Ireland’s Wars: A Leadership Change, Foreign Negotiations And Aims For The New Year

With Meelick Island and the end of Ireton’s Autumn Offensive, military operations, for the rest of 1650 anyway, largely came to a halt. You’d still have your minor raids and Tory campaigns (for and against) but with the weather turning bad and movement of armies becoming more difficult, both sides would not be making any major moves until 1651. All eyes were now on the war between Parliamentarian England and the Scottish Royalists, the real primary battlefield of this extended conflict.

As such, this entry will be doing a bit of housekeeping on a couple of topics, before discussing a little bit about the short, medium and long-term aims of both sides going into the new year.

Ormonde had agreed to quit the Kingdom in Ireland, at least in principle. But as November came and dragged on, he suddenly had a brief change of heart, apparently inspired by a report that had come from the continent, claiming to be from Charles Stuart. In it, the nominal King claimed that he had made his declarations against the Irish under duress, fearing for his life if he did not. Whether this document was genuine, and, if so, whether the sentiments expressed in it were genuine, we will never know. But Ormonde used them as the basis for a calling of a general assembly, on the 15th of November, in Galway, to greater discuss the matter.

The issue here was really one of whether Charles Stuart’s writ was still valid in Ireland. If accepted as the King, his appointment of Ormond to be the Lord Lieutenant should have been sacrosanct. The Bishops and other clergy claimed that Charles had given up this power when he signed his agreement with the Scots, but others insisted that such an action had not be taken freely and should not be used against the King.

When the assembly did meet, the clergy made proclamations of loyalty to the crown, but stuck to their guns on Ormonde. They wanted him gone, and replaced by the Earl of Clanricarde. Ormonde, not making any headway, acquiesced for the last time. The Bishop’s were essentially orchestrating a return of the Confederation, with Clanricarde as its ostensible head. But after Meelick Island Burke seemed to be no fit state, physically or mentally, to take on such a role.

On the 9th of December, fearful of a possible blockade around Galway and probably just wanting to have the whole matter over with, Ormonde suddenly took ship and sailed away, to join the royal court in exile at Paris. He was joined by many key officers, not least Murrough O’Brien, the Earl of Inchiquin, but left behind some notable others, like James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, who remained behind on Ormonde’s express request. Ormonde was not washing his hands of Ireland entirely, and wanted trusted people to remain within the Royalist leadership in country. The royal commission with left with Clanricarde, along with a warning not to trust the clergy. With that, the military command of the Royalist effort in Ireland now firmly passed to Ulick Burke.

Ormonde had left Ireland before during these wars, but he would be making no return this time, at least not for the rest of the conflict. He had been one of the most ever-present commanders since the initial outbreak of sectarian violence, and his departure truly did heralded that the war in Ireland was creeping towards an endgame.

But can we offer a summation of James Butler as a military leader? Overall, especially after the arrival of Cromwell, we must say that he stumbled with a depressing frequency. In the first eight years of the war he proved more skilful as a diplomat and garrison commander than a field campaigner, only winning battles due to his own numerical superiority or the incompetence of the enemy. When put to the real test in the field, as at Rathmines, he failed totally. His subsequent strategy of allowing Cromwell to attack and besiege wherever he wanted proved disastrous, and in those crucial years, he was overly-hesitant and totally unable to reconcile the different factions within his own territory. As the commander of the Royalist faction in Ireland since Cromwell’s arrival, he had direct oversight of the contraction of the amount of land they controlled to extreme levels and never seemed capable of stemming that movement, let alone organising counter-attacks. The last failure was his prevarication on leaving, drawing the process out as long as he could, long after it was clear his position had become increasingly untenable.

Ormonde was a better politician and administrator than he was a soldier, a leader suited for either peacetime or a military situation of undoubted superiority. He has some excuses. Charles Stuart hung him out to dry with the Breda declaration, the Irish clergy never really seemed to support him to the full and many of his subordinate commanders, not least his successor, found their own military failures attributed, at least partly, to Ormonde’s weakness. But we cannot overlook the fact that when faced with a determined and competent foe, in the form of Cromwell’s New Model Army, Ormonde was unable to do anything to stop them.

But now Ormonde was gone, and the Royalists – or perhaps “Neo-Confederates” – still had a war to fight.

While I have not talked about it much, it had long been considered vital that the cause in Ireland, Confederate or Royalist, attempt to entice foreign support. This could be in the form of money, war supplies – gunpowder was ever at a premium in Ireland, especially after 1649 – or, in the most grand expectations, with actual troops. Just as in previous wars, the Irish understood that alone they faced a task that could be beyond them and courted any kind of foreign assistance that they could find.

And they had found some. The major courts of Europe, ever ready to try and find an advantage over one of their rivals, would send things the Confederation/Royalists needed. There were practical reasons for this: keeping the Irish sweet could provide a springboard for a future invasion of the island, it weakened Parliamentarian England and kept the door open for a traditional source of manpower for their own armies, plenty of Irish going to serve in the armies of the continent during this time and after.

But by late 1650 things were growing increasingly desperate, and it was becoming clear that only with some kind of decisive foreign intervention could the war in Ireland be won. The traditional avenues were no longer open though. Protestant states were generally uninterested in helping Catholic Ireland, and Catholic states, most notably Spain and France, were unwilling to offer the kind of commitment sought. They were busy fighting other wars, including some against each other, and were willing to come to peaceful agreements with the new administration in England: Philip of Spain, for example, tacitly recognised the Commonwealth in 1650, in return for which the Parliament allowed Spain to once again recruit Irishmen for their armies (the reasoning being they were better off fighting and dying in foreign wars than being a potential rebel against England, a tactic that might be dubbed “draining the swamp” today). Further, the Papal States, having intervened so largely with the actions of their chosen representative, Rinuccini, earlier in the war, were no longer predisposed to helping the Irish more than they already had.

So who was there? To the surprise of many, an unlikely source of potential support appeared in this time, leading to one of the more bizarre aspects of the later conflict. Charles IV, Duke of Lorraine, was a famed mercenary commander and military contractor of the period. Forced into exile from his lands in 1634 by a French invasion, he had served the Spanish Hapsburgs in various wars since, amassing an immense martial reputation along with a (reportedly) gigantic financial fortune. Having employed Irish soldiery throughout his years, Charles took an interest in the affairs in Ireland. He sent supplies to the Confederation on the request of Rinuccini, though he had his own aims, seeking permission to reopen recruitment of Irish men to his own army (which was denied).

With the wars in Central Europe and the Low Countries winding down after 1648, Lorraine was seeking new opportunities and new avenues for his own aggrandisement. Ireland was one such place and, as a Catholic warlord, Lorraine was uniquely placed to provide the kind of support that would prove very welcome from the new administration there.  Approached through Royalist back channels, negotiations with Lorraine were underway from early in 1650.

These negotiations form a bizarre addendum to the military operations of the period. They were lengthy and full of suspected double dealing, continuing well into 1651 and beyond for little gain to either side. The issues were simple: Lorraine was apparently willing to lead his army to Ireland to fight for Charles Stuart, or at least send over an immense quantity of financial assistance and supplies, but desired security for his investment. At various times different places in Ireland, like Duncannon, Limerick and Galway, either as themselves or with the wealth of their inhabitants, were offered as such security, with Lorraine to take over them as military commander if he himself was to come to Ireland.

Such talks eventually went further, and clerical negotiators even offered Lorraine the title of “Protector Royal” for Ireland, a position that would make him the head of the Royalist faction in Ireland until Charles Stuart was in power in London once more. These negotiations involved, at different points, the likes of Clanricarde, Ormonde (still with an eye on Irish affairs, even in exile), and even Theobald Taaffe, the former Royalist commander who had lost the Munster Army at Knocknanuss.

But long before any agreement could be made the negotiations were torn apart by acrimony and suspicion. Clanricarde, in an ironic continuation of the feelings of his predecessor, grew increasingly irked by the willingness of the clergy to forward such a scheme, distrustful of their attempts to offer Lorraine titles that amounted, in his eyes, to usurpation of royal authority. He feared that Lorraine was secretly seen as a replacement for the Stuarts, and for him, on a permanent basis. Clanricarde was not alone in such feelings.

There were some agreements made with Lorraine, and he does appear to have made some moves to supply an army for Ireland, but the entire process broke down by late 1651. Events in Ireland, which I will get to in time, altered arrangements, and the possibility of getting a large army to Ireland, through the Parliamentarian Navy that controlled the Channel they would have to sail through, was slim to begin with. Treaties signed by representatives like Taaffe were denounced by Clanricarde and others as offering too much. Lorraine would send a moderate amount of supplies to Ireland, and remain a source of hope for many in the times to come, but would never intervene in the country decisively. The Irish would have to fight this war alone.

And what a difficult fight it was shaping up to be. In March, when I began recounting the events of 1650, I offered an assessment of what I felt were the short, medium and long term aims of both sides in the conflict. Now, I will do the same for 1651.

I will start with the Royalists. Since the start of 1650 they had been forced back over the Shannon by the final campaigns of Cromwell, had seen their armies reduced even further and were now seemingly bereft of even Royal support. They had a new leader in Clanricarde, and they still had some armies, but what hope did they really have?

In the short term, the Royalists aimed only to survive. With little ability to launch offensives of their own, they would have to resist a certain assault on their territory when the weather cleared up. Fortresses at Limerick and Athlone would probably be the targets, and they would have to hold if there was to be any hope of survival. Making the Parliamentarians lose a lot of troops in the process of holding those points would be a bonus.

In the medium term, say within a year, the Royalists probably hoped to be able to strike back a bit. If Charles Stuart could be successful in Scotland the Commonwealth would probably have to withdraw soldiers from Ireland to stem the tide, and that could give the Royalists an opportunity. As with the campaign before Meelick Island, attempts could be made to make limited gains in territory, to put greater pressure on parts of the Parliamentarian position. In combination with Tory attacks, it could be possible for the Parliamentarians to be bled white in Ireland.

Then, in the long-term, things could be put to rights in Ireland. With a victory for the Scots in Britain, with foreign support, with a weakening of the Parliamentarians in Ireland, the Irish Royalists could go about reclaiming their lost land. This was pie in the sky thinking at the beginning of 1651 of course, but I’m sure there were many who dreamed of holding the same amount of land, or more, that the Confederation of Kilkenny once had.

But what of the Parliamentarians? In the short term, Ireton obviously aimed to launch a new offensive, and was making his plans that winter. Athlone and Limerick would have to be overcome, and he would have more time to do so in 1651. There were other avenues of attack to consider as well. Ireton must have hoped that he would be firmly over the Shannon in force in the first half of the new year.

In the medium term, with the fate of the Royalists in Ireland largely sealed by securing a crossing, the Parliamentarians could go about destroying their enemy. Limerick, Athlone, Galway and a few other places would have to be reduced and captured, armies defeated, leaders killed or exiled. There were genuine hopes that the war in Ireland would be over as a contest by the end of 1651.

Then, in the long term, the Parliamentarians could go about enacting their final settlement of Ireland. This would include the redirection of resources to eliminate the Tory threat, the expulsion of Irish from prime lands in the east and south, and plantation of new landowners to ensure a loyal neighbour to Britain. Cromwell still aimed to punish the Irish for the violent excesses of 1641, and a campaign of little less than ethnic cleansing would be the way this would be carried out.

The difference between the two sides in terms of the means to achieve these aims was stark. The Parliamentarians were stretched a bit thin in parts of Ireland, but could call upon tens of thousands of troops, horses, artillery pieces and ships, nearly all of them well supplied and battle hardened. They had tested commanders and operational unity. The Royalists could call upon, realistically, less than ten thousand men total to defend Connacht, with an increasing scarcity of most supplies and continuing rancour between the internal factions that had come to define them.

And so the battle lines were drawn for 1651, in what would become the tenth year of the conflict.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: A Leadership Change, Foreign Negotiations And Aims For The New Year

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ireton’s New Plan And The Fall Of Athlone | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The 1651 Siege Of Limerick | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Fall Of Galway | Never Felt Better

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