Ireland’s Wars: The Fall Of Galway

The fall of Limerick was a death knell for the Royalists in Ireland, but the war was not over yet. The former Confederates and Royalists still maintained a military and a basic civic structure, but it was now confined almost entirely to the province of Connacht, and even there only to the west.

The focus of the entire war now turned to Galway. The city was now the last major urban centre of any importance remaining in Royalist hands, their last significant port. It was the obvious target of the remaining Parliamentarian efforts, the legislatures forces keen to capture the city as soon as possible, a conquest they hoped would bring an end to the fighting in Ireland.

But the situation was a bit more complicated than that. Clanricarde, distracted by the now doomed negotiations with the Duke of Lorraine and disputes with the civilian authorities in Galway, was not even in the city, with what force he had elsewhere in the province. Galway, like Limerick before it, had proven difficult to garrison, its civilian leaders unwilling to house men they did not trust, and angering Clanricarde further by openly proclaiming Lorraine with a title the Lord Deputy had not agreed to – “Protector Royal”. Galway, like so many other places, still held out hope that this Catholic warlord would arrive soon and save them from the Parliamentarian menace, but it was a fools hope: following the fall of Limerick, Lorraine would send some supplies and nothing more.

Before Limerick even fell, Galway was under threat. Charles Coote had achieved mastery over Athlone in June 1651, and while Ireton busied himself with Limerick, he turned his armies westward and started heading, gradually, towards Galway. There were plenty of stops along the way, in places like Portumna and Athenry, smaller towns with castles that had to be besieged and reduced, so that supply lines for the final attack on Galway could be maintained, and that the Royalist hold over the land could be broken. These early movements were the kind of operations that would only take a few days, and were relatively low-intensity: plenty of Royalist soldiers were throwing in the towel now.

But Coote found things much more difficult when he actually reached Galway and realised what the situation there was. The town had been in Confederate hands for nearly ten years at this point, even since its walls and its forts had been handed over by Captain Willougby in 1643. And the citizens and military personnel placed there had not been idle. Galway was a wealthy trading position, and some of that money had been redirected to the military situation. In combination with the natural defences Galway was able to enjoy – bounded by water on multiple sides due to Lough Corrib (and the River Corrib) to the north-east, Lough Atalia to the east and Galway Bay to the south – extensive work had been done on improving the walls of the city, those that faced north.

As the contemporary print on the left makes clear, the walls had been strengthened and deepened, numerous bastions had been constructed to allow a wide field of fire on any attacker and the forts surrounding the city had been improved as well (in the picture on the right I give a rough approximation of the size of Galway in 1651 compared to much more sprawling city that it is today. I do use “city” as a description frequently, but Galway at the time was not that big). Before Coote would have gotten as far as Galway, earth embankments would have been added to the walls to shore them up even further. While not quite on the same level as Limerick, Galway would still have been a very tough nut to crack.

The man in charge of the garrison would have helped as well. Thomas Preston was, by now, one of the most senior former Confederates left still fighting in Ireland. His garrison had been unable to defend Waterford the previous year from Henry Ireton’s attack, but had been permitted to march away with their arms. To Galway they had gone, and now the man who had lost most of the Leinster Army at Dungan’s Hill was one of the Royalists last military commanders left in Ireland, along with Clanricarde, Richard Farrell with forces to the west, Muskerry in the south and the last remnants of the army Castlehaven had commanded. Preston was one of the great survivors then, despite his battlefield inexperience and alleged drinking problem. He was adept at siege warfare though, even if he had greater success when he was undertaking one, not defending from one. With a garrison of around 2’000 or so troops at his call, he was able to man the defences of the city well enough. When the war started Preston was serving abroad for the King of Spain, and Coote was just the eldest son of his rebel fighting father. Now, they were the respective commanders of what would be the final major operation of the conventional struggle.

Coote had several thousand troops, plenty of cavalry and probably a bit of artillery too. But he did not have enough men to tackle Galway as he would have liked when he arrived near there in August of 1651 – most of the Parliamentarian forces were either around Limerick or garrisoning the rest of the country. The defences Galway enjoyed were considerable, enough that a direct assault would be difficult if not hopeless. So, Coote immediately decided to enact a blockade, spreading his troops between Lough Atalia and Lough Corrib, while a significantly large squadron of the Parliamentarian Navy attempted to cut off Galway’s access to the sea in Galway Bay. This was a crucial commitment from the Parliament, since they were not far away from open naval warfare with the Dutch in the English Channel.

But it was not enough. Coote’s forces were stretched too thin – they had been campaigning for several months now, so they were probably exhausted as well – and a large section of the landward approach to Galway, to the west particularly, was left unguarded. That meant that Galway could not be starved out realistically, but there was nothing that Coote could do: he simply did not have enough men to guard all of the possible approaches, not without stretching them so thin as to become immensely vulnerable. And so, he waited.

And waited. Very little combat took place for the remainder of the year. Following the fall of Limerick, Ireton wanted to send significant reinforcements Coote’s way – I can surmise he might even have wanted to take over command of the operation – but the oncoming winter instead prompted him to move the New Model Army into winter quarters until the new year. Ireton himself was already suffering from the illness that would kill him within a month, and when the weather did clear it was Edmund Ludlow in command of the Parliamentarian military in Ireland.

The citizens of Galway endured a bitter winter, with supplies getting low even with the blockade not fully enforced. Preston had a task that was next to impossible, needing to hold out for an indefinite time, with no chance of relief from within Ireland. The aims and plans of the Royalists now extended no further than simple survival for as long as possible, probably just in the hope of making better terms for themselves – Clanricarde was already contemplating surrender, and there remains a fractious dispute in the second hand sources over whether he encouraged Galway to give up or insisted it hold out.

The reinforcements were sent to Coote eventually, and the ring around Galway was tightened. Still, no attack was made on the walls, a measure of how impressive the defences were. But there may also have been just the practicalities of a war that was drawing to a close, finally: no one wanted to be the last person to die in this conflict, or the last commander to make a failed attack. The food supplies ran lower, plague broke out and, just as in Limerick, the citizenry of Galway became divided between those who wanted to seek whatever terms they could get now and others who wanted to continue the resistance. With refugees from other parts of the country swelling Galway’s population – Coote had no problem letting them through – Preston was running out of time.

Clanricarde was now a Royalist government unto himself, and about as effective as you would expect. Attempts to convene legislative councils were largely ignored, as were his efforts to summon what troops remained in Connacht to his banner in nearly 1652, ostensibly to march to the relief of Galway. The armies, once of the Confederates, now of the Royalists, were melting away, either staying at home to fend for themselves and their families, or becoming Tories.

The endgame approached in Galway. There are two main inconsistencies in the existing narrative, one on the final fate of Thomas Preston, the other on the exact date of the capitulation. Preston is suggested to have left Galway a while before the inevitable surrender, perhaps to save his own skin, or maybe just because Coote and Ludlow gave up the right terms to do so. Or maybe he did stay until the end and helped to negotiate the final settlement. I actually think it might have been the latter, for no other reason than the sources that claim the former are obviously biased against Preston, being written either by hardcore Catholics or the Parliamentarians. Preston was a lot of things, but part of me thinks he would not just leave without assuring at least his soldiers lives and safety. But this is just a supposition on my part.

Regardless, the surrender did come, either in early April or May. The city’s position of resistance was unsustainable, and Coote offered relatively lenient terms, that matched much of what had been offered elsewhere. The military would be allowed to take ship and leave Ireland unmolested, and the townspeople would have their lives and property guaranteed, though Ludlow would renege on some of the terms when he was told about them. Thus agreed, the garrison left and the Parliamentarians marched in. Preston, whenever he did go, would wind up in France, seeking out the court of the exiled Charles Stuart. There he would die in 1655, at the age of around 65. Never to be remembered as fondly as his great rival Owen Roe, his record in Ireland was decidedly mixed. A number of successful sieges – and the recruitment of a sizable army backed up by his continental veterans – were offset by the terrible defeat at Dungan’s Hill and his own substantial part in the discord that split the Confederation of Kilkenny in two. Those events, and his command of Galway at the end of the war, would tarnish his reputation in Ireland ever after.

The siege had been a simple, professional job by Charles Coote, one of his final contributions to the Parliamentarian cause. All he had to do was wait for the right amount of troops to be available to him to close the trap around the city, and then stay in place. The waiting was the hard part of course, with the poor weather to be endured, but once that had passed the capture of Galway was all but assured. Preston could arguably have been a bit more pro-active in his defence – there is no mention of any sallies taking place at any time – but it would probably have been a useless gesture anyway. There was such little actual fighting that no source I have read actually mentions military casualties.

The surrender was one of the last blows against the largely destroyed morale of the Royalist faction. Men like Castlehaven were soon also sailing away from Ireland, to seek more troops for the cause on the surface, but in reality simply fleeing for their lives and liberty. Clanricarde was now a largely a Lord Deputy in name only, his authority extending over a hodgepodge of territory west of the Shannon, with the war effort’s true authority now falling under numerous Tory commanders throughout the country.

The fall of Galway is traditionally seen as the end of the conventional conflict. There were other castles and towns in Royalist possession that would have to be captured, and some armies still capable of taking the field – like Muskerry’s for example. But there would be no more battles and no more large scale sieges. That portion of the war was over. The war itself would go on and on.

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

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Fall Of Galway

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Tory Struggle | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Devastation And Surrenders | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Eleven Year Wars | Never Felt Better

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