1651 came, the weather cleared, but nothing happened.
Everyone must have known that another Parliamentarian assault on the Shannon defensive line, led by Henry Ireton, was an inevitability, to make up for his failed effort the first time around. But for the first six months of 1651 no such assault came, despite the improving weather and the consistent difference in military power between the two sides. There are several reasons for this.
First, the Parliamentarian cause was distracted from the war in Ireland by the war in Scotland. Ireland was increasingly a sideshow, an operation designed to pacify the last dregs of resistance in that quarter and seize land rather than taking the fight to a major bulwark of Royalist power. Scotland was a serious threat to the legislature, with experienced armies and a powerful figurehead in the form of the Scottish-recognised Charles II. After the Battle of Dunbar the Parliament forces in the theatre, under Oliver Cromwell, controlled much of southern Scotland. But both sides were still awaiting what would be a decisive second encounter between their forces, one that could well determine the future viability of Charles’ cause. The war in Scotland thus took most of the Parliamentarian resources that were to spare, especially in terms of finances, leaving Ireton with less support than he would have wanted. That made him more cautious than he previously had been, unwilling to risk an open fight with the Royalists until things were more in his favour.
The second reason was a more local distraction, in the form of a Parliamentarian initiative to reconstitute the government of Ireland. The country had been in a state of war for over a decade, and much of the administration at a local and national level was in ruins, with all of the fallout which came from such things: loss of tax revenue and reduced farm production being chief among them. A delegation of commissioners was sent to start making things right, a process in which Ireton would surely have been intimately involved. One of the commissioners was Edmund Ludlow, a hardcore Parliamentarian leader and regicide, who was also appointed to be Ireton’s official second in command, above a number of other Colonel’s who could possibly have been given the position. This indicates to an extent the Parliamentarian approach to Ireland at this time, which was starting to greater mix military and civil initiatives together.
Third, and most pressing, was the continued “Tory” problem. What had started out as a minor irritant had rapidly exploded into a much larger issue, one that was actually threatening to overwhelm the Parliamentarian control of some areas. Tory bands could now be found nearly everywhere in occupied Leinster, Munster and Ulster, some of them numbering astonishing sizes. Their attacks were stepping up, with the Parliamentarians unable to travel anywhere without large numbers. Garrisons were becoming more isolated and supply convoys were becoming harder to move. Needing to spread what forces he had very thin to try and counter this problem, Ireton’s larger plans of attacking Connacht were miserably delayed.
Ireton’s efforts to take on the Tories were at first small scale and ineffective. It was not yet time for a powerful Parliamentarian attack on these guerrilla fighters, and the network that supported them, although already signs of what would happen later in the war were becoming clear, as Ireton began going after the supply base of certain groups, taking cattle and burning crops in areas where they operated with abandon. Select cavalry detachments were sent after certain Tory groups, with Ireton hoping their smaller numbers and higher mobility would prove successful where larger armies had failed. But the Tory war raged on throughout 1651, with no sign of the attacks ceasing. It is easily believed that the Parliamentarians faced more of the enemy in lands they nominally controlled than in those they didn’t. I’ll go into the more intimate workings of the Tory War at a later date, but for now it suffices to say that their efforts were proving remarkably successful.
The Royalists, for their part, were similarly stuck. Lacking the numbers or will to make another large scale foray over the Shannon after Meelick Island, they bided their time and improved their defences as best they could. Athlone and Limerick remained the focal points of the Shannon defences, but there were plenty of other places where the chances of a Parliamentarian attack were not small. Clanricarde remained in command, though he was growing increasingly exasperated by the machinations and power of the clergy who had essentially given him his position. The Earl of Castlehaven now had the most senior command of the army under Clanricarde, while the Viscount Muskerry still controlled significant numbers of troops in the Kerry region, though they were not yet proving much of a threat to the enemy. The negotiations with the Duke of Lorraine continued, occupying much thought but producing little tangible gain.
In May, Ireton finally drew his plans up, discussing them with his immediate subordinates at a council of war in Clonmel. The location of this rendezvous was interesting: one cannot help but wonder if some Parliamentarian soldiers grimaced while discussing plans to attack remaining Royalist fortresses, in a town where they may have lost 2’500 men in attacking.
The plan remained the same in its stated aims: the capture of Athlone and Limerick before a determined push to destroy the remaining Royalist heartland. Colonel Hewson would approach Athlone from the west while Ireton himself took command of the effort to reduce Limerick.
But then Ireton added a crucial third prong to the assault. He had previously balked at using a northern approach as part of his first offensive. Despite the lack of a river barrier in the northern part of Connacht, marching an army through there carried risks. It was enemy territory, the route to Athlone or Galway was long and without much chance for substantial resupply, and if the sieges failed then the route of retreat would be just as long. At any time Royalist forces could force a battle, where events could quickly turn against the Parliamentarians.
But the experience of the previous year seems to have driven Ireton to contemplate this approach again and, impressed by the achievements of Charles Coote, Ireton ordered him to take 5’000 troops and invade Connacht from the north. Coote, one of the Parliamentarians most experienced officers from this war, eagerly took on the job.
Coote’s orders were simple in their outline but somewhat difficult in their execution. Everything had to be done with flawless timing, lest one prong of this three-fold offensive find itself outmatched and under supported. Colonel Hewson could not hope to take Athlone from the eastern side alone and Ireton was banking on the Royalist forces being divided when he began his attack on Limerick.
Coote led his men into Sligo in the early days of June. He was well supplied and had enough men to make himself a serious menace, but looking at the speed of his subsequent movements, I feel it would not be too much of a leap to suggest he probably didn’t have that much artillery or supply wagons following him.
Coote marched towards Sligo Town itself, a place he had previously taken in 1645 during his first operation in Ireland with the Parliamentarians. Clanricarde had recaptured it long since, but now it seemed as if Coote was back for more.
Sligo was not vitally important to the Royalist war effort, but it was a coastal town and port in a time when the number of those the Royalists controlled was rapidly decreasing. The area around it, in County Sligo and Mayo to the south, were some of the remaining vital territories of the Royalist cause, for manpower, supply and tax revenue. Clanricarde, though still unwell in body and mind, roused himself to take his own forces north from Galway to counter Coote’s movements.
Coote came close enough to Sligo to threaten it, but did not make any firm offensive move towards it, waiting long enough for Clanricarde to approach close. When that had occurred, Coote suddenly changed direction, stealing a march on his opponent by heading east. This movement is described as a “forced march” in some sources, and it probably was so given the need for rapid mobility that the larger plan called for.
Coote’s movement towards Sligo had been a feint, one designed to draw out as much of the remaining Royalist army as it could. Now this northern army moved through Roscommon and the Curlew Mountains, probably using the same pass that had seen a few key battles in the Nine Years War. Before Clanricarde probably realised what was happening, Coote had completely outmanoeuvred him.
It did not take a strategic genius to see where Coote was going now. Colonel Hewson had established a presence to the east of it, but now the main Parliamentarian blow was going to fall on Athlone from the west. Clanricarde, bamboozled by Coote’s change of direction and subsequent speed, either did not pursue or did so too slowly.
The Viscount Thomas Dillon was still in command of the Athlone garrison. Though it remained an impressive fortress with enough men to make a serious fight of it, Dillon’s spirit of resistance had cooled since the last time he had been called upon to face the enemy. Though he was once counted as one of the hard line Confederates, Dillon now sought a way out, perhaps tired of the fighting, the increasing hopelessness of the Royalist cause and the unlikely chance of a relief effort.
By the middle of June Athlone was faced with numerous enemies from both sides. Coote sent Dillon terms of surrender, perhaps including an offer to mediate on his behalf with the London legislature. Pardon and guarantees of land retention in the aftermath of the war were powerful offers, and at this desperate stage in the fighting it is not hard to see why many of the remaining Royalist leaders would have been willing to take them.
On the 18th of June, Dillon surrendered Athlone. The town, and the crossing over the Shannon, was taken without a shot being fired.
In many ways, this was the culminating disaster for the Royalists in Connacht. Regardless of what was happening elsewhere, the Parliamentarians now had a firm foothold over the Shannon, and a reliable means to transport men and supplies over it safely. Athlone, its western side anyway, had been taken intact, making any attempt to retake the castle a foolish exercise. The Parliamentarians could now use Athlone as a forward operating base to house troops and resupply them, in preparation for a final push into the larger part of Connacht itself. It was now hard to see any way, bar decisive foreign intervention, that the Royalists could survive in Ireland.
Clanricarde and others viewed the fall of Athlone with despair, accusing Dillon of treason for leaving them so bereft. But we should not judge Dillon too harshly. Athlone had been left isolated, faced superior numbers of enemy troops and there were no indications that Clanricarde was prepared to march to its rescue (though I suppose it is only fair to point out that he never really got the chance to). Dillon was not a miracle worker. Ireton’s plan of a northern invasion of the province had been risky, but had worked out, with Coote’s force no longer in any danger of being cut off in enemy territory.
While the whole operation was an effective testament to the martial skill and determined nature of Charles Coote, it was also Ireton’s finest success in Ireland up to that point, proving that he had some command ability after all. And he would now aim to make good on that initial success, and win some personal glory for himself, But first, he had to make his own way over the Shannon.
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