Ireton had drawn up his plan to invade Connacht again. The first part of that plan would not only go off without a hitch, but gain a spectacular success in the bloodless capture of Athlone, and the opening of a firm crossover of the Shannon river. Now, before then, it was time for Ireton to make his own way over the river. His overall aim was still the city of Limerick, but he had long since determined that the attack on that city must be done from two sides, north and south, if it was to have any chance of success. Limerick, all the way up to the modern day, straddles the Shannon, but while the most of it was/is on the southern bank, those sections on the north could still provide easy access for resupply and reinforcements, making any siege from just the south a doomed endeavour.
So, how to get troops to the north bank? I have spoken before about the reasons why Ireton previously refused to contemplate using fords: in short, it was a risky move that invited what could be a cataclysmic Royalist counter-response.
But this time, in this situation, Ireton was willing to risk it. The Royalists had been weakened since the last attempt on the Shannon, most of their troops were too far to the north to be of any consequence to Ireton’s movements and, most importantly, the Parliamentarian commander had found the perfect spot to get across the river without the use of a bridge.
That area was around Killaloe, roughly 20 or so kilometres north of Limerick up the course of the River Shannon. Here the Shannon narrows as it exits Lough Derg, with many natural islands in its course to aid any crossing. Killaloe and the area around it had long been a popular fording point on the river, though it had probably never hosted a force as large as Ireton was proposing to get over it.
The advantages of Killaloe extended to the larger campaign as well. In the event that everything went pear-shaped outside the walls of Limerick, the line of retreat would not be unduly long – a day’s march really – and Ireton could now also call on greater assistance from an enlarged detachment of the Parliamentarian Navy, currently blockading the Shannon Estuary to the west of Limerick, for resupply and, if necessary, evacuation.
Ireton was presumably also buoyed in his endeavour by the amount of enemy troops he would be engaging. This was the Earl of Castlehaven’s watch, and Tuchet had only about 2’000 men for the task, men he could not concentrate in force at any one likely crossing point lest Ireton slip by somewhere else. It all depended on either forcing a crossing and holding it, or stopping the crossing from ever being completed. Ireton could call upon more men, horse and artillery for the task, while Castlehaven was stretched increasingly thin.
Ireton and his army were in the vicinity of Killaloe on or around the 23rd of May. This was only a part of his overall command, the rest ready to set up shop to the south of Limerick City. Castlehaven was watching from the opposite bank, breastworks and other obstacles already either constructed or in the process of being constructed.
Ireton waited for a few days, considering. The water level was higher than expected, and the expected resistance was not something to be underestimated. With Coote still to get going properly in the north of Connacht, Ireton looked around for an advantage.
He found it at O’Briensbridge, a smaller settlement and fording point a few miles downstream (some may recall my mentioning it in a much earlier entry). The titular bridge had been thrown down at that time, yet to be rebuilt, but a small island existed mid-stream that could be used as part of a crossing. On the other side stood the ruins of a small castle, which Ireton determined to capture and fortify quickly, so that a bridgehead could be more firmly established. The water level was lower here. The last point in its favour was the lower number of defenders, only a mere handful.
What happened next is a bit open to question. Castlehaven was called away by Clanricarde, presumably to discuss Coote’s invasion or Ireton’s larger strategic plan (and any other issue of the day, like the continuing negotiations with the Duke of Lorraine or Charles Stuart’s exploits in Scotland), so was absent for much of what followed. Ireton might not have directly commanded the crossing at O’Briensbridge, staying at Killaloe with some men to deceive the enemy. Or then again, according to other sources, he moved his entire army to the second fording point.
Either way, the Parliamentarians made their effort on the 2nd of June. At daybreak, a small detachment of infantry went across in a couple of small boats, some soldiers allegedly swimming alongside due to the lack of room. Upon reaching the opposite bank, the castle ruins were seized and a few dozing watchmen killed. With the use of ropes now tied at either side of the river, the Parliamentarians went about quickly ferrying as many troops across as they could.
Within a few hours around 500 men and horses had been ferried across, and a tenuous bridgehead established. By then Castlehaven had returned to Killaloe, and become unnerved at the absence of the enemy at the other side of the river. Upon hearing about the events at O’Briensbridge, he moved as fast as he could south, leaving much of his encampment behind, along with a smattering of troops.
Ireton had known that a counter-attack was inevitable, and now it came, a few Royalist cavalry the first to sweep down on his bridgehead. The Parliamentarians horse already across engaged them in a brief skirmish, but were forced to retire when Castlehaven’s infantry, a thousand of them, approached the fording point.
This was the do or die moment. If the Royalists could affect a strong attack, the Parliamentarians would either have to fight to the death, surrender or take their chances with the river. If not, Ireton would have the time to make his crossing.
The clash on the opposite bank never occurred. The soldiers there were ordered to stay low and stand fast, before the Parliamentarian artillery, set-up on high ground on the south bank, opened fire. This cannonade was desperately effective, stopping the ragtag Royalist advance in its tracks, as the infantry and cavalry scrambled for cover from the bombardment. Under heavy fire and apparently leaderless – Castlehaven does not seem to have taken a personal command here – the confused Irish retreated rapidly rather than continue their attack.
Ireton had the time he needed and made full use of it. Another day and thousands of men would have been across the river, another few and his entire army. Another attempt to stem this tide was not made by Castlehaven who, with the news that Coote was now advancing into North Connacht in force, had no choice but to withdraw from the Shannon positions, and initially make for the direction of Limerick (though he would not end up staying there). Killaloe fell soon after, most Irish sources attributing its fall to “treachery” on the behalf of the defenders, a claim they similarly make for O’Briensbridge. Ireton was no stranger to underhanded tactics or attempted bribery, so I suppose this is possible. But equally likely is that overwhelmed defenders choose to retreat rather than fight a hopeless battle, for a cause that was rapidly becoming hopeless itself.
When combined with the fall of Athlone a few weeks later, the successful crossing of the Shannon by Ireton marks one of the last truly important Parliamentarian successes in the conventional war. The Royalists had been depending heavily on the impermeable nature of the Shannon line, and now it was breached in several places, not to mention Coote’s march from the north (as noted chronicler John T. Gilbert put it “the said Shannon, the Irish bulwark and loyal spouse of the nation, was now become a prostitute, rendering free passage onto all comers, and denied any favour onto its former possessors”).
Ireton had carried out his operation with skill and purpose. He had not been overly hesitant, nor overly cautious. While he had immense advantages over his enemy in just about every department, he had correctly used them. His infantry had quickly established a bridgehead over the Shannon in difficult circumstances, his cavalry had delayed a proper enemy response and his artillery had scattered the only thing approaching a counter-attack. He had dared to make the difficult crossing at O’Briensbridge and succeeded. Now Limerick, and the rest of what was left of Royalist Ireland, lay before him.
Within a few weeks, Ireton had established his forces outside the walls of Limerick, on both sides of the river, and took to building fortifications and other entrenchments. His combined force numbered 8’000 men and faced around 2’000 inside the city under the command of Hugh Dubh O’Neill. Ireton had not forgotten Clonmel. Hugh Dubh knew that a great deal now revolved around the defence of Limerick. The resulting contest would be drawn out and bitter.
But before we get into the details of that siege, it behoves me to cover one of the last major pieces of combat in the rest of Munster, as the Viscount Muskerry tried to send some help to the besieged garrison of Limerick.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.