming appointment as the Royalist commander seemed more and more desperate. Now defeatism and bad morale would infect the Royalist ranks even more. Now the Parliamentarians would be buoyed, when they had been initially surprised and forced to retreat.
For Ireton, it was a momentous gift, which put a very positive sheen on what had been an otherwise dreadful campaign. Though not involved directly, he could claim to have a success in his overall command of Ireland to match some of the previous victories of former commanders. Suddenly, taking on the Royalist Shannon line must not have seemed such a difficult endeavour.
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