Donough McCarthy, the Viscount Muskerry, played a relatively small but vital part in the events of the day in the 1640s and 50’s. A Catholic nobleman with lands in West Munster, especially in Kerry, he had joined the Confederate cause in 1642 after trying to stay out of the early exchanges. A member of the Confederate Supreme Council, Muskerry had fought at Liscarroll, negotiated with Charles I directly on behalf of the Irish rebels and was later one of the main supporters of the Second Ormonde Peace.
In the wake of the Cromwellian invasion, Muskerry’s role had been largely sidelined. With the departure of Inchiquin and the reduction of what territory the Royalists held in Munster, Muskerry became the commander of forces in that province, operating out of the mountainous and wooded areas of Kerry and West Cork, areas that were difficult to assault and provided ample opportunity for Tory bands to operate unopposed. Cromwell and other Parliamentarians largely ignored those areas in terms of large scale offensives, preferring to strike at other Royalist targets of greater strategic importance. For a time Muskerry operated in this area with relative impunity, capturing forts and castles, launching raids on Parliamentarian garrisons elsewhere in the province and supporting the activities of the Tories. Though there were some divides in his forces – Muskerry was an Ormondist who commanded many of the hardcore Catholics – his efforts were not inconsiderable. Always they were hampered by a lack of supplies though, especially gunpowder, with Muskerry frequently found wanting in that critical regard.
Ireton’s second offensive, that finally forced the passage of the River Shannon, changed the situation. In the summer of 1651 Limerick was under siege, with the loss of that position likely to spell the end for what was left of the Royalist/Confederate cause in Ireland. Clanricarde, to the north, was busy trying to arrange the defence of Galway and prepare counter moves to the operations of Charles Coote, and what forces he commanded were in no position to try and relieve Limerick. Castlehaven’s own army was scattered, and too small to take on Ireton on its own. That left Muskerry and his army, deep to the south, one of Limerick’s only hopes for a relief, or at the very least to draw off some of the enemy troops from the city.
Hugh Dubh O’Neill appealed personally to Muskerry for such an effort, and Muskerry responded positively, agreeing to assemble his forces and march in that direction. Based out of places like Ross Castle and Galbally, Muskerry could hope to bring somewhere in the region of 3’000 infantry and a smattering of cavalry into play.
Assembling them would take time though, and the Parliamentarians, well aware of Royalist communications, were ready to make their own moves. Ireton had not been blind to the potential threat that Muskerry posed to his overall operation, and had left Roger Boyle, the Lord Broghill, with forces in the south of Limerick to act as a guard against such danger. Boyle had been acting as a commander of Parliamentarian forces in Munster for some time now, and while his ambitions went higher than that, he was fully prepared to come to grips with Muskerry.
Before Muskerry could really get moving, Broghill had blocked his path, stationing his forces at Mallow on the road to Limerick. In-between trying to deal with scattered bands of Royalist troops and Tory’s, Broghill made sure that Muskerry could not advance on Limerick without having to get past him first, a situation that vexed Muskerry greatly. McCarthy essentially had three choices: he could disperse his forces and give up entirely, he could retreat back into Kerry, or he could fight a battle.
In the end, Muskerry decided to fight a battle. He reasoned that he had the capability to smash past Broghill without suffering too much loss, and that if he did take losses or suffer a defeat, he had not yet assembled his full force anyway. A victory would open the road to Limerick, leave his rear safe and provide a timely morale boost for his own troops.
The two armies engaged in a short skirmish at Castle Ishen, far west of Mallow. Muskerry had apparently been trying to outflank Broghill to get an advantage (or to avoid a fight completely) but found himself caught and ambushed in bad weather. Losses were light and Muskerry was able to disengage and get his force to relative safety, heading towards Drishane.
Broghill thought about pursuit but was wary of ambushes and exhausting his men in a fruitless chase. Instead, he decided to withdraw back to Mallow for rest. At this point Muskerry, who had decided upon seeking battle, turned around and started pursuing Broghill.
This was to Broghill’s delight of course. Though he was outnumbered – maybe by as many as a thousand men – he had an advantage in both cavalry and in that his infantry were better supplied and more experienced than his enemy. Maybe 3’000 or so men faced 2’000, but numbers are never definitely known. Neither side used, or perhaps possessed, artillery.
Broghill, now realising that Muskerry was right behind him, turned about and set up his army in a battle formation. This was near a place called Knockniclashy or Knocknaclashy, a fairly flat moor area somewhere to the west of Mallow.
Broghill ordered his forces in the traditional manner, with his infantry in the centre, under a man named Cubbage, with units of cavalry on the flanks, the one on the right under Broghill himself and the one on the left under a man named Wallis. Musketeer skirmishers moved ahead of all units. Muskerry, with more infantry to place, had a more even deployment, with centre and both flanks containing a mix of infantry and cavalry.
Muskerry moved to the attack first, focusing on the flanks primarily. Broghill was the more heavily engaged on the Parliamentarian right, outnumbered by the combined forces of the Royalist infantry and cavalry, which were soon outflanking him, absorbing repeated charges and standing up to the horseback pistol fire. Pressed hard on other parts of the field, gaps in the Parliamentarian line were opening up, and many of the Irish troops were apparently able to reach the area behind Broghill’s army where their baggage was stored, where undisciplined looting began.
This was, according to Muskerry later, the crucial point of the battle. The Parliamentarians were looking extremely hard-pressed, and with Royalist infantry behind them could easily have been surrounded and broken. But the Irish among the Parliamentarian baggage were poorly led and could not be ordered from their plundering, so Broghill gained a measure of time.
He put it to good use, launching another charge on his front that gained greater traction than before, pushing the Royalists back a space, a movement copied by Cubbage in the centre and Wallis on the left. The Parliamentarians were probably using the “caracole” manoeuvre, firing from horseback, wheeling around, reloading and firing again, a movement that would have caused the Irish pike and musketeers to turn in on themselves. The Royalists were pegged back and their line began to contract. Broghill claims a unit of Royalist cavalry was able to get behind his flank, but then got panicked – possibly by subterfuge on Broghill’s part, shouting out misleading commands to confuse them – and retreated off the field.
The Parliamentarians deployment was now in an inverted wedge shape, with the Royalists trapped in the middle, Broghill and Wallis’ cavalry making good use of the even ground to outflank Muskerry on both sides. As is typical, a rout ensued. It did not last too long this time, Muskerry claiming it was only a half a mile before the Parliamentarians broke off their pursuit.
Casualties are difficult to ascertain. It was a lengthy enough engagement, though the aftermath was less bloody than it might have been. Muskerry was able to reform a large part of his force, and it does not appear as if Broghill suffered unduly. We can guess that the Royalists suffered a few hundred casualties – maybe as high as 500 – and Broghill considerably less. It was not a bloodbath like other battles fought in similar circumstances had been, but it was still costly.
The battle was a poor reflection on Muskerry as a commander, and on some of his troops. The Irish had an immense opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on a Parliamentarian army in the field, and failed to take it. If they had pressed the advantage of getting in the rear of Broghill’s army, it is likely that the Parliamentarians would have broken and fled, leaving the road to Limerick open. As it was, the Parliamentarians again proved themselves the better of their Royalist counterparts, holding their ground and pressing the attack as required. The fact that they were better supplied than the Royalists was not inconsequential. Knocknaclashy, as the battle came to be known, had the dubious distinction of being the last big pitched fight of the wars in Ireland.
Muskerry fell back to Ross Castle, where he continued to gather troops, eventually having over 3’000 men again. But the opportunity to assist Limerick had passed. Hugh Dubh and his garrison were on their own. Broghill went back to defending Limerick and parts of Cork, but for the remainder of the year he would not have to worry unduly about Muskerry’s movement, which would not match this large scale operation.
Ireton’s rear was secure. Now, he could go on with the task of taking Limerick.
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